Michelle Tusan on the anxiety, apathy and confusion at Lausanne and why it’s time for European historians to take the Last Treaty seriously.

“Peace, just arrived from Lausanne,” announced a cartoon in the Daily Express in July 1923. It proved a “strange” and little “noticed” conclusion to the world’s largest and most destructive war to date. Peace, depicted as a crying caged dove and single olive branch held by a perplexed “Woman of no Importance”, solicited little interest from men more interested in sport than welcome the Allied victory over the Ottoman Empire. 

Interest in the final episode of the Great War understandably had flagged during a peace process that took nearly four years to complete after the October 1918 armistice. The truth was, that for the British who led peace negotiations at Lausanne, ending World War I in the Middle East never held the same sense of urgency as it had in Western Europe. 

For the Allies, acknowledging victory at Lausanne meant admitting uncomfortable truths laid bare in this cartoon. “The Woman of No Importance” took its title from the Oscar Wilde play of the same name about a bastard unable to acknowledge his paternity.[1] “We took home peace without great honour,” consular official and conference attendee Andrew Ryan concluded, “Still it was peace, after close on five years of armistice.” Lausanne, he believed, had dealt the “final death-blow” to the possibility of coexistence between Muslims and Christians in the Near East. [2] No wonder that the Allies refused to claim Lausanne as their child. When documents from the protracted peace process were published in their entirety in the 1950s, one reviewer in the Manchester Guardian asked why anyone need bother trying to sort out the failures of this final episode of the Great War.[3]

“How strange! Nobody has noticed me!” complains Peace in Sidney Strube’s Daily Express cartoon of July 1923

Why the rush to disown WWI’s Last Treaty?

Eager for a return to normalcy, victory in the East seemed as remote as the deserts where the war had been waged. The peace process itself felt inscrutable by design, a mood captured in this caricature of Lord Curzon at the head the conference table:

Kelen’s caricature of Lausanne’s crowded, chaotic negotiating table

Anxiety, apathy and confusion indeed drove diplomacy at Lausanne. Britain, France and Italy resisted dedicating manpower to helping the Greeks to continue to fight Kemalist forces after the 1918 Mudros Armistice and abortive 1920 Treaty of Sèvres leaving the Allies in a vulnerable spot. War weariness contributed to the dilatory way in which the treaty negotiations proceeded. Lausanne was really two conferences. The first, physically presided over by Curzon lasted from November 1922 until January 1923, failed to resolve key issues revolving around sovereignty and refugees. These included the status of Mosul, the capitulations, minority safeguards along with the status of the Greek patriarch at Constantinople, prisoner exchange and the population exchange. 

Lord Curzon

Lord Curzon famously stormed out of the conference in January after issuing an ultimatum to Turkey to sign the treaty or risk the end of the possibility of a settlement. He consented to give negotiators one week beyond his original arbitrary deadline. When threats failed to move the process forward, Curzon called a cab and left with his delegation for London on the Orient Express. The conference would not resume until later that spring and this time without Curzon. High Commissioner at Constantinople, Sir Horace Rumbold, and his consular staff were charged with restarting negotiations. When it finally came to signing the treaty at the end of July 1923, Curzon did not bother coming to Lausanne.[4] He defended this decision as a clever diplomatic ploy, claiming that the conference “had succeeded and not failed” to protect the interests of the British Empire.[5]

“It is the British public which is responsible for a treaty which is probably in many respects the most degrading we have ever signed.”

British Embassy communication to Andrew Ryan July 17, 1923

For Lausanne’s negotiators, the rushed and chaotic nature of the conference lay with a public anxious to put the war behind them: “no criticism would be just that did not ascribe the blame not to an individual or a government but to the British nation as a whole. It is the British public which is responsible for a treaty which is probably in many respects the most degrading we have ever signed.”[6] The public, however, seemed to have taken their lead from conference delegates, barely paying attention to the proceedings, as this chart of press coverage of the Treaty suggests:

Data on press coverage compiled by Michelle Tusan from the New York Times and British periodicals online databases. Accessed: June 2020.

But we should exercise caution when reading the apathy of politicians and a war weary public as evidence of Lausanne’s insignificance. Rather, the unimportance ascribed to Lausanne at the time exposes deep seeded anxieties surrounding a moment when Great Power politics faced its biggest challenge to date and marked the beginning of the end of the old European order. Ignoring the less than victorious end of the Great War blinded Britons to their role in creating this changing world. Lausanne paved the way for a modern internationalism that rejected empire in favor of the principles of national sovereignty.[7] This shift transformed the treatment of subject populations and regional politics. According to Mark Levene, “The violent reality of the Lausanne precedent” had far-reaching implications for thinking about population transfers in the Middle East well past 1948.[8] In Britain, Prime Minister Lloyd George’s “Greek disaster”- the tacit support of the Greek invasion of the Pontic coast in spring 1919- relegated him to the voice in the wilderness of a Liberal Party left in disarray after Lausanne. It’s time for European historians to take the Last Treaty seriously as a final chapter of the Great War and harbinger of new postwar realities.


[1] Written in 1893, the play toured Britain until the start of Wilde’s trial. It was made into a film in 1921.

[2] Andrew Ryan, The Last of the Dragomans., p. 218

[3] Shirley Komrower, “Out of the Diplomatic Bag.” Manchester Guardian, Feb 14, 1958.

[4] British Embassy communication to Ryan July 17, 1923 FO 800/240/14.

[5] “Lausanne: Lord Curzon’s Report,” Manchester Guardian, Feb 7, 1923

[6] British Embassy communication to Ryan July 17, 1923 FO 800/240/14.

[7] Leonard Smith, Sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference, pp. 222- 25.

[8] Mark Levene, “Harbingers of Jewish and Palestinian Disasters,” in Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldbert, eds., The Holocaust and the Nakba, (Columbia UP, 2018), p. 53.

Further reading

Jusin Fantauzzo, The Other Wars: The Experience and Memory of the First World War in the Middle East and Macedonia (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020).

Robert Gerwarth and Erez Manela, eds., Empires at War (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014).

Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford UP, 2015).

Laura Robson, States of Separation: Transfer, partition and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Berkeley, 2017)

Andrew Ryan, Last of the Dragomans (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1951). 

Leonard Smith, Sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (Oxford UP, 2018).

Michelle Tusan, Smyrna’s Ashes (Berkeley, 2012)

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, The First World War in the Middle East (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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