188: Versailles Pt. 7 - The Dissolution of Turkey...Or Not


While the delegates in Paris debated the future of the Ottoman Empire, in Anatolia they were taking matters into their own hands.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 188, The Dissolution of Turkey…Or Not. Thank you to Simon and Hugo. Last episode we discussed some pieces of the post-war Middle East, how they were created and some of the problems that the British and French had in controlling them. This week we continue that conversation by looking at the northern area of the Ottoman Empire, which basically correlates to the territory of the modern day Republic of Turkey. This is an interesting part of the world during and immediate following the Paris Peace Conference and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In terms of our story it is interresting because it will be the first area in our conversation where the decisions made at the conference mattered almost not at all as it related to the actual outcome of the situation on the ground. This is thanks, in no small part, to the actions of Mustafa Kemal, the man who would lead the remnants of the former Ottoman Empire into the post war world. You may know him as Ataturk. But, before we get to Ataturk and the creation of Turkey we have to really dig into the story of, Italy. Both Italy and Greece were very important players in the creation of modern Turkey, becaause both of them would try to prevent it. This means that we have to discuss a little be about both the Italian and Greek delegations to the Conference to start off our episode. The role of the Italians is much greater than the Greeks, because the Italians had a representative on the Supreme Council and were considered one of the Big Five countries that would lead the conference. During this discussion we will run into a lot of discussion about the post-war formation of Yugoslavia, which I know we have not discussed yet, but don’t worry Yugoslavia will receive its own episode before our story of the Conference is over. Overall, the conference would not go very well for Italy, or at the very least the outcome would not match up with their expectations, and this difference would leave an important mark on Italian society which would propel it into its fascist future.

Italy was included as one of the big five at the Conference, they had a seat on the Supreme Council, and so officially they were just as much in control as Britain, France, or the United States. It was however clear from the very start that they were seen as a lesser partner. It did not help their case that the country found itself heavily in debt to its allies and when their debts were added to rapid inflation, which was second only to Russia in terms of percentage, the economic situation was dire. They were also not helped by the fact that they did not have a very effective delegation, they did not have a clear set of policy and goals going into Versailles, and they did not get along with the other powers. Lloyd George would say that “Throughout the whole of my negotiations with the Italians. I found that their foreign policy was largely influenced by a compound mixture of jealousy, rivalry, resentment, but more particularly, fear of France.” All of these problems would make the taks for Prime Minister Orlando and Foreign Minister Sonnino almost impossible. It did not help that the two Italians also did not get along very well, and only worked together during the Conference, or at least for most of it, because otherwise it was very likely that their government would have fallen. There were two main schools of thought within Italy on what precisely their delegation should achieve at the conference. On one side were the colonialists, they wanted a push to gain African colonies. Both Orlando and Sonnino believed that attempts at achieving large colonial gains were doomed to failure, and in this they were probably correct. The French and British had made many of the decisions about German colonies without even consulting the Italians, and it is unlikely that either would have given up some of their own territory just to make the Italians happy. Instead of pushing for colonies, Orlando instead believed that it was better to try to achieve some of the Italy’s European territorial ambitions. This included territorial gains in northern Italy arround Trieste, which was the Italia Irredenta which had been so important as a rallying cry when Italy came into the war in 1915. These goals did not stop with just the territory around Trieste though, and also extended to areas on the eastern side of the Adriatic, primarily the port of Fiume which is known today by its Croatian name of Rijeka, because it is part of modern day Croatia. There wre also other territories that had been promised to Italy by the British and French as part of the Treaty of London which had been signed between the countries in 1915. This included some of those territories across the Adriatic and then also some territory in Asia Minor, which if of course the most important for our story today.

Wilson, as with so many other areas under discussion at the conference, was not an exper on the Italian situation or Italian desires. I don’t really blame him for this, maybe he could have done a bit more homework, but that was not even really the problem for the Italians. No, the problem for the Italians was that in the absence of a good deal of knowledge Wilson fell back onto principles, and you can find two big problems for the Italians in Wilson’s Fourteen points and in Wilson’s comments before the conference. The first big problem was that Wilson made it very clear to everyone that the United States was not bound by any secret agreement that were made by other countries, like the Treaty of London. The secong big problem was in the Fourteen Points where Wilson had stated that there should be “a readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” When these two problems were combined it meant that the Italians were going to be hard pressed to get the territory that they hoped for in nortern Italy, let alone in the areas of modern day Slovenia and Croatia. Since this was the area that Orlando had already chosen as the most important area for Italian expansion, problems were brewing. These problems would not come to the forefront until the conference had begun, and before that would occur Wilson would visit Rome. When he arrived he found that he was greeted by huge crowds that were very excited to meet him. He would say of this experience that “I had the impression of finding myself among real friends.” This would lead him to believe that the Italians understood and supported his platform and opinions which would then lead him to believe, when disagreements arose, that the Italian leaders were the problem. This belief was amplified due to Wilson’s personal belief that countries like Italy, who had joined the war only after being promised blood money, in the form of territory, were no better than cold-blooded mercenaries.

Orlando would exacerbate these problems with Wilson due to some of his actions, which he felt pressured to do by groups within Italy that were always pressing for the Italian borders to be pushed further and further. Orlando would come to the conference wanting both the Treaty of London enforced and for Fiume to be added onto this territory. This viewpoint was the final nail in the coffin of American-Italian relations. Wilson m ade it clear that he would not honor the Treaty of London, he would still support the expansion of the Italian borde into Tyrol in the north, which was heavily populated by Germans, and he would also support giving Trieste to Italy, but pushing the Italian border further east, or further south down the Adriatic coast was simply off the table. This strong resistance would in no small part be due to the fact that it would be here that Italian claims came into conflict with those of the Slavs, led by the Serbians, who were hoping to create a new Yugoslavia. Befoe that new country could be created, Italian troops were already in the region, with the stated purpose of keeping the peace, but early in the conference stories began to arrive in Paris that pointed to Italian activities far exceeding what was required to maintain that peace.

Even though the Italians were in a relatively weak negotiating position, and even though they quickly found themselves at odds with Wilson, they continued to push forward with their plan. Rright from the beginning they refused to compromise on their territorial goals on the border with Yugoslavia. Not only did the Italian delegation push for the border to be further east and south but they also opposed any decision at the conference that would have resulted in a strong Yugoslavia. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania all found themselves supported by the Italians in their claims for territory, even the Hungarian government under Bela Kun would make a secrete agreement with the Italians, and everybody hated Bela Kun. This mindset and strategy put Italy at odds with the other leaders, causing Balfour to write “The Italians must somehow be mollified, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to mankind.” This hard charging mindset may have been in some way beneficial to the Italians in decisions about their concerns had they been made early in the conference, but the most important decisions would all be pushed until April. During that month the Supreme Council really dug into basically every important decision that would have to be made at the conference, and that meant they were in no mood for the Italians and their stubbornness.

The best example of how the delay in making decisions would hurt the Italians was on the topic of Fiume. Fiume was a port that had previously been Hungary’s primary port on the Adriatic. The city was ethnically split between the Italians and the Croats, with both sides being able to manufacture a claim that they held the majority because the exact numbers would dependon how much of the city outskirts, which were heavily populated by Croats, that they included. The city was not part of the Italian agreements when they entered the war, and in fact Orlando would say that if Italy could have settled all of its claims right when the war was over that “Fiume never would have been injected into the terms by the Italians.” However, the quest to gain control of the city took on a life of its own int he months after the war ended. There were certainly legitimate reasons that the Italians wanted the port, and in Paris they would claim that they needed it to guarantee the security of Trieste, with one Italian delegate stating “It will be very difficult for us to keep up the commerce of Trieste unless we control Fiume and are able to divert its trade to Trieste.” Behind the scenes the upper echelons of the Italian military and government saw Fiume as a critical piece in gaining control of the eastern Adriatic and reducing the power of Yugoslavia in the region. To try and help make the case that Italian control was necessary Orlando would approve a plan put forward by General Badoglio in December 1918. Essentially the plan called for the Italian Army to cause some problems in Fiume and in the surrounding countryside. The goal of these actions was to make sure that there was enough uncertainty in the areas so that peace keeping troops could be justified and so that the new Yugoslavian nation could not properly consolidate control. This was accomplished by sowing discontent between the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and then between the various classes within those groups. While at an official level plans were in place to try and secure Fiume for Italy, the citizens of Italy had also grasped onto Fiume as a way to make the war seem worth the cost. Italy was in a very bad place by the time that the war ended, inflation was rampant throughout the country and the war had ended with the country deeply in debt and divided. Even with other gains that were already promised, the acquisition of Fiume was beginning to be seen as a point of national pride, and that created very serious concerns in the Italian government once it became clear that an Italian Fiume may not happen.

With pressure mounting from both official and unofficial sources, Orlando was forced to continue his crusade in Paris. April would be the month during which Italy’s fate would be decided and on April 3rd Orlando would explain the Italy position in great detail to the other members of the Supreme Council, with a particular focus on Italy’s desires around Fiume and on the eastern coast of the Adriatic. Orlando would also call attention to the situation within his country. There were new reports arriving in Paris every day of strikes, marches, riots, and violent demonstrations all over Italy, demonstrations that were fueled by rumors that Wilson and the other leaders were denying Italy’s claims. Later that day the Yugoslav representatives were scheduled to attend, and Orlando refused to even be in the same room, saying that he considered the Yugoslavs to be enemies of his country. The negotiations were at a standstill. Maurice Hankey, later Baron Hankey, was Lloyd George’s Secretary, and he would say that at this time “We have now reached an impasse. The Italians say they won’t sign the German Treaty unless they are promised Fiume and the whole Treaty of London. No one will give them Fiume, and President Wilson won’t give them Dalmatia, which, he says, would contravene the ethnical principle.”

Seeing not other option, on April 23rd Orlando and most of the Italian delegation decided to leave the Conference. This was an important step, and the Italians hoped that it would be decisive. They also hoped that in their absence the conference would grind to a halt. Unfortunately, and this happens so frequently when a party leaves in protest, instead of grinding to a halt the decisions on Italian matters actually accelerated, and not in the ways that the Italians wanted. Some representatives of the Italian government remained in Paris, although not officially at the Conference, and they were able to pass information back to Orlando in Rome. The story that they told was one of the Italian position deteriorating rapidly. Without an Italian leader to fight back decisions were being made in favor of the countries that Italy considered enemies. Once it became apparent that the conference would not beg for the return of the Italian delegation the Italians began behind the scenes negotiations on how to come back to the conference. There was a general desire on both sides to get them back because no matter how annoying the Italian leaders might be it was important for prestige reasons that such a major member of the alliance be present in the formulation of the peace. From the perspective of Orlando and the Italian leaders, they just wanted to try and save as much face as possible when returning. When the Italians announced their return on May 5th not all of the disagreements between the leaders were settled, but all parties were set to carry on.

Even with his return, Orlando was on shakey footing back home. On June 19th, just 9 days before the treaty was signed, the Orlando government would fall. There was not enough time for a new government to be created and sent to Paris, and so Sonnino and two other Italian ministers would stay behind to sign the treaty. After it was signed, Wilson went back to the United States, removing Italy’s greatest antagonist from the scene. In Rome the new government was formed under Francesco Nitti, and he focused far more on Italy’s internal problems rather than external expansion and this change in mindset allowed the negotiations between Italy and the other countries to come to a conclusion. They would work with the Greeks over Italian influence in Albania and the Dodecanese Islands and mostly get the matter settled. They would work with Lloyd George and Clemenceau over Fiume, with the final ruling being that it should become a neutral city under a League of Nations Mandate while all other territory in Dalmatia should go to Yugoslavia. This left Italy mostly settled up with the British and french, but there was still the small matter of finalizing all the various border details with Yugoslavia.

The negotiations with Yugoslavia would take longer than any of hte others, and it would not be until November 1920 that it would be signed. Nitti’s government would not live to see this closure, and instead it would be replaced by a government under Giovanni Giolitte, who was even more concerned with the internal situation than Nitti had been. The November 1920 agreement made the status of Fiume as a free city official, although there would be other events in Fiume in the coming months and eyars that would affect that status. Italy also gained all of the Istria peninsula while Yugoslavia received most of the other disputed territory. As with so many other agreements this one left both sides not completely satisfied. In Yugoslavia the Croats and Slovenes believed that the Serbs had betrayed them and traded away their lands to the Italians. In Italy the ultra-nationalists, while somewhat mollified by the fact that Yugoslavia was not in control of Fiume, still deeply resented that it was not an Italian city. Inside Fiume itself the Italians who controlled the city, led by Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had controlled the city for over a year after having taking control at the head of a large group of Italian soldiers, ignored the treaty all together and instead declared war on Italy. The Italian navy would have to arrive on the scene before d’Annunzio would end his little crusade. While the city would be a free city, that status would only last for a few years, because in 1924 the Italian army would once again return, and this time they would control the city until the end of World War 2.

We now shift our focus back to the Middle East, and specifically over to the Ottoman Empire. You may say that hey, we have been talking about the Ottoman Empire for weeks already, and you are correct. However today we are going to focus on just the fate of the central part of the Ottoman Empire, at least politically and it is the northwest part of it if you are looking at it geographically. While the disagreements over the fate of some of the other areas that we have already discussed, like Syria and Mesopotamia, involved disagreements between the Allies, at the very least each ally provided a mostly unified front. When it came to discussions about the rest of the ottoman Empire, which for the rest of this episodes I will refer to as Turkey even though Turkey did not yet exist, not only did the allies disagree but the individual allies often could not come to any real agreement within their own government. The British, for example, were all over the place and the correct course of action would be different depending on who you asked. In the end it would not end up mattering too much what they thought, because by the time that everybody came to a decision the citizens of Turkey were already choosing their own fate. At the center of these choices was Mustafa Kemal, known today as Ataturk. We have actually met Ataturk before, although you may not remember, because it was all the way back during the Gallipoli episodes. Ataturk had been the leader of the Ottoman defenders during that campaign and with that victory his standing within the Empire greatly increased. After the British abandoned Gallipoli he would spend the rest of the war occupying various military commands. When the war was over he would then spend some time in Constantinople in an administrative capacity. Eventually he would be sent into the interior of Anatolia by the government, in conjunction with the British, in the hopes that he could restore order to the area. Ataturk, as would soon become apparent, had other plans. He would create the Turkish National Movement, and through that movement he would form a new government and in the following years a new country.

In this endeavour he was successful for a wide variety of reasons, his reputation and skill at the top of that list, but the Allies also gave him a huge amount of help due to their actions. Those actions would begin with the Italians. In late April 1919, this being the point before the Italians returned to Paris, news suddenly arrived at the Conference that the Italians had landed troops in Asia Minor. Italy had been promised lands in Asia Minor in the Treaty of London, and with their goals of attaining Fiume seemingly out of reach they turned their eyes to the east. Troops first landed in Adalia, today known as Antalya, and Marmaris and from these two ports they moved inland. Lloyd George would call these actions madness and Clemenceau would call for more forceful actions to be taken against the Italians to make sure that they knew their place, he would go on to say “If we don’t take precautions, they will hold us by the throat.” There were some discussions about giving the Americans a mandate over Anatolia to get them involved, but this was ruled out after the American government seemed less than willing to be involved in affairs half a world away. These landings would set in motion a long chain of events, and the most important player in those events would be the Greeks.

The Italians were not really concerned about losing their share of Asia Minor to whatever government was setup in Constantinople at the Conference, but they were instead very concerned that land that they considered to be their would be handed over to Greece. The Greek delegation to the conference was led by the new Greek president Venizelos, and he was certainly in his element in Paris. he was a very good public speaker and made a very positive impression on the other leaders. He would over his assistance to the other powers if they needed it to deal with their Italian problems. All that he wanted in return was a bit of Asia Minor for Greece, and they had a little piece already picked out, the city of Smyrna and its surroundings. Smyrna was a large port city, and unlike many other countries that wanted specific areas outside of their country, the Greeks had at least an almost valid argument for why they should be handed the territory. Smyrna, after large groups of Greek immigrants had arrived in the 19th century, had a very large Greek population, apparently one that was larger than the Greek population of Athens in 1918. Even with the large Greek opulation it still would have put a large number of non-Greeks under the control of Greece and for this reason the proposal did not get very much support from the members of the Supreme Council, especially from Wilson. The hope was that a Commission could setup to handle the Greek questions, including the question of territory in Asia Minor. This was called the Commission on Greek and Albanian Affairs and it would be charged with sorting out all of the various contradictory claims, but they never really came to a conclusive answer. For awhile it seemed unlikely that Greece would get its territory, but then those Italian troops arrived in Asia Minor and changed the equation.

In the first few days of May 1919 the top item of conversation on the Supreme Council was the situation in Asia Minor, and specifically what to do about the Italians. Lloyd George pressed for action, and immediate action, otherwise the Italians would not back down. Even if the will was there though the British, French, and American governments were not in a position to deal with the problem by force, their armies were rapidly demobilizing and there were barely enough troops available to maintain their current commitments. But Lloyd George, always the crafty politician, came prepared with another answer, one provided to him by Venizelos. Venizelos saw an opportunity, and he offered Greek troops to Lloyd Goerge saying that they were available and ready to land wherever they were needed. Venizelos suggested that they land at Smyrna, since it had many Greek inhavitants and would therefore welcome the Greek army. After consulting with Allied military advisers this plan was put into action. News spread throughotu the city long before any Greek troops arrived, and while the Greek citizens were excited, the Turkish citizens were less than thrilled. There were demonstrations and protests throughout the city both in favor of and in rejection of the coming Greek invasion. The first Greek troops would arrive on May 15th, greeted on the waterfront by Greek representatives. AS they marched through the streets a shot was fired, and then all hell broke lose and the city descended into chaos. Turkish mobs, Greek mobs, Greek military units could all be found moving through the city, killing and looting as they went. Hundreds would die, and it was just the beginning.

With both Italian and Greek troops now present in Asia Minor, and with a good chance that Armenia and Kurdistan would soon be created by a declaration from Paris, and even rumor of Constantinople being removed from Turkish control, many Turkish nationalists felt that they had no choice but to resist. At this point, they did not feel they had much to lose. On June 23rd Ataturk was ordered to return to Constantinople, but he refused and announced his resignation from the army. He then called for a Turkish national conference to meet in Erzurum. This Congress would decide to launch a national resistance against all foreign invaders. A new capital was created at Ankara, and this city and Ataturk as leader of the new government and its military forces became a rallying cry for Turkish nationalists, they felt that their homeland was being invaded by foreign countries, the British, the French, the Italians, the Greeks all of them were complicit and all of them must be expelled. That is where I will stop our story for now, we will pick this thread back up later in the year at which point we will carry it forward to the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.