The Turkish President’s recent statements against the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne sent a message of concern not just to Greece, but more broadly, to all of the democratic world. The international community must regard his statements as both historically questionable and fundamentally problematic. According to various Greek news outlets the statements came from the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on September 29th during a response to the failed coup that took place against his government in July. He claimed that if the coup had been successful Turkey would be put in a worse political position than it was after the Treaty of Lausanne. He then condemned the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, specifically blaming the treaty’s provisions for forcing Turkey to “give up” its Aegean islands to Greece. It does not matter if you support Erdogan or not. His claims are simply incorrect. Many Greeks, from diaspora Greeks to Greek nationals, have contested Erdogan’s claims on the grounds that the Greek islands of the Aegean have always been Greek, or that “Greeks” lived there for three thousand years. They are not wrong. It is true that the ancient Greeks inhabited the Aegean islands, and after them, Greek Orthodox Christians inhabited the islands during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. Today those island populations consist of a Greek majority. While I agree that Hellenic habitation has been continuous for three thousand years in the Aegean, we must consider the historical and political context before we let the fervor of nostalgia and nationalism alone direct our arguments. Let me first provide a brief prelude to the Treaty of Lausanne for the reader. The First World War reopened the Eastern Question, namely, what to do with the non-Turkish territories held by the Ottoman Empire. Greece, under the premiership of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, entered WWI on the side of the Allies.
In exchange for helping the Allies to defeat the Ottomans, who were part of the Central Powers along with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, promised the Greek state that it would be able to liberate and annex the Greek-inhabited lands in western Asia Minor and Thrace that were under Ottoman control. Prime Minister Venizelos saw this as an opportunity to complete the century-long Greek foreign policy called the Megali Idea (or “Great Idea”), in which Greece attempted to annex Greek-inhabited territory on both sides of the Aegean. The Greek government also faced another challenge. The Ottoman state began suppressing religious minorities within the empire following the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 and the subsequent installation of the Sultan Mehmet V. These “Young Turks” pursued a “Turkification” program of forced assimilation of all religious minorities of the empire. This policy soon escalated into genocide of Christian minorities by early WWI. The Armenian Genocide was part of this greater Christian genocide in which Turks targeted Armenians, Pontic and Cappadocian Greeks, and Assyrians. Greece was, therefore, tasked with a humanitarian mission, where the survival of the Orthodox Christian populations was at stake. (For further reading on the genocide I recommend two books: Thea Halo’s Not Even My Name and Lou Urenek’s The Great Fire). The Central Powers lost WWI and the Ottoman Empire surrendered to the Allies. Greece sent soldiers to Smyrna (modern Izmir) in 1919, to maintain peace and provide protection for the Christian peoples there (most of whom were Greek). In 1920 the allies and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sèvres. Regarding Greek and Ottoman relations, the treaty provided for a Greek military presence in western Asia Minor (ie. the “Smyrna Zone,” also called Ionia) and in Eastern Thrace, and for the establishment of a temporary, local parliament in the Smyrna Zone. The citizens would hold a plebiscite after five years time in which the Greeks of Smyrna would vote for annexation to Greece. Mustafa Kemal, the future “Ataturk,” led a group of Turkish nationalists, all unsatisfied with the Treaty of Sèvres, to the Turkish interior from where they staged armed resistance to the implementation of the provisions in the Treaty of Sèvres.
The Greeks advanced into the Anatolian interior to protect the Greek populations there. By the summer of 1922, and without the Allied assistance, the Greeks were forced to retreat. The destruction of Smyrna followed, with only the Greek and Armenian quarters being burned after the arrival of Kemal’s troops. The Lausanne Treaty was signed several months later, officially bringing peace and replacing the Treaty of Sèvres. The following reasons are why Erdogan’s statement that Turkey “gave up” the Aegean islands in the Treaty of Lausanne is incorrect: First, the Treaty of Lausanne did not make Turkey “give up” anything technically, because the independent country of Turkey did not exist before the Treaty of Lausanne. Modern Turkey was created by the treaty, which also dissolved the Ottoman Empire. Second, the Treaty of Lausanne actually provided the Modern Turkish state with many territories that would not have otherwise been gained. Here’s why. After the Greek exit from Smyrna in 1922, Kemal threatened to invade Eastern Thrace where Greek armed forces were still stationed. The loss of the Smyrna Zone may have only been temporary as the Turkish Nationalist occupation of Ionia violated the provisions of Sèvres. Furthermore, this occupation had no impact on the Greek presence in Thrace. Kemal’s threats, however, pressured the Allies, who did not want a renewal of hostilities, into negotiations.
A conference was held at Mudanya in late 1922, where the Turkish delegation demanded that the Allies force the Greeks to abandon their position in Thrace. Kemal would not agree to further peace talks (at Lausanne) unless the Greeks withdrew, so the Allies pressured the Greeks to abandon Thrace, which weakened their position at the Lausanne Conference. Under the Lausanne Treaty, Greece was forced to formally cede all that it stood to gain under the 1920 Sèvres Treaty to the Modern Turkish state, namely, Eastern Thrace and Ionia. There is no reason for Erdogan to lament Turkish losses. It was Greece that actually lost the territory it was originally promised. The treaty also mandated the remaining Greeks in Turkey (with the exception of those in Constantinople, Imvros and Tenedos) to migrate to Greece, which they did during the subsequent population exchange between Turkey and Greece, effectively ending three thousand years of Hellenic presence in Asia Minor. (For more on Mudanya, please refer to Dr. Harry J. Psomiades’ article, “Eastern Thrace and the Armistice of Mudanya, October 3-11, 1922,” in The Journal of Modern Hellenism No. 17-18 (2000-01)) Third, we must look at the islands themselves. Crete gained autonomy in 1898 and was annexed to Greece after the Balkan Wars in 1913. Greece annexed the Eastern and Northern Aegean islands during the Balkan Wars as well. Imvros and Tenedos were actually ceded to Turkey under the Lausanne Treaty. The Greeks of these two islands received nominal political rights, but Turkey revoked these in violation of the treaty four years later. Lausanne returned the Dodekanese archipelago, which the Ottoman Empire received in 1912, back to Italy. Italy later ceded these Greek-inhabited islands to Greece in 1947. Erdogan’s misleading statements on the Lausanne Treaty should not go unnoticed as they present a distortion of history and diplomacy.
In recent years Erdogan has asserted other erroneous nationalistic claims, citing that the Balkan Peninsula is part of the Turkish homeland, including the Greek city of Thessaloniki. Turkey is a NATO ally, so why does its leader provoke its fellow NATO allies such as Greece? This is an issue that everyone who wishes to be informed should be aware of, and something that politicians and international policy makers must consider in their diplomatic relations with Erdogan’s government.