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Third conference in the BIAA's 'From Enemies to Allies' series takes place in Oxford

Third conference in the BIAA's 'From Enemies to Allies' series takes place in Oxford

Following successful conferences in Ankara and Cambridge in 2016 and 2017, the focus of the day was the position of Turkey during the Second World War. The conference was convened by Emeritus Professor William Hale (SOAS; BIAA; BATAS), and introduced by Dr Celia Kerslake (St Antony’s, Oxford; BATAS) and Professor Stephen Mitchell (St John’s, Oxford; BIAA).

The day began with Professor Dilek Barlas (Koç University) giving a thorough account of the Turkish position leading up to and during the Second World War, with particular attention to Turkish-British relations. She emphasised the significance of the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, and the subsequent establishment of British naval and air bases in Turkish territory. Professor Barlas also highlighted little-known historical events such as the Turkish visit to Malta the same year, and discussed the unequal basis of an alliance in which the main enemy of Turkey was a resurgent Italy, which posed an immediate threat to its Aegean regions, while British attention was focused on Germany. The motivations of each nation, with Turkey not wanting to lose its relationship with Britain to Italy, and Britain not wanting to lose Turkey to Germany, and the limited nature of the parties’ commitments to one another, were also discussed.

The second presentation, by Professor William Hale, focused on the Tripartite Treaty between Turkey, Britain and France in 1939. He further discussed who was pressing for an alliance, at what point, and why, looking in particular at the personal roles of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his then Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax during the period of appeasement. Professor Hale argued that Turkey did not have a pre-meditated long-term strategy, and that the Allies’ position lacked realism: both sides suffered from muddled thinking and divided councils, and both were blind-sided by Hitler’s pact with Stalin, as the alliance had assumed that the USSR would cooperate in a war against Germany. The Allies’ commitments to re-arm Turkey’s forces could never have been met: it represented an “ill-fated alliance”, and Turkey’s neutrality from 1941 was a fall-back position after the Tripartite Treaty collapsed.

Professor Mustafa Aydın (Kadir Has University) gave a fascinating and detailed overview of the period with a particular focus on how Turkey negotiated and tried to avoid becoming involved in the War. As an International Relations expert, Professor Aydın’s contributions included asking if ‘neutrality’ is the correct way to describe Turkey’s position. He described how Turkey had signed non-aggression agreements with several countries including the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Italy, Iran, Britain and France in the 1920s and 1930s. Of these, only the Balkan pact and the Tripartite Agreement contained clauses that could bring Turkey into the War. Turkey also signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, making it the only nation to have signed such agreements with all of the warring countries in Europe. He argued that there was a “crisis of trust” between Turkey and the Allies, and that Turkey only joined the war at a point where little was expected of them.  The Yalta and Potsdam summit meetings again raised the key question of the Montreux agreement and USSR’s access to the straits, and thus foreshadowed the tensions of the early Cold War years.

After lunch, Dr Warren Dockter (Aberwystwyth University) spoke on the personal role of wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Although, as he argued, nothing in history is determined by one person, Churchill’s role was particularly critical. He examined Churchill’s own politics and historical perspectives; for example, the legacy of Gladstonian ideas. He highlighted how Churchill had been positive about Turkey in the inter-war period, and wanted to bring Turkey into the Alliance, in contrast to Chamberlain’s position. Churchill met President Inönü at a meeting near Adana in January 1943, and his vision for a post-war order for Europe included Turkey as a leader within a ‘Balkan bloc’. Whilst Dr Dockter described Churchill’s views as “ambiguous”, he was certainly never anti-Turkey, and understood the complex and multiple identities of Turkey as both a European and Middle Eastern state.

Dr Edward Corse (University of Kent) followed with an analysis of British Propaganda in Turkey during the Second World War, looking in particular at the role of the British Council, the Ministry of Information, the Foreign Office, the Special Operations Executive and the BBC. All had different roles to play in propaganda, including both overt and covert efforts. For example, Cephe was a Ministry of Information publication distributed in Turkey, in Turkish, in response to similar German publications. It was a victim of its own success, and was quickly banned by the Turkish authorities. Dr Corse argued that it is difficult to say whether or not propaganda was effective, although it was certainly necessary to counter the more extensive German efforts. He described the aim as “keeping the pot boiling”, as the Turkish were largely already pro-British.

Professor Şuhnaz Yılmaz (Koç University) looked at the Turkey – Britain – USA triangle. The Second World War was the period during which the world order moved from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana. Whilst Turkey tried to preserve its neutrality in Europe, this defined their global relationships, particularly with the United States. Professor Yilmaz described the Allies’ tactics as a “wedge strategy”, designed to stop Turkey from joining the other side, giving a name to the strategies other speakers described earlier in the day. The British had been given the lead by the Americans in establishing the relationship with Turkey. She again emphasised that Turkey joined the war with the clear purpose of becoming a founding member of the United Nations, having acted on a “dual balancing strategy” until this point.  Warm relations between Turkey and the USA were symbolised by the visit of the USS Missouri to the straits in 1946, committing the Allies to support for Turkey in the face of expanding Soviet power.

The final talk of the day came from Professor Bülent Gökay (Keele University), whose focus was the relationship between Turkey and the USSR. He described pro-Soviet propaganda in Turkey during the War, sponsored by the Communist Party of Turkey. He argued that the small group of Turkish communists had little influence with workers and peasants, but had close connections with the Soviet leadership. He described claims to the Straits as key to the tensions between the two nations, and argued that most accounts of this have existed in isolation, failing to take the context of the War into account. Turkey wanted to make the perceived threat of the USSR evident to the Allies. The international order was changing rapidly during this period, power dynamics were shifting, and Turkey’s uncertain position epitomises this.

All talks were followed by engaging discussion and questions. The day concluded with drinks in the College Buttery, during which all agreed it had been an extremely productive and stimulating programme.

Papers from the first two conferences were published earlier this year in a special issue of the Middle Eastern Studies journal, and a publication from this year’s speakers is in development. A fourth and final conference is planned for 2019 in Istanbul.

Article by Claire Reynolds, BIAA

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