Léon Bourgeois

Nobel Lecture


Communication to the Nobel Committee*, December, 1922

The Reasons for the League of Nations

Some weeks ago, Mr. Branting1 went to Oslo to fulfill the obligation incumbent upon every Nobel Peace Prize laureate. I wish to offer my apologies for not having been able to do the same this last year. The state of my health has not permitted me to make the journey to Norway, and this has caused me the most profound regret.

Your Chairman informed me that you would permit me to address you in writing. I now send you my sincere gratitude and an account of certain ideas of mine, which I would much prefer to have offered you in person. Gentlemen, please accept my heartfelt thanks.


I am in full agreement with the views Mr. Branting expressed to you last June. With great perspicacity, he analyzed and placed in proper perspective “the great disillusionment” which the Great War of 1914-1918 had engendered in the minds of men. Certainly, this sudden unleashing of a cataclysm unequalled in the past, appeared to be the direct negation of the hopes which Nobel had nurtured when he founded the Peace Prize. But in place of the discouragement which had taken hold of the public, Mr. Branting offered reasons for believing that we could still derive confidence from the catastrophe. He showed that, under the ruins left behind by the bitter times we have just experienced, there were to be found far too many signs of rejuvenation to allow us to discount the present years as a period of regression.

The victory had been, above all, a victory for law and order, and for civilization itself. The collapse of three great monarchies based largely upon military power had given birth to a number of young nations, each representing the right of peoples to govern themselves, as well as to enjoy the benefits of democratic institutions which, by making peace dependent on the will of the citizens themselves, infinitely reduced the risk of conflict in the future.

The same movement had brought not only the resurrection of oppressed nations, but also the reintegration in political unity of races hitherto torn apart by violence.

Finally, one singularly important fact had succeeded in giving true significance to the victory of free nations. Out of the horror of four years of war had emerged, like a supreme protest, a new idea which was implanting itself in the minds of all people: that of the necessity for civilized nations to join together for the defense of law and order and the maintenance of peace. The League of Nations, heralded in 1899 and 1907 by the Hague Peace Conferences, became, through the Covenant2 of June 28, 1919, a living reality.

But, can it furnish us at last with a stable instrument of peace? Or shall we again encounter, at the very moment when we think we are reaching our goal, the same obstacles which for centuries have blocked the way of those pilgrims of every race, creed, and civilization who have struggled in vain toward the ideal of peace?


To answer this question, which touches upon all the anguish of the human race, and to understand the causes of the upheavals which have beset mankind, we must delve not only into the history of peoples but into that of man himself, into the history of the individual, whose passions are no different from those of his community and in whom we are certain to find all propensities, good or bad, enlarged as in a mirror.

Human passions, like the forces of nature, are eternal; it is not a matter of denying their existence, but of assessing them and understanding them. Like the forces of nature, they can be subjected to man’s deliberate act of will and be made to work in harmony with reason. We see them at work in the strife between nations just as we see them in struggles between individuals, and we realize at last that only by using the means for controlling the latter can we control the former.

To assert that it is possible to establish peace between men of different nations is simply to assert that man, whatever his ethnical background, his race, religious beliefs, or philosophy, is capable of reason. Two forces within the individual contribute to the development of his conscience and of his morality: reason and sensitivity.

His sensitivity is twofold. At first, it is merely an expression of the instinct of self-preservation, springing from the need of all beings to develop at the expense of their surroundings, to the detriment of other beings whose death seems essential to their very existence. But there is also another manifestation of the instinct, which makes him sensitive to the suffering of others: it is this which creates a moral bond between mother and child, then between father and son, and later still between men of the same tribe, the same clan. It is this instinct of sympathy which enables man to fight against and to control his brutish and selfish instincts.

A great French philosopher, criticizing the doctrine according to which “one could wish no more for a race than that it should attain the fullest development of its strength and of its capacity for power”, has pointed out that this is only an incomplete concept of what man is. “This is to place man in isolation and to see in him a noble animal, mighty and formidable. But to be seen as a complete whole, man must be viewed in the society which developed him: The superior race is the one best adapted to society and to communal progress.”

In this respect, goodness, the need for sociability, and, to a higher degree, a sense of honor, are spontaneous attributes, valuable beyond all other instincts but just as natural. Now these feelings are present in a national community just as they are in the individuals who compose it. To place them above the gratification of individual egotism is the task of civilization. Never should the power of an individual be allowed to impede the progress of the rest of the nation; never should the power of a nation be allowed to impede the progress of mankind.

Man has a sensitivity which can be either selfish or altruistic; but it is reason which is his essence. It is not his violent and contradictory impulses, but rather his reason which, at first hesitant and fragile in childhood, then growing in strength, finally brings man to reconcile the two sides of his sensitivity in conscious and lasting harmony. It is reason which, from the beginning of history, has led mankind little by little in the course of successive civilizations to realize that there is a state preferable to that of the brutal struggle for life, not only a less dangerous state, but the only one capable of conforming to the dictates of conscience; and that is, in its ever increasing complexity and solidity, the truly social state.

The rise of man from the animal to the human level was prolonged by the necessity of rising from a state of barbarism and violence to one of order and peace. In this process too, it was reason that finally persuaded man to define, under the name of law, some limits within which each individual must confine himself if he wishes to be worthy of remaining in the social state.

At first, laws evolved out of religious doctrines. It followed that they were recognized only when advantageous to those who practiced the same religion and who appeared equals under the protection of the same gods. For the members of all other cults, there was neither law nor mercy. This was the age of implacable deities, of Baal and of Moloch; it was also the age of Jehovah, preaching to his people the extermination of the conquered.

The torch of reason was first held up to the world by Greek philosophy, which led to the stoicism according to which all men are equal and “are the members of a single body”, and in which the human will, regulated by law, is regarded as the guiding mechanism of man’s activity.

This doctrine of the human will was expressed in Roman law of the Imperial Age by that admirable theory of obligations which, in private law, makes the validity of contracts dependent upon the free consent of the contractors.

What a gulf there still exists between these affirmations of private law and the recognition of the same law as the guiding force for the policies of nations!

Then came Christianity which gave to man’s natural capacity for sympathy a form and a forcefulness hitherto unknown. The doctrine of Christ enjoins men, all brothers in His eyes, to love one another. It condemns violence, saying: “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.”3It preaches a Christian communion superseding all nationalities and offering to the Gentiles – in other words, to all nations of the earth – the hope of a better life in which justice will finally rule.

The Middle Ages, on the whole, embodied the history of the development of this doctrine, and for several centuries the efforts of the Papacy reflected a persistent desire to bring to the world, if not justice itself, which seemed still to be beyond the human grasp and which was generally left “in the hands of God”, at least a temporary, relative state of peace, “the Truce of God”4, which gave unhappy humanity a respite from its suffering, a brief moment of security.

But a new period of conflict arrived in its turn to upset Europe with religious wars5. These were perhaps the more. cruel because they obliged the conscience itself to repudiate compassion and seemed to incite conflict between the two forces which had hitherto shared the world between them: sensitivity and reason. Not until the eighteenth century were they finally reconciled.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man6 at last set down for all of mankind the principles of justice without which it would never be possible to lay any foundations for true and lasting peace.

But how much suffering, how much blood had to be squandered for more than a century before we could finally hope to see the application of the truly humanitarian, moral principles proclaimed by the French Revolution! It has been necessary, as Taine7 says, “to multiply ideas, to establish earlier thinking in the conscious mind, to marshal thoughts around accepted precepts: in a word, to reshape, on the basis of experience, the interior of the human head”.

Was not the greatest revolution in history that which allowed reason to regard the whole of humanity as being subject to law and to acknowledge the status of “man” in every human being?

All men equal in rights and duties, all men equally responsible for the destiny of mankind – what a dream!

Will the concept of law as mistress of the world finally make reason reasonable?


Have we arrived at a stage in the development of universal morality and of civilization that will allow us to regard a League of Nations as viable? If its existence is feasible, what characteristics and what limitations should it have in order to adapt itself to the actual state of affairs in the world?

Certainly, immense progress has already been made in the political, social, and moral organization of most nations.

The spreading of public education to nearly every corner of the globe is producing a powerful effect on many minds.

The prevalence of democratic institutions is evident in every civilized nation.

We are witnessing a weakening of the class prejudice so obstructive to social progress and we see, even in Russia, a rejection of Communist systems that seek to stifle personal liberty and initiative.

Finally, there is an increasing number of social institutions offering assistance, insurance, and fellowship, whose object is the protection of the rights of the individual and, in a broader sense, the propagation of the concept of an increasingly humanitarian justice under which the individual’s responsibility for his conduct will no longer be dissociated from that of society itself.

In every nation, all these factors are preparing the way for the intellectual revolution of which we speak, a revolution that will lead people to appreciate and to understand the superiority, indeed the absolute necessity, of having international organizations which will recognize and apply the same principles.

It is true, of course, that there still remain outside the movement to bring civilization to this superior state of conscience, vast territories whose populations, held for centuries in slavery or servitude, have not yet felt the stir of this awakening influence and for whom a period, and undoubtedly a long one at that, of moral and intellectual growth is imperative.

Nevertheless, it is a new and significant fact that the civilized nations, alert to “the sacred trust of civilization”, have, within the terms of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, undertaken the task of educating the backward peoples so that they may become “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”.

Progress has been made not only in terms of institutions, organizations, and customs, but also in a purely political way from the standpoint of the map of Europe and of the world itself.

When the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, meeting at the instigation of the Czar, set before the civilized world the problem of disarmament and of peace, and for the first time mentioned the name “League of Nations”, it was a priori certain that the problem could not be solved at that time. The political geography of Europe was far too firmly founded on violations of the rights of peoples. How could anyone use it as a basis for organizing peace in the face of this fact?

Today, war has served to eliminate most of the injustices of that time. In Europe, Alsace-Lorraine has been returned to France; Poland has been restored as an independent entity; and the Czechoslovaks, Danes, Belgians, Slavs, and Latins have regained their respective rights of self-government or have been returned to their homelands.

Even in Asia a great effort is being made right now to find, in legality and in peace, a durable balance between the historic rights of the various races.

Does this mean, then, that in Europe or, for that matter, in other parts of the world all sources of trouble have disappeared? We are far from being blindly confident of the future; indeed, we have before our very eyes signs of trouble too obvious and too certain for us even to dream of denying them.

In the first place, certain powers that were defeated in the Great War have not been wholehearted in their acceptance of the moral disarmament which is the primary condition for any peace. Some turbulent minorities of uncertain character, too weak to form a state of their own but resistant to the majority in the societies of which they are a part, are seeking support outside the natural frontiers within which communal life thrives, thus threatening to create areas of friction and violence where there should be mutual tolerance and trust.

In the second place, artificial movements are springing up which seek to cross national boundaries, and to bring together in inorganic bodies the most varied of peoples. Movements such as the Pan-Germanic, Pan-Islamic, or Pan-Negro justify themselves on the basis of their common language,.or their common religion, or their color. But since the undefined masses involved in these movements lack the essential and real unity of background or community of purpose, they become a grave danger to general peace.

Yet all this may be of transient significance, for it seems to be mainly part of the last tremors of the cataclysm that has shaken the world.

But there is something more profound that must be taken into account about any international organization. Mr. Branting, in his speech to you a few months ago, showed that there was a world of difference between the International of the classes as envisaged by certain Socialist congresses and the true International of nations, and that only through the latter could peace be truly established among men, instead of being merely longed for against all reasonable hope.

The concept of patriotism is not incompatible with that of humanity; on the contrary, let me state emphatically that he who best serves pacifism, serves patriotism best. The nation is and can be no more than the vital basic unit of any international league. Just as the formation of the family is basic to the formation of the state, so the states themselves are the only units that can form the basic constitution of a viable international organization.

The 1914-1918 War, being a war of liberation of nationalities, could not help overstimulating nationalistic sentiment. It gave greater impetus to the moral and intellectual tendencies conducive to patriotism; it made this feeling, as well-founded as any other, more zealous. As a result, the proposed international organization must, in the final analysis, be based not only on the intangible sovereignty of each nation, but also on the equality of rights of them all, regardless of their strength, weakness, or relative size. It is only among properly constituted states that the reign of law and order can be established.

For these same reasons, it was impossible even to dream of any organization being forced on the nations from without. The idea of a “superstate” whose will could be imposed on the governing bodies of each nation might have brought about a revolt of patriotism. What was and is necessary and at the same time sufficient, is that each nation understand that mutual consent to certain principles of law and to certain agreements, acknowledged to be equally profitable to the contracting parties, no more implies a surrender of sovereignty than a contract in private business implies a renunciation of personal liberty. It is, rather, the deliberate use of this very liberty itself and an acknowledged advantage for both parties. But what, then, is the fundamental condition necessary for such an agreement, what is the indispensable condition that insures consent without reservation, that gives confidence to all sides that nothing essential, no vital interest, will be sacrificed by any of the contracting parties?

There must be a paramount rule, a sovereign standard, by which each settlement may be measured and checked, just as in the scientific world, man, distrusting his own fallible senses, refers for comparison and evaluation of phenomena to the evidence of standardized instruments free of personal error.

On a moral plane it is law, devoid of individual or national bias and immune to the fluctuations of opinion which will be the instrument, the unprejudiced registrar of claims and counterclaims. By its absolute impartiality and its authoritative evidence, the law will appease passions, disarm ill will, discourage illusory ambitions, and create that climate of confidence and calm in which the delicate flower of peace can live and grow.

Does such a sovereign and unassailable law in fact exist? The history of the past centuries suggests an affirmative answer.

Now and henceforth there exists an international law whose doctrine is firm and whose jurisprudence is not contested by a single civilized nation. The nineteenth century, which introduced the Hague Peace Conferences and generated numerous international conferences on a variety of subjects, also brought an increasing number of applications of international law. If this law was all too obviously violated in 1914 and during the war years, the victory has righted the wrong done. Should such violations ever happen again, then indeed we must despair of the future of mankind.

Of a purely theoretical and doctrinal nature at first, international law is gradually being enriched by numerous conventions containing essential obligations of a judicial order, which can be precisely defined and codified and made legally binding and subject to sanctions. The scope of these conventions grows continuously, gradually embracing moral concepts which constitute what I have called in a recent study, international ethics; it concerns everything that touches on the life, the health, and the well-being, material and spiritual, of all human beings.

International law does in fact exist.

But, can we hope that a juridical body vested with such sovereignty will ever constitute a faithful interpreter of the law as unbiased and dispassionate as the law itself?

The recent course of the deliberations in the League of Nations and the creation of the Court of International Justice8 enable us to say yes once again !


Let us summarize the three conditions necessarily basic to any international organization which would be in step with contemporary civilization.

In the first place, there must exist among the associated states a community of thought and feeling and a development of ideas which, if not actually identical, should at least be sufficiently analogous to allow a common understanding of the principles of international order and to produce general agreement on the laws which give them effectiveness.

Second, each one of these laws must have received the free and unqualified consent of each state; and if sanctions have been proclaimed in the event of the violation of such a law, these sanctions should have been agreed upon by all in the same way that the laws themselves were, so that no nation can claim to have been forced into participating in a collective action to which it would not have given its consent at the outset.

Finally, there should be a centrally located tribunal to define for each individual case the findings of international law and to rule on their application. Such a tribunal must be one of unquestionable impartiality which compels recognition of its moral authority by virtue of the expert ability and moral caliber of the judges who occupy its benches.

If these three conditions are met – and it will be immediately apparent that all three are in effect contained in one primary condition: the freely given consent of each of the participants – if these conditions are met, then the League of Nations will be able to function, on the one hand with a flexibility which will allow its members to feel secure and at ease within its authority and, on the other hand with the kind of moral force that will preclude the members from even thinking of evading its decisions.

We talk of moral force. But this does not mean that we exclude the use of material force when necessary in extreme cases against nations found guilty of violating the Covenant. We regard it, however, as a last and if these cases do arise, we are convinced that such force must not be employed until it can be established beyond doubt that an act of violence or aggression has been committed, and then only when the guilt of the alleged aggressor is universally acknowledged.

Moreover, the meaning of Article 10 and of Articles 12, 13, 15, and 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations in no way contradicts the interpretation we have placed upon them. Our American friends have voiced the fear that Article 10 could involve their country in military operations to which it would not have given its consent. To be sure, Article 10 provides a general guarantee preserving the integrity of the territories of each nation9. But none of the articles that follow permits us to conclude that any nation could find itself suddenly involved against its will in a military operation without the explicit consent of the agencies which embody its national sovereignty.

In connection with the difficult problem of limitation of armaments neither the Council nor the Assembly has ever believed it possible to enact relevant statutes without the express support of every nation. Each nation remains free to define and determine the conditions necessary to its internal or external security. In the same way, each nation remains free to give or to withhold its consent to any concerted military action. In the final analysis, the one penalty which can result from the provisions of the Covenant is the loss of the benefits of membership in the League of Nations.

We may be sure that nations will not become attuned in one day to the basic truths which we have tried to define. This will take time and unceasing propaganda, as well as clear evidence of the advantages of association.

We are concerned here with the only kind-of propaganda which is truly successful, which – to borrow an expression which has often been used in an execrable sense, and which we would now like to restore to its better and more edifying connotation – might be called: the propaganda of fact. The fact which we have to impress upon everyone’s mind, a fact powerful enough to triumph over prejudice, to overcome all resistance and disarm any ill will, is the actual fact of international life itself.

Even now there exists in the world an international way of life so powerful and so complex that nobody can avoid its effects. The protection of public health, the provision of transport facilities, the lowering of customs barriers, the creation of an international credit organization – all these are aspects of internationalism from which no nation, however powerful, can claim to be dissociated. In spite of her size, her extensive industrial and commercial influence, America has suffered no less from unemployment than have the nations of Europe. We have only to recall the terrible effects of speculation on the currency exchange to see how impossible it now is to set up anywhere in the world a watertight bulkhead against the flow of international movements.

Exemplifying the necessity of the international way of life by devising instruments for such a life, learning to live together with men of different nations and different races, and highlighting the universal phenomenon of the solidarity of nations and of men – these will constitute the best, the most effective, and the most persuasive lesson it is possible to imagine.

A lesson concerned with such facts would be invaluable. It is not, however, irrelevant to add another. Propaganda must be organized in all civilized countries to impress upon public opinion the true purpose of the League of Nations, the limitations of its power, the true respect which it holds for the laws and the sovereignty of states, that is to say, for the nations themselves, and at the same time the great moral power it wields in the world through the certitude of its principles.

Fortunately, there are already in nearly all nations large associations which disseminate these teachings far and wide, cutting through political bias to the very heart of popular sentiment.

One of the latest creations of the League of Nations bears this significant title: intellectual cooperation10. A committee composed of the most eminent scholars, men of vast learning and brilliant intellect, was set up at one of our recent sessions. Its name is full of promise.

What is intellectual cooperation if not the pooling of all intellectual resources for mutual and equitable exchange, just as material and political interests are pooled? All living organisms must have a driving force, a moving spirit. From all these diverse forces arising from nations and races, is it not possible to give birth to a communal soul, to a common science for a communal life, associating but not absorbing the traditions and hopes of every country in a concerted thrust for justice?

To climb by all roads originating from all points of the world to the pinnacle where the law of man itself holds sway in sovereign rhythm – is this not the ultimate end of mankind’s painful and centuries-long ascent of Calvary?

To be sure, many years of trial must yet elapse, and many retrogressions yet occur before the rumble of human passions common to all men yields to silence; but if the road toward the final goal is clearly marked, if an organization like the League of Nations realizes its potential and achieves its purpose, the potent benefits of peace and of human solidarity will triumph over evil. This at least we may dare to hope for; and, if we will consider how far we have come since the dawn of history, then our hope will gather strength enough to become a true and unshakable faith.

* Mr. Bourgeois, awarded the prize for 1920, was unable to attend the ceremony on December 10 of that year. He later told the Nobel Committee that he would deliver his Nobel lecture sometime between May and September of 1922. Because of illness, he cancelled this intended appearance but in December of 1922 sent to the Committee a manuscript that is called a “communication”. The text of this communication in French which appears in the “Nobel Conférences” [Lectures] section of Les Prix Nobel en 1921-1922 is used for this translation.

1. Hjalmar Branting (1860-1925), co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1921, gave his Nobel lecture on June 19, 1922.

2. A provision of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919.

3. See Matthew 26:52.

4. An effort by the church to limit fighting to certain days and seasons of the year.

5. Especially the struggles between Huguenots and Catholics in France (1562-1598) and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

6. Drawn up by the French revolutionists in 1789 and made the preamble of the French constitution of 1791, the Declaration proclaimed the equality of men, the sovereignty of the people, and the individual’s right to “liberty, property, security”.

7. Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1829-1893), French critic and historian.

8. The Permanent Court of International Justice, popularly known as the World Court, was set up by the League of Nations in 1921; it was superseded after 1945 by the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.

9. Article 10 of the League of Nations Covenant reads as follows: “The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.”

10. The Assembly of the League adopted a resolution presented by Bourgeois concerning the establishment of the Commission on Mutual [Intellectual] Cooperation in September of 1921.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1901-1925, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

To cite this section
MLA style: Léon Bourgeois – Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Thu. 29 Feb 2024. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1920/bourgeois/lecture/>

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