Book Note: Sean Lester The Guardian of a Small Flickering Light, by Authors Marit Fosse and John Fox** Foreword by Michael Moller, Director-General, United Nations Headquarters, Geneva
Co-authored by two journalists with long international experience**, this book highlights the accomplishments and failures of a highly capable Irish patriot, journalist, diplomat and international statesman. Although he had left school aged fourteen, had no experience of foreign affairs and spoke only English, in 1929 Sean Lester became the Irish representative to the League of Nations in Geneva eventually succeeding to the post of its third and last Secretary-General.
From his own Journals consisting of diaries, notes and correspondence he witnessed many dark chapters of European history in the 1930s and 1940s, as recounted in the book Chapters and extensive Notes, Bibliography and Index. Several courtesy photographs are reproduced from the Archives of the League of Nations, Geneva, and other historical archival sources.
In his Foreword, Michael Moller recalls that Sean Lester was colour-blind which is why he lost his job working as a clerk on the Northern Ireland railway system. He liked to tell his family that if it had not been for this dismissal, he would have pursued his career on the railways, probably retiring as the stationmaster of some important terminus, such as Belfast Central. However he was now forced to seek a new profession and started work as a journalist. The loss to the Northern Ireland railway system turned out to be the gain of the international community at a very critical time in world history.
Sean Lester (1888-1959)
Born in the village of Woodburn on the outskirts of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, this son of a grocer was a rather unusual combination of a Protestant Republican in his younger years becoming a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He joined the newly established Department of External Affairs on the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Posted to Geneva to represent the Irish Free State at the League of Nations, he quickly impressed the League with his diplomatic abilities where he was recognised as a strong personality capable of understanding different points of view and negotiating settlements, a talent demonstrated in bringing the resolution to two wars in South America. This brought him to the attention of the Secretariat who had an urgent need to fill one of their most challenging positions as High Commissioner to the League of Nations controlled Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), where he protested vigorously against the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. It was only one of the many high profile positions held by this respected son of Ireland.
The book charts the time between the two world wars marked by a tremendous economic crisis, the rise of populist parties and fascist leaders, and a spiralling arms race that brought the world to the Second World War. Drawing on the rich material in the archives of the League of Nations, which hold Sean Lester’s diaries, notes and correspondence, donated by his family, this volume provides a new perspective on an era that is usually seen as a failure of the multilateral system with the League of Nations unable to confront the forces that eventually led to war. As such, it is a powerful account of the events and experiences that have shaped our United Nations today, and continues to inspire our action.
It was an incredible destiny for a man who repeatedly announced that he was “without ambition”. Early on he was recognised by his peers as an outspoken and able politician of integrity ready to defend the rules governing civilised society. As the League’s High Commissioner in the Free City of Danzig from 1934 to 1936, he tried hard to resist the Nazi juggernaut. In the early part of the Second World War, Lester took over as Secretary-General of the League of Nations from his disgraced predecessor and for four years fought to keep the institution alive. Isolated and overwhelmed by the war, he oversaw the winding up of the League following the international adoption of the United Nations Charter as its successor.
He was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Prize in 1945 and received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland in 1948. Upon his death in 1959 ‘The Times Obituary’ described him as an international conciliator and courageous friend of refugees. In 2010 in what is now the Gdansk City Hall, and former residence of the League of Nations High Commissioner, a room was renamed after Sean Lester with a small memorial to him in honour of his work and bravery. A Poland based Irish historian, Paul McNamara, has written the story of Sean Lester, Poland and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig, published by Irish Academic Press Ltd. It is one of several biographies and historical literature extensively quoted in the book Chapter Notes about this Irishman who is documented as an able and trustworthy international statesman.
Ita Marguet, July 2016
Copyright 2016 by Hamilton Books’ (pp 222). Available in print and electronic form.