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Historical Fictions: A Turkish Diplomat Remembers

I am Emin Bey, a counsellor and interpreter to our Ottoman Embassy in Berlin. On the eve of the Great War, I was in regular contact with German Foreign Ministry officials, Paul Von Hitze, Gottlieb Von Jagow, and Arthur Zimmermann. I was the interpreter when our ambassador, Mehmet Pasha, held talks at the foreign ministry. Occasionally I met the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg at the Hoffbrau, a restaurant frequented by diplomats and German officials who met for dinner or simply had drinks discussing politics. Our conversations were stimulating as we talked about relations between our two nations.

I knew from my German and Austrian contacts that war was just around the corner, but no one could have imagined that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo would lead to such a bloodbath in Europe and the Middle East. In July 1914, the Austrians demanded the Serbians comply with their demands to “formally and publicly condemn the dangerous propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian Empire” within 48 hours, otherwise it would be war. From what I remember, the Serbs tried to meet the Austrian demands, but to no avail. The war began. In early August, Germany joined in to support her Austrian ally. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Austria and Germany. What did this mean for Turkey?

I remained in Berlin for the duration and had access to all our secret diplomatic dispatches. Our ambassador was informed by the Germans that we should remain neutral for the present time and join the war at a time of our own choosing. The Grand Vizier, the Prime Minister to our Sultan, sent a secret cable to our Berlin embassy instructing us to appear to maintain “good relations” with the British, French, and Russian embassies. We did everything to maintain the façade of good relations with them. Meanwhile, the Germans shipped a large shipment of gold to Constantinople to allow our government to purchase weapons and munitions. The German gold greatly boosted our miserable finances.

I read cables from Constantinople stating the British told us that as long as we remained neutral nothing would happen to our empire. We maintained the appearance of neutrality until late October, when our navy, commanded by German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon shelled Russian naval fortifications in the Black Sea. Then the gloves were off. Britain, France, and Russia decided they would divide our empire into territorial chunks between themselves.

I wondered what would happen to Turkey should we lose the war. The ambassador told me that we were going to attack the Russians in the Caucasus, and he believed that we would achieve a quick victory. I wasn’t quite sure about that. Fighting in the Caucasus in deep snow wouldn’t be easy as the Russians would do everything to defend their territory. The battle of Sarakamish in early 1915 was an absolute disaster. We suffered huge losses, with many of our troops perishing from the bitter cold weather and inadequate clothing. The Russians took many prisoners of war. Many of them were treated very badly by the Russians.

As this battle came and went, the Anglo-French concocted a naval assault on the outer forts of the Dardanelles in early February. They thought they could frighten us into submission but our big guns sunk a couple of their warships. I am sure this angered London and Paris. They sought revenge, thinking we were the weak link in the Central Powers and that the occupation of our capital, Constantinople, would be a mere formality.

Cables from Constantinople indicated that the Anglo-French were planning to attack us somewhere in the Gallipoli Peninsula. Our government deported the Greek residents from the peninsula for security purposes, fearing they might assist the Anglo-French. On April 25, the Anglo-French landed at Gallipoli assuming an easy victory would lead to the occupation of Constantinople. How wrong they were.

They underestimated our troops, who fought like tigers and lions, defending every inch of our land. A certain Colonel Mustapha Kemal commanded his troops with skill and ordered them to drive the enemy into the sea. They stopped the Anglo-French in their tracks and forced them to abandon Gallipoli in January 1916.

I had contact with the Greek Ambassador, Theotokis, discussing relations between our two countries. Our relations weren’t good. Theotokis told me that King Constantine wasn’t interested in going to war over Serbia and maintained strict benevolent neutrality. The Anglo-French didn’t like this, but Constantine refused to budge. Constantine’s nemesis was premier, Eleftherios Venizelos, whom he twice dismissed – in March and October, 1915. These internal divisions would polarize the Greeks into two armed camps. I thought this would stop the Greeks from attacking us. I also heard that Constantine believed in a German victory.

On several occasions, Theotokis raised the issue of the treatment of Greeks in Turkey. He quoted newspaper reports showing that we were deporting large numbers of Greeks living along the shores of the Black Sea into the Anatolian interior. Many supposedly perished from starvation, lack of warm clothing, and the bitterly cold weather. He told me that the U.S. Ambassador provided him with copies of U.S. Consular reports detailing eyewitness accounts of the suffering of these individuals. I told him that these reports were a gross fabrication produced by individuals who hated Turkey. Theotokis told me straight, “how can you deny such reports that are coming from neutral sources?” Publicly I denied this but privately I didn’t like the deportation policy of our government. These were our citizens who were mostly loyal to the Sultan.

In June 1917, Constantine abdicated, with Venizelos returning to power. One of his first acts was the declaration of war against us. He joined the Anglo-French on the Salonika front, achieving a series of impressive victories over the Bulgarians. Venizelos wanted territorial compensation in Asia Minor for joining the allies. Our nation was on its knees, exhausted from the fighting of four years. We lost the will to fight after a series of military defeats in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Syria. The allied blockade of our ports led to daily shortages of the necessities of life with our people suffering starvation and disease. We couldn’t get medical supplies, so our doctors improvised as best they could.

After the war, I returned to Constantinople and faded into private life, opening up my law practice. At post-war talks in Paris, our empire was like a carcass ready to be torn up into small pieces and to be devoured by our former enemies. I am glad the war is over. I hope peace reigns.

 

 

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