Reach back, if you can, and remember your high school history classes. Brush up on Wikipedia, if you must. At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the armistice goes into effect. Seven months later the Treaty of Versailles is signed and World War I is over. Simple, right?
Of course not. We wouldn't have asked if it were.
Versailles formalized peace with Germany, but focusing on it ignores the "world" part of World War I. Affairs with the Ottoman Empire, which then included countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, remained to be settled. The Treaty of Sevres in August 1920 attempted that, but it never went into effect. Greece, backed by Great Britain, and the Ottomans came into conflict as a revolution brewed in Turkey.
As a new government established the modern Turkish state, the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, officially ended fighting between the Allies and the Turks and finally drew the Great War to a close.It's a point often glossed over in most of the history we've learned, but professor Michelle Tusan is helping bring it to the fore through The Lausanne Project, an international collaboration among scholars trying to shine light on the period from 1918-1923.
Some scholars, like Tusan, specialize in the European history of the era. Others approach it from the perspective of Middle Eastern history. Their collaboration will help craft a better understanding of how the treaty set the stage for the modern Middle East and all the attendant challenges still facing the region.
"It's this moment that I think we ignore because we like that story of a victory in 1918. That makes it seem like, even though there was a huge cost, the good guys won and it ushered in a new world. There's more there and there's a story to be told that we should be telling from the perspective of the Middle East and from an Arab point of view and from a perspective of peacemaking in Lausanne."
Tusan had written two books about events and fallout of the war in British and Ottoman orbit (The British Empire and the Armenian Genocide and Smyrna’s Ashes: Humanitarianism, Genocide and the Birth of the Middle East). Her trip to the United Kingdom to access British archives in 2020 was derailed by the pandemic.
It was serendipitous, then, when Priscilla Finley at UNLV Libraries reached out to let Tusan know a newly digitized copy of the archives was available with correspondences among diplomats at Sevres.
She spent the spring semester combing through the correspondence and new storylines began to unfold to her. "When the Americans show up at Sevres, they cared more about selling American goods and products to Europe than negotiating a lasting settlement. The differences around the table at Lausanne needed to be bridged but the Allies had lost interest in a peace process that didn't serve their immediate interests in the Middle East.
Now she has started contributing to the project, penning a blog entry, "The Woman of No Importance," with an eye on future publications and conferences. The organization is planning events building up to the 100-year anniversary of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923.
It's material she also will incorporate into her classes, teaching about the true global impact of the war in her "Empires and Constitutions" for nonhistory majors. That course touches on the Armenian genocide, the humanitarian crises provoked by the war, and what it means to be a citizen of a state that has seen its empire come to an end such as what happened in Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.
What’s been well studied is that Versailles helped set the conditions for the Second World War, thanks to elements like onerous reparations imposed on Germany. What has received less attention is how the reverberations from Lausanne are still being felt today in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, territories formerly under Ottoman control.
"For an American audience, the question was there to be asked about why we haven't talked about [Lausanne]. I think the answer is because 1923 was not a victory for the Allies. It doesn't allow us to tell the story we want to tell about World War I, and makes the Allied victory appear much more complicated particularly in terms of its human cost in the Middle East. It forces a re-evaluation of a narrative about the war that has been in historical memory for a long time.”
The historical memory, true — but very much still in the geopolitical present.