At the end of World War One the victorious Allies dictated punitive peace terms to the three great empires they had defeated. In 1920, the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sèvres. The events of two short years, however, turned the tables, allowing the Turks to tear up Sèvres and negotiate a very different peace.


  • Historical background


Historical Background

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was the last of the peace settlements negotiated at the end of the First World War, and the only one to endure to this day. It brokered peace between Turkey and the “Allied and Associated Powers”: Britain, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Romania and Yugoslavia. Just a few years earlier the defeated Ottoman Empire’s two allied empires of Germany and Austro-Hungary had been presented with a dictated peace at Versailles, Saint-Germain and Trianon. Like them, so the Ottomans were loaded with war guilt, reparations, and massive losses of territory.

At the San Remo Conference held a few months before Sèvres Britain and France had shared out the former Ottoman territories in the Middle East between themselves, using the League of Nations’ mandate system as fig leaf. The Treaty of Sèvres partitioned the Empire’s Anatolian heartland. Only a small interior rump state was to remain after Greece, Italy and France had occupied their assigned regions. Refusing such terms, forces of the Turkish Nationalist Movement under Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) expelled French forces from southeast Anatolia.

Encouraged by irredentist visions of the Megali Idea and the philhellene British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Hellenic Army fought its way deep into Anatolia. The Battle of Sakarya in September 1921 saw the tide turn against the invaders. Refusing to negotiate an armistice the following spring, Mustafa Kemal continued fighting. In September 1922 the Hellenic Army had departed and the great Ottoman city of Izmir was in flames. In stark contrast to other peace conferences, therefore, the “Lausanne Conference on Near East Affairs” was being negotiated while the “defeated” party still had an army in the field.

After ejecting the Hellenic Army from Izmir Mustafa Kemal’s focus turned to the British and French forces occupying the Dardanelles, which they held as part of a “Neutral Zone” created under the terms of Sèvres – a zone which included the Ottomans’ ancient capital city, Istanbul, as well as the straits linking the Black and Aegean seas. Far from presenting Turkey with a united front, inter-Allied relations had deteriorated markedly since 1918, thanks to disputes over German reparations. France unilaterally recognized Mustafa Kemal’s regime in 1921, and abandoned the British during the Chanak Crisis of September 1922, when renewed conflict between Britain and Turkey seemed hours away.

Faced with the prospect of Britain returning to the field alone, British members of parliament from the Conservative party revolted against their leaders. Though the “Neutral Zone” was held, the Crisis ended Lloyd George’s career and changed British politics permanently. The lukewarm response of Britain’s dominions to the call to arms exposed painful realities behind a facade of “Commonwealth” unity. France and Belgium’s occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 (while the conference was underway) further compromised relations. Meanwhile the United States had apparently retreated from the obligations which many felt followed naturally from the bold internationalist vision President Woodrow Wilson had championed in Paris back in 1919.


The Conference

Negotiations at the Swiss resort town of Lausanne began in November 1922 and were divided into two phases, separated by a short hiatus (4 February-24 April 1923) that resulted when the leader of the Turkish delegation İsmet (İnönü) refused to let his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary George Nathaniel Curzon bounce him into signing a draft treaty. The final treaty was signed on 24 July 1923 and formally ratified by the Grand National Assembly in Ankara on 21 August.

For all his success as a military leader, İsmet had almost no diplomatic experience. This combined with his partial deafness and slight stature contrasted sharply with Curzon’s decades of experience as Viceroy of India and long-serving doyen of the diplomatic corps. As the Hungarian artists Emery Kelèn and Alois Derso suggested in one of their many caricatures of Lausanne, the pair seemed comically mismatched.

“It was a Greek temple against a dish of scrambled eggs”

– R. W. Child

İsmet was not the only newcomer at Lausanne, however. Japan’s defeat of Tsarist Russia in 1905 and subsequent rise led Baron Hayashi to offer his nation as a model for Turkey’s future path. Communist Russia had only just begun to seek renewed diplomatic ties with the rest of the world, but seemed eager to support Mustafa Kemal, who some saw as a Communist stooge. Though officially only present as observers, the American delegation was also conspicuous, marking the beginning of American peace-making and -keeping efforts in the Near and Middle East.

Formal negotiations were divided between three commissions. The first, for Territorial and Military Questions, considered where Turkey’s borders with Greece (in Thrace) and the new British mandate of Iraq (in oil-rich Mosul) should lie. It also sought a new convention governing transit of warships through the Straits, an international artery which the Russians and Turks proposed to close entirely to armed vessels. İsmet and his Greek counterpart Eleftherios Venizelos each demanded reparations of the other, trading statistics on refugees and regional demographics.

then there is Mosul
And the Greek Patriarch
What about the Greek Patriarch? 

- Ernest Hemingway
They All Made Peace-What is Peace? (1923)

The second commission on “Regime of Foreigners” sought a replacement for the age-old capitulations, that web of bilateral conventions by which foreign nationals had enjoyed extraterritorial status within the Sultan’s realms, able to assert and defend their rights in special courts. The Ottomans had unilaterally abolished the capitulations in 1914. British, French and Japanese delegates felt that the legal system of Turkey had not yet developed sufficiently for foreigners to feel secure without such protections. A third commission addressed “Economic and Financial Questions”, specifically how to divide up and roll over the vast debt accrued by the old Ottoman regime.  

“Turkey will be almost the only Power among our ex-enemies that has come out without loss of prestige”

– Baron Hayashi

The formal record of proceedings shows Curzon working closely with Maurice Bompard (France) and Marquis Garroni (Italy) to impress upon İsmet the need to soften his insistence on the “independence and sovereignty” of the new Turkey. Like Venizelos, İsmet was nervously aware that he needed to retain the support of a sceptical government back “home”. The pair deserve much of the credit (or blame, depending on one’s view) for the agreement on the “unmixing” of Greek and Turkish populations signed in January 1923. This forcibly displaced 1.5m people, adding to the hundreds of thousands of Balkan Muslims “unmixed” and sent eastwards by less formal means over the previous decade.

Though formally a separate bilateral agreement, the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations was a product of Lausanne. The same is true of the Straits Convention, which allowed free passage of warships through a partly demilitarized straits. The question of the Mosul border was left unsettled, until 1925, when the League of Nations awarded the province to Iraq.


Key events

  • JANUARY 1918

    Wilson’s Fourteen Points

  • OCTOBER 1918

    Armistice of Mudros

  • NOVEMBER 1918

    British Occupation of Istanbul

  • MAY 1919

    Greek forces landed in Asia Minor / Mustafa Kemal departed for Samsun

  • JUNE 1919

    Treaty of Versailles

  • JANUARY 1920

    League of Nations founded

  • FEBRUARY 1920

    Turkish National Pact

  • APRIL 1920

    San Remo Conference, Nebi Musa Riots, National Assembly established in Ankara

  • AUGUST 1920

    Treaty of Sèvres

  • DECEMBER 1920

    Greek plebiscite restores King Constantine

  • MARCH 1921

    Cairo Conference

  • AUGUST 1921

    Battle of Sakarya

  • OCTOBER 1921

    Ankara Agreement

  • FEBRUARY 1922

    Egyptian Independence

  • MAY 1922

    Genoa Conference

  • AUGUST 1922

    Battle of Dumlupınar

  • OCTOBER 1922

    Mussolini elected President

  • SEPTEMBER 1922

    Chanak Crisis

  • NOVEMBER 1922

    Lausanne Conference Assembled

  • JANUARY 1923

    Occupation of the Ruhr, Population Exchange Convention

  • JULY 1923

    Treaty of Lausanne

  • OCTOBER 1923

    Turkey proclaimed a Republic

  • MARCH 1924

    Caliphate abolished

Perceptions of Lausanne

Under the Treaty the Nationalist regime received full formal recognition, drawing a line under years in which “Angora” and “Istanbul” had been employed as shorthand, to distinguish the rival “Ottoman” government (which had signed Sèvres) and the “Nationalist” government. Turkey received no recompense for war damages, but nor did she have to pay any reparations herself. Her share of the Ottoman debt was dramatically reduced and attempts by the “Allied and Associated Powers” to secure an “Armenian home” within Turkey were abandoned. It is not surprising that, until quite recently, the treaty was widely celebrated within Turkey as their nation’s “birth certificate”.

For the Armenians, Kurds, Arabs and other communities who had invested so much in Wilsonian rhetoric of “self-determination” it was something very different; Ara Toranian has said of the treaty that it was “the crime of the century that came after the crime of the century, only excepting the Shoah”. The scope of the “unmixing” ordained by Lausanne (as well as its perceived “success”) made it a point of reference in post-WW2 peace settlements, as well as the partition of India. Over the past two decades this normalisation of “unmixing” as a peace-making tool has been radically reinterpreted, and is now viewed by many scholars as “ethnic cleansing”.

“In this difficult enterprise of shaping a new order of society, they may or may not be successful, but they will not submit to be cramped into any ready-made Western mould”

A. J. Toynbee

Although the Nationalist regime had dethroned the Sultan and would abolish the caliphate in 1924, many non-Turkish Muslims nonetheless took a strong interest in the proceedings at Lausanne, and drew vicarious strength from it. Exactly how they identified, and how far, remains open for debate. For British and American observers at the time, however, Lausanne represented a victory for “Young Islam”, or simply “the East”. It was the moment when those the “white man” had for centuries seen as second-class stood up. What “self” was seeking “self-determination”, whether as a “civilisation”, a community of belief, a race or a nation, was far from clear.

To follow the negotiations at Lausanne as they unfolded a century ago, follow our Lausanne Diary on Twitter. Historic photos and cartoons as well as extracts from speeches and letters give you the inside track on events, day-by-day, allowing you to experience the richness of the conference in “real time”.