Last Train to Istanbul(2)

By: Ayse Kulin



After the long meeting, Inönü said, “The Germans are telling us not to try their patience, and at any time, they could make a deal with Russia behind our backs.” He went on to say, “Britain is fighting in Greece, and they’ve had a disaster in Libya; she is in no position to come to our aid. This is why we shouldn’t risk angering the Germans. Gentlemen, we must find a way to hedge our bets.”

What they were looking for was a way to play for time without saying yes or no to either side—a way of stroking their backs without aggravating them.

The morning after that long night, the prime minister invited the British ambassador to the ministry to explain Turkey’s predicament. She was heading toward the most fearful days she had encountered during this Second World War. The war was like a forest fire, spreading in all directions, and both sides had expectations of Turkey.

In his office, Macit lit a cigarette, took two puffs, and stubbed it out in the crystal ashtray before returning to the meeting room. The foreign minister and the secretary general were no longer there. His assistant said, “Macit, the president has asked to see today’s assessments. I have prepared the reports for you. He is waiting in his office.”

Macit hurried back to his office, in the section allocated to the foreign ministry of the presidential mansion. For some months now, they had been working there so that they could instantly report to and receive instructions from Inönü. Macit took files of notes that he had updated a few hours ago from his drawer, glanced through them, and dashed off.

Inönü was sitting in a club chair behind a huge table. He looked naive—smaller and more irritated than usual—leafing through the papers his private secretary took from Macit. Looking at the pages, it was as if he were listening to the voices of foxes in his mind, but he didn’t say anything. The other men sitting around the table were silent too.

Suddenly, he asked, “Have you listened to the radio today?”

“Yes, sir. Our colleagues have been listening to all the European stations. I gave our report to the secretary general a short while ago. They haven’t had a moment’s rest, sir, yet they continue to listen to Bulgaria and are preparing reports every half hour.”

“Our agents in Bulgaria are keeping us informed on a daily basis. However, it’s still unknown if Hitler is going to move south, or move north to attack the Russians, sir,” another young official said.

The young men left the room, and Macit stayed behind.

“Thanks to you,” the foreign minister said, “we have been able to take every precaution to make sure the fire doesn’t spread to us. Rest assured you can now go to Yalova with a clear conscience. We’ll keep you informed of developments every minute.”

Macit heard Inönü mutter, “I wish I knew what direction the Germans will go. Ah! If only I knew.”

The Germans had reached an agreement with Bulgaria, so the Germans had become Turkey’s neighbors. Inönü was terrified, not knowing Hitler’s next move. Hitler’s modern armaments and powerful army were just across the border. He might want to move in on Egypt through Turkey. Or he could move toward the Caucasus. No one, not even his immediate staff, knew what the next target was, so Turkey had to be prepared for every eventuality. The worst scenario would be for the Germans to reach an agreement with Russia. That would spell disaster for Turkey.

Macit waited for the men to finish reading the reports and then returned to the meeting room with the secretary general. There was another long meeting, with more reports to be read, assessed, and put together before they could be presented to Inönü. Hours later, as he was walking home alone, Macit worried. The government was paying a high price in order to avoid this fire spreading throughout the world.

At home all the women, as if in a chorus, were complaining about the high price of everything. If civil servants and their families in Ankara were distressed, who knew how the poor people of Anatolia felt? In an effort to protect civil servants, the state was selling state products—textiles, shoes, and sugar—at considerably reduced prices. Furthermore, to prevent the black market and hoarding, it applied a rationing system, which meant that everybody’s identity card was covered in stamps. Despite these precautions the black market thrived. Unscrupulous people looking for a big chance became wealthy selling goods off the back of a truck. Most people were angry but resigned; they couldn’t find or afford basic supplies, and had only bread and cereal to eat. The president thought his prime concern—a matter of life and death—was to prevent his country from going to war. Approaching him with the people’s complaints was pointless. For a man like him, who had already personally experienced the hell of war, anything besides this was of secondary importance.

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