The Failure of Collective Security: Economic Factors
Connor Pitman

During the Interwar years, collective security was one of the single most important issues for Europe. The real-life manifestation of collective security was the League of Nations, formed to ensure a lasting peace in the world and to eradicate human rights abuses¹. The League of Nations, while a noble idea, was idealistic and doomed to failure. The collection of economic difficulties experienced during the interwar years was the most important factor to the failure of collective security.

The first economic blow to collective security came with the German Inflation. Caused by outstanding military costs from World War One, intense reparation requirements, and the introduction of costly social reforms, the German Inflation was a period of unrest within Germany². The Ruhr Crisis was also a direct cause of the German Inflation, causing turmoil within the international community, however its roots can be traced to a few years prior to the event. In 1921, the reparations commission decided that Germany should pay 132 billion gold marks to the Allies³. The French government, included in the list of allied powers, was anxious to receive payments due to their debts to the USA and the desire to cripple Germany. After Germany missed a delivery of timber as part of its payments, France and Belgium declared that Germany was not fulfilling its obligations, and invaded the Ruhr in 1923. The German population, in response to France’s desire to seize the products of mines and factories, refused to co-operate, instead using widespread strikes and sabotage to drive the French out. As tensions rose between France and Germany, the Weimar government, hoping to better fund the German protests in the Ruhr, simply printed more money, plunging the country into hyperinflation. During this period, Germany was on the brink of anarchy, and the Weimar government experienced widespread crime, suicide, scapegoating, and prejudice. This period also held long-term consequences for Germany, causing strife within the “Mittelstand,” therefore giving rise to many radical parties within Germany¹⁰.

As a result of the economic difficulties faced by many, the German Inflation had severe consequences for the German society. The first group that was affected significantly was the industrial workers. In 1923, wages for these workers could not keep up with the rate of inflation, leading to a rise in unemployment and lower pay¹¹. The second group that suffered drew from many areas of society, including those living on savings, a fixed salary, or fixed pensions. These people included civil servants¹² and the retired¹³. They suffered particularly because their savings had been extremely devalued and fixed salaries decreased dramatically¹⁴. Looking ahead, the social changes experienced during this time, such as the increase in prejudice and the tendency to find scapegoats, intensified rapidly during the Great Depression, only a few years later. Those affected by inflation, and even those lucky enough to resist the turmoil, were affected equally, if not worse, by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929¹⁵. During the Depression, confidence in the Weimar system plummeted, leading to a surge in popularity for radical parties, such as the Nazis¹⁶. The rise in popularity of the Nazis was so tremendous, that the NSDAP won a total of 107 seats in the Reichstag in 1930, compared to twelve in 1928¹⁷. Once these seats had been secured, the Nazis steadily began to control the German government, leading to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933¹⁸. Once the Nazis had secured power, they posed an imminent threat to the entire system of collective security. This was first apparent when, under Hitler’s rule, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933¹⁹. From that point on, not only did the League of Nations suffer from the absence of a key world power, but Germany also posed a constant threat to the system of collective security as a whole, as would be seen later in World War Two.

The Great Depression did not only affect collective security through Germany. One of the greatest effects of the Depression was that it led to the collapse of co-operation during the Manchurian crisis, exposing collective security as a hollow concept²⁰. The Manchurian crisis, therefore, is one of the most important events concerning the system of collective security. The Manchurian crisis began when nationalist groups within Japan demanded that the nation invade the Chinese region of Manchuria, with the hope of obtaining vast amounts of natural resources to fuel their export economy²¹. Japan had recently undergone a rapid industrial revolution, grown in population, and was suffering with the onset of the Great Depression²². For these reasons, Japan invaded Manchuria, quickly defeating the Chinese, and setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo²³. China appealed for support against Japan, but their pleas were worthless; the League of Nations only wrote up a factual and summary report of Japanese actions, the Lytton Commission Report, prompting Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations in 1932²⁴. The League of Nations’ reaction was extremely realist in nature. The main countries in the League had no vital interests in Manchuria, and even the United Kingdom, the country with a large enough navy to help, had its own problems to deal with and had a “crucial absence of motivation to undertake a military mission.”²⁵ This failure to act caused the League of Nations to gain yet another enemy, as would be seen in World War Two, while losing a vital superpower in Asia. When combined with the inaction of the League of Nations, these forces exposed even further the hollowness of collective security.

The final and most glaring example of the failure of collective security came in 1934 with the Abyssinian crisis. Along with the rise of Nazi Germany came the threat that the nation would upset the peace within central Europe²⁶. Italy, by no means immune to Hitler’s rise, feared that Germany would demand the return of the traditionally Austrian South Tyrol region, which at this time belonged to Italy²⁷. Out of this fear, Mussolini decided to build his empire elsewhere, finding the prime location in Abyssinia, the last available African nation for conquest²⁸. To further sweeten the idea of invasion, Abyssinia bordered two preexisting Italian colonies, and it had been the scene of an embarrassing Italian annexation defeat in 1896²⁹. The country also held key economic benefits, such as being a destination for the surplus Italian population³⁰ and it was thought that there were oil deposits in the African nation³¹. Therefore, after a border skirmish between Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland in 1934, Mussolini moved large numbers of troops into the area to prepare for an invasion³². Following this, in October 1935, Italy launched a full-scale invasion, defeating the small African nation by May 1936³³. The League of Nations’ response was, like in the case of Manchuria, insufficient. The effect on Italy was insignificant, as the League imposed economic sanctions, but did not restrict Italian shipping or the trading of steel and oil to the country³⁴. Essentially, the course of action taken by the League of Nations was to simply condemn the aggressors, while not seriously confronting the nation for fear of war³⁵. Then, in December 1937, Italy withdrew from the League of Nations, following in the footsteps of its future allies³⁶. These actions show that, like during the Manchurian crisis, the League of Nations, out of adherence to each country’s individual realist policies, was a hollow and powerless entity in the world scene and was completely incapable of defending weaker countries from larger aggressors.

Throughout the interwar years, collective security faced insurmountable odds. The greatest opponent to collective security and the League of Nations was not a particular country, but rather the collection of economic problems during that era. With the Ruhr Crisis came hyperinflation in Germany, altering the German society to such a degree that, with the onset of the Great Depression, radical ideals held the population hostage, allowing the Nazis to come to power. As the Nazi regime slowly weakened the League of Nations simply through its existence, the Depression caused Italy and Japan to look outside their borders for economic sustenance, contrary to collective security’s goals. As these two powers withdrew from the League with virtually no consequences, collective security was exposed as a hollow concept, rendering it defunct and eventually causing its collapse.

1 Wolfson, Robert, and John Laver. Years of Change: European History 1890-1990.
3rd ed. London: Hodder Murray, 2001. p. 285. Print.
2 Layton, Geoff. Weimar and the Rise of Nazi Germany. 3rd ed. London: Hodder,
2005. p. 57. Print.
3 Cannon. 20th Century World History: Course Companion. Oxford: Oxford U, 2009.
p. 60. Print.
4 Ibid. p. 60.
5 Ibid. p. 61.
6 Ibid. p. 61.
7 Ibid. p. 61
8 Layton. p. 64.
9 A term used to describe the German lower middle class.
10 Layton. p. 61.
11 Ibid. p. 62.
12 Many of these people bought war bonds, further harming their economic situation. Layton. p. 63.
13 Layton. p. 63.
14 Ibid. p. 62.
15 Layton. p. 124.
16 Ibid. p. 125.
17 Ibid. p. 128.
18 Layton, Geoff. The Third Reich 1933-45. 3rd ed. London: Hodder Murray, 2005.
p. 1. Print.
19 "League of Nations Timeline." League of Nations Photo Archive. Indiana U, Oct.
2002. Web. 16 Nov. 2009. <
20 Cannon. p. 66.
21 Ibid. p. 68.
22 Ibid. p. 68.
23 Ibid. p. 68.
24 Ibid. p. 70.
25 Ibid. p. 69.
26 Ibid. p. 71.
27 Ibid. p. 71.
28 Ibid. p. 72.
29 Ibid. p. 72.
30 This was a group that Mussolini could not afford to lose. Many Italians had been moving to the Americas, but with the addition of a new Italian colony, these people would not need to leave Italy’s realm, providing a new market for the Italian economy and a large pool of army recruits for the future. Cannon. p. 72.
31 Cannon. p. 72.
32 Ibid. p. 72.
33 Ibid. p. 73.
34 Ibid. p. 73.
35 Ibid. p. 73.
36 “League of Nations Timeline”

List of Sources
Cannon. 20th Century World History: Course Companion. Oxford: Oxford U, 2009. Print.

Layton, Geoff. The Third Reich 1933-45. 3rd ed. London: Hodder Murray, 2005. Print.

Layton, Geoff. Weimar and the Rise of Nazi Germany. 3rd ed. London: Hodder, 2005. Print.

“League of Nations Timeline.” League of Nations Photo Archive. Indiana U, Oct. 2002. Web. 16 Nov. 2009. <>.

Wolfson, Robert, and John Laver. Years of Change: European History 1890-1990. 3rd ed. London: Hodder Murray, 2001. Print.