Lausanne’s Legacy or How not to End a War

                                                                        GUEST ESSAY


Photo Courtesy: Getty Images/Al Majalla

By Michelle Tusan on February 1, 2024


The First World War came to its final, uneasy settlement with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne one hundred years ago. This war of annexation pitted the world’s great empires against one another. The British, French, Russian Empires led the Allies in the fight against the Central Powers headed by the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Many historians claim that the First World War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. But war continued for over four long years after the signing of the peace between the Allies and Germany. The process of negotiating peace between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire took place between 1918 and 1923. It divided the Middle East and culminated in the signing of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that ended the most destructive war to date. 

Most people have never heard of the Treaty of Lausanne but it holds important lessons for understanding the role of diplomacy in ending global and regional conflict. Today, we are witnessing the beginning of a new era of wars of annexation. Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia and recent takeover of Nagorno–Karabakh transformed a longstanding border dispute into a land war that resulted in the annexation of the territory of another sovereign country by a foreign power. Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to do the same with an entire country. There is concern of further aggression in the Middle East, Asia and Europe as leaders of more powerful nations threaten to take back territories where they assert historic claims despite international agreements. The Treaty of Lausanne itself is in danger as the Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey threatens to undo the boundary agreements that have kept peace between Turkey and Greece since the end of the First World War.

Before the nuclear era, Europeans ended wars by treaty and the peace conference was the vehicle for making peace. Diplomats gathered together for an extended period in a European capital to broker agreements over boundaries, economic costs and consequences for the vanquished. The First World War followed this model. However, the Allied settlement with the Ottoman Empire did not proceed smoothly or swiftly. Between the signing of the 1918 armistice and the 1923 treaty, belligerents could not say for sure if they were at war or peace. As one British diplomat concluded after the signing of the Lausanne Treaty: “We took home peace without great honour… Still it was peace, after close on five years of armistice.” 

The treaty system had proved a flawed diplomatic tool. Peacemaking commenced while war continued. Between the 1919 Versailles Treaty and 1923 Lausanne Treaty, the last treaty of the First World War, the Allies signed multiple treaties with belligerents that had sided with the Central Powers in addition to holding dozens of official conferences and ad hoc meetings related to the peace. Fighting raged on between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies in the midst of negotiations. These were not intermittent borderland skirmishes but full-scale military engagements that claimed tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties well beyond the signing of the armistice with the Ottoman Empire at Mudros on October 30, 1918. Military confrontations included not only the Greek invasion of western Anatolia and subsequent reconquest of the region by Turkish troops led by Mustafa Kemal but also the Allied offensive in southern Anatolia and the British attempt to check Russian ambitions in eastern Anatolia. 

The treaties that ended the First World War in 1923 forged new ties between the nation state and an emergent international system. The war entangled a varied cast of characters with their own agendas. Greece joined Allied powers Britain and France in playing a pivotal role in these negotiations, especially regarding minorities. The US never declared war against the Ottoman Empire, a region that comprised most of the modern-day Middle East including Turkey, but loomed over peace negotiations mostly in the form of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points that made an unenforceable commitment to self-determination a central tenet of peace negotiations.

Imperial competition undermined the Allies’ common cause of winning the war against the Ottoman Empire and resulted in a strategy dependent on secret diplomatic agreements and double dealings. Sykes-Picot alongside other wartime agreements laid bare jealous rivalries emblematic of broader British and French imperial ambitions. They also provided a blueprint for the prosecution of the war which moved the Middle Eastern Front from the war’s periphery to the center. As the head of military operations in this theater after 1917, Britain focused on controlling the region’s natural resources and its peoples using soldiers and personnel largely from its Empire. It also forged an alliance with Ottoman Arabs and Zionists and promised to liberate Ottoman Christians persecuted during the 1915 Armenian Genocide using the rhetoric of minority protection to bolster support for the First World War at home. 

The final years of the war were important to the forging of modern Turkey that rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. They also had far reaching implications for Europe and the international order. Not unlike today, the lines between war and peace were blurred. War and peacemaking developed as an overlapping set of processes that made continued interethnic and political violence a defining characteristic of the years leading up to the end of the war in 1923. The war’s successful prosecution depended on managing civilian responses and movement, a reality manifested in the Lausanne Treaty. The infamous population exchange provision that mandated 400,000 Greek Muslims trade places with 1.2 million Ottoman Christian minorities, forever altered the composition of Turkey and Greece. The Lausanne Treaty enshrined population exchange in international law for the first time and influenced the principle of population transfers in the Middle East well past 1948.

No states end war with peace treaties like the ones that ended the First World War anymore. But in the early twentieth century, these protracted multilateral negotiations led by Britain, France and the US mattered. In its modern form, the peace treaty was a vestige of the Napoleonic war settlement made at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It represented for generations of statesmen an almost sacred agreement that promised sustained peace after a period of disastrous war. It had worked for Europe. The Congress of Vienna brought lasting peace for Europeans who chose to fight proxy colonial wars rather than each other during the long nineteenth century. This was particularly true for Britain which fought wars to expand its empire in Asia and Africa. War continued in the name of imperial expansion while Europeans slept easy, believing themselves protected by the harmonious Concert of Europe.

The peace treaty system offered the comfortable illusion of lasting peace. Cracks in the vengeful and shortsighted Versailles Treaty already began to show by the time of the Lausanne Treaty. The agreement signed between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies in the summer of 1923 marked the end of a part of the war that many Europeans had tried to ignore. Eager for a return to normalcy, the victory over the Ottoman Empire went virtually unnoticed in Britain, France and the US. But neglecting the importance of the First World War’s Middle Eastern Front shielded a stark reality. By 1917, the Middle East had emerged as a central, if less visible, front that shaped the Allied conduct of the war against the Central Powers. The cost of fighting on the Middle Eastern Front on civilian populations and soldiers shaped the politics and economies of Europe and the experiences of the generation who would fight the next world war.

The First World War peace settlements have long afterlives that shape contemporary domestic and international politics. In the case of peace with what would become the Turkish state, the practical matter of ending the conflict happened in the fog of war. Peacemaking, as evidenced in the lead up to Lausanne, was contingent on responses to events on the ground- massacres, military conflict, humanitarian crisis. We often think of the high-minded principles on display in Versailles as a betrayal of liberal values or, by contrast, showing their true colors. But there is also the matter of how states built this house of cards under a treaty system that had passed its sell by date. Making peace with the Ottoman Empire required grinding out immediate responses to evolving military and diplomatic circumstances, not simply dividing the spoils of war and punishing bad actors.

Today’s wars of annexation demand a new era of diplomacy. The failed treaty system has reemerged in the form of agreements brokered by powerful players, usually from the West, between belligerent parties. But diplomacy has never belonged at the end of a process when the fighting has ceased. Instead, it has had to find a way forward in the midst of war making. War and peace are now more than ever an overlapping set of processes. One does not begin when the other ends and we should learn to live with this ambiguity. A new form of multilateralism between equal parties must emerge to end wars of annexation in an era when nuclear weapons make peacemaking the only sane option to resolving territorial aggression.




Professor of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Author “The Last Treaty: Lausanne and the End of the First World War in the Middle East”

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Michelle Tusan is the Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As a historian by training, her teaching and research interests engages with British history, geopolitics, culture, genocide and human rights. She has made significant contributions to the scholarship in the history of the First World War, Armenian genocide and the British role in the Armenian genocide and the Middle East. She is the current President of the North American Conference on British Studies.


Michelle Tusan’s most recent book is ”The Last Treaty: Lausanne and the End of the First World War in the Middle East” (Cambridge University Press, 2023)