The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne: The evil that men do lives after them

December 4, 2023
historical photo of refugees, protest, historical photo of men in a room
Top: Turkey continues its genocidal war against Kurds in North-East Syria/Rojava. Photo:; Bottom Left: Refugee children from the Armenian genocide. Public domain; Bottom Right: The siging of the Treaty of Lausanne. Public domain.

This year marks the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, which delineated republican Turkey’s new borders and recognised Turkish sovereignty over Anatolia and a wedge of land bordering Greece and Bulgaria.

The treaty also gave tacit endorsement to the ethnic cleansing begun in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and was a disaster for the human rights of Kurds, Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, living within the new borders.

In the words of Franco-Armenian journalist and activist Ara Toranian, Lausanne was “the crime of the century that came after the crime of the century [the Armenian genocide], only excepting the Shoah [the Holocaust]”.

One hundred years on, the baleful effects of the treaty continue, with the Turkish government trampling on the rights of the Kurds inside Turkey and waging aggressive war against Kurds in Syria and Iraq — all with nary a whimper of protest by the governments of the world.

To amend an old saying, if you want to hide a great crime, put it in plain sight. So it is with the little-known Treaty of Lausanne.

To understand the origins of the injustice, we must go back to the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled much of North Africa, most of the Middle East, and a large part of the Balkan Peninsula in south-eastern Europe for about 500 years. Ruled by the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople, the empire was multi-ethnic, comprising a bewildering array of ethnicities and religions.

By the 1890s, the empire was in terminal decay, its body picked over by rival imperialisms, internecine struggles and secessionist nationalisms in the provinces. In response, a group of army officers and intellectuals organised the Committee for Union and Progress — famously known as the Young Turks — to modernise the state and society along secular Western European lines.

Yet before World War I broke out in 1914, the Young Turks had morphed into fanatical Turkish nationalists, determined to refashion the empire’s multi-ethnic heartlands into an ethnically homogeneous Turkish state via an ambitious plan of demographic engineering.

They were what we might call “scientific” racists with much in common with the later Nazi ethnic social engineers. They would achieve “Turkification” by forced assimilation, deportation and dilution: in short by ethnic cleansing. They determined that non-Turks could not exceed 5% of the population of any village or district.

The outbreak of war in 1914 allowed this demographic engineering to take an even more sinister turn. The Ottomans joined the Central Powers and could carry out their murderous plans in the fog of war.

The day after the Allied invasion of Gallipoli in 1915, the Young Turks began coordinated pogroms against the Christian Armenian population, whom they regarded as a cancer in the Muslim Turkish body politic. The slaughter was meticulously planned. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were deported to death by starvation and disease in the Syrian deserts.

The Armenian genocide took the lives of more than one million people and it speaks volumes that the Turkish state still denies it happened and indeed criminalises those who dare claim it did. The Armenian genocide was accompanied by the organised mass murder of the Greek and Assyrian populations.

By 1923, up to 900,000 Greeks had lost their lives due to mass murder, starvation and deportation. As many as 250,000 Assyrians also perished. In 1916, the Ottoman authorities began to deport Kurds en masse from their homelands in eastern Anatolia. As the Kurds were Muslims, the Young Turks believed they would be more assimilable than the Christian populations, but the rule was that they should form no more than 5% of the populations of the districts to which they were deported. Naturally, many resisted, with lethal consequences, and this foreshadowed outright genocide after the formation of the Turkish republic in 1923 and the signing of the Lausanne Treaty.

After the Central Powers were defeated, the Allies forced the Ottomans to sign the Armistice of Mudros, which allowed Britain, France and Italy to occupy strategic parts of Turkey and seize huge swathes of the provinces outside of Turkey proper. Several of the Young Turk pashas responsible for the Ottoman crimes were put on trial.

In 1920, the Allies forced the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, the last of the post-WWI accords imposed on the defeated Central Powers. Sèvres ceded parts of Anatolia and the Aegean Islands to Greece and Armenia, and the lands to the south, including Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Levant, were divided up between Britain and France.

Significantly, the treaty promised the Kurds a plebiscite to determine whether they wanted autonomy within Turkey or full independence. Sèvres also guaranteed the non-Turkish ethnic groups full language and cultural rights at all levels of the Turkish state.

The treaty outraged Turkish nationalists led by General Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a Young Turk and the commander of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli. They believed Turkey had the right to all the Anatolian lands, to many of the Aegean Islands, to a much larger slice of the former Ottoman lands in the Balkans, and to at least the present-day Iraqi province of Mosul.

Ominously, they clung to the Young Turks’vision of Turkey as a homogeneous Turkish state, and launched a “War of Independence” to extend and consolidate Turkish rule. Sèvres had granted Greece a large wedge of territory in western Anatolia and this, together with Allied spheres of influence in Anatolia and the Bosporus Straits, was intolerable. The war was accompanied by frightful atrocities, the worst of which was the wholesale rape and massacre of the Greek and Armenian population of the port city of Smyrna, today’s Izmir. During the confused interregnum between 1918 and 1923, somewhere between 650,000 and 1.2 million Greeks and Armenians perished, and hundreds of thousands more fled or were deported.

What Turkey had won by force of arms, Britain and France ratified in the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in Switzerland on June 24, 1923. The treaty tacitly endorsed the ethnic cleansing of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians — and indeed the whole, infamous project of social engineering designed exterminate or deport Christian populations and forcibly assimilate Muslim Kurds.

Jettisoning the strictures of the Treaty of Sèvres, Britain and France allowed Atatürk to make Turkish the sole official language and make speaking Kurdish in public or teaching in Kurdish a criminal offence. A codicil to the treaty, signed by Greece and Turkey, set an enormous population transfer in train. Fully 1.5 million Christians, many of them Turkish speakers, were deported to Greece, and half a million Muslims were forced out in the opposite direction.

There would be no plebiscite to allow the Kurds to determine their future. Kurdish protests were brutally repressed, cultural genocide proceeded unchecked, and over the next decades massacres fully deserving the label of physical genocide were carried out by the Turkish authorities, as at Dersim (Turkish Tunceli) in 1937‒38.

To hide their shameful behaviour, the authorities banned foreigners from entering huge swathes of eastern Anatolia.

On the face of it, it is difficult to fathom why the Western powers walked away from their previous commitments; why as the former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George put it, such “an abject, cowardly and infamous surrender” took place.

Partly, it was war weariness, no doubt, but the underlying reason lies in Realpolitik: the interests of the imperialist Great Powers of the time. For a start, they were anxious to head off the growing rapprochement between an aggrieved Turkey and the outcast Soviet Union. Most importantly, Turkey relinquished all claims to the former Ottoman provinces outside of Anatolia and the small slice of the Balkans, except for Mosul province, which was allocated to Iraq in 1925.

British and French imperialism had a free hand in Syria, the Levant, Palestine, Egypt and oil-rich Mesopotamia, and access to India via Suez was guaranteed. Neither Great Power had any interest in internal Turkish affairs if the new republic was stable and no threat to them. The new republic would also act as a buffer between their new possessions and the Soviet Union.

In 1952, Turkey joined NATO and was cemented into the “free world” bloc and the outside world had even less interest in interfering in Turkey’s affairs and continued to ignore the crimes against humanity that they had tacitly endorsed in the Treaty of Lausanne.

Turkey’s demographic engineering can also be seen as the precursor and model for later mass deportations and ethnic cleansing. Examples include the partition of India in 1947 and of Palestine in 1948, both of which were accompanied with frightful atrocities and population transfers.

Hitler was aware of the Armenian genocide and there is every likelihood that the world’s indifference to Turkey’s continued ethnic cleansing encouraged Nazi expansion and genocide during World War II.

The mass deportations can also be seen as the model for Stalin’s mass internal deportations, and for the expulsion of up to 14 million Germans from Eastern and Central Europe after 1945. After Lausanne, it became acceptable to ignore the most frightful atrocities.

Australia had no independent foreign policy in 1923 and was automatically bound by Britain’s signature on the Lausanne treaty. In the 100 years since, Australian governments have behaved like the Three Wise Monkeys when it comes to events in Turkey: they have seen no evil, heard no evil and spoken no evil. Atatürk has always enjoyed a “good press” here because of his role as commander of the “gallant enemy” at Gallipoli in 1915.

There is no mention in Australian classrooms of the late Ottoman crimes against humanity: not a word about the Armenian genocide that occurred at the same time as the invasion of Gallipoli that supposedly marked Australia’s birth as a nation.

Journalists and politicians, including three former prime ministers Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd, have been fond of quoting Atatürk’s putative words about Australian “Johnnies” and Turkish “Mehmets” lying together as brothers in the windswept soil of Gallipoli. Thousands of Australians make the yearly pilgrimage to Gallipoli, ignorant of the horror that occurred offstage and of the ongoing crimes of the Turkish state.

Both Labor and Coalition governments dance to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tune.

Erdoğan visited Australia in December 2005, and immediately afterwards the Howard government placed the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) on the list of terrorist organisations, despite it presenting no threat to this country. Official identification with Turkey was complete. There has never been even a whimper of protest when Turkey jails thousands of Kurds, imprisons Kurdish MPs on trumped up charges, and commits war crimes and ethnic cleansing against Kurds in North and North-East Syria (Rojava). Australia even exports hi-tech drone components to Turkey and there is every chance these are used against Rojava.

Over all of this hangs the spectre of Lausanne. As Shakespeare’s Marc Anthony reminds us, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones” and so it is with this infamous treaty.

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