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Review: "The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

"The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire"

"The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire"

The Guardians Book Brief Synopsis

Throughout Susan Pedersen’s book The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, the author examines the creation and legacy of the League of Nations following World War One. In particular, Pedersen focuses on the League’s mandates system that was implemented to oversee colonial territories seized from the former Ottoman Empire and Germany following the First World War. As Pedersen explains, victorious powers from the Allied forces agreed to manage and support these newfound territories as a means of providing stability to their fledgling economic and political structures following the collapse of their former rulers. As the author states, “Article 22 of the Covenant loftily decreed that ‘advanced nations’ would administer ‘peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’” (Pedersen, 1). Pedersen continues by stating: “mandatory oversight was supposed to make imperial rule more humane and therefore more legitimate; it was to ‘uplift’ backwards populations and – so its more idealistic supporters hoped – even to prepare them for self-rule” (Pedersen, 4).

Pedersen's Main Points

Such notions, more often than not, however, were not always carried out. As Pedersen makes clear on numerous occasions throughout her book, these territories often suffered greatly at the hands of their overseers and were often “governed more oppressively” than ever before (Pedersen, 4). Because of this aspect, Pedersen makes the point that the League of Nations, unintentionally, became “an agent of geopolitical transformation” in that it served as an inspiration for human rights groups, organizations, and individuals who admonished and scorned the evils of imperialism (Pedersen, 4). This is important to consider, she argues, as it places the League of Nations in a positive light not yet seen before.

The League, she argues, is often seen as a failure since it failed in its original intent of preventing future wars (particularly World War Two). But when viewed in this light, the League helped bring an end to imperialist ambitions and helped shape the modern world as we see today. Thus, as Pedersen argues, the League of Nation’s legacy was both enduring and vitally important to the world stage at large. While it did not end future wars, it succeeded in helping end colonial and imperial ambitions that had dominated the world for several centuries.

League of Nations meeting

League of Nations meeting

Personal Thoughts and Review

Pedersen’s argument is both informative and compelling in its approach to the League of Nations. Furthermore, her thesis ties in nicely with other books such as Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919, which debunks the idea that World War Two was a direct result of the Treaty of Versailles. Both Pedersen and MacMillan’s books examine the creations of the Paris Peace Talks in a manner that directly challenges the more popular and mainstream interpretations of the event– which is interesting, seeing as though most historical works tend to focus on the more linear, simplistic, and often negative aspects of the League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles.

Pedersen’s book is well researched and relies heavily upon primary source materials. Additionally, her division of the League of Nations "era" into four distinct sections is well done and allows the reader to clearly see the evolving trends, views, and mindsets of the world at large over a nearly twenty-year span.

Overall, I rate this book 4/5 stars and highly recommend it to historians, scholars, and history buffs with an interest in the post-war era, interwar years, as well as early 20th century Europe. The events in this book shed light on many aspects of today's political and social realities; thus, making this work an excellent addition to one's own library.

Questions for Discussion

1.) Was the League of Nations doomed to collapse from the very beginning?

2.) Was the legacy of the League of Nations a negative or positive one, given the newfound interpretation given by Pedersen in her book?

3.) Would worldwide empires have eventually collapsed anyways, regardless of the League's efforts?

4.) Did you find Pedersen's argument/thesis to be compelling? Why or why not?

5.) What sort of historiographical interpretations is Pedersen challenging with her thesis? Does her work fit in nicely with existing scholarship? Do you feel as though this work will inspire future research in the years to come?

6.) What were the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Can you identify any specific areas that could have been improved by the author?

7.) Did you find this book to be engaging?

8.) Who was the target audience for this work? Was it intended for scholars or a more general audience?

9.) What are your thoughts on Pedersen's book? Did you learn anything valuable from her interpretation of this subject?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bunche, Ralph J. "French Administration in Togoland and Dahoomey." Dissertation. Harvard University, 1934.

Callahan, Michael. Mandates and Empire: The League of Nations and Africa, 1914-1931. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2008.

Editors, Charles. The League of Nations: The Controversial History of the Failed Organization that Preceded the United Nations. Create Space Independent Publishing, 2016.

Pedersen, Susan. "Back to the League of Nations: Review Essay." American Historical Review, Volume 112, No. 4: 1091-1117.

Pedersen, Susan. Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, and Legacies. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Works Cited

  • Pedersen, Susan. The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • "League of Nations." League of Nations. Accessed December 20, 2016.