Turkey in the Second World War

The Republic of Turkey was born only 22 years before the Second World War and came from the disastrous experience of the last years of the Ottoman Empire, now in decline for at least 300 years. In fact, even before the Great War, the Empire was reduced only to the Turkish peninsula, to the current territory on European soil and to some territories from Syria to the Arab peninsula. At the end of the armed conflict, it controlled only part of Anatolia and the Treaty of Sèvres was about to further reduce its territories. With the Turkish War of Independence, Turkey led by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) managed to fix the borders to the current ones. However, there would be a lot to say and today, on the occasion of the Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation for Those Who Lost Their Lives During the Second World War, which is celebrated on 8 and 9 May (starting from 2005), I would like instead to talk to you about role of Turkey in the Second World War, a role that is not central, often unknown, but in reality nonetheless impactful.

The starting position:

Atatürk died a year before WWII and this somehow certainly influenced the years to come, which were extremely important to the world. In 1938, the Turkish army, like others at the time, was ill-equipped. As late as February 1940, the Turkish government had applied for 150,000 rifles from the British government. Before the outbreak of the war, Turkey signed a Mutual Aid Pact with France and the United Kingdom in 1939, thus placing itself on the side of the future Allies, but, after the Nazi invasion of France, Turkey remained neutral, relying on a clause that it allowed Turkey not to intervene if this could cause conflicts with the USSR. The official declaration came just two days after the Nazi attack on Poland, which took place on September 1, 1939. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, according to historian Ernest Phillips, if the German air force had attacked Turkey, it would have been a problem for the British, as they would have had another weak front to defend. From 18 June 1941, however, after Bulgaria had joined the Axis, Turkey even signed a treaty of friendship with Germany, which undermined the position of the Turkish state, but which in any case remained neutral. But why did Turkey remain neutral? 


Stupid officer Zapp Brannigan, in Futurama, hates neutrals, but it is undeniable that neutrality in WWII undoubtedly helped Spain and Switzerland, as well as Turkey. As much as Turkey was a one-party republic and, as much as Mussolini admired Atatürk and Hitler had even made it a myth for a certain period, the Anatolian republic was, thanks to Mustafa Kemal, quite clearly in a state of preparation for democracy. In the second free elections, in 1950, the Kemalist party, in power for 27 years, lost and accepted defeat. Neutrality was due to Soviet and Nazi pressure. In fact, the Soviet Union was afraid that Turkey could attack from the border with the Caucasus, while Nazi Germany aimed at neutrality with Turkey also for logistical reasons, given that precious raw materials arrived from Anatolia, lacking in the Teutonic state, such as chromite. Although Germany was at the height of its dominance over Europe, Turkey actually resisted the pressure quite well, refusing to have the Germans transport the war material that, in Iraq, would have been used by anti-British rebels (the purpose of the Nazis was obviously not the liberation of Iraq from colonialism, but that of embarrassing the subjects of his majesty).

Active neutrality:

The correspondence of the time shows how the Nazis were beaten by the slowness of the negotiations, that the Turkish government lasted until the British managed to reconquer the most important Iraqi cities, making German diplomacy useless in this sense. Perhaps there was a prior agreement with the United Kingdom, it is not clear, but in fact Churchill did not hesitate to put those negotiations behind him and immediately start others, which led, in April 1944 (with 2 years delay compared to to what Churchill would have liked), to the stop of the sales of chromite to the Nazis and to the end of relations between Turkey and Germany in August of the same year, which created problems for Hitler, especially in the context of his steel industry (which in war it’s even more important). With Germany now in ruins, in February 1945, after the allies made their invitation to the inaugural meeting of the United Nations conditioned by full belligerence, Turkey declared war on the Axis powers, despite the Turkish troops never having to fight. 

The dead:

However, Turkey had its victims, even among the military. Some simply died during a training attempt in Britain, but one of them was hit by a German plane. It is not clear, but some sources seem to indicate an unofficial involvement of some Turkish pilots in the air raids of Berlin, including the commander of the air forces, Emin Alpkaya. However, it seems that they were more observers than participants in the bombings. Another 168 people died in the Refah tragedy, off the coast of Egypt, when the military cargo Refah, coming from Mersin, was hit by missiles from a submarine (perhaps French, but more likely Italian). Very few, if compared with the millions of Soviet, German, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish deaths, without counting all the victims of countries more or less involved, even the 100 Cuban or Mexican dead. It is obvious that war kills, it is obvious that not only the military die, but at this point it is also clear that war can kill anywhere, even those who would like to keep out of it.

It’s true, it is sometimes unavoidable, but it is never completely fair nor harmless, for anyone. It was the dead who marked the beginning of a new era after the WWII, uniting enemies and freeing peoples after the end of the war, although we still see new efforts to divide people and spread hatred and for this we should not forget about anyone, neither the victims of the war, nor the victims of the pandemic, to restart and improve, even for them.

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