Why did the Turkish Republic remain neutral in World War II?


A review of Russophobic Neutrality: Turkish Diplomacy 1936-1945, by Onur İşçi.

Why did the Turkish Republic remain neutral during World War II? This is the deceptively simple question driving the work of Onur Işçi in his dissertation “Russophobic Neutrality: Turkish Diplomacy 1936-1945”. The history of the early Turkish republic is certainly a still-developing field, but at least on a surface reading of the scholarship, investigations into Turkey’s role in Europe’s mid-century conflagration can hardly be described as scanty. International diplomatic historians, top-flight Turcologists, and historians of ideology have all at one point or another turned their attention to the Turkish experience during this period, and for good reason. Considering its geopolitical situation in the interwar years, it is astounding that Turkey somehow avoided armed engagement, and escaped with its territory intact. The still-young nation was the successor state of one of the last Great War’s belligerents, wedged firmly between the USSR and the ever-encroaching Axis powers, and controlled the straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, arguably some of the most valuable real estate in the world – making Turkey in many respects a desirable ally for any of the Great Powers.

Previous historians’ attempts to describe Turkish neutrality often emphasize the “cunning” of Turkish diplomats, as if Turkey’s role was one bent on national profit rather than realpolitik. But, as demonstrated in this dissertation, this narrative is one that leans far too heavily on a view from afar – specifically Moscow, Washington and London –, and not nearly enough on the records kept at the Prime Ministry’s Archives in Ankara. İşçi departs from previous efforts by the likes of Selim Deringil, Frank Weber, Nicholas Tamkin and Turkkaya Ataöv who have “come up with a different label – evasive, active, cunning, etc. – to define the nature of, rather than the reasons behind, Turkey’s particular non-belligerence” (p. 7). And furthermore, previous efforts to tell this story downplay the very significant economic price Turkey paid for its mobilized neutrality.

The problem with the previous characterizations, according to İşçi, is that they paint a fairly incongruous view of the diplomats who steered Turkey through the mine-strewn diplomatic waters of World War II. Turkish foreign policy in the early Republican years held strong to a nationalist ideology that fed on the anti-imperialist wave following World War I and a motivation to constrain, for the most part, adventurist irredentism. This characterization does not fit with the frankly orientalist caricatures provided by their British counterparts as “heirs of the wily traditions of the Sublime Porte” (p. 6). To correct for this, İşçi has substituted this erroneous mystique with the well-founded fear of Russia’s desires to leverage the wartime conditions to gain a more favorable regime in the Straits, and aggrandize its territories in the Caucasus, Eastern Anatolia and Iran. The appearance of an oscillating and opportunist Turkish policy was in fact, İşçi argues, the consequence of an often-quixotic quest aimed at securing military and economic support from any belligerent party sufficient to fend off Russian encroachment. The quest provides a fascinating, occasionally thrilling narrative that ends, somewhat paradoxically, with Turkey’s largely inconsequential declaration of war against the Axis powers in February 1945, days after the conclusion of the conference at Yalta.

İşçi’s first chapter, appropriately entitled “Rebus Sic Stantibus”, refers to the shifting diplomatic and geopolitical conditions in the 1930s that led Turkish diplomats to aggressively alter many of the treaties, alliances and agreements that had secured  Turkey’s existence in the wake of the independence movement in the previous decade. This decade saw major diplomatic revisions, and in some cases near-total reversions to pre-WWI conditions, of policies that governed the Straits, the management of Kurdish citizens of eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, the Turkish role in the French-managed mandate in Syria, and the nature of alliances between Turkey’s other Middle Eastern partners, particularly Iraq and Iran. Through İşçi’s careful, archive-based retelling of these significant shifts, we learn that a combination of the Kemalists’ soft-power irredentism, the tenuous, deteriorating relationship with the USSR and perceived threats brought by fascistic overtures from Mussolini’s Italy drove these policies. As the war erupted, and relationships between Turkey and each of the belligerent powers waxed and waned, Turkish politicians and diplomats hoped for an outcome that would restore the Brest-Litovsk geopolitical alignment – meaning a German victory over the USSR followed closely by a British victory over Germany.

Chapter 2, “Eyes on Moscow”, focuses on the intricate and consequential series of negotiations that occurred between the spring and fall of 1939 amongst Turkey, the USSR, Germany and Britain. The year began with negotiations between Russian Minister V.P. Potemkin and his Turkish counterpart, Şükrü Saraçoğlu, who would spend the next year navigating the ever-widening gulf between the USSR and the western European powers in hopes of maintaining Turkey’s “quixotic neutrality”. A great deal of diplomatic effort was put into warding off any potential Soviet threat to Turkish sovereignty. At first, Saraçoğlu’s efforts to build a Russo-Turkish security pact were met with enthusiasm by his Russian counterpart, but ultimately failed at the revelation of the ongoing negotiations Stalin was conducting with Hitler. After the unveiling of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact Turkish military focus was shifted from the Mediterranean towards the Black Sea. The ensuing changes in Turkish diplomatic and security strategy involved vain attempts to re-establish earlier commitments with Russia, but ultimately pushed them into a very advantageous mutual assistance pact with the Anglo-French bloc in October 1939. Securing suspending clauses of mutual assistance with regards to the Balkans, and a generous loan of gold and war materials from Britain, Turkey was then able to build up troops along its northeastern border and ward off any potential Soviet adventure into Eastern Anatolia.

İşçi’s contributions in this chapter are invaluable because they re-center these negotiations on Turkish sources, and the precise character of the negotiations with the USSR. In previous scholarship, even the best argued attempts at telling this story, lean too heavily on British documents that portray Turkey as a wily war profiteer, reflecting the heavy price Britain ultimately paid for Turkey’s “benevolent neutrality” rather than Turkey’s own very serious concerns over its precarious position between three distinct powers that were poised for imminent conflict.

In Chapter 3, the narrative moves forward to cover what was perhaps the most precarious period of the war for Turkey, the months after France’s capitulation leading up to and following the Axis invasion of Greece in April 1941. İşçi addresses a series of tense diplomatic maneuvers on the part of Franz Von Papen, the German Ambassador to Turkey, in order to secure Turkish neutrality while Germany bailed out Mussolini’s ill-advised adventure into southeast Europe. Von Papen and his German counterparts ultimately secured this by unveiling a series of telegrams suggesting Turkey and France were planning to bomb Baku, thus prompting Stalin to once more rattle sabers over the Straits. Known as the German White Book Plot, this plan successfully kept President İsmet İnönü from depleting his defensive posture in eastern Anatolia by rushing to the aid of Britain across the Aegean.

In Chapter 4, “The Barbarossa Bubble”, we witness the moments in late 1941 and early 1942 when Turkish hopes for a restoration of Brest-Litovsk crumbled into dust. The fact that Turkey largely stayed out of the Aegean following the Axis invasion bolstered German plans to secure their southern flank in advance of Operation Barbarossa. In this chapter, İşçi highlights how German diplomats leveraged fears of a protracted German-Russian conflict against Turkey, nearly poisoning Britain’s public opinion in the process.

Chapter 5 is the one that, perhaps more so than the rest of the dissertation, speaks directly to scholarship on Soviet history – particularly with regards to Stalin’s nationalities policy. By digging into the history of persecution faced by Crimean Tatars in the course of the war, and the reverberations it made in Ankara, İşçi explores how Nazi and Turkish nationalist policies were triangulated in Crimea before and after Barbarossa. It is a chapter that will prove very useful for those in Turkish studies who are less-familiar with scholarship on this issue from the Russian side, but it also asks some intriguing questions about the convenient overlaps between Pan-Turkish nationalism and Nazi ideologies – and whether or how the İnönü government provided cover for them.

The creatively titled “When the Hurlyburly’s Done” is the final chapter before the Epilogue, and focuses on Turkey’s lurching shift into the American orbit following the battle of Stalingrad in January 1943. While German successes in Barbarossa’s early going kept Turkey firmly caught between the Axis and Allies, the turning of the tide in 1943 demanded a change in the diplomatic calculus. Shortly after Stalingrad, it became obvious to Turkish diplomats that they should cancel their diplomatic and trade agreements with Germany, but before doing so they needed assurances that Soviet demands on Turkish territory could be rebuffed by Britain or America. Getting these assurances proved no mean feat, and as such it allows İşçi to retell the entire history of the major wartime conferences – beginning with Adana in January 1943 and all the way to Yalta in February 1945 – from the vantage point of a supplicant Turkish delegation which saw its strategic worth shrink considerably following the Allied landing in Normandy in June 1944. It is fascinating to consider how little Turkey’s ultimate “entry” into the war meant in terms of the outcome in contradistinction to the apparent value of its neutral position throughout the conflict. In the end, despite losing considerable strategic leverage in the final year of the war, Turkey managed to secure a lend-lease agreement with the United States, a considerable prize when one accounts for the strains the “active neutrality” placed on the Turkish economy.

Often lost in the maelstrom of radical cultural and political restructuring that followed the First World War is that for all of the revolutionary zeal of communist, fascist and nationalist movements in the world, the fundamentals of the diplomatic culture hardly shifted at all. This has been a recent theme in much of the scholarship on the war in Europe, but by bringing the history of Turkish diplomacy in WWII back into the concert from which it was produced, Onur İşçi has demonstrated how the successors of each of the first Great War’s belligerents were acting on many of the same cultural and geopolitical assumptions as they were two and a half decades earlier. By the end of the war, as İşçi begins to explain in his epilogue, the toll of Turkey’s neutral mobilization – 900,000 troops, skyrocketing debt, and double-digit inflation – was heavy. Ultimately, facing these facts pushed Turkey squarely into the orbit of the United States from the outset of the Cold War, representing a true rebus sic stantibus. As a result, Turkey would form the Americans’ Middle Eastern bulwark against Soviet aggression for decades to come.

By highlighting the true cost of neutrality, one hopes that İşçi’s work might signal a revival in scholarship on the Second World War that focuses on the diplomatic, cultural and economic dynamics of neutral countries – particularly in places that would become hot zones in future conflicts like Korea or Latin America – so that we might have a more complete picture of this violently entangled history, and further avenues to comparatively assess “active” neutralities.

James Ryan
Department of History
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources:
Başkbakanlık Cumhuriyet Arşivi (Prime Ministry’s Republican Archives), Ankara, Turkey
Foreign Office, British Public Record Office, Great Britain
National Archives, College Park, MD, USA
Documents on German Foreign Policy. Berlin: Austwärtiges Amt, 1949
Dokumenty Ministerstva inostrannykh del. Germanii, vyp II: Germanskaia politika v Turtsii. Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1946

Dissertation Information
Georgetown University 2014. 291pp. Primary Adviser: Mustafa Aksakal.

Image: Atatürk and Voroshilov. Source: http://ulasergin.blogspot.gr/2008_11_01_archive.html

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