The legacy of the Treaty of Lausanne
The Treaty of Lausanne is swathed in conspiracy theories. According to L23 – which stands for Lausanne23 – the treaty's secret additional articles were due to expire on 24 July 2023. Then, as the narrative goes, Turkey would finally regain complete sovereignty and be able to freely exploit its natural resources and raw materials, generating immense wealth.
Yet it was precisely the Treaty of Lausanne that abolished the capitulations – rules that guaranteed special economic privileges to major foreign powers and extraterritorial rights to their citizens. By granting citizenship to minorities, these privileges and any pretext for interventions by major European powers ceased to exist.
The Treaty of Lausanne is the bedrock of the Turkish Republic. The document recognises Turkey as an independent state and anchors it in international law.
Not a punitive peace accord
With the Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey also attained its economic independence. Part of the Ottoman Empire's debt was transferred to Turkey, which was given until 1954 to make the repayments. This gave the country sufficient financial breathing space to invest in an education offensive, cultural reforms and industrialisation.
The government was able to implement economic policies pursuant to its growth targets. In Lausanne, the Turkish delegation led by Ismet Inonu achieved a stable peace that was not punitive in nature. Unlike all other "peace accords" after World War One, in which conditions were dictated to weaker parties, the Treaty of Lausanne was the outcome of negotiation.
And if the conspiracy myths that surround this treaty still persist, they only serve to distract attention from economic hardship and political woes. They gloss over the jarring cognitive dissonance arising from the government-propagated narrative of a robust Turkey and the economic misery that is a reality for many.
Conspiracy theory L23 gives people the supposed hope for a moment when the knot finally breaks and everything gets better, says Selim Koru, analyst at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Battle for interpretative sovereignty
The Treaty of Lausanne is also an instrument in the battle over interpretative sovereignty regarding the history of modern Turkey. For example, Islamists and ultra-conservatives associate the treaty with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, with territorial losses and capitulation to the West. To them, the Republic of Turkey's foundation narrative is a story of disintegration.
President Erdogan was the first high-ranking decision-maker to fix his gaze on the Treaty of Lausanne. At a time of growing tension with Greece, he slammed the accord as unjust and held it responsible for Turkey's weakness vis-a-vis the West.
He called for a revision of borders with Greece set down in the treaty and laid claim to several Aegean islands with the justification that through its militarisation of these islands, Greece was trampling the treaty underfoot. However, his revanchism was limited to political symbolism: the re-dedication of the famous former Hagia Sophia museum as a mosque took place on 24 July 2020, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne.
But the Treaty of Lausanne was anything but a document of humiliation that laid Turkey in domestic and foreign policy chains.
The path to the Treaty of Lausanne
The Ottoman Empire entered World War One in 1914 on the side of the Central Powers – Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy – and requested an armistice on 30 October 1918. The nation was in ruins, the capital Istanbul was under Allied occupation, neighbouring states and major powers tussled over the scraps of the Ottoman Empire.
On 10 August 1920, the Ottoman government was forced to accept a punitive peace agreement requiring it to relinquish its sovereignty, also over any territorial retentions. The Allies' goal: total destruction of the Ottoman Empire. "The war's primary aims include driving out from Europe the Ottoman Empire, which is so alien to Western civilisation": thus spoke French Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Aristide Briand in 1917.
But before long, a national resistance movement had formed that frustrated the Allies' plans to carve up the country. As early as September 1921, Ankara's troops under General Mustafa Kemal Pasha succeeded in finally halting the Greek advance in Central Anatolia.
The following summer, Mustafa Kemal went on the offensive and drove out the defeated Greek forces. On 9 September 1922 Turkish units entered Izmir. The government in Ankara had shown that the victors of the First World War couldn't just help themselves to Turkey's heartland.
Republicanism, secularism and sovereignty
The Treaty of Lausanne sealed Turkey's military victory under international law and laid the foundations for the Republic of Turkey. It paved the way for the abolition of sultanate and caliphate and gave Mustafa Kemal Pasha the chance to focus his attention on domestic policy issues and implement far-reaching structural reforms.
Regulations pertaining to Arabia and the Middle East remained unchanged. Turkey was able to revise all other territorial provisions from the 1920 Treaty of Sevres in its favour – meaning territorial cessations to Armenia or the Kurds were off the table.
But there were also bitter pills for the Turkish government to swallow. For example, British rule in Cyprus was formally recognised, the status of northern Iraq remained unclarified, the Aegean islands went to Greece and the Dodecanese islands remained under Italian occupation. The Turkish Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits were demilitarised.
The Treaty of Lausanne is a reminder of the Treaty of Sevres, which stirred a sense of profound trauma. To this day, Turkey still struggles with the Sevres syndrome; a fear of dismemberment through foreign intrigues and interventions is still common within the populace.
Decision-makers and diplomats regard the Treaty of Lausanne as a lesson in caution; to take extra care in matters of international politics and view the West with scepticism. What was learnt from the peace accord guided the hand of the Turkish government during the Second World War, when Turkey remained neutral – and continues to do so to this day.
In summary, it can be said that the Treaty of Lausanne represented a victory over European imperialism and colonialism, creating the basis for the foundation of the Turkish Republic, nation-building and Ataturk's structural reforms. The Treaty of Lausanne stands in the spirit of republicanism, secularism and national sovereignty – and against revanchism and territorial expansionism.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Yasar Aydin is a researcher at CATS – Centre for Applied Turkish Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and also lectures at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg.