And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 16 June 2012


More snapshots from the Riddle of the Sands series
 “International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
Eric Ambler

 At the end of April One Man’s Treasure put up a post about a set of photographs taken by two Turks in Germany on the eve of the Second World War. Sixteen more photos from the same collection have been uncovered, making it a comprehensive album. It becomes clearer what the Turks were doing in Germany and why bridges and railways appear so frequently in their photos. The photos also cast light on Turkey’s situation during the war, which we think was inconsequential though complicated is a better word. 

This is a rather excellent view of a bridge over the Kiel Canal dissected by the rails on the ferry. Had it been taken by a well known German photographer of the time people might devote essays to his study of a linear arrangement. In fact a reputable photographer would have spent a bit more effort composing the shot and used sunlight and the darkroom to better effect. It is fairly apparent that what interested our photographer wasn’t artful composition but the bridge. The railings got in the way but they were of no real importance.

This suggests he was an engineer, which recalls a problem raised in the original post. Would the Germans be keen to have foreign engineers wandering about the country when Hitler had already settled on a date for the invasion of Poland? For sure, in May of that year only a very few people in high command would have had any idea how far advanced the plans were but anybody who read a newspaper knew war was inevitable. We can assume the Turks weren’t given carte blanche to wander as they liked but had a security detail attached to their party.

Maybe that explains why some photographs have a sneaky appearance to them, as though they were furtively snapped without much time for a proper composition. Some, like the one above, were photographed from moving trains, which you would do if you saw something interesting and had no other opportunity to photograph it. Surol, incidentally, was a vinegar essence so although the factory looks like it was the point of interest in the photograph our photographer was thinking more about the railway or in the layout of industrial space in the city.

Here’s a photo taken from a train winding its way through “Polonya Topraklar”, or Polish lands on May 25, 1939. There are obvious connotations attached to such an image. The German hosts would have, or could have, known about the concentration camps already set up in Germany but not the Turks, or if they had would have been careful not to raise the issue. It’s a safe bet that throughout their stay in Germany the treatment of Jews was never mentioned.

In May and June Turkey was playing its cards close to its chest. Germany was an important trading partner but Hitler had made it plain that Poland wasn’t his final objective. A hasty alliance with Germany based on historic ties or economic interest would have had the effect of further fracturing the unstable Balkans and set Turkey against England and France, which it couldn’t afford. Actually Turkey couldn’t afford very much in 1939. The modernizing reforms of the secular revolution hadn’t reached the country’s industrial machine, which was still badly underdeveloped compared to Western Europe. Only when Hitler and Stalin signed a pact in October would Turkey be obliged to make a stand, albeit a non-aggression pact with England and France that was not the same as entering an alliance. 

One of the problems with being neutral is that no one really believes you. There has always been a whiff of suspicion that although Turkey had declared its neutrality there were strong sympathies with the Nazis within the Government. Even the record of Turkish assistance to European Jews has never quite removed it. By 1941 Germany had put considerable pressure on President Inonu to make some declaration of support. When Bulgaria joined the Axis in March and Greece was invaded the following month, the message was clear. Turkey could maintain its neutrality but if it sided with the Allies an invasion was a foregone conclusion. Turkey kept its neutral position but signed a non-aggression pact with the Axis.

That is the official version but as these photos show the story was more complicated. Turkey had chromite deposits, necessary for transforming iron into steel. Germany needed the mineral and before the war signed an agreement with Turkey that involved construction of railways, plants and port facilities in Turkey, industrial development sorely needed in a country that was still agrarian.  The agreement was to expire in August 1939. In May the prospect of an automatic renewal was still feasible and so our two photographers went to Germany to inspect the state of German engineering. 

The clue is in this photograph of Gibraltar. The most straightforward water route from Turkey to Germany involved a short crossing of the Black Sea into the Danube and straight through to Bavaria, close to Munich. Why travel all the way through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic to Rostock on the Baltic Sea unless, as part of the fact finding mission, the Turks needed to follow the intended sea route for the chromite? Until these photos came to light the idea of putting the story in chronological order seemed unnecessary; now they have the chronology is significant. The photos trace two journeys between Turkey and Rostock, into the Kiel Canal and down to Berlin. All this time Turkey was presumably taking a gamble that Europe would pull back from war and that the chromite agreement would roll over. By August however Turkey succumbed to pressure from Britain, France and the US and didn’t renegotiate it, at least until 1941. (One photo is from Romania, dated 25/May/1939, which throws the chronology right out, unless there were three trips, one by train.) 

So these photos are about the murky world of foreign trade on the cusp of war. In the 1930s Eric Ambler wrote a series of thrillers – The Mask of Dimitrios, Journey into Fear, Cause for Alarm - where some hapless innocent stumbled across a web of dirty intrigues involving fascists and some secret business deal. They often started in Istanbul and ended up somewhere in Europe, by which time the leading character had come to realize how much of a fool he’d been played for. The surreptitious appearance of these photos and the inscriptions written in a shaky hand on the autograph camera could have been lifted from one of Ambler’s thrillers.



  1. These espionage posts are quite brilliant, John. Nice bit of research, investigation and supposition. Love 'em.


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