Military History

Underpaid and Overperforming: Interwar disarmament and the woman that made sense of it


The League of Nations Secretariat was both an institution that offered new opportunities for women in international public administration and diplomacy, and a workplace marked by persistent discrimination against women. What women did and what they got paid for rarely matched.

This historical gender pay gap becomes evident when we look at what was arguably the League’s most important policy area: Disarmament. Within the Secretariat, the Disarmament Section was tasked with providing secretarial support and the curated data of military capabilities, arms production and arms sales for the various commissions that were meant to prepare a general disarmament convention. For most of the League’s existence, the heaviest workload within the Section fell onto the shoulders of one Polish woman: Liba Hersch.

(A little more than) a post office

General disarmament was inscribed directly into the founding document of the League of Nations. The Great Powers, however, were less than eager to let a group of international bureaucrats take the lead. As the British major general Charles Sackville-West laconically remarked in 1919: If there were to be a Disarmament Section it should ‘be merely a post office at Geneva’.

At an early stage, therefore, the technical preparation for disarmament was taken out of the hands of the League Secretariat and given to the so-called Permanent Armaments Commission (PAC), made up of nationally appointed military men. Naturally, these men had little interest in rapid general disarmament—the designed purpose of the body. Meanwhile, at the League’s First Assembly, the smaller states pushed for rapid disarmament and the establishment of a proper Disarmament Section, with high-ranking officials working independently of national interests.

From that moment onwards, until the disastrously failed World Disarmament Conference (1932-34), the Disarmament Section would live a marginal existence. The Section operated on a shoestring budget and—unlike any other part of the League Secretariat—had national military representatives working in its midst (and eating up a big chunk of its funds). Its leadership, moreover, changed swiftly and was kept in the hands of officials from ‘neutral’ countries, so as not to arouse any of the great powers. 

Men at work: the World Disarmament Conference, 1932-34 (

The section’s most important job was to gather and disseminate information. From the mid-1920s onwards, its primary task was to collect and prepare statistics for two yearbooks: the Armaments Year-book and the Statistical Year-Book of the Trade in Arms and Ammunition. These were aimed at the Assembly, the Council, and the various Commissions established to make proposals for general disarmament schemes—the raw material of an enlightened debate about general disarmament. 

Liba Hersch: underpaid and overperforming

In 1924, the section hired Nahim Sloutzki, a Russian émigré, for the measly salary of 7,000 Swiss francs, compared to the starting salary of a Member of Section of approximately 17,800 (1,000 Swiss francs in 1924 equals roughly £1,800 today). Sloutzki had the overall responsibility for the yearbooks until the 1940s. Due to his statelessness, he was never offered a long-term contract. Responsible for the daily work of gathering, interpreting, and presenting statistics, however, was the Polish official Liba Hersch. 

Born in 1882 in Warsaw, Poland, Hersch had a Licence des Sciences Sociales (1908), was a Doctor of Medicine (1920) and spoke Polish, French and Russian fluently (with decent language skills in German and English). Hersch had come to Geneva in 1905 to study and was kept there by the outbreak of war. 

In 1925, Sloutzki, her immediate superior, considered it essential that Hersch was hired to the Section. Moreover, every Director of the Disarmament Section from the mid-1920s onwards thought she had ‘exceptional qualities’ and that she was performing work ‘which would normally require at least two employees’. Putting together the statistical yearbooks, she analysed trade and production documents from 60 countries and 50 colonies. She compiled and analysed more than 200 statistical tables, with a ‘perfect guarantee [of accuracy]’. Indeed, one Director argued that it would be impossible to find another person qualified to fulfil this task.

It is astonishing, therefore, to think that Hersch started in the League Secretariat on a succession of temporary contracts, initially working for 20 Swiss francs a day. In 1926, she made 8,000 Swiss francs a year and in 1931 she was offered a local permanent civil servant contract—as opposed to the more expensive international contract, which would have granted her paid leave to visit her home in Warsaw, where her family lived. In 1940, this ‘extremely conscientious and irreproachable civil servant’, was released from duty because of massive cutdowns. 

The glass ceiling

While Article VII of the Covenant enshrined the principle that all positions were equally open to men and women, Hersch’ career was symptomatic. Starting at 8,000 Swiss francs in 1926, Hersch’s salary rose steadily to 11,900 Swiss francs in 1937. By comparison, Sloutzki—by no means a privileged official of the Secretariat—earned 12,000 Swiss Francs in 1925, 14,500 in 1926 and was made a Member of Section in 1928. 

As the historian Myriam Piguet has shown, the median income of women within the League of Nations was consistently lower than that of men, while career trajectories often stagnated below the grade of Member of Section (MoS). One reason for this was women’s vast overrepresentation in lower-paid secretarial and administrative positions. Like Hersch, however, they would often overperform (doing the work of a MoS) while being underpaid (on temporary or lower-ranked contracts). 

Even those very few women at the top, like Dame Rachel Crowdy, head of the Social Question and Opium Traffic Section (1922-31), were paid less than their male counterparts. And those male counterparts were often part of the problem: One of the reasons why the first (male) head of the Disarmament Section resigned, for instance, was that he was given the same title as Crowdy—Chief of Section—as opposed to the higher salaried title of ‘Director’.

In this context of institutional gender inequality, combined with the specific challenges of the Disarmament Section, Liba Hersch became one solution to the problem of getting maximum output from the minimal existence of the Section. But her career is also indicative of how early, as indeed later, international public administration was built on the systematic exploitation of its female workforce. 

Haakon A. Ikonomou is Associate Professor at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, and Gerda Henkel Fellow with the project European Security in a Changing World: General disarmament between international organization & state sovereignty, 1890s-1930s. 

For more on the Disarmament Section, see this recently published article.

For more on women in the League Secretariat, see Myriam Piguet’s article here.

Cover Image: Liba Hersch, out of focus and in the background, fifth from the right, sometime between 1927-1930 (LONA – S28 – Secretariat Section du Desarmenent 579)

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Why do Foreign Fighters Fight? Understanding Transnational Mobiliations in Comparative Context

International_Brigades_Mural_-_panoramio (1)

Foreign fighters – those who take part in conflicts independently of their home governments, for reasons other than financial gain – have become a highly visible global phenomenon over the past decade. In particular, their prominent involvement in the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts across the Islamic world has drawn the attention of scholars and governments alike. Not only are they a potentially unpredictable factor in intensifying and prolonging conflicts, the real and perceived risk of domestic terrorism perpetuated by returnees has caused considerable public concern in their countries of origin.

While foreign fighters are now most closely associated with these contemporary events, as has been pointed out by scholars such as Nir Arielli, this is a phenomenon with long historical roots. Even as the norm emerged in the late eighteenth century that soldiers owed their loyalty exclusively to the nation state, there have been those that sought to fight for a different kind of cause. Among the most famous was Lord Byron, who was among hundreds of volunteers who flocked to fight in the Greek War of Independence (1821–9), setting a romantic example emulated many times across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The romantic ideal of fighting for one’s beliefs has meant that much of the historical scholarship on foreign fighters has gravitated towards ideological belief as the chief explanation for an otherwise seemingly irrational decision to fight a war for people they didn’t know, in countries they’d often never visited. Even for contemporary volunteers whose cause is viewed with considerably less sympathy than their historical counterparts, explanations for mobilisation and motivation still hinge on their ideological beliefs.

There is little doubt that ideology is relevant for understanding foreign fighter motivations. Yet belief alone has never quite sufficed to offer a completely convincing explanation for why foreign fighters choose to fight. Part of the issue is purely methodological – if scholars want to embark on comparative histories of the phenomenon, then a focus on ideology is an analytical straitjacket, given that different contingents were fighting for very different beliefs.

Even within the scope of particular mobilisations, however, abstract ideological belief alone offers only a partial explanation. In the case of the Spanish Civil War (1936–9) – which saw the largest participation of foreign fighters of any twentieth century conflict – there may be little doubt that the vast bulk of volunteers were committed anti-fascists. Yet anti-fascism was hardly an uncommon political belief by the late 1930s, so why did only some anti-fascists actually go to Spain?

Even when it comes to explaining individual decisions, it has been increasingly acknowledged in recent scholarship that even those with genuine ideological beliefs were also subject to a range of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that shaped their decisions, ranging from the breakdown of relationships at home to state harassment and persecution of unwanted political, religious or ethnic minorities. Such frameworks allow for richer individual understandings of motive, but stop short of overarching explanations, since such individual circumstances are rarely generalisable or indeed uniquely applicable to foreign fighters.

A solution to this historical problem may lie in reconsidering the broader patterns of foreign fighter identities. Foreign fighters are often seen as eclectic collections of individuals, marked by large personalities and independent spirits, typified by Byron himself. There is little doubt that this holds true for many smaller mobilisations, with only those with the personal and financial means to act alone able to fulfill their impulse to volunteer.

This sense of volunteers as complex, unusual individuals has only been heightened by biographical studies focusing on complex push and pull factors. Yet for larger-scale mobilisations such as during the Spanish Civil War, such detail obscures important connections and continuities between volunteers. Rather than a heterogeneous collection of eclectic individuals in a Byronic mould, they were defined as much by their similarities than their differences.

In the Spanish case, it is especially striking just how many of the volunteers already knew one another before they left for Spain, with it being common to volunteer alongside friends, colleagues and family members. This reflected the reality that recruitment was not happening among the population at large – even the proportion of the wider population that opposed fascism – but rather within very specific social and political networks, networks which helped in turn to facilitate their journeys to Spain.

This observation provides a missing puzzle piece that can help explain the varying scale of foreign fighter mobilisations across contexts. It means that unlike the pervasive assumption that volunteering was a deeply personal, internalised choice driven by individual beliefs, in cases such as the Spanish Civil War it was a group decision, driven by collective understandings of the conflict and the appropriate response.

This means that in some cases at least, volunteering had a social as well as ideological element. Choosing to fight was not just a matter of fulfilling a personal imperative, but also a matter of social standing. While peer pressure may have played a role in some cases, perhaps more important was the enthusiasm generated by the thrill of taking bold collective action, sweeping along the uncertain in an atmosphere of emotionally-charged comradeship.

For scholars looking to compare foreign fighter mobilisations across time and space, the question becomes how certain causes and movements were able to foster such tightly-knit political communities across borders. Not all belief systems and modes of organisation have leant themselves to such radical forms of mobilisation, yet when the right factors align, remarkably large proportions of smaller movements could be persuaded to fight for a distant cause.

Dr Fraser Raeburn is a historian based at the University of Sheffield, specialising in cross-border mobilisation and activism in twentieth century Europe, with a particular interest in transnational responses to the Spanish Civil War (1936-9). His first book, Scots and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity, Activism and Humanitarianism was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020. Alongside teaching and research, he has helped run the AskHistorians public history project since 2019, and tweets regularly at @FraserRaeburn.

Cover Image: International Brigades Mural, Belfast. Courtesy of Keith Ruffles, (Accessed 8 August 2021)

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