France, through President Emmanuel Macron's initiative, organized last week an unexpectedly large international summit that commemorated the centennial of World War I, its victims and its legacy. Heads of state or government representing more than 70 countries gathered in Paris to take part in the commemoration of the Armistice.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also participated in the meeting and in different ceremonies, recalling the terrible losses of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It is largely forgotten but alongside Russia, the Ottomans were the most affected country by the losses of this war, with more than 3 million military and civilians killed or dying due to starvation and bad conditions – making up to 15 percent of the whole population, which is immense. Only the relatively small Kingdom of Serbia attained a higher percentage of casualties per total population during World War I.
What differentiates the Ottoman Empire from other belligerent states in the aftermath of the war is the fact that it was not allowed to survive. Obviously, the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I sowed the seeds of a new war because of its deeply unjust and revanchist nature.
However, Germany, Austria and Bulgaria were allowed to have independent (albeit geographically diminished) states. The Ottoman Empire was not, and the Treaty of Sevres effectively gave a small portion of Anatolia to the remains of the Ottoman administration, but this entity would not be an independent state, only a kind of protectorate, slightly better than a colony. This blunt discrimination among the losing parties created a "Sevres Syndrome" among the Turkish elites and in public opinion, which continues even today.
The end of World War I could have brought sustainable peace in Europe and all over the world, by starting decolonization, outlawing secret international agreements and establishing peace without victors. The contrary has happened. President Woodrow Wilson did not have the power to dictate his famous 14 Points, efficiently repelled by both France's Georges Clemenceau and England's David Lloyd George. The Treaty of Versailles created an out of date dismembering of the Balkans, Central Europe and the Middle East.
Because of the Eurocentric colonialist views and stances from England and France in 1918, there has not been any durable peace in the Balkans or the Middle East since. Therefore, from the viewpoint of these countries, there is nothing to celebrate from 1918, except for a momentary stop to the slaughtering. The period between 1918 and 1939 is considered more and more like preparation for a new war, rather than a peaceful period.
The exception to the new international system imposed upon the losing side by the victors had one notable exception: The Liberation War led by the former Ottoman forces, under the brilliant guidance of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, that gave way to the establishment of the independent Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Atatürk's legacy was not only to challenge the Versailles system militarily but to try, in the aftermath of the foundation of our Republic, to establish a multilateral international cooperation system. His attempts to establish a sound and solid dialogue with Greece, the Balkan Pact, the Montreux Treaty and the incredible rapprochement with Reza Shah's Iran are the salient points of this good neighbor policy.
In 1927, by declaring "Peace at home, Peace in the World," Atatürk sent a strong signal to the British Empire, to establish a workable modus vivendi between Turkey and the Middle East. Clearly, in exchange of any annexation illusion concerning Mosul, Great Britain was asked not to meddle in domestic Turkish dynamics, namely the Kurdish insurgencies.
Kemal Atatürk's sophisticated policy worked, almost beyond expectations, with Hatay joining Turkey in 1939. Despite its cyclic shortcomings, Turkey remained and remains a working democracy in this part of the world, in itself a huge achievement.
We remain, due to the unfortunate developments in the Middle East, the country sheltering the highest number of refugees in the world – around 4 million. With no noticeable racist or xenophobic incidents, this shelter, given to a huge number of refugees, shows the importance of the stability in Turkey.
As uncomfortable as it may look for some, Turkey is capable of exporting stability in the region. From a Turkish viewpoint, this is perhaps the only thing to celebrate about the 1918 Armistice: Not having accepted the Versailles diktat and having fought successfully for an independent Turkey.