Fonds - League of Nations Refugees Mixed Archival Group (Nansen Fonds)

Identity area

Reference code


League of Nations Refugees Mixed Archival Group (Nansen Fonds)


  • 1919-1947 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

85(LM)/615 Boxes

Context area

Name of creator

Administrative history

Founded in the wake of the First World War, the League of Nations was established in order to provide the world with relief from armed conflict. The Covenant of the League of Nations forms the first part of the Versailles peace treaties of 1919 and 1920. The formal life of this organisation began on January 10, 1920 and its inauguration occurred on January16, 1920 with the first session of its Council in Paris. The Covenant outlined the goals, organs, procedures and commitments of the League, which headquarters was set up in Geneva. As an essentially political organisation, the League was entrusted with keeping peace through international law, arms control, conference diplomacy, and the idea of collective security. The League of Nations was officially dissolved on April 18, 1946 and its assets were transferred to the newly established United Nations.

Fridtjof Nansen, High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations (1921-1930)
The Norwegian scientist, Arctic explorer and politician F. Nansen (1861-1930) started his humanitarian work at the end of the World War I. At first Nansen worked as a private person but in the spring of 1920 he was appointed as a League of Nations High Commissioner for Prisoners of War. As a result of his work, some 450,000 ex-prisoners of war from twenty-six countries returned to their homes. In August 1921 the Council of the League appointed F. Nansen as the High Commissioner for Russian Refugees. Furthermore, Nansen played an instrumental role in organising emergency relief to famine victims in Russia in 1921-1923 and in 1922 he occupied himself with the problem of refugees from Asia Minor.

In addition to a small staff in Geneva, Nansen appointed delegates in refugee-hosting countries in order to keep in touch with governmental officials, private voluntary organisations, and the refugees themselves. By 1923 Nansen deleted the word "Russian" from his title and was now called High Commissioner for Refugees, for in the meantime the problem of Greek and Armenian refugees had arisen. As, with the time the general issue of refugees became more linked to the problem of their employment, administrative and financial support of the High Commissioner's Office on January 1, 1925 was transferred to the Refugee Section of the International Labour Office (ILO). The High Commissioner's Office now occupied itself not only with Russian, Greek, Armenian, but also with Turkish, Assyrian, and other refugees, and remained within the administration of the ILO until 1929. On January 1, 1930 the High Commissioner's Office returned to the Secretariat of the League of Nations. When in April 1931 it was reorganized into an autonomous Nansen Office for Refugees under the jurisdiction of the League, the High Commissioner Nansen was already dead.

Refugee work under the authority of the League of Nations (United Nations) after Nansen (1931-1952)
Nansen Office for Refugees continued its work with Russian and Near Eastern refugees. From 1935 until its official closure end of 1938, it also occupied itself with refugees from the Saar, but not with those from Germany proper. Therefore, in order to deal with the problem of those refugees, Jewish and other, which had escaped from the national-socialist regime in Germany, another autonomous office under the patronage of the League was established in London in 1933. In 1936 this office was integrated into the League of Nations administrative system, keeping its High Commissioner for German refugees, whose competence also extended upon new refugees from Austria and Czechoslovakia (Sudetenland). After its liquidation in 1938, along with the liquidation in the same year of the aforementioned Nansen Office, new administrative bodies for refugee work were created. General assistance towards the refugees (Russian, Armenian, from the Saar and Nazi Germany) and co-ordination of activities exercised on their behalf were placed under the direction of the High Commissariat for Refugees under the Protection of the League of Nations, re-established in London in September 1938. In 1939, according to the decisions of the Evian Intergovernmental conference, an exterior to the League Inter-Governmental Committee for Refugees (IGCR) was created in London, again with the responsibility for refugees from Germany and Austria.

If, after 1946 the refugee work, which started with Nansen High Commissioner¿s Office for Refugees and thus, the development of Nansen fonds, came to an end, this work continued further through subsequent institutions. The Inter-Governmental Committee worked until 1947 when it, in its turn, ceased to exist and was replaced by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), an institution under the authority of the United Nations based in Geneva. This Organisation has also inherited the functions of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1943-1947), an institution, which during the Second World War provided help for the prisoners of war and displaced persons, and never had official ties with the League of Nations. The International Refugee Organisation (1947-1952), finally, gave way to the still existing United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was set up in 1951.

Archival history

Initially, as the problems of the prisoners of war and refugees came into being, the Secretary General's Office as well as the Economic and Political Sections of the League of Nations opened and maintained the corresponding files.

Since the appointment of F. Nansen in 1920 as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Prisoners of War and in 1921 as the High Commissioner for Russian Refugees, the League has taken his personnel, expenses, and documentation under its authority. Also, a Refugee Section was created within the Secretariat, which included both Nansen collaborators and staff of the League. This Section became the actual secretariat of the High Commissioner, which then maintained the files, initially opened by the central Registry, Records and Mailing Section (the Registry) of the League. These files were arranged and kept according to the following sections of the Registry's classification system: "Prisoners of War", "Russian Refugees", "Famine in Russia", and "Refugees from Asia Minor".

When the High Commissioner's Office was transferred to the International Labour Office (ILO), the Refugee Section followed, including its head and its files. These files constituted, on the one hand, its "Section files", that is, those opened and registered solely within the Refugee Section, and, on the other hand, files of the Registry on prisoners of war, refugees, famine in Russia. In addition, with the appointment by Nansen of various representatives and offices of the High Commissioner abroad, these institutions started to open and assemble their own archives.

When the Office of the High Commissioner was transferred from the ILO back to the League of Nations at the end of 1929, its archives were transferred too. These archives now included both the "new" files of the ILO period as well as the "old" League files. As a result of the transfer, a Refugee Section was reconstituted at the Secretariat of the League, which functioned a little more than a year. This Section, along with keeping the archives which came from the ILO, produced a certain number of files, classified through the Registry's administrative section number 20 as well as its own "Section files."

In April 1931 the Refugee Section was transferred to the newly established autonomous Nansen Office for Refugees. It brought with it the majority of its files, except for some files (Registry's section number 20), which were left at the Secretariat of the League because of their relevance to its competency. Following such a reorganisation, the Nansen Office continued to use and maintain those files "20" as well as opened new ones. At the same time the Secretariat of the League also maintained its files "20" and opened new ones classified through the Registry. In order to avoid confusion in the file numbers of the Nansen Office and of the Secretariat, the files which were opened at the Nansen Office from April 1931 onwards were given a serial number starting with 80 000. In their turn, files of the Secretariat (Registry files) were always registered according to the old system and thus, their numbers were not as high.

With the introduction of a new chronological classification system of the Registry in 1933, new file numbers were introduced for newly opened files "20" of the Secretariat. The system of classification of the Nansen Office, on the contrary, was left unchanged and, 80 000 and higher, serial numbers were still in use for the period from 1933 to the end of the 1930s.

As for the missions, offices or correspondents of the High Commissioner for Refugees and later Nansen Office in various countries, during the whole period of 1921-1938 those continued their work in their own way, little affected by the administrative changes of their central organisation(s). Therefore, their archives to a great extent have reflected their own administrative history.

After the official closure of the Nansen Office at the end of 1938, its archives stayed in Geneva and joined those of the Secretariat of the League. In 1947 these were supplemented by the archives of the Liquidator of the Nansen Office which came from Paris. The archives of the High Commissioner for German refugees, which operated between 1933 and 1938, were in 1936 also transferred to Geneva from London. The main part of the archives of the High Commissariat for Refugees under the Protection of the League of Nations (1938-1946) and of the League Inter-Governmental Committee for Refugees (1939-1947) after their closure was allocated to the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) based in Geneva (1947-1952). Archives of this institution also had a particular history. Initially, those archives were transferred to National Archives in Paris. From there, the personnel files of the IRO were taken out and transferred for and by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to the Registry, Records and Mailing Section of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG). In 1965 original documents relating to the liquidation of the IRO were destroyed, while certain documents were sent to the International Tracing Service, an institution associated with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bad Arolsen, Germany. In 1995 personnel and several other IRO files together with a small number of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) files, which never left Geneva for Paris, were transferred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Archives in Geneva. The remaining main body of the documents of the IOR is now kept at the National Archives in Paris. The main fonds of the UNRRA (1943-1947) are currently held at the United Nations Archives and Records Management Section of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. At last, the UNHCR office in Geneva maintains its own archives.

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Content and structure area

Scope and content

The fonds consists of the following sub-fonds, "Registry files" (1920-1947), "Commission files" (1919-1947), and "Section files" (1924-1941). It includes therefore, files produced by the Registry, Records and Mailing Section of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, files of the external offices of the High Commissioner for Refugees, later Nansen Office for Refugees (including those produced by the Nansen Office itself), files of other external bodies (International Labour Organisation, Office of the Liquidator of the Nansen Office in Paris, Armenian Orphanage in Aleppo, High Commissioner for German Refugees, High Commissioner for Refugees in London) as well as files of several other external bodies randomly united under "Section files" (files of the Evian intergovernmental conference, of the Delegation in Greece). The Nansen fonds consists of correspondence, administrative, financial, and other textual records; brochures; newspaper clippings; some photographs; documentation of other nature.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

The original order in the fonds to a great extent has been maintained. The fonds is arranged into 3 sub-fonds, 12 series, and 32 sub-series.

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access


Conditions governing reproduction

Language of material

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Other
  • Russian

Script of material

    Language and script notes

    Physical characteristics and technical requirements

    Finding aids

    Finding aid available

    Allied materials area

    Existence and location of originals

    Existence and location of copies

    Related units of description

    Related fonds are located at the International Labour Organisation Archives, International Committee of the Red Cross Archives in Geneva; at the National Archives of Norway, Oslo (Nansen personal fonds), at the Archives Nationales in Paris (fonds of the Organisation internationale des réfugiés, OIR), at the United Nations New York Archives (fonds of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).

    Related descriptions

    Notes area


    The sub-fond "Registry", series "Registry 1933-1946", sub-series "Refugees, General. Nansen Office for Refugees. Proposed Organisation for Assistance to International Refugees", contains files, the dates of which extend beyond 1947 and up to 1962.
    Protection period to: 2007-12-31

    Alternative identifier(s)

    Scope ID


    Access points

    Place access points

    Name access points

    Genre access points

    Description control area

    Description identifier

    Institution identifier

    Rules and/or conventions used



    Level of detail

    Dates of creation revision deletion




        Archivist's note

        Protection period duration: 60

        Archivist's note

        Protection period note:

        Archivist's note

        Permission: No permission necessary.

        Archivist's note

        Physical usability: Without limits

        Archivist's note

        Term of protection: None

        Accession area