It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: Lausanne students Nissa Kashani, Benoît Mendez, Jean Schaller and Elodie Vuichoud tell a tale of two tables.
In 2008 President of the Swiss Confederation Pascal Couchepin gave his Turkish opposite number Abdullah Gül the table on which the 1923 Lausanne treaty was signed, a diplomatic gift intended to symbolise the ties of history and friendship binding the two nations. As it happened, the gesture also served as a reminder of the contested history of that same conference and treaty, which effectively abrogated the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. For the Kurdish and Armenian communities Lausanne represented a humiliating injustice: not only were the territories and rights promised under the terms of Sèvres abandoned, both communities’ leaders struggled to get a hearing at the conference itself. Almost a century on, in 2015 the artist Mirkan Deniz fashioned a copy of the table, an intervention which not only pointed to the enduring sense of injustice felt by these communities, but invited discussion of Swiss responsibility and neutrality. The table thus became a lieu de mémoire, of the kind first identified by Pierre Nora in 1997.
From a Swiss perspective the gift represented a diplomatic olive branch at a time of tense Swiss-Turk relations. A Turkish emigré politician had recently been convicted of denying the Armenian genocide, an act proscribed under a set of measures adopted by the Swiss parliament in 1994 in an effort to combat racism. It is worth recalling that Swiss policy in this area is not uniform however: while the Conseil national officially recognized the genocide in 2002, the Conseil fédéral did not. With a bilateral economic agreement for a gas pipeline in the offing, Turkish diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on the issue. This in turn inspired the Swiss to offer the Lausanne table, as a means of shifting the conversation to broader historical alignments.
In a speech to parliament the conseiller national Ueli Leuenberger described this “poisoned gift” as an insult to the communities who lost so much at Lausanne. The Conseil fédéral replied that the table was simply a reminder of the special relationship between the two nations: it had nothing whatsoever to say about Swiss neutrality or possible Swiss accountability for the treaty’s consequences.
Several years after Couchepin’s gesture Mirkan Deniz sought to make her own, in reverse. The replica of the Lausanne table was first displayed outside the Palais de Rumine, where the 1923 treaty was signed, then carried inside, as a “gift” to the Swiss authorities, one intended to provoke self-reflection on the part of those same authorities and the Swiss public at large, particularly regarding the treaty’s enduring consequencs for the Kurdish community.
The Vaud conseil d’état ordered the Palais to refuse the gift, leading Deniz to try again in Berne, with the same result.
While the table and its doppelgänger have served as a locus for conflicted accounts of the Swiss Republic’s agency in 1923 and since, the reception of Couchepin’s gift within the Turkish community was if anything more contested, as Ozan Ozavci has noted in another contribution to the TLP blog. Whether or not either table makes an appearance, one thing is certain: the traditional Lausanne anniversary demonstrations outside the Palais de Rumine are likely to be particularly large in 2023, with Turkish nationalists jostling with other representatives of the Turkish as well as Kurdish and Armenian diasporas
Translated from the French by Jonathan Conlin.
This is the fourth in a series of blogposts contributed by students of Lausanne University, drawing on the police archives of the Canton of Vaud and other local archives as part of their study of Global History. To find out more about this innovative pedagogical response to the Covid emergency, click here. We would like to thank Guillaume Beausire and Thomas David for making this collaboration possible.