Paris Peace Conference 1919: The 100 Years’ Crisis in post-Ottoman lands
E.H. Carr titled his book after the interwar period he coined as The Twenty Years' Crisis:1919-1939 because of post-World War I developments. At present this should be re-imagined as the 100 Years' Crisis in the context of what has taken place in post-Ottoman lands since 1919.
The world had never experienced a conflict of such scale: at least 15 million military personnel killed, a further 8 million non-military deaths due to starvation and disease, and at least 20 million injured across the world in World War I.
The bloodbath ended with an armistice between the Allied Powers (or Entente Powers) –principally France, the United Kingdom, and Russia—and the Central powers principally comprising of Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire (OE) and Bulgaria in 1918.
The major protagonists met in Paris in January 1919 to negotiate the makeup of the new order in the aftermath of the Great War. However, the victorious powers could not agree on how to divide one particular state: The Ottoman Empire.
Even though draft papers of the peace agreements for Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were ready, the victors did not want to make each other more powerful in the process of dividing the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
Revolution in Russia, heavy peace conditions for the Central Powers, mandate regimes of the Entente Powers, considerable mistakes in border drawing and nation building took the world to a deep hole of new massacres. The Paris Peace Conference famously termed as a “peace to end all peace” by David Fromkin, but in reality, laid the foundations for innumerable subsequent conflicts in the territories in question.
The Ottoman Empire and its lands were one of the few questions that went unsolved in the Paris Peace Conference. Imperialist designs were nothing new for the Ottomans.
The British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, agreed to divide the Ottoman Empire in 1916 articulating the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Subsequently as a consequence of the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Sevres was signed on 10 August 1920, a peace agreement, which violated all sovereign rights of the Ottoman Empire via a combination of land loss, debt payments and the dissolution of its army – a natural successor of the ideas behind the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
When the Armistice of Mudros was signed on 30th October 1918 at the end of WWI—which ended hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies—Turkish and Kurdish majority territories remained under the control of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Treaty of Sevres created the perfect environment for the Entente Powers and their local partners as Greeks and Armenians were allowed to occupy and rule strategic locations even if it was a majority Muslim populated area.
The imperialist ideals of Paris met with stiff resistance in Anatolia, which rejected the Treaty of Sevres and demanded national sovereignty in the territories falling under the Mudros Armistice.
The national resistance movement, under the leadership of General Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), aimed to protect the sovereignty of the state and nation based on the Misak i Milli (National Pact) in contrast to the world leaders at the Paris Conference, who undermined the conditions and realities of Ottoman lands.
The National Pact movement was the rejection of any Greek and Armenian invasion by organising the people of Anatolia and the remnants of the Ottoman army. Moreover, the National Pact ideal was crowned in the Congress of Erzurum by the powerful statement “The nation shall not accept the status of a mandate or a protectorate.”
It was a clear signal that modern Turkey would be independent and draw its borders. However, there were no such powerful movements in the other parts of the former Ottoman lands as there were in the national struggle in Turkey. British and French forces oppressed any emerging resistance in those areas, which was effective in preventing any similar success stories like Turkey’s Independence War in the post-Ottoman lands.
The nation-building attempts by the imperialists failed, and this triggered the beginning of the seemingly never-ending conflicts of the Middle East where the Ottomans ruled until World War I.
The cycle continues
The fatal mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles caused another massacre of gigantic scale, namely WWII, just 20 years later.
In addition to the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles, post-Ottoman lands have experienced more problems since the Paris Peace Conference 1919.
The post-Ottoman lands were identified as “countries/peoples not yet able to stand by themselves” which were mainly mandated by Britain and France under the supervision of League of Nations. These countries still are under the discussion of being too “immature” to govern themselves.
Regarding the mandate systems, the British regime in Iraq is analysed as follows by T.E.Lawrence of Arabia for the Sunday Times (August 1920)
“Our government is worse than the old Turkish system. They kept fourteen thousand local conscripts embodied and killed a yearly average of two hundred Arabs in maintaining peace. We keep ninety thousand men, with airplanes, armoured cars, gunboats and armoured trains. We killed about ten thousand Arabs in this rising summer.”
The post-Paris Peace Conference order caused wars and other human disasters for the next 100 years in post-Ottoman lands. The Sykes-Picot model of building nation-states has failed spectacularly in the Middle East, and the disastrous drawing of borders has resulted in an endless cycle of ethnic, religious and political conflict.
The culture of democracy and its institutions are still fragile in the post-Ottoman lands. Major oil and gas producers of the region are still ruled through monarchies whereas other nations struggle with authoritarianism, military-civilian tussles resulting in coups, dictatorship or living under fragile social contracts like Lebanon.
The ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israel, which is also a fruit of the imperialist machine, is like a ticking bomb in the region. Along with the ongoing Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, it is next to impossible to say that the region will stabilise anytime soon.
As likely the most significant legacy of this century, the Paris Peace Conference can be identified as a perpetual crisis for post-Ottoman lands.
*This article was originally published on TRT World's Opinion Section.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.