The Last Secretary General Sean Lester and the League of Nations, Douglas Gageby. (Townhouse, £19.99) ISBN 1860591086

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

Sean Lester, Protestant nationalist, Irish diplomat, League of Nations High Commissioner in Danzig (Gdansk) and the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, is a fascinating subject for a biography. Douglas Gageby’s account of Lester’s life and times presents a vivid picture of Lester’s metamorphosis from nationalist to internationalist and from Irish diplomat to European political figure. The reader follows Lester’s life from the tensions of early twentieth-century Belfast and Dublin through the turmoil of the inter-war years and the destruction of the World War II. The book is an odyssey across Europe starting in Ireland on the west of the continent, passing through Geneva in the centre and on to Danzig in the east.
It begins in the halcyon days of the first decade of the twentieth century with Lester and his close friend Ernest Blythe cycling through the countryside of north County Down in search of stories for the Belfast press. It follows the development of Lester’s nationalism through the Gaelic League and the Dungannon Clubs and his consequent forced move from Belfast to Dublin journalism on account of his developing political allegiances.
Given the sources now available, Lester’s years in the Irish diplomatic service (1922-1933), first in charge of publicity at the Department of External Affairs, then as head of the small League of Nations section in the department and finally as Irish Permanent Representative to the League at Geneva, do not receive as much detail or assessment as they might. The book really takes off when, in 1934, Lester is seconded to the service of the League of Nations as High Commissioner at Danzig in Poland.
The claustrophobic atmosphere of inter-war Danzig and the political tight-rope that Lester walked between the Nazis who wished to incorporate it into Germany and the native Poles are dramatically captured in the text. In handling this most difficult of posts (described at the time as being ‘one of the most dangerous jobs in the world’) Lester lived up to the description of him by the British politician Philip Noel-Baker: ‘calm, patient, unambitious, resolute and brave’.

Through the book Lester is very much the reluctant hero cast into battle with endless villains, the quiet man who, because of force of circumstance, has to rise to the challenges facing him. He is found at one stage asking himself ‘What am I doing here’ (p.35), but squaring up to the job in hand, he could be relied upon to bring his ‘Northern stubbornness’ and diplomatic skills to bear on the apparently insoluble problems facing him. In one succinct sentence Gageby sums this up: ‘he was not a quitter’ (p.103).
Returning to Geneva in 1937 as war clouds gathered over Europe, Lester (now Deputy Secretary General of the League) was to face his final and most taxing enemy in the first years of the World War II. Faced with the desire of the incumbent Secretary General, Frenchman Joseph Avenol, to hand the League on a plate to Vichy France and the Axis powers, Lester, with a mixture of hard-headedness and subtlety outmanoeuvred Avenol, leading ultimately to the latter’s resignation. Lester, now Acting Secretary General, entered a lonely vigil; with a small skeleton staff he kept the ailing League of Nations out of Axis hands, ensuring that the defeated and rejected organisation would survive the war. His final task as Secretary General was to hand over the remaining functions of the League to the United Nations and in 1946 to preside over its dissolution.
There is a very personal feel to this book and it is written with a passion for the subject. Gageby brings the skills of the master journalist to this account of his father-in-law’s life. It is clear that the book was written out of the need to resurrect Lester, who has been all but forgotten by his native country, as a figure, who because of his achievements, is of no small historical importance in modern Irish and European history. The chapters on Danzig and Lester’s wartime years as Secretary General are written with great feeling and emotion and are illustrated with apt and revealing quotations from Lester’s diaries. Writing of the war years Lester could say: ‘Whatever the end may be, I, for one, shall not regret the personal effort and sacrifice in the years which have seemed stolen out of my life’ (pp.220-1).
Compared to James Barros’s biographies of Lester’s predecessors as Secretary General, Sir Eric Drummond and Joseph Avenol, Gageby’s biography is very much a personal essay or an appreciation. As such it does have some drawbacks, most of all the lack of footnotes. There are so many interesting quotations, anecdotes and episodes in the text that the reader wants to know more about them, their source, their date and perhaps some additional detail. Not including footnotes, or indeed a bibliography, limits the value of the book to those who would wish to read more deeply into the field.
Despite some annoying factual inaccuracies and errors which should have been picked up at the copy-editing stage, the book is both a most useful addition to the short list of biographies of Irish diplomats and its publication completes the last remaining gap in biographies of Secretaries General of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.
Unlike their British, European or American counterparts, Irish diplomats do not (except in isolated cases) write their memoirs. This book, through generous extracts from Lester’s own diaries, gives the reader a rare insight into an Irish civil servant at work in Ireland and abroad and the problems both of representing a young small state and a newly founded international organisation in an increasingly anarchic world system.

Michael Kennedy

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