The Ottoman Empire emerged from the Great War defeated and devastated. The end of the war plunged the empire into a painful period of instability and uncertainty. In November 1918, Allied warships crossed the Straits, reached the imperial capital, and established a de-facto occupation regime. The collapse of the ruthless wartime regime, the arrival of the Allied troops, and the global spread of the Wilsonian promise of national self-determination politically energized the Ottoman non-Muslim and non-Turkish communities. Their claims found receptive ears at the Paris Peace Conference
This heightened political energy amongst Ottoman non-Muslims and the great power backing they enjoyed at the Peace Conference triggered deep anxiety amongst the Ottoman Turks who constituted the empire’s demographic majority. Unlike Ottoman non-Muslims, however, the Ottoman Turks knew that they could count on very few supporters in Paris. The Allied statesmen were furious at them for their genocidal treatment of non-Muslim minorities during the war, particularly the Armenians. In the absence of great power support, the Ottoman Turks pinned their hopes of preserving the empire’s territorial integrity on Wilsonian principles. In a remarkably short span of time, the Ottoman Turks became proficient at “speaking Wilsonian” and deploying Wilsonian rhetoric against Greek and Armenian territorial claims. What was even more fascinating is that this process was not coordinated by the government or any other central body. The six months following the armistice saw a remarkable rise in political activism from the bottom up manifested in the emergence of dozens of local clubs and civil society organizations. Having heartily embraced the principle of “self-determination,” they collected material, drew up maps and statistics, and produced historical and ethnographic arguments to prove their locality’s “Turkishness” based on “scientific methods.” They bombarded local and imperial press, representatives of the great powers, as well as the Paris Peace Conference with passionate arguments to further their claims and make their voices heard.
Although this unprecedented Ottoman activism failed to convince peacemakers in Paris, I would argue that it contributed significantly to the “ethnicization” of the Ottoman public sphere. The disruptive interplay between international climate and local ambitions irreversibly widened the gap between non-Muslims and the Muslim majority and dashed the prospects of coexistence forever.