While historians have long blamed the failures of the Paris Peace Conference for the explosion of violent political movements in 20th century Europe, they have neglected to explore a similar linkage in the Middle East. Textbooks on the so-called European “crisis of empire” after World War I, for example, implicitly replicate the colonialist view that the cause of the region’s violence in the past century lies in its (so-called, uncivilized or less modern) culture. Prevailing historiography also limits analysis of the violent after-effect of WWI to armed revolts in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, neglecting the peace settlement’s impact on everyday politics. Indeed, older regional histories that completely ignore the impact of the World War I and its settlement on postwar politics-- in favor of emphasis on continuities in political norms and leadership-- continue to shape historical understanding of the period. Perspectives in these outdated specialized histories have consequently been replicated in general texts like Erez Manela's popular 2007 book, The Wilsonian Moment and Susan Pedersen’s 2015 study of the League of Nations, The Guardians.
This paper draws on Arabic-language primary sources and recent a new wave of Middle Eastern scholarship on World War I to recast the significance of the postwar moment. In terms of historiography, I argue that the moment represents a historical break with the Ottoman era, involving a revolution followed by counterrevolution. Conceptually, I draw both on a classic history of the Paris Peace Conference as a counterrevolution in Europe by Arno Mayer and on recent debates by sociologists and political scientists who have conceptualized revolution and counterrevolution. I apply these conceptual tools to the historical cases of Greater Syria and Egypt, where World War I provoked revolutionary upheaval against wartime dictatorship of the Ottoman Turks and the British. Popular democratic movements emerged after the armistice, expressed in the 1919 revolution in Egypt and in the 1920 establishment of an independent state in Syria. Both movements were violently crushed by the Paris Peace Conference because their claims that Arabs were able to rule themselves democratically threatened colonial rule elsewhere. The paper concludes by reinterpreting interwar politics as a response to this counterrevolution, with a focus on the rise of popular Islamic movements.