Ozan Ozavci on how the famous table’s relocation to a museum in Ankara in 2008 represented anything but a peaceful retirement.

The Lausanne Peace Treaty of 1923 may have slumbered in the margins of international history, yet anyone interested in Turkish politics will be well aware that it has actually never been forgotten in Turkey. From the moment the head of the Turkish delegation İsmet (İnönü) Pașa signed it (on 24 July 1923, a Tuesday, at nine past three in the afternoon), it has served as a symbol of triumph and defeat, a topic of numerous scholarly and popular studies that eulogised or denounced it by turns, as well as a vehicle for political ambition and polarisation. The July 24 anniversary has even been celebrated among Kemalist circles as a ‘festival of peace’ (sulh bayramı).

‘The Priciest Table!’ 

In November 2008, the Swiss President Pascal Couchepin presented the table on which the Lausanne Peace Treaty was signed to Turkey, during a state visit to Ankara marking the 80th year of the diplomatic relations. The treaty became then a political hot potato in Turkish politics once again.

Photo: The Lausanne Table, 2008, courtesy of Kurtuluş Savaşı ve Cumhuriyet Müzesi in Ankara

The table’s reception was mixed. The neo-Ottomanist newspaper Vakit (Time) deplored it as an ‘execution table’, under the headline: ‘Here is the priciest table. . .Here it is, the table for which we paid most dearly! Because on this table we lost an empire! Because on this table we lost Kirkuk, Mosul and the Dodecanese Islands! . . . Eighty-five years later today, that table is given to Turkey as a gift. . . Our lands were gone. We are left with a table!’

In 2008 Turkey had yet to drift into that morass of illiberal democracy in which she now finds herself bogged down. Liberals and conservatives, largely moderate then, had formed a progressive coalition, both supporting the administration of Recep T. Erdoğan. In stark contrast to Vakit’s slur, President Abdullah Gül (one of the co-founders of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party) received the table graciously, responding to Swiss President Pascal Couchepin’s diplomatic gesture in kind: ‘This table witnessed the emergence of the Republic of Turkey and the Turkish nation. It’s a souvenir … with immense spiritual value. It will be exhibited … in the finest way possible.’

Photo: the Museum of Independence War and Republic. Source: kulturportali.gov.tr

The search for a new home

After Couchepin left Ankara, however, it took several weeks for the Turkish authorities to decide where to exhibit the table. A public debate began. Kemalists claimed the table, which they saw as a symbol of victory. Deniz Baykal, the chairman of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (RPP), suggested that it should be exhibited in RPP’s premises, given that Lausanne’s Turkish signatories were the founders of the party. Some advocated that the table should be brought to the Lausanne Museum in Karaağaç, Edirne, a town in north-western Turkey whose fate was the subject of animated discussion between Greek and Turkish delegates to the Lausanne conference back in 1922-3.

In the end, a decision was made to display it alongside other artefacts of the republic’s nascent years, in the building of the First National Assembly in Ankara, where the Lausanne Peace Treaty was ratified in 1923. The building now hosts the Museum of Independence War and Republic (Kurtuluş Savaşı ve Cumhuriyet Müzesi, MIWR). Since 27 November 2008, the Lausanne table has been exhibited in the Şer’iye Encümeni Odası (the Legal Commission room) of the MIWR, the second door on the left. A quote from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s 1927 Great Speech (Büyük Nutuk) is displayed right next to it: ‘This treaty … informs that a great assassination [attempt] on the Turkish nation, one which had been in preparation for centuries and which was supposed to succeed with the Treaty of Sèvres, remained in vain.’

Photo: Information Board in the Legal Commission Room. Source: Courtesy of Kurtuluş Savaşı ve Cumhuriyet Müzesi

Mirror Images

Lausanne still serves as a touchstone in Turkish politics that helps discern one’s Kemalist or what has now become neo-Ottomanist/Erdoğanist sympathies. Erdoğan’s speech after the 2016 coup attempt typifies the shift in the Turkish conservatives’ position towards it:

‘In 1920, [the Allies] showed us Sèvres; in 1923, they made us consent to Lausanne. And some people tried to make us believe that Lausanne was a victory. . . We gave up the [Aegean] islands there. Now we are still fighting for the continental shelf in the [Eastern Mediterranean]. Those who sat at [the Lausanne] table are the cause of all this.’

The Kemalist and Erdoğanist interpretations of the Lausanne table as a symbol of victory or defeat might at first sight seem utterly different. But they are in fact mirror images of the same mindset: one that anachronistically invokes and over-simplifies a compound history to further short-term political interests.

. . . they are in fact mirror images of the same mindset

In this sense, the Erdoğanists and the Kemalists appear to see Lausanne not quite contrarily. Otherwise, either of them would long acknowledge that the Lausanne table is a symbol neither of victory nor downfall alone. Lausanne mediated between the defeat of the Central Powers (including the Ottoman Empire) in 1918 and the triumph of Mustafa Kemal’s army at Dumlupınar in 1922. The table on which it was signed symbolises no more than a complex peace-making process–one with give-and-take, with granular bargaining wins and losses that entailed each other.

This post is an edited version of a paper presented at “The Age of Catastrophe and the Destruction of Coexistence: Expulsions, Deportations, and Genocides, 1912-1924”, a conference held in Kalamata, Greece, 1-4 December 2022. Opinion pieces are published by TLP for the purpose of encouraging informed debate on the legacies of the events surrounding the Lausanne conference. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of TLP, its partners, convenors or members.

Main blog image: Photo – The Lausanne Table, courtesy of Kurtuluş Savaşı ve Cumhuriyet Müzesi in Ankara.

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