Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 16-World War to Cold War
16 World War to Cold War
Last night, ah, yesternight when Papen came to dine
The shadow of the Big Three seemed to spread
Athwart the feast between the Sauerkraut and the wine;
But though he wooed me with Teutonic passion,
And though through Cairo Nights I kept my head,
I have been faithful to the Allies in my fashion.
–“Chanson İnönü,” The New Statesman, March 11, 1944
William Donovan, the OSS director, described Germany’s endgame to President Roosevelt as “a picture of imminent doom and final downfall….Into a tormented General Headquarters and a half-dead Foreign Office stream the lamentations of a score of diplomatic posts.” Hungarians were seeking to leave the Axis, and “cagy Bulgarians are playing all kinds of tricks on [the Germans] and going off to Turkey on pleasure trips” masking secret negotiations. These events all signified “the final death-bed contortions of a putrified Nazi diplomacy.”
But the Turks were slow to conclude that Hitler’s Germany was, indeed, on its deathbed. They feared, wrote a British official, that “one squadron of German bombers would set [Istanbul] on fire and destroy it from end to end.” He continued: “This I imagine to be the purest nonsense. If true, it seems that we have been asking the Turks to commit Hara Kiri when we are pressing them to enter the war.” Turkish fears reflected both the city’s real vulnerability–narrow streets, wooden homes, no antiaircraft defense–and a deception promoted by the Abwehr .
The Germans played on these concerns in order to ensure that Turkey did not come into the war against them. They warned that German bombers would destroy Istanbul if Turkey joined the Allies. A popular Istanbul joke quoted a German diplomat as saying: “There is no need for this inconvenient black-out. When we attack, it will be in daytime.” British aerial reconnaissance of Bulgarian airfields showed that the Germans had few planes left and that the Abwehr exaggerated the figures on its air power which it gave to Turkish military attaches in Sofia. When British intelligence tried to explain to Turkish generals that the Germans were incapable of such attacks, however, the Turks assumed that the British were trying to fool them.
While von Papen fought a temporarily successful holding action, the Turks were becoming convinced that Germany had lost the war. Consequently, they cooperated more with the Allies. The British worked hard–with Churchill meeting İnönü for some personal persuasion–to convince Ankara to join the winning side. But the Turks were reluctant to do anything until they received huge amounts of military equipment, far beyond what the Allies could supply. Railroad trains full of Turkish chrome continued to clatter across the Turkish border toward the Reich’s factories.
“The Turks want to wait and see what happens this spring and summer,” U.S. military intelligence explained. “They are not sure that the Allied second front will be a complete success and they still suspect that Russia has designs on them.” In February 1944, the British gave up urging Turkey to enter the war and suspended aid shipments. One day, İnönü saw Knatchbull-Hugessen reading a book entitled The Years of Endurance, and asked, “Does that refer to your period as ambassador here?” A Soviet military attaché sarcastically described the Turkish stance as “Tout prendre, jamais rendre, toujours pretendre” (Taking all, giving nothing, always pretending).
If the Foreign Office and State Department could not get Turkey into the war, the OSS could, at least, stop the sale of chrome ore–used to strengthen tank armor and gun barrels–to Germany. Knowing that time was running out, the Germans had been speeding up the shipments. Macfarland and his British counterparts agreed that dynamiting railroad bridges in Turkey would imperil political and intelligence cooperation.
Refused permission to practice sabotage inside Turkey, the OSS decided to send Special Operations teams into the adjoining districts of Bulgaria and Greece to blow up the railroads used to transport the ore. When the Turks refused to allow saboteurs to cross the frontier, some OSS men were so disgusted they wanted to quit. But Ankara changed its mind after the OSS bluffed–to the horror of Steinhardt and the Turks–that it was considering wrecking bridges inside Turkey.
The key man in launching the OSS’s operations against the chrome shipments was Lieutenant Alexander “Alekko” Georgiades, who ran the OSS’s forward post in the Turkish city of Edirne near the Greek and Bulgarian borders. This Greek-American’s unique cover arrangement was serving as a diplomat in the Greek consulate. The Emniyet gave him a great deal of assistance. It gave him a special password for crossing the border, transported his supplies, and even let him wear a Turkish officer’s uniform. He made about three dozen trips into occupied Greece and Bulgaria.
In December 1943 he crossed into Greece for the first time to visit the Greek anti-Nazi guerrillas after their liaison man absconded with money and supplies provided by the OSS. The partisans were now hunting for him. “I would hate to be that man today,” wrote Georgiades.
Georgiades told their leaders: “I am only an intelligence man and as such I would give money or goods in exchange for cooperation in gathering intelligence to be used in fighting the enemy.” Describing their response, he said, “They liked the blunt way I put it but insisted on receiving guns to carry on the struggle with more vim and said that they would be able to offer more even in the field of intelligence if they had better arms.” They agreed to cooperate.
Georgiades stayed for three days with the guerrilla leader “Odysseus.” “He has deeply impressed me because, though little schooled, he has a keen intellect and a very alert mind….He possesses the powers of leadership….Men love him.” Georgiades observed no quarrels. The troops shared guns, caps, sweaters, and a great variety of political views. He described them as “mostly agrarian people whose families are either held by the Germans or were killed by the Bulgarians….Their clothing is pitiful. Their arms are a collection that would do credit to a museum….Living conditions and hygiene are primitive because of lack of medicines and soap.” Their doctor recounted with tears in his eyes that “nine men died in the last six months who could be easily saved if they had the proper drugs.” But Georgiades was somewhat disillusioned when the Communist leadership later purged “Odysseus” and several of his men as “Trotskyists” and tried to kill them.
Georgiades’s travels between Edirne, occupied Greece, and Istanbul made for some strange contrasts between the guerrillas fighting in the mountains and the diplomats in the luxury-loving neutral city. And despite the common goal of the Allied forces, there was no end to bickering. The resistance bands were suspicious of each other, his Greek diplomatic colleagues worried about the Communist guerrillas’ ultimate objectives, the British “plotted” to send their own men into the area, and the OSS men competed for influence. “The distrust everyone has against everyone else, most of it unjustified and magnified,” added to his worries about “what is going on beyond the river” in Greece. Istanbul was a “madhouse of intrigue and counter-intrigue.” Georgiades sighed, “Ambition is a terrific power which, combined with a little selfishness, can sweep everything in its way.”
The lieutenant’s main mission was to prepare the supply lines for an OSS sabotage team and to convince the Greek guerrillas to host it. Finally, in April 1944, he helped Captain James Kellis and two navy radiomen, Spyridon Kapponis and Michael Angelos, to cross the Evros River from Turkey onto Greek soil. Their task was to destroy bridges near Svilengrad, Bulgaria, and Alexandroúpolis, Greece, severing Turkey’s sole rail links with Europe.
A five-hour march took them to the mountain camp of the Communist guerrillas. The Greeks would help the Americans only if persuaded that they had purely military objectives and would not interfere in local politics. For its part, the OSS would only supply weapons when convinced they would be used solely against the Germans, not for the incipient civil war already causing hundreds of Greek casualties.
Beginning with 200 poorly armed, untrained soldiers, the Americans recruited 1000 volunteers and 10 former Greek army officers to lead them. Noting this activity, the Germans arrested civilians and summoned special counterinsurgency units which, at one point, surrounded Kellis, Angelos, and twelve guerrillas near a village where they had stopped for food. They escaped, with three men wounded, after a seven- hour battle.
To supply the partisans, U.S. planes based in Bari, Italy, made two airdrops of plastic explosives, weapons, and ammunition. Navy Lieutenant Everette Athens piloted the OSS caïque St. John through dangerous waters to deliver three men and more equipment. Now possessing an arsenal of 250 rifles, 250 submachine guns, and 11 machine guns, the Americans spent a week training the little army and giving twenty men an intensive five-day demolitions course.
Captain Kellis, with Lieutenant Athens, 170 Greeks, and 1400 pounds of explosives, would assault the larger Svelingrad bridge, just across the frontier in Bulgaria. Marine Sergeant Thomas Curtis, with Angelos, 50 Greeks, and 550 pounds of explosives, would simultaneously go after the Greek span. Kellis and his men marched through relatively safe mountains for the first two days. They then crossed the exposed valleys of the Maritsa and Evros rivers, walking always at night on a zigzag course to conceal their destination. Local guides took them past German and Bulgarian posts. On May 27, they reached the objective. Kellis, Athens, and two Greeks made a reconnaissance the next day while everyone else stayed under cover. They counted ten German and twenty-one Bulgarian guards. The importance of the 210-foot-long bridge was clearly visible as the Americans watched nine freight trains–with 283 cars of matériel for the German war effort–and two passenger trains cross it that day. On May 29, Kellis assembled his enthusiastic troops, explained the mission, and prepared the charges.
Kellis sent some men as a screening force to hold off the guards and ambush any reinforcements. Once these teams were in place, the attack squad cut the guards’ telephone lines. Just before 11 p.m., Kellis placed ten charges in the bridge’s superstructure while Athens put four on the pier’s legs so quietly that the guards noticed nothing. Eighty minutes later, just as the fuses were lit, the Germans spotted the saboteurs, fired a flare to light up the scene, and began shooting. It was too late. The bridge disintegrated in a tremendous explosion. Kellis and Athens confirmed that it had been completely destroyed.
Kellis then led his men on a forced march, crossing the Arda River at 4 a.m. A German outpost spotted them and radioed a battalion, which was soon hot on their trail. Kellis, Athens, and the sabotage crew went on ahead while the Greeks led the pursuers on a three-day wild- goose chase. They finally succeeded in ambushing and killing the German battalion commander and his staff.
The night after Kellis blew his bridge, Angelos, carrying a submachine gun, walked up to the Greek span. A Greek gendarme guarding it asked what he was doing there at such a late hour. Angelos replied that he was an American who had come to destroy the bridge. The Greek offered to help but warned that the rest of the guards might be less cooperative. Scrambling back down the hill, Angelos told Sergeant Curtis, who had his men surround the guards’ barracks. Faced with this situation, twenty-five guards chose to join the guerrillas; the remaining five, fearing their families would be punished if they deserted, allowed themselves to be tied up. Just before midnight, Curtis completely destroyed the bridge.
The flow of strategic material was interrupted. Although the Germans quickly built temporary bridges, these were too fragile to carry much freight. Given continued Allied diplomatic pressure and the lesson posed by the sabotage, the Turks decided to stop selling chrome to Germany and 690 carloads of already purchased ore were permanently marooned east of the bridges.
The OSS men were impressed with the dedication of the Greek guerrillas in fighting against the Germans, though they were wary of their Communist leadership and dismayed by their bitter internal quarrels. But the Americans understood the guerrillas’ urge for swift vengeance on those who collaborated with the Nazis. The OSS advisers witnessed what happened to one such man, named Kokinos, who was uncovered by a Greek civilian forced to work as an interpreter for the Germans. The guerrillas captured Kokinos with the help of a prostitute he was visiting and put him on trial.
“There is no doubt that this man has been a traitor to our country and has been responsible for the death of many patriots,” proclaimed the man who uncovered him. “His hands are soaked with the blood of f his own countrymen.”
Kokinos assumed a hurt look and replied, “Me! Me? I beg your pardon sir, but that is not true. Why would I do such a thing?” His eloquence, an OSS observer noted, “might have convinced a less hardened jury and his acting was nothing short of superb.”
“I was a poor boy with no father and a family to support,” Kokinos said. “I was forced to work for the Germans and could not get away as I feared the Germans would kill my family. In my heart I was always one of you and always regretted not being in the mountains with you. Not even the least little thing did I ever do against you or any of my countrymen. As a matter of fact, while I was working for the Germans I helped you…and saved many in your underground by warning them.” The audience jeered.
After speaking forty-five minutes, he made a final plea: “Take me into your organization….I will serve you in anything you say. I will cook, scrub, wash pots and pans; I will blow bridges by myself. I will sacrifice my life for my country. Give me a chance to prove what I say. Please, give me this one chance.”
The judge and jury were unmoved. Five minutes later, Kokinos was shot on the spot.
Cheered by their successes, the local Greeks soon doubled their guerrilla force and armed themselves with captured German weapons. Lieutenant Athens printed leaflets demanding that the Germans surrender, “promoting” himself to major for the occasion to make a stronger impression. In late August, the guerrillas began a drive to seize all of northeast Greece. During the battles, church bells rang and the Greek civilians’ chants of “Long live freedom!” and “Down with the Germans!” could be heard above the gunfire. The people of Férrai marched unarmed to the German positions. Women and children grabbed at the guns, and the seventy-man garrison surrendered without firing a shot. Another town fell after a thirty-six-hour battle–with Turkish border guards as spectators. By September, the whole district outside the capital had been captured. The Greeks took decent care of their 1000 German prisoners. A guerrilla leader told Lieutenant Athens: “We Greeks are not barbarians. If we treat the Germans as they have treated us, we cannot then say that we are a better race than they.”
Throughout these months, the OSS men sent intelligence by radio to Cairo and by courier to Georgiades’s advance post in Turkey. The haul included documents on German sabotage operations taken from a group of Bulgarian spies traveling from Istanbul. In September, Athens and a guerrilla band rowed across to Turkey to guide back a caïque, commanded by Kellis, which was carrying 3 tons of supplies to finish the liberation of northern Greece. But by then the Germans were evacuating the area.
The German troops in Greece had been thoroughly demoralized, and the Axis’s dismal prospects were equally clear to the Bulgarian and Romanian governments, von Papen, and some Nazi leaders. During the first half of 1944, it seemed as if everyone wanted to discuss surrender terms in Istanbul. The OSS was ready to talk with all parties about military cooperation or unconditional surrender, passing on political questions to higher authorities.
An OSS mission sent from Washington to negotiate with the Bulgarians included Angel Koumoudjinsky, a former Sofia banker living in New York whose friends included the king, high-ranking army officers, and leading politicians of all camps. The mission’s interlocutor was the Bulgarian ambassador to Turkey, Ivan Balabanoff, a veteran collaborator now trying to portray himself as pro-American. Balabanoff I shuttled between Sofia and meetings with the American envoys at the Bulgarian consul general’s house in Istanbul, where both sides exchanged Old World courtesies, professions of friendship, and Chesterfield cigarettes. Balabanoff said the Bulgarian government wanted to make a deal with the Allies and asked that the bombing of Bulgaria be halted while the talks were in progress. The United States and Britain decided to do so but urged Sofia not to delay its decision to surrender.
What followed was a tragic farce, involving much useless, complicated maneuvering. The Germans were suspicious and von Papen asked Balabanoff point-blank whether he had seen Koumoudjinsky. The ambassador denied having any contacts with the Allies. But the Germans were not fooled as several Bulgarian envoys in Istanbul jealously competed, plotted, and tried to split the Americans. Koumoudjinsky told a colleague, “When two people are separately charged with the same mission it can never succeed!” Bulgaria made the same mistakes at the war’s end as it had at the beginning: indecisiveness, greed for territory, and paralyzing fear of the Germans. Despite a Soviet-approved Anglo-American invitation to hold secret peace negotiations in Cairo, the Bulgarians were too frightened of Hitler to act decisively.
The Romanians were further from Berlin and closer to the advancing Russians, but they followed a pattern similar to that of Bulgaria. The OSS reported in November 1943, “Ankara and Istanbul in recent weeks have undergone an invasion of Romanians, all claiming to have been commissioned by their government to contact the Allies with a view to arranging some sort of deal by which Romania can get out of the war.” The Allies dealt with delegates from both the Antonescu regime and the opposition. Despite dangerous press leaks, sporadic exchanges continued up to the moment the Soviets entered Romania.
There was almost no active resistance movement in Romania. A British officer sent to organize a struggle against the Germans in August 1943 was quickly captured and killed. Another party led by de Chastelain, director of the British SOE’s Romania desk in Istanbul, had persistent bad luck. On the first attempt, in November 1943, its plane could not find the drop zone and ran out of gas over Italy: everyone had to bailout. The next month, de Chastelain made another try, landed several miles from his target, and was quickly arrested.
The fate of SOE’s Bulgaria mission was worse. Led by the British Communist Frank Thompson, the group sent useful intelligence from Bulgaria until May 1944, when its radio went off the air for a week just after reporting that the Bulgarian police had discovered the group’s hideout and were about to attack. When broadcasts began again, they offered only a vague account of the battle and insisted that the SOE send more men. The message was full of errors and omitted the security check an operator was supposed to use to indicate that he was not under enemy control. The British thus knew that their radio was being “played back” by the Germans, but they also understood how important it was to go along with the deception. Each operator had a distinctive style, so as long as the Germans thought they were fooling the British, the radioman would be kept safe to continue tapping out messages. After three months of SOE bluffing, Thompson’s radio operator was rescued by the invading Soviet troops and evacuated to Turkey. Only then did the British learn what had actually happened: the Bulgarians had captured the entire group. After a week, when the wounded radio operator had recovered enough, the Germans made him transmit messages. His comrades were all shot.
As the war in the Balkans entered the period of most intensive fighting, the spring of 1944 was particularly beautiful in Istanbul. “There is a haze in the air and a laziness in the bones that makes one wish to sit in the sun and doze,” mused the U.S. consul, Burton Berry. “The wisteria buds just outside of my office window are swelling and in a few days’ time will be in full bloom.” In May, the jacaranda and Judas trees sprouted their bright flowers.
Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, the Germans were killing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews each day in assembly-line death camps. Nazi and Soviet armies were locked in bloody combat. Hitler’s realm shrank each day as the frontline moved west. Allied bombers, often guided by OSS-Istanbul’s intelligence reports, were flattening the Reich’s cities. The Americans and British were preparing to invade France.
Cicero’s espionage had informed the Germans that the Allied plan to invade France was code-named Overlord. But it did not disrupt the major Allied effort to divert German attention toward Turkey and the Aegean. The weapons intended for the new offensive were camouflaged in England while the British pretended to create a new army in Egypt, only half of whose alleged troops actually existed. A sophisticated deception campaign was launched to persuade Berlin that this force would invade Greece and Yugoslavia in March. Pamphlets supposedly intended for soldiers landing in those countries were sent to Middle East printing firms deliberately selected for their poor security. Maps and plans of phony campaigns were circulated a bit too widely; troops were given special training that spying eyes might notice. Bombing, reconnaissance, signals traffic, propaganda leaflets dropped from planes, planted newspaper articles, and rumor-spreading were all increased in misleading directions. When the offensives did not take place as “scheduled,” new cover stories were leaked to explain the delay. The result was that the Germans kept tens of thousands of troops sitting in Balkan garrisons instead of sending them to France or the eastern front.
But the Germans did know that they were on the defensive and that their situation was increasingly desperate. The Russians were advancing from the east, and the Americans and British were preparing major attacks which would come soon. Fritz Fiala, who spied for the OSS from inside von Papen’s embassy, reported on April 22 that Berlin expected landings on France’s Atlantic coast and in Greece between May 7 and June 30.
Faced with this tightening vice, German leaders were desperately seeking a way out. In 1943, the opposition had made overtures; now, in 1944, feelers came from leaders of the Nazi establishment. Anti-Hitler conspirators led by Colonel General Ludwig Beck, the former chief of staff, and Gottfried von Bismark, a veteran Nazi party member, contacted Germany’s foreign intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg to propose eliminating Hitler and making peace with the Allies. They urged Schellenberg to convince his boss, Gestapo leader Heinrich Himmler, to help or, at least, to ignore their plan. Given the fact that dozens of people were holding meetings and talking almost openly about these ideas, one would have expected the Gestapo to round them up. Himmler’s passivity signaled his willingness to take advantage of a successful coup.
The anti-Hitler conspirators understood that speed was everything. Von Bismark asked von Papen to sound out the British and the Americans; von Papen had an aide ask George Earle, who was going to Washington in May, to pass the opposition’s message to Roosevelt. The proposal was couched along familiar lines, reflecting the Germans’ fear and hatred of the Russians: if the British and Americans allowed an armistice on the western front so that German troops could stop the Soviet advance, the dissidents would try to remove Hitler from power. The White House did not respond, viewing the idea as a provocation designed to enrage Moscow and split the Allies. Admiral William Leahy, Roosevelt’s military adviser and no softliner himself, told the president that “there is of course an element of truth in this German propaganda” about Stalin’s intention to seize as much of Europe as possible. “Even if it were 100% true and 100% objectionable to Americans there appears to be nothing we can do about it until Hitler is defeated.”
The German underground liberal opposition and conservative officers had each launched peace bids. Now Himmler prepared for his own coup if the dissidents seemed likely to succeed. He used a fantastic, roundabout scheme that could easily be disowned if Hitler heard about it. On May 19, the German courier plane from Vienna to Istanbul carried two rather unlikely passengers. One of them was Joel Brand, a 38-year-old businessman and a leader of the Budapest Jewish underground. The other man was Gyorgy. Brand briefed the Jewish delegation on his story while British intelligence quizzed Gyorgy.
They were a strange pair. The well-dressed, articulate Brand was a meek man who had been performing heroic deeds daily for a decade. At great risk, he had dispersed money from the Jewish delegation in Istanbul among Hungarian Jews and worked on the underground railroad to smuggle Jews out of central Europe. The squeaky-voiced Gyorgy had been a criminal and smuggler who had worked simultaneously for the Hungarians, the Germans, and the OSS.
On April 25, Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo man in charge of destroying Hungarian Jewry, had ordered that Brand visit his office. It was a bizarre meeting. Eichmann, sometimes screaming hysterically, told Brand to make the Allies an offer. The Germans would release 1 million Jews if the Americans and British provided 10, 000 trucks, 800 tons of tea, 800 tons of coffee, 200 tons of cocoa, and 2 million bars of soap. “Blood for merchandise” was Eichmann’s formula. The trucks, Eichmann added, would be used only on the Russian front. If Brand did not get results, all the Jews in German hands–including his own wife, two children, mother, and three sisters–would be killed. Brand was driven to Vienna in an SS officer’s private car, given a German passport under a false name, and put on the Istanbul plane. All these preparations showed, a State Department report later concluded, that “Brand’s mission is not the brain-storm of a minor Gestapo leader in Budapest.”
What was the motive behind this bizarre offer? The request for trucks seemed to echo the old idea of a deal between the Germans and the Anglo-Americans at the Russians’ expense. The demand for other goods seemed a money-making scheme for the Gestapo, along with an attempt to claim a humanitarian gesture by men who knew they might soon be tried as war criminals when Germany was defeated. The move was also a suggestion of a peace feeler and, more subtly, a hint of the plans for a coup against Hitler that were already well under way.
Brand repeatedly explained that while he doubted the Gestapo’s sincerity, the offer could be used to “play for time,” saving hundreds of thousands of people until they could be rescued. The end of the war was already in sight, and he believed the Allies should use the threat of retribution to frighten the Nazis into stopping their crimes. Some American officials agreed. Ambassador Steinhardt wrote, “It is important that the door be kept open for further exploration of the matter and that every effort be made to convince the Germans that our government is seriously concerned with the problem of the rescue and relief of the Jews and other victims and is willing to consider any genuine proposals.”
The British decided that the lifesaving plan conveyed by Brand must be rejected as a German propaganda ploy to embarrass the Allies and provoke a split with the Soviets. On June 1, the British took Gyorgy to Cairo for detention and interrogation. Brand was questioned by the Emniyet each day and returned to his room at the Pera Palace Hotel each night until the British took him off to Cairo four days later.
The British were especially determined to prevent the Americans from talking with Gyorgy. A State Department official in Istanbul correctly surmised that the British were particularly alarmed because Gyorgy was now acting as courier for a network stretching back to the chief of the Gestapo, Heinrich Himmler. Briefed by Schellenberg on the conspiracy already mounted against Hitler, Himmler was hedging his bets by refusing to interfere with that plan. If the coup succeeded, Himmler was ready to step in as Germany’s new leader and would make peace with the Allies, or at least with the British and Americans. If some last-minute reprieve to the Jews was necessary to cleanse his credentials, Himmler was willing to make the gesture. The demand for trucks and coffee, made through Brand, was camouflage for Himmler’s goal of seizing power in Berlin and extricating Germany from total defeat. By the same token, it was a genuine offer which could have led to the saving of many lives if the Allies stalled for time.
Ignorant about this part of the story, the Zionist delegation still frantically tried to get someone to act on Brand’s message. They begged the Allies to pretend to play along with the Germans for a while in order to win the release of captives or, at least, some interruption of the mass murders. London blocked these efforts at every turn. The British refused to let Zionist leaders obtain visas to come to Istanbul; they held Brand incommunicado in Cairo. Anti-Semitism emerged once again in this refusal to help save the Jews held by the Nazis. A British interrogator asked Brand: “Where…shall we put these Jews if Eichmann keeps his word?” A Zionist intelligence man in Istanbul, Ehud Avriel, later noted, “We were at the mercy of our friends, and we had no power to compel them to do what we wanted.”
The German opposition proceeded anyway, though the lack of help from higher Nazi officials doomed its plot. On July 20, an officer placed a briefcase containing a bomb next to Hitler during a meeting at the dictator’s military headquarters. Another officer, finding the attaché case in his way, pushed it under the heavy conference table. A few minutes later, the bomb exploded; it wrecked the room, but the table absorbed most of the shock and Hitler survived. He immediately ordered Himmler to wage a bloody purge. Himmler, who was prepared to seize power if Hitler had been killed, obeyed. The Gestapo arrested, tortured, and executed scores of people whose plots or suspect loyalties it had earlier ignored. Among the victims was the former Abwehr chief, Canaris. Germany’s fate was now set: it would fight for ten months more until Berlin lay in ruins and the final bunker’s last resident took his own life.
Beyond the Gestapo’s reach in Istanbul, von Papen stayed home and kept a low profile for the week after the failed assassination attempt. Privately, he admitted that Germany was finished, his mission in Turkey was doomed, and his own personal future was uncertain. Publicly, he called on Germans to remain united and loyal to the fatherland. “We are in a very difficult situation indeed,” he told the local German community. “Everybody must be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.”
As Germany’s situation moved clearly toward collapse, the British and Americans now demanded that Turkey break diplomatic relations with Berlin. The Soviets took a different position. Stalin realized he could gain more by portraying Turkey as pro-fascist after the war–and demanding compensation from it–than he would if Ankara joined the alliance.
Within Turkey, the government’s neutrality policy was popular. Most citizens believed that if Turkey entered the war, the Soviets would demand bases and try to take over the country. “Why,” an Istanbul lawyer asked an OSS man, “should we get into this war? Just so Russia can pick up the pieces?” A student inquired: “Will the United States and Great Britain guarantee our frontiers? Will you promise to fight Russia if she tried to grab the Straits?” But the Turks were also pro-British and pro-American. Once they concluded that Germany was not going to invade their country, they favored secret help for the Allies.
This stance was seriously undermined during May and June 1944 when British intelligence counted eight German escort ships and four patrol boats moving south through the Bosporus strait into the Aegean. The antisubmarine boom blocking the Bosporus had been opened to permit their passage under cover of darkness. The British protested to President İnönü. “Somebody has been lying to me over this business,” he told his cabinet. “It is either the British ambassador or Foreign Minister Menemencioglu.” Menemencioglu had let the ships pass. Von Papen had claimed they were merchant ships and probably also presented a sizable bribe.
Prompted by the British complaints, the Turkish navy now searched one of the boats and found German uniforms, guns, and ammunition. İnönü flew into a rage. “Is this the time to have the Allies accuse us of secretly helping Germany? What…if the British had seized these ships outside the Dardanelles and proved that they were armed?” He demanded Menemencioglu’s resignation but allowed him to keep the Mercedes and the sports car given him by the Germans. İnönü also forced the Turkish ambassadors in Romania and Bulgaria to resign. The former had been selling Turkish visas to Jews at high prices; the latter had sold refuge to Bulgarian fascist politicians. İnönü angrily told the diplomat returning from Bucharest: “You have been a good businessman and made enough money. I think it is time for you to retire.”
Another long-awaited development further reinforced Turkish support for the Allies. British and American armies landed on the Normandy coast at dawn on June 6 and quickly established a beachhead. A special courier from Berlin brought the first German newsreel of the event to Istanbul, where von Papen screened it for a selected audience of pro-Axis diplomats. The movie falsely depicted the battle as a German victory. “No one can get through the Atlantic Wall,” the hard-line Nazis boasted.” A thousand gliders have been destroyed, thousands of parachutists have been slain. We’ll tear them to pieces.” But few people believed Goebbels’s propaganda any more.
The success of the Normandy invasion convinced Turkey that its future lay with the victors. İnönü finally acted decisively. After a ten-hour meeting of the ruling party’s parliamentary delegation–many of whom only reluctantly yielded–the government announced on August 2 that it was breaking relations with Germany. The British, Steinhardt reported, thought “the Turks are naughty boys who have been misbehaving themselves and who have not yet earned the right to be treated as grown ups.” They need to “rehabilitate” their status as allies. Commented the London Daily Mail: Turkey “has interpreted the alliance by a passivity which we have always ‘understood’ but which we could have wished was not quite so obvious. Still, if a stiffening of the Turkish attitude toward Germany helped to shorten the war even at this late stage, it would be worthwhile.”
In response to threats by the Germans that they would now attack, Turkish antiaircraft guns rolled through Ankara past the parliament. Four British minesweepers arrived in Istanbul to keep the straits clear. The ships were nominally transferred to the neutral Turks by the simple expedient of having the British crews don Turkish navy caps. Three days later, von Papen, in his own words, turned out “like a thief,” left Turkey for the last time.
He expected a tough reception in Berlin given his enemies in Nazi circles and his record of subversive contacts with the Allies. Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill jokingly referred to von Papen’s coming punishment. But Hitler was too contrary to fulfill his archrival’s prediction.
Von Papen’s departure set off a little parade of celebration in Ankara. When Germany seized and annexed Czechoslovakia in 1939, von Papen grabbed the residence of Milos Hanak, the Czech ambassador to Turkey. For five years, Hanak had been a diplomatic nonperson. Now Ankara once again accepted him as an ambassador. Followed by a small caravan of wildly cheering Czechs, the Hanaks were driven through downtown Ankara. They marched up to the vacated embassy to reclaim it on behalf of free Czechoslovakia.
There were also, at last, some other signs that justice might still exist in the world. Peter Gabrovski, the Bulgarian minister of interior responsible for blocking the escape of Jews to Turkey and murdering those in Bulgarian-occupied territory, fled to Istanbul under an assumed name. The Emniyet identified him; the British and. Americans successfully demanded his expulsion. Gabrovski would not enjoy the haven he denied thousands of others. As he was taken from the police station to the train for Sofia, reporters asked: “What about the 20,000 Jews and the 40,000 Greeks who perished in territories under Bulgarian occupation?” It was all the Gestapo’s doing, he said. After the Soviets captured Bulgaria a few months later, Gabrovski was tried and executed.
Meanwhile, the German position in the Balkans was collapsing. During August and early September, the Soviets crossed into Romania and swept south and then west through that country and Bulgaria. As the Red Army arrived on their doorsteps, these two countries made their belated attempt to desert the Axis. The Romanians sent an envoy to Istanbul carrying a promise to fight the Germans if given Allied help. They would release the SOE’s captured Romania expert, de Chastelain, to serve as liaison officer.
On August 23, with the Soviets deep into northern Romania, King Michael staged a “coup” with the support of some military officers and arrested Prime Minister Antonescu. Crowds celebrated in front of the palace while inside the king tried to contact Istanbul on his personal transmitter. At that moment, de Chastelain arrived wearing his British uniform. The demonstrators insisted on carrying him around on their shoulders before letting him enter the palace.
The king asked de Chastelain to fly to Istanbul and obtain military aid. Navigating by a road map, de Chastelain made the trip. That same night the German army and air force commanders came to the palace and promised to pullout of Romania without further resistance. As soon as they left, however, they ordered a devastating three-day bombing attack on Bucharest. From the safety of the National Bank’s vaults, two other released British prisoners established radio contact with Istanbul and reported German positions. Romanian forces helped the Soviets in surrounding and disarming the remaining German troops.
Next, a Bulgarian envoy approached a British diplomat on the Istanbul-Ankara train to announce his mission to remove Bulgaria from the war. He was sent to Cairo to negotiate. The secret talks between enemies was highlighted by the Bulgarian’s fear that Yugoslav guerrilla officers housed in the same hotel would shoot at him in the corridors.
At the end of August, after Bulgaria had abrogated all anti-Jewish laws and asked the Germans to withdraw, Bulgarian forces went into action against their former allies. As Russian troops reached the country’s border, on September 5, the Bulgarian government declared war on Germany only to find Stalin declaring war on Bulgaria. The startled Bulgarians–now at war with all four major powers–begged for peace. But Moscow did not relent until the Red Army held most of the country and the Communist-dominated Fatherland Front seized power in Sofia.
If Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania had made a separate peace much earlier, it might not only have helped the Allies and ended the war sooner but it might also have saved those three countries from Soviet occupation. Now both Sofia and Bucharest were wrecked from the fighting and under Communist rule. “There is a shortage of everything in Bulgaria except intelligence reports,” wrote an OSS agent. Although the Peasant and Social Democratic parties were participating in the nationalist governments set up in Romania and Bulgaria, Stalin began to destroy these partners and impose his own Communist protégés as dictators.
With those two capitals no longer in enemy hands, however, OSS-Istanbul was able to send in missions to gather intelligence on the Germans, observe developments, and evacuate over 1600 captured Allied fliers. The OSS intelligence team in Romania was led by Frank Wisner, who had succeeded Macfarland as OSS chief in Turkey. His men seized the files of the German air force headquarters in Bucharest; the documents included plans for advanced German warplanes and rare reconnaissance photos of the U.S.S.R.
During this interregnum when the Soviets were still being cooperative, the Haganah’s Istanbul men also moved into Bulgaria ,and Romania to help reorganize the Jewish communities and assist emigration. In December 1944, David Ben-Gurion came to Istanbul, where he had studied thirty years earlier, and addressed the local Jewish community in fluent Turkish at Haydarpasha Station. He then boarded the Orient Express to Bulgaria, where he became the first Jewish leader to set foot in the formerly occupied lands.
Soviet tolerance did not last very long. In a few weeks, Moscow threw the OSS out of Romania and Bulgaria and did not allow it to return until months later and, even then, only under tight supervision. The Russians harassed official Anglo-American observers, kept out Western journalists, and arrested local people who spoke to Westerners. After trying real fascist collaborators, the Soviets began to imprison and kill non-Communist resistance leaders. Stalin had begun the process of turning central Europe into Soviet-dominated eastern Europe. The Turks watched with dread as their worst geopolitical nightmare took shape.
Meanwhile, the 3000 people holding German passports in Turkey faced their own nightmare. With Turkish-German relations now broken, pro-Nazi and anti-Nazi Germans alike were sent to three provincial camps in rural areas. The refugees from Hitler’s regime, many of them Jews, feared they would be deported to Germany.
The OSS and British intelligence helped a few people who had worked with them to leave for Allied territory. Among this privileged group were two of the OSS’s most prolific sources. One of them, Franz Josef Ridiger (agent “Stock”), was a genuine patriot who had been the liaison between the OSS and the ill-fated Austrian resistance movement. The other man was Fritz Fiala (agent “Dahlia”), the German embassy press counselor who had defected with his secretary/mistress. Fiala was a loyal Nazi and the last person his colleagues had expected to change sides. When Fiala was interrogated in Cairo, his long-suspected role as double agent became clear. He had produced verifiably true reports on German domestic politics and gossip which did little harm to the Axis. Once he had been accepted as legitimate, Fiala gave the OSS deceptive information on bombing targets. A careful comparison of Fiala’s claims with aerial reconnaissance revealed his treachery. After the war, Fiala was deported to Czechoslovakia where he was tried and executed as a traitor.
As the Reich disintegrated, hundreds of German soldiers also deserted, crossing into Turkey from Bulgaria and Greece and arriving from across the Black Sea. The Emniyet chief in one Aegean port offered to supply his British counterpart with all the Germans he wanted at a modest price. There were so many available that the British had to hire Turkish policemen to guard them.
The German garrisons in the Greek islands also capitulated. A tiny 2 1/2-ton British caïque, captained by an army sergeant-major, sailed into the harbor of the beautiful Greek island of Santorini and demanded the surrender of its 300-man garrison. The German commander agreed, but he insisted a larger warship be sent to keep up the appearance that he had given up to superior military force. The next day an 8000-ton British cruiser arrived for the formal ceremony of surrender.
With the Germans in full retreat, Turkey opened the straits as a supply route to the U.S.S.R. in January 1945 and finally declared war on Germany in late February. But the Emniyet now faced a new threat: instead of German spies, dozens of Soviet agents were descending on Istanbul. Stalin was determined to spread his empire and influence as far as possible.
At night, motorboats could be heard along the coast, traveling without lights or flags. In the morning, Soviet dinghies were found abandoned on beaches. Agents crossed from the U.S.S.R. or Soviet-occupied northern Iran to gather information on Turkish defenses. White Russian émigrés in Istanbul, some of whom had previously worked for the Germans, were now hired by Moscow. In February 1945, the Istanbul police arrested an armed Bulgarian Communist, landed from a Russian boat, who was carrying a large sum of money to finance these spy rings. A new international conflict was beginning.
But the old one was ending. Hundreds of miles to the west, SS Hauptscharführer Erich Mansfeld did not know, on April 30, 1945, that this particular day was his last day of work. The 32-year-old German policeman was a guard at Hitler’s Berlin bunker. The bunker’s main entrance was through a tunnel from Hitler’s offices on Wilhelmstrasse. But there were also an emergency exit and an escape hatch behind the building, a few yards from Hermann Göring Strasse. That day, Mansfeld was assigned to a small concrete tower next to the escape hatch when another guard dropped by at 4 p.m. to borrow a gun. As Mansfeld leaned out the tower’s window to hand it down, he saw four members of Hitler’s bodyguard run out the emergency door 10 yards away.
He went over to see what was happening. Out came Hitler’s personal aide followed by two SS men carrying the Führer’s body wrapped in a blanket. Immediately behind came another guard holding the body of Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun. Accompanied by Göebbels and Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, they walked a few steps from the exit. An officer ordered Mansfeld back to his post. Mansfeld complied but continued watching through the observation slit. He saw men pour gasoline onto the two bodies and set them aflame. The Third Reich was over.
The end of the war in Europe in May 1945 and Japan’s surrender three months later were occasions for joyous outpourings by the millions of people who had suffered or feared the war’s consequences. These events raised little emotion, however, among Istanbul’s citizens. The police ordered people to put out flags, but neighbors complained about the noise from the Allied diplomats’ raucous victory parties. The Turks were already preoccupied with a new Cold War in which they could not remain neutral.
On a hiking trip near Ankara, Huntington Dunn, an official of the U.S. OWI office there, came upon a small village. He was warmly received and taken to the headman’s tiny, one-room hut. About thirty people crowded in. The village teacher acted as their spokesman. “Ah, America,” he said. “I know your country. Your President just died and you have a great new bomb. You should drop that bomb on Moscow. And if you are afraid we will do it for you.”
In August 1945, Istanbul was the scene of a tragedy hinting at the new age of Cold War. Soviet Consul General Konstantin Volkov approached a British diplomat. He and his wife wished to defect, Volkov explained, and for 27,000 English pounds he would provide the key to a suitcase of valuable documents and reveal its Moscow location. He also gave a tantalizing warning when he said there were several Soviet agents in the British Foreign Office and intelligence services that he would help unmask. Since these spies had helped Moscow break British codes, Volkov insisted that word of his own offer be sent by slower, though safer, diplomatic pouch.
Unfortunately, the message landed on the desk of MI-6 officer Kim Philby, one of the Soviet agents who faced exposure if Volkov succeeded in defecting. Philby immediately warned Moscow to eliminate Volkov. At the same time, he calmly volunteered to go to Istanbul and handle the case for MI-6, but he stalled his departure as long as possible. Well before Philby arrived, Volkov had already been drugged, tied to a stretcher, and returned to Moscow for execution. In future years, pictures of Volkov being loaded onto the plane were shown to classes of Soviet agents, warning them of a similar fate if they sought to defect. Philby and other Soviet agents including Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess would go undetected for six more years, during which they did untold damage. The most junior member of Volkov’s consulate, Gaydar Aliyev, must have learned something from his boss’s downfall. He later became the KGB director in Azerbaijan and, in the 1980s, the first “Moslem” Politburo member.
While in Istanbul, Philby met with an earlier Soviet defector, Ismail Akhmedov, who had exposed Moscow’s involvement in the von Papen assassination attempt. Philby did not seem interested in his information about Soviet intelligence, Akhmedov later recounted, but was eager to hear about how Moscow treated those who defected to it.
At the time, of course, these affairs remained secrets known to very few. U.S. and British attention was preoccupied with Soviet political pressure on Turkey and Iran. Even before the war ended, Moscow began to criticize Turkey as treacherous and pro-fascist. “Being a neighbor of Russia,” commented a Turkish journalist, “is like living in the same room with an elephant.” When there were rumors that Ankara’s ambassador in Moscow was going to be declared persona non grata, the Soviet military attaché in Istanbul commented: “Can you think of any Turk who would be persona grata in Moscow?” His assistant added that if Turkey developed a first-class military, the Soviets would have to take over the country.
The Turks were now subjected to a ferocious Soviet campaign of threats and intimidation. American leaders noted that the Soviet techniques seemed analogous to those Stalin employed in eastern Europe. One demand followed another throughout 1945, accompanied by a Soviet military buildup along Turkey’s borders with the U.S.S.R., Bulgaria, and Soviet-occupied northern Iran.
Moscow demanded that Turkey agree to changes in the treaty covering the Bosporus which would give the U.S.S.R. a dominant role in the area and military bases near Istanbul. In addition, Stalin insisted that Turkey surrender the eastern fortress cities of Ardahan and Kars to him and other territory to Bulgaria. Since Turkey’s defense line ran right through these lands, this ultimatum was comparable to that of Germany in 1939 when it demanded Czechoslovakia’s strategic Sudetenland, which it then used as a springboard for occupying the rest of the country and as a base for further aggression.
The Turks kept their army mobilized and their determination to resist strong. In December 1945, around 5000 demonstrators led by Istanbul University students gathered by the Golden Horn. They carried banners stating, “We are neither Fascist nor Communist, the Nation is Democratic!” They destroyed a leftist newspaper office and marched up the Pera hill chanting, “Down with the Communists! Down with the Soviets!” Swinging onto the upper section of Istiklal Boulevard, they advanced into Taksim Square. The police stopped them short of the Soviet consulate.
The United States sought no confrontation with Moscow. On the contrary, most American leaders had been optimistic about continued cooperation following Hitler’s defeat. Recognizing that Moscow had legitimate security interests along its western and southern borders, the U.S. government was willing to accept a neutralized, Soviet-influenced eastern Europe and changes in Moscow’s favor on rules governing the Bosporus. What appalled the Americans, however, was the Soviet Union’s total, violent subjugation of eastern Europe and apparent plans to do the same to Turkey and Iran. Observing these events moved U.S. policymakers one by one, between the autumn of 1944 and the spring of 1946, to a deep suspicion that the U.S.S.R. was an aggressive and unreliable state.
“What frightens me,” wrote Averell Harriman, the U. S. ambassador to Moscow, “is that when a country begins to extend its influence by strong-arm methods beyond its borders under the guise of security it is difficult to see how a line can be drawn. If the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has a right to penetrate her immediate neighbors for security, penetration of the next immediate neighbors becomes at a certain time equally logical.”
Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle, a veteran New Dealer, said of Moscow’s insistence that bordering states must be friendly: “If it is meant that these governments must not engage in intrigue against the Soviet Union there could be no possible objection; if it is meant that, by subsidizing guerrilla or other movements, virtual puppet governments are to be established, a different situation would prevail.”
The Soviets used occupation troops, secret police, local Communist parties, labor unions, fellow-traveling or front organizations, and economic pressure, wrote Harriman, “to assure the establishment of regimes which, while maintaining an outward appearance of independence and of broad popular support, actually depend for their existence on groups responsive to all suggestions emanating from the Kremlin.”
Turkey was of tremendous strategic value in this new situation. It was, as a State Department official explained, “the stopper in the neck of the bottle through which Soviet political and military influence could most effectively flow into the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.” No other nation in the region “has a government or social order so stable and united as Turkey and none could be expected to stand against Soviet pressure after Turkey had gone down.”
To discourage Soviet expansionism and to encourage Turkish resistance, President Harry Truman issued both a warning and an offer of compromise to Moscow. “It is easy to see,” he stated in April 1946, “how the Near and Middle East might become an area of intense rivalry between outside powers, and how such rivalry might suddenly erupt into conflict. No country…has legitimate interests in the [region] which cannot be reconciled with the interests of other nations through the United Nations.”
Stalin could be stopped only by counterpressure. The strain of maintaining a fully mobilized 600,000-man army was pushing Turkey toward economic collapse. On March 12, 1947, the president’s “Truman Doctrine” speech asked for $400 million to aid Greece and Turkey and help defend other countries against Soviet aggression. It was the beginning of a new, permanent world role for the United States. Once again, Istanbul stood on the frontline of a global conflict and at a juncture of world history.