Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 5-The Last Springtime
5 The Last Springtime
Hajji Baba was on his hands and knees outside his house looking for something. His neighbors joined the search. One asked, “What did you lose?” “A gold coin,” Hajji Baba replied. “Where did you lose it?” “In the house, but the light is better for searching out here.”
Czechoslovakia and Poland had fallen to the Nazis. But Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece and all the rugged Balkan mountain ranges still stood between Istanbul and the Germans. During 1940 and 1941, however, the German war machine moved closer to Istanbul. The countries that had seemed the city’s shield–Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece–caught on fire and melted away. Every event in that process was watched from Istanbul with mounting horror and terror, each new Nazi triumph brought thousands of refugees pouring into the city. In the fate of those captive peoples and bombed-out cities, Istanbul’s citizens foresaw their own seemingly inescapable future.
The Turks were basing their own decision of which side to take on whether the Allies were able to block Germany’s advance eastward. Some of them were inspired by London’s insistence that it would never surrender or compromise with Hitler. They heard the BBC proclaim, “There can be no mistake about the position of the British Empire [whose] resistance to the efforts of Germany to dominate the world will continue.”
But others were more influenced or frightened by what happened to their neighbors, and the spring of 1940 was the last happy season
most of the Balkan countries would see for many years. Their fortunes would soon be smashed, their independence destroyed, and many of their people murdered or made refugees. As the Turks looked on with trepidation, one of modern history’s great tragedies unfolded, bringing German troops within a few dozen miles of Istanbul.
“It seemed the sun had never shone with such warm, life-giving profusion,” American journalist Leland Stowe wrote in 1940. “The war in the west seemed very remote, like the fading blurred outline of an ugly dream.”
In Budapest and Bucharest, Sofia and Belgrade, there was laughter, music, wine, and food in great supply that springtime. In Budapest, from 5 to 7 every afternoon, people paraded up and down the Corso along the Danube. The cafés were crowded with onlookers drinking Colombian coffee and small glasses of Tokay wine. There was much clicking of heels and kissing of hands as young officers in fancy uniforms flirted with pretty women. The parade included servant girls wearing country-style embroidered blouses and full skirts, visiting gentry with high boots and hats sprouting pheasant feather plumes, businessmen in expensive suits, underpaid but proud government bureaucrats, students wearing visored caps and carrying briefcases over their shoulders–all promenading and watching the sun set across the Danube over the beautiful old city’s hills. At dusk, strings of lights appeared along both shores and across the Danube bridges.
The parliament building was one of the most spectacular landmarks. “We have everything one could want in the way of a parliament building,” Hungarians said, “except a parliament. That structure houses a trained seal act.” Hungary was a kingless monarchy ruled by an admiral–Miklós Horthy, a 70-year-old relic of the vanished Austro-Hungarian empire–without a seacoast.
Many of the patrons in the cafés facing the parliament building were from among Budapest’s 300,000 Jews, a community that had made a tremendous contribution to the country’s cultural, intellectual, and commercial life. But nationalist parties resented the group’s prosperity, liberalism, and mere existence. The Germans subsidized the green-shirted, Nazi-imitating Arrow Cross. Rightist leader Bela Imredy successfully sponsored anti-Semitic laws but then had to resign when it was discovered he had a Jewish grandmother. The way Imredy brought his
own downfall symbolized the self-destructive nature of Hungarian and Romanian anti-Semitism. When Jews were forced out of business, Germans bought their assets, further undermining these nations’ independence.
Similarly, the extremist nationalism that pushed Hungary and Romania into the Axis camp resulted in the loss of both countries’ independence. Hungary hated Romania for having taken its province of Transylvania after World War I. Romania reciprocated that sentiment. A Budapest barber pretended to spit when he mentioned the Romanians, noted an American writer, and a Bucharest barber actually did spit when he spoke of the Hungarians. Both states competed for Berlin’s support; while Hungary drifted toward German domination, Romania stumbled in the same direction. The Germans manipulated both countries. “The time has now come to make it perfectly plain,” one German diplomat said of the Balkans, “our wishes alone count.”
If anything, Romania’s capital, Bucharest, was more joyous than Budapest in 1940. Hundreds of lighthearted people strolled in the parks, on fashionable boulevards, and in the Jewish quarter’s narrow streets, past the palace, the mansion of the king’s mistress, and the churches. “Indecent as it probably sounds,” an American journalist later wrote, people had a good time in Bucharest that spring as the world crumbled around them.
The sun shone with bright Mediterranean intensity. At noon people flocked to eat hot little mushroom pastries at Dragomir Niculescu or cheap caviar (sold by the pound) and fresh-from-the-oven white bread at Luchian down the street. Romanian lunches lasted from noon to 5 p.m. Dinner was often eaten as late as 1 a.m. at Capsa, central Europe’s best restaurant. Patrons dined on sturgeon, goose liver, shish kebab, veal, pilafs, and sweet pastries. Afterward, in carriages drawn by beribboned horses, they took romantic rides along boulevards of sweet-scented lime trees. The shop windows displayed luxuries; the air was filled with the stirring music of Gypsy orchestras. Weekends were spent in the mountains or at the Black Sea beaches. Like the Titanic, Bucharest went down with lights blazing and bands playing.
Corruption and incompetence helped sink it. “I had heard about Romania,” wrote British journalist and intelligence agent David Walker, “but had never believed what I had been told.” Lampooned as “Ruritania”
in such contemporary films as the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup, Romania had become a symbol for corrupt, incompetent government. Walker spent three days rescuing his trunk from customs by buying presents and rounds of tsuica–the local plum brandy, potent enough to fuel a car–for twenty officials.
Everything required a bribe. One foreigner, angry that a taxi driver was taking him around in circles, ordered the driver to stop near a policeman. He gave the cop a small tip to, admonish the cabbie. The policeman gazed stupefied at the coin and then, smiling broadly, clubbed the driver senseless. The passenger had paid too much for a mere lecture.
The corruption was typified in a Romanian story in which courtiers explained the system to a new king by passing around apiece of ice. After it had gone around the entire circle, an aristocrat put the remaining, melted ice in the king’s hands: “You see, Your Highness? So with the handling of Rumanian funds. Everybody touched the ice and passed it on to the next man. Nobody took anything yet nothing remains.”
The currency black market was rampant. Customs men and railroad workers warned people entering the country not to change money outside of banks; then they offered their own rates. An Orient Express dining-car steward was so excited at one large financial transaction that he had the train stopped at a station while he discussed the appropriate rate with his partners, the sleeping-car porter and the engineer. One could live like a millionaire on $100 a month by exchanging dollars on the black market. Fifty cents bought enough Romanian currency to rent a suite at the Athenee Palace, Bucharest’s best hotel. A full dinner with caviar and lobster cost the equivalent of a quarter; English wool suits cut by King Carol’s tailor cost $10.
King Carol, known unaffectionately as “Carol the Cad,” systematically robbed his subjects; the corruption of his mistress, Magda Lupescu, made Imelda Marcos appear austere by comparison. Carol’s castle surpassed Hollywood in flashy bad taste. The entrance hall featured a 20-foot-high picture of Carol. Portraits of heroically posed soldiers, all with Carol’s face, lined the walls. The first floor was a copy of the Versailles Palace’s Hall of Mirrors; the exterior was an imitation of London’s Buckingham Palace.
Carol’s imaginative money-making schemes financed it all. He and his cronies owned the factory making uniforms for civil servants, and they periodically changed the required designs to promote sales. Shopkeepers were forced to contribute to the building of border fortifications, though no defenses were ever constructed. The king knocked down beautiful historic houses to expand his palace. Carol’s behavior set the national standard.
“Compared with Bucharest,” a journalist wrote, “even Paris was a prude.” Sheltered young Britons and Americans were shocked, then seduced, by the city’s vanity and heated erotic atmosphere. Love affairs were abundant; narcissism was the order of the day. Army officers, though forbidden to wear corsets in 1939, still sometimes varnished their fingernails. A policeman directing autos at the city’s main intersection ignored traffic jams while admiring himself in a hand mirror. Extremes of wealth and poverty far exceeded anything the newcomers had seen before. Peasant women, feet wrapped in torn-up burlap sacks, swept manure from the streets with crude twig brooms. Ragged peasants roamed down avenues lined with modern ten-story buildings whose elevators often broke down.
This city was the unwilling host for an espionage war between the British and Germans. The Athenee Palace Hotel was the main stage. “More real drama went on within the walls of that white stone building than was ever imagined in Hollywood,” one journalist wrote. The little bearded tobacco merchant reading a Greek newspaper in the corner worked for British intelligence; the well-dressed, pretty, dark-eyed woman sitting at the bar reported to the French. German agents mustered every morning and began their rounds by 8:30. Bartenders sold rumors to everyone. The Swiss manager stayed neutral. A dozen languages and accents wafted through the lobby. Tipsters sometimes furnished transcripts of telephone conversations made by the king’s own wiretaps. Everyone ignored the official signs posted in cafés: “Discussion of politics is forbidden.” Archie Gibson, the quietest and shyest of the foreign correspondents, directed British intelligence in Romania. He was so low-key, a colleague commented, that his most extreme flamboyant act would be to wear a slightly brighter tie on the day Germany surrendered.
Romania itself suffered one disaster after another. In June 1940 the
Soviets demanded that Romania give up Bessarabia, its northern province. Hitler supported Stalin, rejecting Carol’s plea for help. Carol ordered three days of mourning and then surrendered. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians became penniless refugees. The government did nothing to help them but paid Carol for his lost royal estates.
Desperate to appease Germany’s growing power, the king appointed a collaborationist cabinet which renounced British guarantees, throwing Romania on Germany’s mercy. Hitler, however, considered Hungary a more important ally and awarded Romanian Transylvania to it in July. The blows continued. In August, Carol yielded southern Dobruja at Bulgaria’s demand after selling his late mother’s favorite estate there. Following an old custom, the late queen had willed that her heart be buried at that villa. Thus, Romanians could accurately say that Carol had even “sold his mother’s heart.” It was the last straw.
In September, the thoroughly discredited king abdicated and fled with his money and mistress. General “Red Dog” Antonescu became dictator, acceding to a steady increase in German influence and anti-Semitism. Antonescu and his cabinet applauded enthusiastically an anti-Semitic play, Bloodsucker of the Villages, at the National Theater. In October 1940, German soldiers began entering Romania under the guise of a military training mission which, within six months, included 200,000 instructors. German money, military victories, and subversion allowed Berlin to control the situation. In November, Hungary joined the Axis and Romania followed suit.
War came to the Balkans from an unexpected direction. Confident of easy victory, Mussolini invaded Greece from his foothold in Albania in October 1940. Lacking proper winter uniforms, the Greeks were decimated by frostbite, and there were thousands of amputations. But to everyone’s surprise, the Greeks stopped the invading troops and then drove back the better-armed Italians through the rugged mountains. Advancing into Albania, Greek soldiers came upon an Italian sign proclaiming “Nothing can stop the Italian army!” A Greek had added at the bottom “From retreating!”
Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were becoming virtual German satellites; Greece was fighting for its life. The Turks were shocked by the developments. Von Papen returned from Berlin to turn his charm on Ïnönü: “I know, Mr. President, what misgivings affect you and your
country at this time….You may have little faith in diplomatic assurances, but I stand here as a man who loves Turkey as his second home, and who has had the honor of being your comrade-in-arms. As long as I occupy this post, I undertake that my country will not break the peace with yours.” Ïnönü smiled and shook hands. He may not have believed von Papen, but there was little he could do about it.
The Balkans’ fate was settled at a meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Hitler in Berlin. On November 12, 1940, the crowd at Berlin’s railroad station saw a curious sight. For Molotov’s arrival, a Nazi band played the Communist “Internationale” amid rows of hammer-and-sickle flags. German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop boasted, “No power on earth can alter the fact that the beginning of the end has now come for the British Empire.”
Both Germany and the U.S.S.R. wanted to rule in the Balkans. The Soviets, Molotov explained, wanted bases near Istanbul and control of the Bosporus. Germany should help get them if Turkey refused. Hitler replied coolly, and with an almost humorous legalism, given his usual behavior: The international treaty governing the strait could only be revised if the British and French consented. In later years, Hitler and von Ribbentrop would often remind the Turks of Moscow’s demands as evidence of the U.S.S.R.’s aggressive intentions against Turkey.
But if Germany was going to clash with Russia, the Soviets would stop supplying Hitler with petroleum. Thus, German control of Romania’s Ploesti oil fields was a necessity. They lay along the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, where the substance oozed to the surface in small pools and stuck to hikers’ shoes. One pipeline led to the Black Sea port of Constanza, though only neutral Turkey could still use that submarine-plagued sea route. The Germans transported Romanian oil on railroads already overloaded with freight and troop trains or by barge up the Danube River. The Danube, however, was frozen for three months in winter and the rapids of the Iron Gate cliffs could be passed by only one boat at a time steered by an experienced helmsman.
The British tried every possible way to reduce Germany’s oil supply. They bought Romania’s output at premium prices. River pilots were offered full pay in exchange for staying home. Oil trains to Germany were sabotaged; British planes bombed Regensburg, the German Danube port where barges were unloaded. British intelligence chartered 150
barges and tankers to keep them from working for the Germans, and half of these vessels eventually slipped through to Istanbul.
During 1940 and 1941, the British and Germans fought a secret war over Romanian oil. The former planned to destroy the oil fields or block the Iron Gate rapids with sunken ships if Romania seemed on the verge of falling under German control; the latter implemented countermeasures. Bribed Romanian intelligence officials turned a blind eye to British sabotage efforts while simultaneously letting the Abwehr place plainclothes soldiers from the crack Brandenburg Regiment as watchmen for every train, tanker, port, and oil installation.
Germany gradually won the upper hand. It persuaded Romania to fire British advisers in the oil fields and then to nationalize the producing companies. In July 1940, the Romanians began arresting, beating, and expelling British residents who were accused of sabotage.
The British were slow and indecisive. They had originally planned to send a strike force through Turkey to blow up the oil fields. After months of planning, the Royal Engineers’ Fifty-fourth Field Company came to Turkey from its base in Egypt in the summer of 1940. The Emniyet, worried that Germany might one day use Romanian oil to fuel an invasion of Turkey, helped the British. The Turks camouflaged the British troops as the “Number 1 Road Construction Party” in a quiet area near Istanbul. When the British embassy in Bucharest radioed that the moment for action had arrived, the men were to rush back and board a waiting ship kept loaded with their equipment and explosives.
Less than four weeks after sending the team, however, the British military command recalled it to Egypt. The British embassy in Bucharest angrily decried this retreat “at the precise moment of crisis,” but the generals judged that insufficient Romanian cooperation–despite a large sum earmarked for bribes–would doom the plan. There were also ethical qualms against what would have been an attack on a nonbelligerent state.
British dithering also blocked another operation. At British request, David Hacohen and Tuvia Arazi of the Haganah, the Jewish self-defense forces in Palestine, traveled to Bucharest to survey the situation. They offered a daring scheme for sabotaging the oil fields and carrying out guerrilla warfare against the Germans. Eight hundred trained Haganah men would exchange places with Romanian Jews, who would be saved
by being sent to Palestine. The soldiers would hide their weapons until ordered to carry out sabotage missions. The British first encouraged this idea but then vetoed it as too risky.
Only when it was already too late did the British make a serious effort to block the Iron Gate rapids. In April 1941, a flotilla of tugboats and barges loaded with dynamite sailed toward the Danube’s narrowest point. They were to be sunk as obstacles, and their crews, disguised Royal Navy sailors, would make their way to safety as best they could. These well-fed, clean-cut Englishmen did not quite resemble the rough Balkan types who usually sailed these boats, but Romanian authorities promised that the ships would not be searched when they stopped at a river port to refuel. Nonetheless, the boats were inspected and their mission uncovered. The Abwehr had known of the plan all along through its Romanian informants and had arranged to expose it in a manner designed to maximize London’s embarrassment.
The number of German agents in Romania rose daily. They were far superior to the dumb, arrogant martinets portrayed in American movies. Many of them posed as camera-toting tourists or journalists and spent their time wining and dining influential people. German purchasing agents descended like locusts, buying up so much food that the country was reduced to rationing. One of the most effective German agents, a beautiful blonde “agricultural reporter” who occupied a third-floor suite at the Athenee Palace, specialized in charming and seducing cabinet ministers. The local Gestapo chief openly subverted the government. When Romanian police raided his apartment and found it full of machine guns, rifles, and hand grenades, he faced them down by coolly claiming to be the local representative of the Krupp arms company. These items were merely his samples. The police apologized.
The badly outnumbered and outspent British could not compete. To keep up morale, they resorted to such pranks as kidnapping the doorman at a Bucharest restaurant where a visiting German minister was giving a luncheon for politicians. The British-installed replacement told arriving guests that the meeting was canceled. The Nazi speaker arrived to find an empty hall. Another time, British residents of the Athenee Palace arose before dawn to mix up all the Germans’ boots and shoes left in the corridors for polishing by the hotel staff. Coming down for breakfast, the perpetrators enjoyed the ensuing confusion.
One of British intelligence’s best informants on the German military buildup was a midget who insisted on a peculiar rendezvous. “There will be news for you on Wednesday, he told the British agent Walker. “I shall go to the Turkish baths at eight in the evening. Please join me there.” The prospect of sitting naked amid the hot steam meant that paper and pencil would obviously be out of place. Walker would have to memorize the numbers and types of incoming German munitions. But the midget would accept no other locale. The police, he claimed, “might put wires in your bedroom, sit at the next table in a restaurant, open your safe and your mail, listen to your phone calls, interrogate your mistress, suborn your wife, denounce your mother, even arrest you: but they never, never, never followed you into a Turkish bath.”
It was hard to know who could be trusted and who might be an enemy spy. One day, a British journalist was boarding the Danube ferry from Bulgaria to Romania when he saw armed Bulgarian police drag a thin, pale young man onto the dock. “He must leave Bulgaria,” said their officer.
“He cannot enter Romania,” replied the ferry captain. “He has no visa.” The boy cried that he was fleeing from the Nazis, pleading, “Don’t let them kill me!”
“No visa, no entry,” said the captain, ordering the gangplank raised. Just then, a passing German oil barge flying the swastika flag sounded its loud horn. As everyone else turned around to look at the boat, the journalist saw the “anti-Nazi” boy reflexively raise his arm in the Hitler salute.
The ease with which Germany captured Romanian politics, commerce, and oil wells provoked much British self-criticism. “As has happened before in this war,” the British correspondent and intelligence agent David Walker wrote, “we let the Germans be too quick for us: and we were too genteel in our own behavior….We surrendered to German hands, without firing a shot or [blowing up] an oil well, a zone absolutely vital to the enemy conduct of the war.” British diplomats continued their languid ways, pinning their hopes on the decadent elite rather than on the peasant and labor opposition groups to block German influence and stop Romania from becoming Hitler’s ally and oil supplier.
The Germans were more adept at sponsoring political movements,
including the Fascist Iron Guard, whose peculiarities reflected Romania’s bizarre theatricality. The founder of this extremist nationalist group was not even a genuine Romanian but the son of a Polish immigrant. The Iron Guard swore to destroy all Jewish, liberal, foreign, Communist, and French influence in Romania. Influenced by Hollywood films about gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan, it engaged in elaborate ceremonies and oaths.
When the Guard tried to overturn Carol’s regime in 1940, its leader and a dozen of his lieutenants were arrested and executed. After the king fled and Antonescu came to power, Iron Guard leaders persuaded the Romanian Orthodox church to canonize its martyrs as saints. The Guard marked the occasion by launching a three-day reign of terror, murdering 500 Jews and liberals.
While the Nazis were ideologically closer to the Iron Guard, they considered Antonescu the ruler best able to guarantee the continued flow of Romanian oil and food to Germany. In January 1941, the Iron Guard launched a coup against Antonescu and another bloody pogrom against Bucharest’s Jews. About 660 Jews were murdered, most of them killed and mutilated in the city slaughterhouse. Hundreds of people died in street battles. But the Germans backed Antonescu as he crushed the Iron Guard. “Air raid sirens screamed, church bells tolled for the dead, synagogues burned, tanks rumbled up the fine boulevards, and the provincial broadcasting stations seemed to change hands hourly,” wrote David Walker. When an earthquake devastated the city soon afterward, it seemed as if the end of the world had come.
Most of the British had already left for Istanbul to organize an intelligence base there. The Athenee Palace was full of German officers. German planes roared overhead. The Germans’ antiaircraft emplacements protected the oil fields; their technicians ran the railroad. Walker hung on to the last, commuting between Athens, Belgrade, and Sofia on the only available airline, Germany’s Lufthansa. “The Nazi pilot seemed so amused to have an enemy Englishman aboard that he said, ‘Ticket please!’ in perfect English,” Walker told a friend.
At last, Romania had been turned into a virtual German colony and military base for prosecuting the war. On February 10, 1941, the British embassy held a press conference to announce that England was breaking relations with Romania and closing down its mission there.
The Romanian censor refused to let reporters send any story about the break in relations. “But,” they complained, “we’ve just come from an official British briefing!” The censor replied, “That is no proof that it is true.”
Nonetheless, British and other Allied citizens were ordered to leave at 10:30 p.m., a half hour after curfew to discourage any popular demonstration of support. “But for piteous appeals for visas from hundreds of Jews, who besieged the Legation until the bitter end,” a British diplomat wrote, “the withdrawal was completed without incident.” German and Romanian troops lined all approaches to the Bucharest railroad station. At Constanza, six German tanks stood by the depot to ensure that no passenger strayed. The Allied civilians boarded a Turkish ship for the journey across the Black Sea to Istanbul. Curious German troops watched at the dock. As the ship pulled out, the soldiers shouted defiance and sang martial songs.
“The last time I saw Bucharest,” recorded an American correspondent, “it was much more a city of fear than a city of pleasure.” As Walker left Bucharest en route to Bulgaria, he looked down from the plane window and saw a long German military convoy headed in the same direction.
Bulgaria was Hitler’s next target, and it was well on the way to becoming another German base. German “tourists” crossing from Romania on the Danube ferry calmly opened their suitcases at Bulgarian customs to show the uniforms and revolvers packed inside. Germans, openly giving Nazi salutes in the lobbies, made up 90 percent of the guests in Sofia hotels in February 1941.
The large, well-staffed German Tourist Agency never sold a ticket. Railroad cars arrived daily with German weapons for the Bulgarian army and were packed with Bulgarian food for the return trip. A Bulgarian housewife told an American journalist: “We have no butter and no vegetable oil nowadays. We’re lucky to get even seven ounces of sugar a week-and this in a rich farming country like Bulgaria. The Germans take everything. Well, we’ve seized territory from Romania. Now we have to pay for it!”
Like Hungary, Bulgaria was driven into the Axis camp by its ambitions and territorial claims against Romania, Yugoslavia, and Greece. King Boris complained, “My army is pro-German, my wife is Italian,
my people are pro-Russian.” The peasants admired Russia and referred to the country that had helped liberate them from Ottoman rule as “Uncle Ivan.” The ruling generals and officials, impressed by German power, were convinced that resistance was futile and collaboration would be profitable.
The Abwehr tried to sabotage Bulgarian-Allied trade by mixing explosives resembling lumps of coal into fuel sold at Bulgarian ports. On one occasion, a British freighter in Bulgaria’s port of Varna rejected the poor-quality coal. An Italian freighter was then loaded with it as horrified Abwehr agents watched. The Germans bought it back at a premium.
Bulgaria also became a German reconnaissance base against Turkey. The Abwehr rebuilt a small ship to pose as a coastal freighter for photographing the Turkish coast. Buffeted by the Black Sea’s rough February weather, the boat finally came up alongside Turkey’s defenses. It was heading back to the open sea when Turkish soldiers on shore opened fire. Several men fell wounded as the ship fled. The Abwehr’s photos showed details of new fortifications but the expedition also proved that the Turks were too alert to be fooled. Aerial spying was easier. A German photo-reconnaissance squadron stationed in Bulgaria made successful flights over the U.S.S.R., Turkey, and Syria.
The U.S. envoy to Bulgaria was the remarkable George Earle. Heir to a great sugar fortune, scion of a family that arrived on the Mayflower, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, and graduate of a leading prep school, Earle rebelled against all these traditions. He dropped out of Harvard to become a naval officer, aviator, polo player, and tireless self-promoter. Politics was a logical next step. He abandoned his father’s Republican loyalties for the Democrats and became an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s candidacy in 1932. President Roosevelt was ever after grateful. In 1935, Earle was elected the first Democratic governor of Pennsylvania in forty-five years. There was even talk of a run for the White House, but Earle’s flamboyance and heavy drinking, as well as charges of corruption, led to the defeat of his 1938 Senate bid. Roosevelt then appointed him U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria.
Although this seemed a safely obscure post, Earle was never one to keep a low profile. He welcomed journalists to his office, which was filled with cages of songbirds. Throwing his enormous cowboy hat on the desk next to a beautifully crafted chess set, Earle settled in for long
talks, punctuated by visits to his big liquor cabinet. He often showed reporters his latest secret dispatches. When not the product of Earle’s overactive imagination, these messages consisted mostly of warmed-over newspaper stories.
But life around Earle was never dull. At any moment, his pet cheetah might bound into the office to terrify visitors. “Earle and his cheetah suffered from the same sort of problem,” one of his guests wrote. “The cheetah was really a good-natured beast, but, when she placed paws on your shoulder and began to purr, you could not be sure that she was not about to bite your ear off. So with George Earle.”
Some correspondents liked the man’s accessibility and lack of stuffiness; others were put off by his crude, domineering nature. The Sofia prostitutes complained that he was stingy. But Earle did everything possible to help the British and block the Germans.
In February 1941, Earle hosted a man who had similar objectives. William “Wild Bill” Donovan was a successful New York lawyer who had commanded the famous “Fighting Sixty-Ninth” Regiment in World War I. Roosevelt would soon make him director of the OSS, the new U.S. civilian intelligence agency. To get a firsthand look at the war and to rally support for the British, Donovan embarked on a long trip through Europe. He conveyed Roosevelt’s message that, as a Turkish newspaper put it, “the United States is determined to remain to the end at England’s side and render the latter’s defeat impossible; and that the United States will assist all countries who may resist aggression.” The Bulgarians gave Donovan a polite but cool reception. The Germans were far closer and better armed than the Americans.
Donovan was made to look foolish when Earle took him to Maxim’s Nightclub and a German-sponsored pickpocket lifted his wallet. A week later, Earle went back to Maxim’s and set off an incident publicized around the world. The day began when he invited the United Press and Associated Press correspondents to see his confidential cables. The two reporters spent an hour looking at dispatches which did not contain anything they did not already know.
“Okay, boys,” said Earle, “I’ve done a favor for you, now you have to do one for me. I have a big problem. I’ve sent my wife home. I have a Bulgarian mistress aged about twenty but last week I was in Budapest where I fell in love with a seventeen-year-old Hungarian girl. And I
invited her to come to Sofia and move in with me. But the problem is I have to get rid of the Bulgarian girl. Tonight I have a simultaneous date with the two girls, so the five of us will go out on the town.” Each woman would think that the other was dating one of the journalists, a ploy Earle hoped would fool them both and avoid publicity.
All went well until the women went to the powder room at the same time and compared notes. Neither was willing to give up her sugar daddy–an appropriate title, given Earle’s sugar fortune. They sat on either side of Earle and competitively pawed him. Earle, realizing his dilemma, got progressively drunker.
At an adjoining table sat an elderly, distinguished-looking German businessman celebrating his wife’s birthday. The waiters brought them a cake. Earle jumped to his feet. “Look at those god-damned Nazis,” he said. The German asked the orchestra leader to playa Viennese waltz. Enraged, the 220-pound Earle picked up a whiskey bottle and broke it over the man’s head. The orchestra stopped and everyone gaped in surprise for a moment. Then a half-dozen burly German “tourists” came rushing over to attack Earle.
The two reporters who had accompanied Earle, Robert St. John and Hugo Speck, acting as loyal American citizens, rushed Earle back to the manager’s office and barricaded the door. A melee broke out. Screaming women hid under the tables, glasses were overturned, and the Germans tried to break down the door to get at Earle.
Suddenly, a huge Bulgarian appeared from the crowd. He stood in front of the office door and literally tossed off Germans as fast as they came. Asked later why he had come to Earle’s defense, the Bulgarian replied that he knew Earle was very rich. He was a shoemaker and thought the ambassador might commission a couple of pairs of shoes. Although the man had put himself in great danger, Earle never gave him any reward.
Finally, the police arrived and broke up the fighting. The correspondents poured cold water over Earle, trying to sober him. He demanded to be taken to the embassy, where he called up his typist and dictated a cable: “I have this night been the victim of a brutal physical assault,” he said. According to Earle’s version, he was minding his own business. The club was full, the drinks were flowing, and everyone was having a good time. The orchestra was playing “Tipperary,” the marching
song that had become a pro-British anthem. An arrogant German officer stood up and demanded that it playa German waltz instead. When Earle objected, the German “threw a champagne bottle which just missed my head. [I] retaliated by injuring his features.” A group of enraged Germans then attacked the plucky American, and blows were exchanged until the police arrived. “It was hot while it lasted,” concluded Earle, “and I still think ‘Tipperary’ is a swell tune. [The] incident was regrettable but I saw no other course….I was very glad that 1 had two well-known American newspapermen with me who knew that in my account I spoke the truth.”
He showed the cable to Speck and St. John. “I want you to read this before you send your dispatches,” Earle told them, “because this is the official version of what happened. If you report anything conflicting I will have to disclose that you were both intoxicated.”
St. John and Speck left the office. It was around 4 a.m. St. John asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I’ve always thought of retiring to a farm so I think I’ll cable Earle’s version.
“I already have a farm,” said St. John.
“If you cable what really happened it’s going to be two to one.”
St. John went back to his hotel and considered how he could reconcile journalistic integrity with Earle’s threat. Finally, he came up with a solution. Last night, he wrote, there was an altercation at a nightclub in which George Earle and a German businessman were injured. There are two versions of what happened.…
The skirmish made headlines around the world. Earle received many congratulatory messages. Members of Congress who knew about Earle’s drinking habits demanded his withdrawal. Roosevelt laughed off the incident, dubbing it “the Balkan Battle of the Bottles.”
But the serious news from Bulgaria was that the Germans were taking over and the British were being forced out. On February 24, a British employee of the Passport Control Office–the cover bureau for British intelligence–disappeared en route from Sofia to Istanbul on the Orient Express. He had been kidnapped and tortured by the Bulgarians, who later staged an anti-British show trial with the employee as chief defendant. The Passport Control Office in Sofia and a British consulate were also burglarized.
On March 1 Bulgaria followed Hungary and Romania into the Axis. “It makes me ashamed of the human race,” mourned Earle. The next day was Bulgaria’s annual independence day celebration. The king stood in the reviewing stand saluting his troops. As soon as the parade ended, German tanks rolled into Sofia and occupied strategic intersections. Hundreds of U.S.-built trucks full of German infantry passed through Sofia. German tourists and businessmen appeared in their uniforms; German Junker-52 fighter-bombers roared over Sofia from their new bases. As the British diplomats prepared to evacuate still another capital, the British Press Bureau received a crate from London containing 400 copies of a booklet entitled “How to Recognize German and Italian Aircraft.”
The Germans made only one concession. The Bulgaria-Turkey border was a wild, desolate area through which ran Ankara’s only rail links to Europe. The snow-tipped mountains marched ridge after ridge beyond the Struma River’s narrow gorge, the scene of desperate fighting during World War I. If the Germans dug in there, the Turks could not hope to dislodge them from that perfect jumping-off point for an invasion. Turkey warned that it would go to war unless the German army stayed 30 miles from the frontier. Hitler agreed in order to maintain good relations with Turkey, but this was the only part of Bulgaria where his legions did not appear.
As the British again departed, David Walker, posing as a Bulgarian reporter, stayed for a few days in Sofia to interview German soldiers. Again, he was the last Briton aboard a sinking country. When he finally left on a train to Yugoslavia, he shared a compartment with a young, drunken German agent who thought Walker was pro-Nazi because he was reading a German magazine. The man’s gossip provided Walker with a great deal of useful information about German plans.
Now it was Bulgaria’s turn to be brutalized. Anti-Nazis were arrested and tortured. British intelligence smuggled out the leader of the Peasant party in a large packing case purportedly containing embassy archives. He took 2 pounds of butter and some oranges to eat, as well as a long-nosed Luger automatic to resist capture. A British agent accompanied the van carrying the crate. At the Bulgaria-Turkey border, Bulgarian guards complained that the truck had no papers proving diplomatic status. They insisted on searching it. The British official spent seven
hours persuading them to let the van go. More than thirty hours after leaving Sofia, the little convoy drove into the garden of the British consulate in Istanbul at 4:30 a.m. The Bulgarian politician sprang from his crate like the blackbirds from the pie. Only after briefing the British for over five hours did he consent to rest.
The liberal Bulgarian journalist Michael Padev had a more difficult time. He was arrested and questioned by Germans convinced that Ambassador Earle was a master spy directing all U.S. espionage in the Balkans. Released after spending several months in a prison camp, Padev and a friend sought to escape by sea to Istanbul. But the man who sold them a boat tried blackmail; when they refused his demands, he sent an anonymous letter to the police denouncing them. A friendly officer warned Padev in time.
Determined to escape Bulgaria, the two men traveled from village to village disguised as road laborers, working their way closer and closer to the Turkish border through areas full of German troops. An old peasant promised to take them the last few miles on a secret mountain path but became ill and then refused, saying the frontier guard had been reinforced.
Looking for a way through on their own, Padev and his companion finally came to the last village, split by the Maritsa River forming the border. They could see Turkey beyond rows of deep trenches, observation posts, and gun emplacements. That evening, Padev ran into a Bulgarian officer he had known as a student in Paris. Recognized, Padev feared all was lost, but the lieutenant instead invited the two men to his room.
“It’s my duty to report you,” he said. But instead the officer urged them to return to Sofia. Only forged documents would get them across. “It’s not a frontier, it’s a front,” he told them. He had seen Jewish refugees expelled from Romania and Bulgaria but refused entry into Turkey for lack of a visa. Trapped in no-man’s-land, they died of hunger or exposure. No one had gotten through in the last few months. So the two men turned back in sight of their goal and returned to Sofia, where they spent three months buying false papers through a diplomat from a German satellite state. This time they went back to the border by train, posing as meat merchants selling to the Germans.
As a precaution against attack, the Turks had wrecked the railroad
bridges over the Maritsa. Padev and his friend had to cross the frontier, with other travelers, by car. It took them a half-hour to clear the Bulgarian border post. Now they had to face a Gestapo checkpoint knowing their names and pictures were in German files. For two hours they waited in the car while guards marched back and forth in front of them.
Suddenly, a German official with a military escort approached and shouted, “Arrest him!” Padev waited to be dragged away. Instead, the Germans seized another man, a Polish officer who had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp only to be recaptured a few feet from freedom.
Finally, Padev and his friend walked across no-man’s-land onto Turkish territory. An Italian official who had crossed with them came up to the pale Padev and said, “You don’t seem quite yourself. Have you got a temperature?” Padev’s compatriot wheeled around and growled, “It’s none of your business you Fascist swine.” They were safe.
The British diplomatic staff took a more comfortable but ultimately more hazardous route to Istanbul. After the break in relations, the staff members left Sofia by train on the morning of March 11. Earle came to see them off. Germans wandered freely up and down the platform amid the unguarded baggage. The porters loaded two unclaimed suitcases onto the train. As the train bumped toward the Turkish border, Stanley Embury, son of an air attaché, and David De Bethel, a code clerk, took the bags into their compartment and went up and down the corridors trying to find their owner. Finally, they opened the cases to see if there were any clues. One contained two large radio batteries, newspapers, and a metal plate; the other held toiletries, a shirt, and a sweater with a battery wrapped inside it. The men shrugged and put the cases aside. Everything could be sorted out in Istanbul.
On disembarking at Istanbul around 9 a.m., Embury took the smaller case with him in his taxi. He went to the Pera Palace Hotel with most of the other staff members. A porter carried the suitcase through the door and placed it with the other bags near a column on the right of the lobby’s staircase. Most of the diplomats had just gone up to their rooms when there was a flash of light and an explosion from the direction of the suitcases. People ran from their rooms shouting that the Germans had come. The whole neighborhood shook and windows were broken in all directions. The first floor of the hotel was in shambles, with furniture blown across the lobby; the elevator collapsed, its cable
cut. Six people were dead, and another twenty-five had been injured. The Pera Palace never fully recovered from the damage to its lobby or reputation.
Hysteria spread throughout the city. When the news reached his hotel, De Bethel remembered his own mysterious suitcase, raced to his room, took the bag outside, and flung it over a cliff. When recovered later, it was found to contain a larger time bomb whose German-made mechanism had been stopped by the force of its fall.
At the time, many people thought the Pera Palace explosion signaled that war was about to come to Turkey. But Hitler had other victims in mind before striking at Turkey. German troops lined the borders of Greece and Yugoslavia. And there was another clue to German intentions. Just before he left Romania, St. John managed to sneak a look at a little black book that all the German soldiers in Bucharest seemed to be studying: the German army edition of a work entitled Introductory Russian.