Modern history


Atatürk and the Breaking of Sèvres

AT THE BEGINNING of May 1919, the fitful discussions about the Ottoman empire received an unwelcome jolt from Italian moves in Asia Minor. The Italians had landed forces in Turkey for brief periods during the winter, ostensibly to protect Italian nationals, or, on one occasion, a convent. Now their troops appeared to be settling in at the ports of Adalia (Antalya) in the south and at Marmaris, facing the island of Rhodes, both on territory that Italy was claiming under its wartime agreements. Reports came in of an Italian battleship at the port of Smyrna (Izmir) and on May 11 Eleutherios Venizelos told the Council of Four that Italian working parties were building jetties at Scala Nuova (Kuşadas1), slightly to the south. He also alleged that the Italians had done a secret deal with the Turks. The peacemakers were ready to believe the worst. “I am not inclined to let the Italians do what they want in that part of the world,” said Wilson. “I distrust their intentions. If I published in America all that we know about their activity and intrigues, it would cause their infernal machine to hang fire.”1

Lloyd George and Clemenceau shared Wilson’s irritation but were constrained by their wartime commitments. In the Treaty of London of 1915, which had brought Italy into the war, they had promised that, if Turkey were divided up, Italy would get “a just share.” The language was dangerously vague, suggesting that Italy might get a large piece of the coast of Asia Minor, certainly the Turkish province of Adalia and territories around it, and perhaps as far north as Smyrna and south to Adana, just where the coast of Asia Minor curves south again. That is certainly what the Italians assumed. It was awkward that, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, the French also had a claim to the area around Adana. The Italian government had not seen the agreement when it was made, but it had heard enough to make it uneasy. Sonnino had asked repeatedly for clarification; he finally got it at the little Alpine town of St.-Jean-de-Maurienne in April 1917. Lloyd George remembered the meetings as being as cool as the snow which still lay on the ground. Sonnino was “flushed with suppressed anger.” Britain and France grudgingly conceded a bigger share of the Turkish territories; Italy was to have direct control of a great rectangle in the south of Asia Minor which included the important port of Smyrna, and a large wedge to the north of Smyrna would be an Italian zone of influence. Lloyd George said sharply to Sonnino, “You want us to do the work and hand it over to you at the end of the war.” Although both Britain and France subsequently claimed that the agreement was invalid on the grounds that it depended on Russian consent (which did not come because of the revolution), the Italian government insisted that it was still owed its share of Asia Minor. 2

Italian nationalists called on the memory of the great Roman empire to bolster their claims (although when the Greeks recalled their even older empire, Italians dismissed it as “empty Hellenic megalomania”). They pointed to Italy’s need for raw materials (the coal mines at Erëgli, or Heracleum as the Italians preferred to call it, were a particular favorite) and for outlets for investment and goods. Italy would protect Christians generally and Italian settlers in particular, and would civilize the Turks. The chief of the general staff in 1918 painted a lyrical picture of the future Italian zone: “The climate there is suitable for our emigrants, the fertility is well known, as the corn bears fiftyfold; finally the existence of immense uncultivated areas is proved by the population density, which, including the towns is at present less than twenty-seven persons per square km; the population itself would then have everything to gain and nothing to lose by Italian colonization.” In reality, most Italians preferred to invest their money safely at home; and emigrants, as the experience of Italy’s few colonies had shown, preferred the Americas. “Italians,” admitted Orlando, “generally did not care a bit about Asia Minor, nor about colonies in Africa.”3

Sonnino took the straightforward view that Asia Minor was part of the spoils of war and Italy would take its share. As he put it, either all the powers got something or no one did. He told the Italian high commissioner in Constantinople that Italy’s rivals were cunningly using the doctrine of self-determination to deny Italian claims for annexation and spheres of influence. This must be countered by getting locals to demand Italian protection; Sonnino urged his high commissioner to do this carefully and quietly. His main concern, however, was the Adriatic, and he was prepared to bargain away far-off claims for solid gains closer to home.4

As the crisis with Italy over Fiume and the Adriatic worsened at the end of April, Lloyd George and Clemenceau were prepared to use Asia Minor as bait. As Lloyd George told Wilson, “What would perhaps bring M. Sonnino towards us would be a concession in Asia.” It was dangerous, murmured Balfour, but it was important to appease the Italians: “Unfortunately, this necessity haunts and hampers every step in our diplomacy.” Wilson resisted. “Italy,” he pointed out, “lacks experience in the administration of colonies.” Furthermore, the Turks would dislike Italian rule. Lloyd George fell back on history—“The Romans were very good governors of colonies”—and a surprising view of the Turks as “a docile people, who have never cut railroads, nor anything of the kind.” Wilson was unimpressed: “Unfortunately the modern Italians are not the Romans.” He also pointed out that the Greeks, who presumably would get some sort of mandate in Asia Minor, did not like the Italians: “The Patriarch of Constantinople, who came to see me the other day, expressed to me, with the reserve of an ecclesiastic, a very marked feeling against the possibility of seeing the Italians become his neighbours.”5

During the first week of May, by which time the Italians were boycotting the Peace Conference, the British and French cooled on the idea of tempting them back with morsels of the Ottoman empire. On May 2, when the Big Three met, more reports of Italian moves along the coast of Asia Minor were coming in. “Madness,” said Lloyd George. Clemenceau was for a tough line: “If we don’t take precautions, they will hold us by the throat.” Wilson threatened to send an American battleship to either Fiume or Smyrna. Lloyd George said that Venizelos had offered to send a Greek warship. 6

Venizelos was in his element, stirring up feeling against the Italians and offering help to the powers. He had been working hard from the start of the Peace Conference to press Greek claims, with mixed success; the crisis was, as he recognized, Greece’s great opportunity. Although Venizelos tried to argue that the coast of Asia Minor was indisputably Greek in character, and the Turks in a minority, his statistics were highly dubious. For the inland territory he was claiming, where even he had to admit that the Turks were in a majority, Venizelos called in economic arguments. The whole area (the Turkish provinces of Aidin and Brusa [Bursa] and the areas around the Dardanelles and Ismid) was a geographic unit that belonged to the Mediterranean; it was warm, well watered, fertile, opening out to the world, unlike the dry, Asiatic plateau of the hinterland. “The Turks were good workers, honest in their relations, and a good people as subjects,” he told the Supreme Council at his first appearance in February. “But as rulers they were insupportable and a disgrace to civilisation, as was proved by their having exterminated over a million Armenians and 300,000 Greeks during the last four years.” To show how reasonable he was being, he renounced any claims to the ancient Greek settlements at Pontus on the eastern end of the Black Sea. He would not listen to petitions from the Pontine Greeks, he assured House’s assistant, Bonsal: “I have told them that I cannot claim the south shore of the Black Sea, as my hands are quite full with Thrace and Anatolia.” There was a slight conflict with Italian claims, but he was confident the two countries could come to a friendly agreement. They had, in fact, already tried and it had been clear that neither was prepared to back down, especially on Smyrna.7

The thriving port of Smyrna lay at the heart of Greek claims. It had been Greek in the great Hellenic past, and in the nineteenth century had become predominantly Greek again as immigrants from the Greek mainland had flocked there to take advantage of the new railways which stretched into the hinterland and opportunities for trade and investment. The population was at least a quarter of a million before the war and more Greeks lived there than in Athens itself. They dominated the exports— from figs to opium to carpets—which coursed down from the Anatolian plateau in Asia Minor. Smyrna was a Greek city, a center of Greek learning and nationalism—but it was also a crucial part of the Turkish economy.

When Venizelos reached out for Smyrna and its hinterland, he was going well beyond what could be justified in terms of self-determination. He was also putting Greece into a dangerous position. Taking the fertile valleys of western Asia Minor as they sloped up toward the dry Anatolian highlands was perhaps necessary, as he argued, to protect the Greek colonies along the coast. From another perspective, though, it created a Greek province with a huge number of non-Greeks as well as a long line to defend against anyone who chose to attack from central Anatolia. His great rival General Ioannis Metaxas, later dictator of Greece, warned of this repeatedly: “The Greek state is not today ready for the government and exploitation of so extensive a territory.”8 Metaxas was right.

The Commission on Greek and Albanian Affairs, which was expected to come up with a rational solution to all the competing claims on Ottoman territory, not surprisingly failed to do so. The Italians opposed Greek claims outright and the British and French were sympathetic. The American experts, who were prepared to admit Greece’s claims in Europe, felt they could not, in good conscience, do so in Asia Minor. The Turks were in the majority in the area as a whole and, even though Smyrna was Greek, it would be wrong on economic grounds to sever it from Turkey. As the American expert William Linn Westermann said, “Smyrna and its harbor are the eyes, the mouth, and the nostrils of the people of Anatolia.” Nor did the Americans accept the argument that the Turks were so backward that they needed outside rule. “It is the consensus of opinion,” said an American expert, “of American missionaries, who know him through and through, of American, British, and French archeologists who have worked for years beside and with him, of British merchants who have traded with him, of British soldiers who have fought against him, that the Anatolian Turk is as honest as any other people of the Near East, that he is a hard-working farmer, a brave and generous fighter, endowed fundamentally with chivalrous instincts.”9

The commission’s report simply presented both views. Wilson might well have backed the position of his own experts if his exasperation with the Italians had not made him willing to listen to Venizelos, who was making sure that the Big Three, as they now were, received alarming reports of dubious veracity of Greeks being massacred by Turks and of the way in which the Italians were, so he said, working hand in glove with the Turks. To Nicolson, one of the British experts on the commission, Venizelos boasted happily, “I have received assurances of comfort and support from Lloyd George and Wilson.” Lloyd George had already agreed that a Greek cruiser should go to Smyrna, and Venizelos saw an opening to send Greek forces into Asia Minor as a counterbalance to the Italians. He and Venizelos had a private dinner in early May. Frances Stevenson, who was present, noted in her diary: “The two have a great admiration for each other, & D. is trying to get Smyrna for the Greeks, though he is having trouble with the Italians over it.” What Venizelos remembered from the evening was that Lloyd George was hopeful he could get Constantinople as well for the Greeks.10

On the morning of May 6, the Allies casually took the decision that set in train the events that destroyed, among many other things, Smyrna itself, Venizelos’s great dream and Lloyd George’s governing coalition. In the Council of Four, Lloyd George pressed for a decision on Smyrna. If they did not act, he said, the Italians would get away with grabbing a piece of Asia Minor. Greek troops were available; they could be told to land wherever there was a danger of disturbances or massacres. “Why not tell them to land now?” replied Wilson. “Do you have any objection?” “None,” said Lloyd George. Clemenceau put in: “I don’t have any either. But must we notify the Italians?” “Not in my opinion,” said Lloyd George. The Italians, who returned to the Peace Conference the following day, were told that their allies had been obliged to take action in their absence to prevent imminent massacres. When Sonnino asked why the Great Powers had not sent their own contingents, Clemenceau claimed that it would be difficult to place them under a Greek general. He assured Sonnino that “today Smyrna belongs to no one; it is not a question of determining the fate of that city, but of carrying out a temporary operation with a well-defined objective.” Clemenceau had in fact temporarily fallen under Venizelos’s spell: “Ulysses,” he told Mordacq, “is only a small man beside him. He is a diplomat of the first rank, very sensible, very well prepared, very shrewd, always knowing what he wants.”11

The afternoon after that fateful decision Lloyd George asked Venizelos for a quick interview before the Council of Four met. Venizelos wrote in his diary that Lloyd George started with a simple question:

LLOYD GEORGE: Do you have troops available?

VENIZELOS: We do. For what purpose?

LLOYD GEORGE: President Wilson, M. Clemenceau and I decided today that you should occupy Smyrna.

VENIZELOS: We are ready.

Venizelos was full of optimism as he met with the Big Three and their military advisers to arrange the details. His troops were ready, the Turks would offer no resistance and the Greek inhabitants of Smyrna would welcome them. Lloyd George and Venizelos agreed that it would be best if French and English troops occupied the forts at the entrance to the harbor and then turned them over to the Greeks. Clemenceau went along, with some reluctance; he was beginning to have cold feet, especially about antagonizing the Italians needlessly. Wilson was torn between his wish to act within the letter of the law and his distaste for the Italians. In the end he supported the occupation, which was scheduled for May 15. “The whole thing,” wrote Henry Wilson, the British military expert, “is mad and bad.”12

In Smyrna itself the mood was tense. Agents of the Greek government had been there since the end of the war, trying to stir up popular enthusiasm for Greek rule. The British and French representatives watched sympathetically, the Italians with hostility. The Turkish minority was deeply uneasy. When news spread that the Greeks were coming, the city erupted with demonstrations. Several thousand Turks banged drums during the night in protest; a much larger number of excited Greeks gathered along the waterfront on the morning of May 15. The Orthodox bishop stood ready to bless the soldiers. The blue-and-white flag of Greece flew everywhere. As the first Greek troops marched into town, the crowds cheered and wept. It was like a holiday, until suddenly a shot was fired by somebody outside a Turkish barracks. Greek soldiers started firing wildly, and when Turkish soldiers stumbled out of the barracks in surrender, the Greeks beat them and prodded them along toward the waterfront with bayonets. The Greek onlookers went wild and joined in. Some thirty Turks died. All over Smyrna mobs sprang up, killing and looting. By the evening, between 300 and 400 Turks and 100 Greeks were dead. The disorder spread out into the surrounding countryside and towns in the following days. 13 It was a disaster for the Greeks and Greek claims, and a foretaste of what was to come.

Throughout Turkey the news of the landings was received with consternation. They seemed to many a first step to the partition of the Turkish parts of the Ottoman empire. “After I learned about the details of the Smyrna occupation,” a woman who was an early supporter of Atatürk remembered, “I hardly opened my mouth on any subject except when it concerned the sacred struggle which was to be.” In Constantinople, crowds marched with black flags. A delegation of upper-class women made an unprecedented call on the British high commissioner. “A slice had been cut,” said their spokeswoman, “from the living body of the Ottoman Empire of which she was a member and by that act a bleeding member.” In his palace, the sultan wept. His ministers talked impotently about making a protest. Atatürk, who happened to be there, asked, “Do you think your protest will make the Greeks or the British retire?” When the ministers shrugged, he added: “There are perhaps more definite measures that might be taken.” 14

Atatürk had by now decided that the place to be was the interior, where there were troops and officers loyal to nationalist ideals. The problem was how to get there. His dilemma was solved inadvertently by the British occupation authorities, who insisted that the government send out an officer to restore law and order. Atatürk managed to get himself appointed with sweeping powers for the whole of Anatolia. He felt, he would later say, “as if a cage had been opened, and as if I were a bird ready to open my wings and fly through the sky.” The day after the Greeks landed in Smyrna, he left Constantinople with a visa from the British. Four days later, on May 19, he and his small party landed at the Black Sea port of Samsun. That day is now a national public holiday in the Turkey he created. Few people in Constantinople had any idea of what he intended, and it was to be many months before the first hints of what was brewing in Anatolia reached Paris. Lloyd George later claimed that “no information had been received as to his activities in Asia Minor in reorganising the shattered and depleted armies of Turkey. Our military intelligence had never been more thoroughly unintelligent.”15

Atatürk and his friends took a terrific gamble, one that might have failed had it not been for the help that the Allies unwittingly gave them in the next months. Allied policies were confused, inept and risky—and created the ideal conditions for Turkish nationalism to flourish. The decision to allow Italian and then Greek forces to land on the coast of Asia Minor, the indications that Armenia and Kurdistan would be set up as separate states, and the possibility that the whole area around the straits, including Constantinople itself, would be stripped away from Turkey, left Turkish nationalists with their backs to the wall. Their country was vanishing; they had little to lose by resistance. Every delay in Paris in settling the treaty with the Ottoman empire saw Allied forces grow weaker and Atatürk’s stronger.

Across the sun-baked Anatolian plateau that summer of 1919 Atatürk moved incessantly, sometimes in his old car, sometimes by train, more often by horseback, gathering like-minded officers about him and weaving the independent groups that had sprung up to protest the Allied occupation into the basis of a nationalist movement. “If we have no weapons to fight with,” he promised, “we shall fight with our teeth and nails.” In June, he announced the start of national resistance, against the Greeks in Smyrna, the French in the south and the Armenians in the east. “We must pull on our peasant shoes, we must withdraw to the mountains, we must defend the country to the last rock. If it is the will of God that we be defeated, we must set fire to all our homes, to all our property; we must lay the country in ruins and leave it an empty desert.” As reports filtered back to Constantinople, the British pressed the sultan’s government to recall their inspector-general. When Atatürk received the order on June 23 to return to Constantinople, he resigned his commission and called a congress at Erzurum, which issued what became the national pact. Its key provision was that the lands inhabited by Turks, including of course Constantinople, must remain a whole.16

From June 1919 onward, the fate of the remainder of the Ottoman empire depended less and less on what was happening in Paris and more and more on Atatürk’s moves. Two different worlds—one of international conferences, lines on maps, peoples moving obediently into this country or that, and the other of a people shaking off their Ottoman past and awakening as a Turkish nation—were heading toward collision. In Paris, the powers continued on their way, largely unaware of what was stirring to the east. The horse-trading of hypothetical mandates went merrily on.

On May 13, two days before the Greek invasion, Harold Nicolson was summoned with his map to Lloyd George’s flat in the Rue Nitot to explain to him how much he could offer to the Italians. Orlando and Sonnino arrived and the party sat around the dining room table. Nicolson said, “The appearance of a pie about to be distributed is thus enhanced.” The Italians asked for land to the south of Smyrna. “Oh no!” said Lloyd George, “you can’t have that—it’s all full of Greeks!” Nicolson realized with consternation that Lloyd George had mistaken the colors indicating contours for population distribution. “Ll.G. takes this correction with great good humour. He is as quick as a kingfisher.” When someone pointed out that mandates must be with “the consent and wishes of the people concerned,” there was great jollity. “Orlando’s white cheeks wobble with laughter and his puffy eyes fill up with tears of mirth.”17

Later that afternoon, Nicolson’s map lay on the carpet in front of Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George as its owner waited outside reading The Picture of Dorian Gray. Inside, in Wilson’s study, Lloyd George sketched out an Italian mandate in southern Anatolia in glowing terms: “Where the Turks made a wilderness, the Italians can build roads, railways, irrigate the soil and cultivate it.” The French could take the north of Anatolia and the Greeks would have Smyrna and its surroundings, as well as the Dodecanese islands, and, said Lloyd George magnanimously, he would give them Cyprus as well. Clemenceau, who had been sitting silently by, expressed some doubts about the Greeks’ ability to run a mandate: “I covered the entire Peloponnese without seeing a single road.” Wilson was for giving them a chance: “By showing them our confidence, we will give them the ambition to do well.” Caught up in the spirit of things, Wilson even said that he felt hopeful that the United States would take the mandate for Armenia. Clemenceau said he assumed that the Americans would then take Constantinople as well. Nicolson was called in to take instructions. When Balfour saw these, he was moved to a rare display of anger: “I have three all-powerful, all-ignorant men sitting there and partitioning continents with only a child to take notes for them.” He sent a strong memorandum to Lloyd George saying how dangerous it would be to partition Turkey.18

Lloyd George also heard from his military advisers, who were almost unanimously opposed. So were Churchill and Montagu, who rushed over from London to warn yet again that cutting up Turkey meant “eternal war” with the Muslim world, including that in India. Lloyd George agreed to receive an Indian delegation, but when it arrived posthaste from London by special train, it found that the prime minister had gone off on a motor tour. 19

The arrangements made on May 13 fell apart almost immediately. The Italians irritated both Lloyd George and Wilson with new troop landings. Lloyd George completely changed his mind on an Italian mandate: “I believe that to put the Italians into Asia Minor would be to introduce a source of trouble there.” He had also been impressed by Montagu’s warnings. “I conclude,” he told the other leaders when they met on May 19, “that it is impossible to divide Turkey proper. We would run too great a risk of throwing disorder into the Mohammedan world.” Wilson agreed that there was such a danger. He also worried that the mandates might look like a division of the spoils, and, as he pointed out, since the Turks themselves had made it clear that they wanted a single state, it would be awkward if not wrong to divide Anatolia between an Italian and a French mandate. There was no justification for destroying Turkey’s sovereignty: “I am forced to remind myself that I, myself, used this word in the Fourteen Points, and that these have become a kind of treaty which binds us.” Perhaps, he suggested, France could take on the responsibility for advising a Turkish state, and they might avoid the word “mandate.” They could even leave the sultan in Constantinople, without of course letting him have any power over the straits. Lloyd George was at first amenable but two days later, after meeting with appalled members of the British cabinet, who had come over to Paris especially, he came back with a suggestion for American control, rather than French, over the whole of Anatolia, as well as the straits and Armenia.20

This infuriated Clemenceau, who had been watching with some bewilderment. He was already angry with Lloyd George over Syria. “You say that France mustn’t be in Asia Minor because that would displease Italy: do you think there is no public opinion in France? France is, moreover, of all Europe, the country with the greatest economic and financial interests in Turkey—and here she is thrown out to please first the Mohammedans, and then Italy.” He and Lloyd George got into a furious argument about the division of not just Turkey but the whole of the Middle East. “Both lost their tempers violently and made the most absurd accusations. Clemenceau tried hard to recover his temper at the end, and when they parted said ‘You are the very baddest boy.’ ” At one point, so it has been claimed, Clemenceau, who after all had considerable experience in such matters, offered Lloyd George a choice of pistols or swords.21

Wilson tried to smooth things over. “Perhaps,” he said, “we have the impression today of a greater disagreement than actually exists.” But he had little to offer by way of a solution. He doubted that the United States would be able to take on a mandate for Anatolia, although he still hoped that it might do so for Armenia, and, as with other issues, fell back on the hope that further study would provide a solution. His fellow peacemakers let the matter drop: the treaty with Germany was far more urgent.22

The Ottoman empire was discussed only once more before President Wilson sailed back to the United States at the end of June. The discussion came in response to the appearance of representatives of the sultan’s government. Perhaps to while away the time as they waited for the German response, the powers did what they had not done with Germany and allowed a defeated nation to appear before they had drawn up its treaty. It was an indication of how casually the powers were treating the fate of the Ottoman empire. On June 17 three representatives of the Ottoman Turks spoke to a group that included Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson and their foreign ministers. Damad Ferid, the Turkish prime minister, an amiable, rich man whose main achievement had been to marry the sultan’s sister, made Turkey’s plea. He threw the blame for Turkey’s entry into the war and responsibility for the horrific slaughter of Armenian Christians on his predecessors, and he assured his listeners that his country’s fondest hope was to become a useful member of the League of Nations. He begged them to leave the Ottoman empire intact. He also had a written statement, which, unfortunately, was not quite ready. Clemenceau offered him little encouragement. “There is no case to be found either in Europe or Asia or Africa,” he said, “in which the establishment of Turkish rule in any country has not been followed by a diminution of material prosperity, and a fall in the level of culture; nor is there any case to be found in which the withdrawal of Turkish rule has not been followed by a growth in material prosperity and a rise in the level of culture. Neither among the Christians of Europe nor among the Moslems of Syria, Arabia and Africa, has the Turk done other than destroy wherever he has conquered.” 23

The peacemakers agreed that Damad’s performance was pathetic. Wilson thought he had “never seen anything more stupid.” He suggested that the delegation be sent packing: “They had exhibited a complete absence of common sense and a total misunderstanding of the West.” Lloyd George found it “the best proof of the political incapacity of the Turks.” The delegation and its memorandum were jokes. No one could suggest how a reply to them could be worded; Wilson wondered whether it was necessary to reply at all. Lloyd George was for drawing up peace terms that sorted out the Arab lands, Smyrna and Armenia but left aside the Turkish territories in Thrace and Anatolia; those could be dealt with when the Americans had made up their minds about what mandates they would take on. He assumed this would happen in the next couple of months. Wilson confined himself to saying that he now had come around to thinking that the Turks should be removed from control of Constantinople. Clemenceau commented merely: “As for the way we will dispose of the territories of the Turkish Empire, after our last conversations, I must say I no longer know where we are.” The three abandoned the subject, with Lloyd George saying, “If we could only make peace summarily and finish with it.” “I fear,” said Clemenceau, “that is not possible.”24

In London, someone who knew more about the Ottoman empire than anyone in Paris had been watching all this with alarm and despair. Curzon, who had been left in charge of the Foreign Office in Balfour’s absence, sent a stream of memoranda and letters warning that it was dangerous to assume that the Turks were finished, and folly to delay a comprehensive settlement. Lloyd George paid him as little attention as he did most professional diplomats. Curzon represented so much that he disliked: the pedigreed aristocrat, the landowner, the polished product of Oxford and of London drawing rooms. He confided to Frances Stevenson how much “he loathed the Curzon set, and all that they stood for— loathed their mannerisms, their ideals, their customs, their mode of life.” In time the loathing mellowed into derision mixed with a grudging respect for Curzon’s knowledge and ability. 25 In the end, though, it was Curzon who brought Lloyd George down.

And it was Curzon who, with Atatürk and his armies, set the borders of the modern Turkey. The two men, the English statesman and the Turkish soldier, were adversaries but they never met. Both were stubborn, clever and proud, both had moments of profound insecurity, and both were more complex than they appeared. Curzon, the great viceroy of India, was also the man who was booed by his countrymen in Delhi because he had dared to punish a British regiment for killing an Indian; an English snob who preferred American wives; a statesman who adored paintings and furniture; and the arch-imperialist who knew the non-European world better than most of his contemporaries. Just as his frock coats concealed the pain of an injured back and the steel brace that held him upright, so his pomposity hid the man who wept when his feelings were hurt. He knew that some saw him as a caricature. He told the story against himself that, when he saw a crowd of ordinary soldiers bathing, his reaction was “Dear me! I had no conception that the lower classes had such white skins.”26

George Curzon was born into the class that, in the years before the Great War, dominated Britain and through Britain the world. His family had occupied an estate in Derbyshire for centuries, and he could have drifted through life if he had chosen. “My ancestors,” he once said, “have held Kedleston for 900 years, father and son, but none of them ever distinguished himself. They were just ordinary country gentlemen—M.P.s, Sheriffs, and so on. I made up my mind I would try to get out of the groove.” His parents, as was usual, left his upbringing to others, in his case a governess who hated toys but loved punishments, often for wholly imaginary sins. In later life Curzon came to the conclusion that she had been insane. It was only at Eton that he finally started to blossom. He made friends, some for life, and with, as he admitted, “a passionate resolve to be head of the class,” he won all the major prizes available. By the time he left he was a personage: flamboyant, popular, successful and more than a touch arrogant. Oxford merely confirmed these characteristics, but while there he also learned to speak in public, although some found his style too orotund. He also gained a reputation as a leading Conservative and dashed into a hectic social life. His failure to gain a first in his finals was a mere temporary setback in what most people agreed was a brilliant start. 27

He had been given much. Yet there was also something missing: a toughness, perhaps, common sense, balance. His feelings were too easily bruised and his self-pity too readily aroused. He worked too hard, at the wrong things. At the height of an international crisis he sat up into the night adding up his bills. Montagu, his colleague in the War Cabinet, wrote to a friend: “He amuses me, interests me, irritates me. Extraordinarily easy to deal with in the upshot, but, Oh!, what a process!” Curzon bombarded them all with questions and letters. “It will amuse you that on a day when I know that he had two meetings of the War Cabinet and a meeting of the Eastern Committee, every paper relevant to all three of which he had read, my wife said that she discovered him at Harrod’s Stores registering for tea!” He drew up the timetables for his daughters’ lessons and questioned their nanny closely on the cost of their bloomers; he told the gardeners how to weed and the foresters how to cut down trees; he insisted on hanging his own pictures. Servants in London put him on a blacklist. 28

He never quite achieved what he wanted. His time in India should have been glorious, but it ended in ignominy when he was forced out by Lord Kitchener, the commander-in-chief of the Indian army. Even when he finally became foreign secretary in the autumn of 1919, he had to play second fiddle to Lloyd George. When Lloyd George fell, he waited in vain for the summons to be prime minister. People found him difficult to work with, especially his subordinates. “He suffered,” said one, “from absurd megalomania in regard to his knowledge of art, his worldly possessions and his social position: but I have seen him display a humility about people and things, which was almost pathetic.” He was wildly inconsistent: “He abused us like pickpockets one day and wrote us ecstatic letters of appreciation the next.”29

Curzon devoted his life to the service of Britain and its empire, both of which he saw as forces for good in the world. Like many British statesmen, he saw Europe as dangerous only when its balance of power was disturbed. “His ideal world,” said Nicolson, who came to know him well, “would have been one in which England never intervened in Europe and Europe never intervened in Africa or Asia. America, as a distant, even if rebellious, plantation, was in either case not expected to intervene at all.” He disliked most foreigners, especially the French. He preferred, at least in the abstract, simple peasants like the Turk of Anatolia, “a simple-minded, worthy fellow . . . who would much prefer living his own simple existence detached from Europe.” He knew the world east of Suez well; he had traveled from the old Ottoman empire to Japan and written massive studies of central Asia, Persia and India. His colleagues in the cabinet were often reminded that he was the only one present who had been to some remote place. He was brilliant, if overbearing, in discussion; less successful in coming up with concrete policies.30

The dilatory proceedings in Paris in 1919 drove Curzon nearly mad. He had no love for the Ottoman empire but he warned repeatedly against stirring up Turkish nationalism:

That the Turks should be deprived of Constantinople is, in my opinion, inevitable and desirable as the crowning evidence of their defeat in war; and I believe that it will be accepted with whatever wrathful reluctance by the Eastern world. But when it is realized that the fugitives are to be kicked from pillar to post and that there is to be practically no Turkish Empire and probably no Caliphate at all, I believe that we shall be giving a most dangerous and most unnecessary stimulus to Moslem passions throughout the Eastern world and that sullen resentment may easily burst into savage frenzy.

He strongly opposed mandates for Italy either in the south of Anatolia or anywhere else, as well as the award of Smyrna to Greece, “who cannot keep order five miles outside the gates of Salonika.” The landing in Smyrna, he said a few months later, “was the greatest mistake that had been made in Paris.”31

His warnings went largely unheeded, and Curzon turned his pent-up energies to reorganizing the Foreign Office. He changed the official ink-stand, taught the secretaries how to pull the blinds and, with much damage to official fingers, introduced a new filing system with large, sharp pins. In October 1919 he at last became foreign secretary. He argued for lenient peace terms for Turkey but he had to contend with Lloyd George and his private staff, who had taken on much of the responsibility for foreign affairs. The prime minister was still determined that Greece would have Smyrna and perhaps much more, and Curzon, for all his doubts, was not prepared to stand up to him. Although he threatened resignation from time to time, he had waited too long to be foreign secretary. Lloyd George joked that Curzon always sent his letter of resignation by a slow messenger and his withdrawal of the offer by a much faster one.32

While the British disagreed among themselves, Allied policy on the Turkish settlement, never particularly coherent, was in disarray. With its failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the United States was clearly withdrawing from overseas involvement; American mandates for Anatolia, the straits or even Armenia would be out of the question. The British were curiously reluctant to face this, perhaps because Lloyd George hoped to buy time for Greece to strengthen its position in Asia Minor. When Wilson left Paris, Lloyd George claimed, the Allies were convinced that he would be able to persuade the American people to take on mandates, and so they waited. Then Wilson fell sick in September 1919. “We could not rush to assume the President’s practical demise,” Lloyd George later recalled, “in the face of official medical assurances of his probable restoration to health after a period of complete rest.” Still the Allies waited. “We were in despair as to what action we could take without risking a breach with America.” 33

Italian interest in Turkey, never strong, was also waning. The Italian troops on the coast of Asia Minor seemed to be doing little beyond clashing with the Greek forces. Although Italy had promised in May 1919, under considerable pressure from Britain, to send a force to replace British troops in the Caucasus, it had delayed doing so. On June 19, 1919, the Orlando government fell, taking along with it Sonnino. Nitti, the new prime minister, preferred to concentrate on Italy’s formidable internal problems. He immediately canceled the expensive, and hazardous, expedition to the Caucasus. As far as Asia Minor was concerned, both he and his foreign minister, Tittoni, were more interested in concessions, for coal mines for example, than in territory. They were prepared to leave Italian forces there only as long as there was no trouble. The British began to suspect that the Italians were now collaborating with Turkish nationalists. 34

France continued to take an interest in Turkey, but it was in no mood to work with Britain. The Syrian issue festered on, and many French feared that the British were trying to maneuver them out of the Turkish territories as well. Clemenceau had always been lukewarm in his support for Greece and he was under considerable pressure from his own financiers to come to terms with the Turks. French interests held 60 percent of the Ottoman debt; if Turkey was partitioned, it might well be impossible to salvage the debt.35

Curzon recognized that, in the absence of the United States, it was essential to deal with the French over Turkey. In November 1919 he contacted his opposite number in Paris, Pichon, and suggested confidential discussions. He was convinced that time was running out. In October he had dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Rawlinson, who knew Atatürk slightly, to find out what peace terms Atatürk might accept. The Turkish nationalists now controlled more than a quarter of the interior; by the end of the year, Atatürk had established a rival capital to Constantinople, in Ankara. When the British, followed reluctantly by the French and Italians, took over the full control of Constantinople on March 16, 1920, in the name of law and order and arrested a number of leading nationalists, Atatürk simply responded by arresting all Allied officers within his reach, including the unfortunate Rawlinson, and by calling his own parliament. The center of power was now clearly in Ankara. Curzon was coming to the conclusion that the best thing might be to allow a new Turkey to emerge, with Atatürk at its head. Unfortunately, he could not convince Lloyd George.36

After a series of Allied meetings, which culminated in April 1920 with the conference at San Remo (like “a second-class English watering-place,” in Curzon’s view37), a draft treaty was finally cobbled together and presented to representatives of the government in Constantinople. Turkey was to be small and subservient. The hodgepodge of outside financial controls from the nineteenth century was rationalized and indeed strengthened. Although the Turks were to remain in Constantinople, the straits were placed under an international regime. France and Italy each had a sphere of influence in Anatolia; Greece was to have Smyrna and Thrace. There would be an independent Armenia (although no provisions were made for ensuring this) and something called Kurdistan would be autonomous within Turkey.

By this point it was too late for Armenia. The collapse of tsarist Russia and then the withdrawal of Ottoman forces had opened a window that was starting to close. Armenia, Daghestan, Georgia and Azerbaijan had all declared their independence in the spring of 1918. The new states, shaky, poor, struggling to cope with refugees, might have survived the brigands, the deserters from the Turkish armies, the White Russian forces, disease and hunger. They might have settled the differences that led them to war with each other. They might have held off General Denikin, the White Russian, because he had to deal with the Bolsheviks as well. What they could not withstand was the combination of a determined Russian assault from the north and a resurgent Turkey in the south.

Even then, with some support from outside, they might have had a hope. Of all the powers, Britain was best placed to provide immediate aid. At the end of 1918, British forces from Mesopotamia had moved into the Caucasus on the Caspian side to occupy Baku and its oilfields. Three further divisions had been sent out from Constantinople across the Black Sea to take charge of its eastern end with the important port of Batum, in Georgia. By the start of 1919, British forces controlled the railway that ran across the Caucasus and linked the two cities. British intentions, though, even to the British themselves, were not clear. Access to Caspian Sea oil, protecting a possible route to India, keeping the French out, furthering self-determination: all were reasons for Britain to occupy the Caucasus. By 1919, the Bolshevik menace had been thrown into the mix; Curzon warned about putting the region “at the mercy of a horde of savages who know no restraint and are resolved to destroy all law.” But many of his colleagues were for staying out. What did it matter, Balfour asked, if the Caucasus were misgoverned? “That is the other alternative,” said Curzon sarcastically. “Let them cut each other’s throats.” Balfour replied, “I am all in favour of that.”38

Despite Curzon’s insistence, by the spring of 1919 the British government was finding its involvement in the area too onerous. “The sooner we get out of the Caucasus the better,” Henry Wilson told Lloyd George. In June the cabinet decided to withdraw all troops by the end of the year. Denikin was to be given weapons in return for a promise not to touch the independent republics. The Italians were meant to be taking over but, as Wilson advised Lloyd George, that was highly unlikely.

The decision troubled many. Hankey, secretary to the cabinet, wrote to Lloyd George that autumn about “the strong feeling which exists in many circles in the British Empire in favour of the Armenians and the natural repugnance to leave to their fate a nation whose cause we have so often espoused in the past. It cannot be denied that there is a certain callousness in withdrawing our forces from Transcaucasia at the very moment when massacres are reported to be in progress.”39 (In parts of Azerbaijan and in Armenia itself, local Muslims were burning Armenian villages and killing the inhabitants.)

The British troop withdrawal nevertheless continued, and, lest Denikin be upset, Britain held off on granting the Caucasian republics recognition. Only in January 1920, when it was clear that the White Russians were finished and that the Bolsheviks were poised to sweep southward, did Britain finally recognize the little states and send them some weapons. The War Office took the opportunity to offload surplus Canadian Ross rifles, famous for their ability to jam even under perfect conditions.40

Meanwhile, a threat was emerging to the south as Atatürk and his forces strengthened their hold on Anatolia. The Turks had never concealed their determination to keep their Armenian provinces and to take back part of independent Armenia. Tentative communications between the Bolsheviks and the Turkish nationalists had already started. Atatürk was no communist but the Bolsheviks, after all, were the enemies of his enemy Britain. Only the independent republics—Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan—kept the Turks and the Bolsheviks from linking up to form a common front against the imperialists, who were trying to dismember both their countries. 41 The Bolsheviks, as friendless as Atatürk, responded with enthusiasm, shipping arms and gold down to Anatolia.

While the Allies discussed Armenia in San Remo, the Bolsheviks took its neighboring republic of Azerbaijan. Communist-inspired rebellions broke out in Armenia itself. The Allies contacted the League of Nations to ask it to protect the larger Armenian state they were thinking of setting up; the League, which was then in its early months, replied that since the League itself was not really in existence it could not do so. The Allies then addressed themselves to the United States, where the issue of an American mandate for Armenia had been moribund since Wilson’s return from Europe. The invalid president took the request to Congress, which turned it down by a decisive majority in May. Senator Lodge told a friend: “Do not think I do not feel badly about Armenia. I do, but I think there is a limit to what they have a right to put off on us.”42

Kurdistan had even less chance than Armenia of finding a protector. The issue had come up only once at the Paris Peace Conference. When Lloyd George had first produced his list of possible mandates for the Ottoman territories on January 30, he had forgotten to mention it. When he hastily added Kurdistan to his list, he cheerfully admitted that his geography had been faulty. He had thought that it would be covered by Mesopotamia or Armenia, but his advisers had told him he was wrong. Wisely, he did not try to specify the borders of the new mandate: like so much else about Kurdistan, they were rather hazy.43

The Kurds were far away, on the eastern side of the Ottoman empire, and, at that date, had made little impact on world opinion. Mark Sykes, who had traveled in Kurdish territory before the war, liked them because they were tough and good fighters. The American expert, who had never been there, did not: “In some respects the Kurds remind one of the North American Indians. . . . Their temper is passionate, resentful, revengeful, intriguing and treacherous. They make good soldiers, but poor leaders. They are avaricious, utterly selfish, shameless beggars, and have a great propensity to steal.”44

The Kurds lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Beyond the mountains to the north and east lay Russia and Persia, to the west the Turks and to the south the Arabs of Mesopotamia. During the Great War, Ottoman and Russian armies had battled on their northern edge and the British had pushed up from the south. Perhaps as many as 800,000 Kurds had died fighting in the Ottoman armies or of starvation and disease.45 Estimating Kurdish numbers was always difficult. Since Kurdish culture blurred into Arab, Persian, Turkish, even Armenian, it was impossible to say how many Kurds there really were. About three quarters of them—perhaps a million or even two million—lived in the Ottoman empire, the majority in what later became Turkey, the rest in Iraq, with a scattering in Syria. The remainder were in Persia.

It was difficult to say what the Kurds really were. Their name itself originally meant “nomad.” They had little coherent history, merely conflicting myths about their origin. There had been no great Kurdish kingdoms and few Kurdish heroes except Saladin. Kurds were divided by tribes, by religion (most were Sunni Muslims, but there were Shias and Christians as well), by language and by the fact that they were scattered among different nations. They had a reputation for being unruly. A German ethnographer was forgiving: “At bottom their vices are chiefly those of the restless life they lead in a land in which organized government has been unknown for the past eight centuries.” They fought each other, outside authority, whether Ottoman or Persian, and other peoples. The Ottomans had used Kurdish Muslims in their slaughter of Armenians. At the end of the war, the British and Indian troops who occupied the area managed to keep an uneasy peace.46

Unlike other emerging nations, Kurdistan had no powerful patrons in Paris, and the Kurds were not yet able to speak effectively for themselves. Busy with their habitual cattle raids, abductions, clan wars and brigandage, with the enthusiastic slaughter of Armenians or simply with survival, they had not so far demonstrated much interest even in greater autonomy within the Ottoman empire, where the majority lived. Before the Great War, the nationalisms stirring among the other peoples of the Middle East had produced only faint echoes among the Kurds. Even the main center of Kurdish nationalism, consisting of a few small societies and a handful of intellectuals, was in Constantinople. The only Kurdish spokesman in Paris in 1919, a rather charming man, had lived there so long that he was nicknamed Beau Sharif. He did his best, drawing up claims for a vast country that would stretch from Armenia (if it came into existence) down to the Mediterranean. Much of that territory was also being claimed by the Armenians and by Persia.47

Britain was the only one of the powers with more than a passing interest in seeing a Kurdistan on the map. The United States, sympathetic to the Armenians, had no love for the Kurds. The French had put in a claim for a mandate mainly as a bargaining tool; when Britain confirmed its possession of Syria in the autumn of 1919, France dropped any pretense of interest. It continued, however, to oppose a British mandate over Kurdistan.48

Lloyd George and his advisers were primarily concerned with getting and protecting their mandate of Mesopotamia, with its promise of important oil deposits; they would have preferred not to have a slice of Ottoman territory running across the north. A Kurdistan would have the advantage of protecting the southern boundary of Armenia, if it survived, and so providing yet another barrier between Bolshevism and British interests. It would also neatly block the French in Syria and southern Anatolia from extending their influence north. The British assumed Kurdistan could be run cheaply, under local chiefs, on the pattern of the northern frontiers of India. They argued that the Kurds themselves wanted British protection; the Kurds disobligingly spent much energy in 1919 rebelling against British occupation forces and murdering British agents.49

Throughout 1919 and 1920, as they tried to settle the Turkish treaty, the British funded various Kurdish groups that claimed to be able to bring the Kurds under British protection. A Major Noel, the “Kurdish Lawrence,” went on a mysterious mission to the Kurdish areas in the summer of 1919 to stir up an independence movement. He only infuriated the nationalist Turks and his own colleagues. As the British political adviser in Constantinople complained, “I made it as clear as words five times repeated can make things clear that we were not out for intrigues against the Turks, and that I could promise nothing whatsoever as regards the future of Kurdistan.”50

British support was at best lukewarm in 1919 and was tied, at least partly, to the United States taking on a mandate for Armenia. By the autumn it was clear that was not going to happen. It was also clear that the Turks were far from finished. Atatürk was rapidly building his forces in the east, close to the Kurdish areas. The idea of Britain’s propping up a separate Kurdistan became increasingly unattractive from both financial and military points of view. By the summer of 1919, British forces in the Ottoman empire were down to only 320,000 men. In Mesopotamia British authorities argued for incorporating part of the Kurdish territory in the new mandate of Iraq. The Ottoman provincial boundaries had never been really firm in that part of the world, so it could be argued that the old province of Mosul stretched north into the Kurdish hills and mountains.51

The Kurds themselves were divided as ever. Should they put their trust in the Turks or the British? Try to make amends with the Armenians? Ask the Bolsheviks for help? The Greek threat helped many to make up their minds, at least temporarily. When Greek forces first landed at Smyrna in the spring of 1919 and then struck inland toward Atatürk and his forces in the summer of 1920, the Muslim Kurds, generally deeply religious, saw it as a conflict between Islam and Christianity. Atatürk, whatever his private feelings, was adroit enough to use the appeal to Islam when he approached the Kurdish chiefs for their support. Rumors that Britain was planning to seize the southern Kurdish territories drove even Kurdish nationalists to throw their lot in with Atatürk.52

By this point, Curzon and Lloyd George were in agreement for once: an independent Kurdish state was out of the question, even if it meant leaving some Kurdish territories under Turkish control. At San Remo in April 1920, Lloyd George admitted that

he himself had tried to find out what the feelings of the Kurds were. After inquiries in Constantinople, Bagdad and elsewhere, he found it impossible to discover any representative Kurd. No Kurd appeared to represent anything more than his own particular clan. . . . On the other hand, it would seem that the Kurds felt they could not maintain their existence without the backing of a great Power. . . . But if neither France nor Great Britain undertook the task—and he hoped neither would—they appeared to think it might be better to leave them under the protection of the Turks. The country had grown accustomed to Turkish rule, and it was difficult to separate it from Turkey unless some alternative protector could be discovered.

In the peace terms drawn up for Turkey, the status of Kurdistan was left up in the air: perhaps autonomy within Turkey, a mandate under a power or complete independence. Also undecided were Kurdistan’s borders, to be settled by a fact-finding mission. (The British made sure that the territories they wanted were firmly placed in the new state of Iraq.) There was a faint promise: perhaps, if the Kurds could convince the League they were ready for independence, and really wanted it, they might one day join with their fellows in Iraq. 53

When details of these and other terms filtered out in the spring of 1920 after the San Remo Conference, the reaction among the Turks was entirely predictable. “They were received on all sides,” reported Curzon’s emissary to Atatürk, “with derisive shouts of laughter, and the activity of the military preparations was immediately much increased.” In Ankara, the nationalist parliament rejected both the terms and the sultan’s government. A steady stream of nationalists slipped away from Constantinople and made their way inland to Atatürk’s forces. The Allied high commissioners sent strong warnings that Turkish opinion, already inflamed, would not accept the loss of Smyrna, where the Greeks were digging in. Curzon had feared this. As he wrote to Lloyd George, “I am the last man to wish to do a good turn to the Turks . . . but I do want to get peace in Asia Minor, and with the Greeks in Smyrna, and Greek divisions carrying out Venizelos’s orders and marching about Asia Minor I know this to be impossible.” 54

As the situation deteriorated, the Allies, or rather the British, decided on a step that was ultimately to be fatal to their position in Turkey. Venizelos, who feared that his government would fall unless he could show some successes, and whose forces had been chafing in Smyrna under repeated nationalist attacks, finally got approval in June 1920 from Lloyd George to move inland. As a sort of quid pro quo, Venizelos also sent troops to support the occupying forces at Constantinople. The Supreme Council, which was still in existence, provided a thin cover of legality; Greek troops were simply responding, on behalf of the Allies, to Turkish attacks. The British high commissioner in Constantinople wrote angrily to Curzon: “The Supreme Council, thus, are prepared for a resumption of general warfare; they are prepared to do violence to their own declared principles; they are prepared to perpetuate bloodshed indefinitely in the Near East; and for what? To maintain M. Veniselos in power in Greece for what cannot in the nature of things be more than a few years at the outside.” Curzon agreed completely: “Venizelos thinks his men will sweep the Turks into the mountains. I doubt it will be so.”55

And so the last stage of peacemaking in Turkey started with war. Greek troops moved out of Smyrna on a wide front, up the valleys to the edge of the Anatolian plateau. The Turkish nationalists melted back into the interior. In Europe, another Greek army swept aside a weak and disorganized Turkish force in Thrace. Venizelos expressed great confidence; to Henry Wilson, he foretold the collapse of Atatürk’s forces and the spread of Greek power inland, to Constantinople, even perhaps to Pontus on the Black Sea. Privately, the Greek prime minister had moments of panic but, by this point, he had little choice but to go on.56 By August 1920, the Greeks were 250 miles into the interior.

That same month, the Allies and Damad Ferid, representing the sultan’s government, signed a peace treaty in a showroom at the Sèvres porcelain factory on the outskirts of Paris: not a thing of beauty, but as easily smashed. Allied military advisers warned that it would take at least twenty-seven divisions to enforce the terms, divisions they did not have. In Turkey, there was a national day of mourning; newspapers had black borders, shops were closed and prayers were recited all day. Atatürk fought on. By now he had most of the nationalist forces in Turkey under his control, and in the north he and the Bolsheviks were stamping out the troublesome Caucasian republics.57

In September 1920, less than a month after the Treaty of Sèvres had promised an independent Armenia incorporating part of Turkey, Atatürk’s forces attacked from the south. Despite their best efforts and the attacks of their tiny air force of three planes, the Armenians were gradually forced back. When Aharonian, the Armenian poet who had spoken for his country in Paris, tried to see Curzon in London, he was brushed off with a letter. “What we want to see now is concrete evidence of some constructive and administrative ability at home, instead of a purely external policy based on propaganda and mendicancy,” wrote Curzon. On November 17, the Armenian government signed an armistice with Turkey which left only a tiny scrap of country still free. Five days later, a message arrived from President Wilson. Under the Treaty of Sèvres he had been asked to draw Armenia’s boundaries; he decided it should have 42,000 square kilometers of Turkish territory. 58

With his nation abandoned by the world and crushed between two enemies, the Armenian prime minister said, “Nothing remains for the Armenians to do but choose the lesser of two evils.”59 In December, Armenia became a Soviet republic; the Bolshevik commissar for nationalities, Joseph Stalin, was active in bringing it to heel. The following March, the Treaty of Moscow between Turkey and the Soviet Union confirmed the return of the Turkish provinces of Kars and Ardahan to Turkey. (Stalin was the negotiator for the Bolsheviks.) The border has lasted to this day.

Kurdistan was finished too. By March 1921 the Allies had backed away from the vague promises in the Treaty of Sèvres. As far as Kurdistan was concerned, they said, they were ready to modify the treaty in “a sense of conformity with the existing facts of the situation.” 60 The “existing facts” were that Atatürk had denounced the whole treaty; he had successfully kept part of the Armenian territories within Turkey; and he was about to sign a treaty giving the rest to the Soviet Union. Kurdish nationalists might protest, but the Allies no longer had any interest in an independent Kurdish state.

Stability on his northern and eastern flanks enabled Atatürk to deal with the Greek invasion in the west. Here, too, the current of events was running in his favor. In November 1920, Venizelos, much to everyone’s surprise (including his own), was defeated in an election. That left the way open for the return of his old enemy King Constantine, which in turn finished off what was left of the Allied policy on Turkey. Italy and France argued that they were no longer under any obligation to support Greece and that the Treaty of Sèvres must be revised. The Italians hinted that they would be willing to work with Atatürk to modify its terms.

The treaty was also unpopular in France, where the colonial lobby denounced it as a sellout. The French government, for its part, could no longer afford the 500 million francs per year for France’s zone of occupation in the southern part of Asia Minor—or the losses. By the start of 1920 the Turks were waging an increasingly effective guerrilla war. Over 500 French soldiers were casualties in the first two weeks of February alone. The French were forced to abandon one post after another and this threatened their hold on Syria to the south. In October 1921, France signed a treaty with Atatürk’s government which provided for the withdrawal of all French forces from Cilicia in the south. France got economic concessions, while Atatürk gained something much more important—recognition by a leading power. Curzon was furious: “We seem to be reverting to the old traditional divergence—amounting almost to antipathy—between France and ourselves, fomented by every device that an unscrupulous Govt and a lying Press can suggest.”61

In Greece, Constantine’s return led to a purge of pro-Venizelos officers in the army, throwing it into confusion just as the spring campaigning season of 1921 opened in Asia Minor. The new Greek government nevertheless felt honor bound to try to hang on to what Greece had been promised. Lloyd George, over the objections of Curzon, encouraged the Greeks with many nods and winks to attack the Turks. That summer the Greek forces pushed far inland toward Ankara, an extraordinary military accomplishment across parched wastelands. It was the farthest extent of Greece’s advance, and beyond its capacity to sustain. Along the 400 miles of Greek lines, the soldiers knew that they were done for. “Let us go home and to hell with Asia Minor,” they were saying the following spring.62

The Greek government, which had appealed in vain to its allies for money and military support, resigned itself to a negotiated peace with Turkey and the loss of at least some of the territory it was occupying. In April 1922 Atatürk refused an offer brokered by Britain, France and Italy. Turkey would accept an armistice only if Greece started to evacuate its forces at once from Asia Minor, something that was politically impossible for the Greek government. Throughout the summer, Greece’s political and military leaders hesitated over what to do next. On the front lines, the Greek soldiers dug in and waited.

On August 26, 1922, the Turkish counterattack finally came toward Smyrna. The orders were simple: “Soldiers, your goal is the Mediterranean.”63 The Greek forces were shattered and on September 10, Atatürk rode in triumph into Smyrna. The city was packed with stragglers and refugees who had fled from Greek villages inland. On the quays a great crowd struggled to get onto the ships and to safety. In the back streets and alleys, the looting and killing had begun. The conquering soldiers and the Turks of Smyrna had many scores to settle. Like their masters in Rome, Paris and London, the representatives of the powers now abandoned the Greeks to their lot. As foreign troops watched from their ships, the city started to burn.

The first fire may have broken out by accident, but eyewitnesses later saw Turks going through the Armenian and Greek quarters with cans of petrol. “It was a terrifying thing to see even from a distance,” a British officer recalled. “There was the most awful scream one could ever imagine. I believe many people were shoved into the sea, simply by the crowds nearest the houses trying to get further away from the fire.” Atatürk watched the flames impassively; “a disagreeable incident” was his reaction.64 When the fires died out, Greek Smyrna was no more.

The collapse of the Greek army left the small Allied occupation forces in Constantinople and guarding the straits suddenly exposed. As Atatürk’s forces advanced north toward the Sea of Marmara and Constantinople, the British government decided that it must stand firm at Chanak and Ismid on the Asiatic side. It called on the British empire and its allies, but little beyond excuses and reproaches came back. Of the dominions, only New Zealand rallied to the flag. The Italians hastily assured Atatürk of their neutrality. The French ordered their troops out of Chanak. Curzon rushed over to Paris and had a dreadful scene with Poincaré, now French prime minister, in which he talked of “abandonment” and “desertion.” When Poincaré shouted back, Curzon rushed out of the room in tears. He grasped the British ambassador’s arm: “I can’t bear that horrid little man. I can’t bear him.” Only a stiff brandy enabled him to resume what proved to be fruitless negotiations.65

Lloyd George was for war, but cooler heads, including Curzon’s and those of the military on the spot, finally prevailed. Atatürk was at last ready for negotiations. The armistice of Mudanya, of October 11, provided for the Turks to take over eastern Thrace from the Greeks. In return, Atatürk promised not to move troops into Constantinople, Gallipoli or Ismid until a peace conference could decide their fate.

All over Asia Minor and Thrace the Greeks were moving out, more than a million of them. Greek shopkeepers, farmers, priests, old men and women, Muslim Greeks, Greeks who did not speak a word of Greek, stumbled into a country unable to feed and house them. The young Ernest Hemingway, reporting for a Toronto newspaper, saw the Greek soldiers going home: “All day long I have been passing them, dirty, tired, unshaven, wind-bitten soldiers, hiking along the trails across the brown, rolling, barren Thrace countryside. No bands, no relief organizations, no leave areas, nothing but lice, dirty blankets, and mosquitos at night. They are the last of the glory that was Greece. This is the end of their second siege of Troy.” 66

The Greek adventure in Asia Minor had already brought down Venizelos; now it destroyed his great patron, Lloyd George. The Chanak crisis was too much for a shaky coalition government. Curzon discreetly abandoned his old colleagues. When a new Conservative government under Bonar Law took office in November 1922, Curzon was reappointed foreign secretary. He left almost immediately for Lausanne, where the Turkish peace was now at last to be concluded.

A few of those who assembled there had been at the Paris Peace Conference—Curzon himself, Poincaré, a subdued Venizelos, who had been invited by the new government to represent Greece, Stamboliski of Bulgaria with his glamorous interpreter, the only woman at the conference. There were new faces too, among them Mussolini, in white spats and black shirt, ill at ease at his first major international conference, and Georgi Chicherin, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, with his thin red beard and “furtive old-clothes-man slouch.” Turkey was now represented by the nationalists, led by Inönü Ismet, a trusted general of Atatürk. When the Allies had tried to invite the Constantinople government as well, Atatürk had simply abolished the sultanate. The Americans, in their new mood of detachment from European affairs, sent only observers: Richard Child, an amiable former journalist, and Joseph Grew, later American ambassador to Tokyo at the time of Pearl Harbor. Grew found, to his surprise, that Curzon was really quite charming: “Never have I enjoyed anything more than the small dinners of three or four which he appeared to love and where, after the table was swept and the port brought on, he would sit hour after hour telling stories, anecdotes, and experiences in a delightful vein seldom seen in present-day society.”67

Curzon had many things to try his patience in Lausanne: his drunken valet, who hid his dress trousers; his back brace, which broke and cut into him; above all, the French and the Italians, “overflowing with unctuous civility to the Turks and showing an inclination to bolt at every corner from the course”; and of course the Turks themselves. Ismet, “a little dark man, absolutely without magnetism,” who looked “more like an Armenian lace-seller than a Turkish general,” stonewalled, played up his deafness, and obstinately reiterated his demands. He had come with firm instructions from Atatürk: to negotiate an independent Turkey, free of outside interference. As a good soldier, he intended to follow them. “You remind me,” Curzon snapped one day, “of nothing so much as a music box. You play the same old tune day after day until we are heartily sick of it—sovereignty, sovereignty, sovereignty.” With heavy sarcasm Curzon poked holes in Ismet’s arguments. Ismet shrugged and simply ignored him. Curzon, he said, “treated us like schoolboys but we did not mind. He treated the French and the Italians just the same.” In the evenings the Turk took solace in his favorite green chartreuse; one of the Americans who unwisely joined him swore off the drink for life. Adding to Curzon’s frustration with the Turks was his knowledge that he was struggling against an unseen adversary. Far off in Ankara, Atatürk was watching the conference closely and cabling his orders to Ismet.68

After endless haggling and a dramatic walkout by Curzon designed to put pressure on the Turks, a peace was worked out by July 1923. Ismet, with “deep circles under his eyes,” signed for Turkey, the British ambassador to Constantinople for Britain. The Treaty of Lausanne was unlike Versailles, Trianon, St. Germain, Neuilly and Sèvres, those products of the Paris Peace Conference. “Hitherto we have dictated our peace treaties,” Curzon reflected. “Now we are negotiating one with the enemy who has an army in being while we have none, an unheard of position.” 69

Very little remained of the Sèvres terms. There was no mention of an independent Armenia or Kurdistan and, although Curzon tried to add clauses to the new treaty giving protection to minorities, the Turks refused on the grounds of sovereignty. Turkey’s borders now included virtually all the Turkish-speaking territories, from eastern Thrace down to Syria. The straits remained Turkish, but with an international agreement on their use. The old humiliating capitulations were swept away. The Lausanne treaty also provided for a compulsory transfer of populations, Muslims for Christians. Most Greeks had already left Turkey; now Muslim families from Crete to the borders of Albania were forcibly uprooted and dumped in Turkey, “a thoroughly bad and vicious solution,” warned Curzon, “for which the world will pay a heavy penalty for a hundred years to come.” The only exceptions to the transfer, by special agreement, were the Turks in western Thrace and the Greeks in Constantinople and on a couple of small islands. Communities have lingered on, harassed by a myriad of petty regulations and used as convenient scapegoats whenever relations have worsened between Greece and Turkey, as they did in the 1960s over Cyprus and in the summer of 1999 over Kosovo.70

The one unreconciled dispute at Lausanne was over Mosul, in the north of Iraq. The Turkish delegation, arguing along lines that Turkish governments have used ever since, claimed it, on the grounds that its Kurds were really Turks. After all, said the chief Turkish negotiator triumphantly, the Encyclopaedia Britannica said so. Curzon, who was determined to hang on to Mosul, for the sake of its oil rather than its Kurds, was withering: “It was reserved for the Turkish delegation to discover for the first time in history that the Kurds were Turks. Nobody has ever found it out before.”71 The issue of Mosul came close to breaking up the conference; both sides eventually agreed to refer it to the League of Nations, which finally awarded it to Iraq in 1925.

The Kurds were left under different governments—Atatürk’s in Turkey, Reza Shah’s in Persia, and Feisal’s in Iraq—none of which had any tolerance for Kurdish autonomy. Within Iraq, the British for a time toyed with the idea of a separate administration for the Kurdish areas, recognizing that the Kurds did not like being under Arab rule. In the end, the British preferred to do nothing; Iraq became independent in 1932 without promising any special consideration to the Kurds. In Turkey, Atatürk and the nationalists dropped their earlier emphasis on all Muslims together and moved to establish a secular and Turkish state, to the dismay of many Kurds. The language of education and government was to be Turkish; indeed, between 1923 and 1991 Kurdish was first discouraged then outlawed. In 1927, the Turkish foreign minister assured the British ambassador that the Kurds were bound to disappear like what he described as “Red Hindus”; if the Kurds showed any disposition to turn nationalist, Turkey would expel them, just as it had done with the Armenians and Greeks.72

The Kurds have never accepted their fate quietly, and Kurdish nationalism, a tenuous force at the time of the Paris Peace Conference, grew stronger over the years under repression. The promises made in Paris and by that first Treaty of Sèvres became part of Kurdish memories and hopes. In the summer of 1919, the leader of the first of a series of uprisings in Kurdish territory strapped a Koran to his arm; on a blank page were written Allied promises—including the one of Wilson’s Fourteen Points which talked about autonomous development for the non-Turkish nationalities.73

Ismet returned from Lausanne to a hero’s welcome, and the treaty is still seen as modern Turkey’s greatest diplomatic victory. In the autumn of 1923, the last foreign troops left Constantinople. The sultan had gone the year before, spirited out of his palace in a British military ambulance and carried by British warship to Malta. He died in exile in San Remo, impoverished and lonely. His cousin, a gentle artist, became caliph for just over a year until Atatürk abolished the caliphate as well. What was left of the royal family was sent into exile, where they gradually dissipated what meager funds they had left. A handful have made their way back to Turkey; one princess runs a hotel, and a prince works in the archives in the Topkapi palace.

Curzon died in 1925, worn out by years of overwork. Atatürk died in 1938, of cirrhosis of the liver, and Ismet succeeded him as president. In 1993, on the seventieth anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, Ismet’s son and Curzon’s grandson laid a wreath together on Atatürk’s grave. 74

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