One of the founding documents of modern Turkey is a century old. The Lausanne Treaty was signed on 24 July 1923, a moment made in the wake of World War I that was to have profound consequences for the Middle East and beyond.
On its centennial, an understanding of Lausanne rests on an appreciation of the complex factors that led to it.
By the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire’s glory days felt far away and it was shrinking. The most traumatic episode was the Balkan War of 1912 when the Empire lost more than four-fifths of its territory in Europe and over two-thirds of its population.
With each loss, hundreds of thousands of Ottoman subjects came into the empire’s remaining territory, with migration from the Balkans and the Caucasus especially high.
These were also times of internal crisis, deep divides and power struggles between traditionalist conservatives and progressive nationalists in the Ottoman Empire. This divide is said to have been one of the major causes of the defeat, with catastrophic results in the Balkan War.
The empire became known as “the sick man of Europe” as great powers and smaller ones alike competed to take advantage, and territory, from its plight.
Christians bearing grudges
Christian Europe held a grudge against the main builder of the Empire: the Turks, who had challenged them during the Crusades and conquered Constantinople (to become Istanbul), led to the collapse of Byzantium and fought them for centuries.
And so the Young Turks – who belonged to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) – put an end to the 33-year rule of Sultan Abdülhamid in 1909. They were alarmed at the state the Empire was in and were inspired by libertarian movements in Europe.
A few years later, the Ottomans entered the first world war on the side of the Central Powers, led by Germany, after being snubbed by Great Britain.
The Ottoman generation born in the 1880s spent most of their life away from their homes. They fought in different parts of the Empire against Russians, the British, Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, rebellious Arab tribes and Italians, among others, on battlefronts over three continents.
Their grand finale would be the War of Independence against former allies who invaded the capital and other parts of their last stronghold at home.