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Keeping the Pot Boiling: British Propaganda in Neutral Turkey during the Second World War

Written by Edward Corse.

Neutral Turkey was geographically surrounded by the Second World War. The Germans occupied land to the north and west; Italy occupied parts of Greece; the British were to the south in places such as Cyprus, Egypt and Iraq; the French were in Syria; and Russia, Turkey’s traditional enemy, loomed in the east in the form of the Soviet Union.

To try to keep itself out of the war, Turkey signed a number of agreements: a Treaty of Friendship with Britain in April 1939 followed by a Tripartite Agreement with Britain and France in October 1939; then later a Treaty of Non-Aggression with Germany in June 1941. Working to balance the interests of the warring parties was the very essence of maintaining neutrality.

However, being neutral did not mean that the war had no impact. Both Britain and Germany had Ambassadors in Ankara – Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen and Franz von Papen, respectively – and the cities of Ankara and Istanbul were awash with their spies and propaganda.

As early as December 1939, the Turkish newspaper Tan ran a series of articles exposing the German propaganda apparatus. Tan suggested that it was a significant operation and was conducted through a variety of channels such as the Teutonia Club, the German Church, the Deutsche Nachrichten Büro(DNB), the Türkische Post newspaper and through beer houses.

The British apparatus was far less sophisticated at that time, with British newspapers, in particular, being all but absent owing to the difficulty in transporting them to Turkey. Nevertheless, Knatchbull-Hugessen and others believed that despite their neutrality the Turks remained friendly towards Britain, and any propaganda Britain managed to disseminate only needed to ‘keep the pot boiling.’ Of course, certain types of propaganda are more effective for different types of audience. Providing newspapers in local bookstalls, to try to compete with publications such as Germany’s Signal magazine, was not necessarily effective for changing the course of Turkish government policy. Yet the absence of an obvious British propaganda effort at this time was criticised by a number of observers who visited the country.

There were other ways, however, of influencing the Turks. The BBC started broadcasting to Turkey in Turkish in November 1939 with straightforward news bulletins. Then later, Britons who were also Turkish-speakers such as Wyndham Deedes made more significant broadcasts. For example, Deedes ran a series of talks during July and August 1940 about various aspects of how Britain was coping with the war effort in day-to-day terms.

The British Council, the British government’s cultural propaganda organisation, started operating in Turkey in the autumn of 1940. Its representative, Michael Grant, was able to persuade a range of Turkish educational institutions, such as Halkevis(social education institutions), schools and universities, to take English language teachers, to the extent that demand for them soon outstripped supply. Later in the war, the Council organised art exhibitions and other cultural events, which helped create and reinforce sympathy for the British way of life.

Clandestine propaganda activity was also carried out by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) through a ‘whispering campaign’.  SOE agent G.E.R. Gedye employed three or four propaganda agents at a time who had a network of sub-agents creating and distributing propaganda. He stated that his aim was ‘to ridicule the Nazis in the eyes of anti-Nazis generally including Turks… cartoons have also been left about in cinemas, and dropped near tramway halts… but the main distribution has been by post.’ However, the SOE’s activities were not always carried out with the full knowledge of Knatchbull-Hugessen, who expelled Gedye in 1942 once he learned the extent of his activities. The Embassy was often accused of ‘stone-walling’ by other parts of the British propaganda machinery in its attitude towards this type of propaganda. However, the Embassy was concerned about upsetting what they considered was an already sympathetic Turkish government.

More open forms of propaganda materials were created and distributed by the Ministry of Information (MOI). This included, for a short while, a publication called Cephe (Turkish for ‘Vanguard’) which contained a mixture of stories about the war, how Britain was coping at home, and articles about fashion. The Foreign Office thought Cephewas ‘first class’ but the Turks quickly banned it on the basis that as it was edited outside of Turkey they could not hold any editor responsible for its publication.

The main issue with propaganda to neutrals like Turkey, was establishing the desired outcome of the propaganda and the best way to achieve that. Was it to merely highlight the achievements of Britain – both culturally and militarily – to gather sympathy but nothing more? Or was it to turn Turkey into an ally, by making the case for intervention so overwhelming that Turkey had no option but to join in? The MOI and Foreign Office agonised over aims and objectives for months and years – never really settling on an agreed policy.

There was a general agreement to try ‘to accustom Turkish minds to a state of belligerency’ but what that really meant in practice and how to carry it out were matters of ongoing debate. At one point an exasperated Foreign Office official stated ‘our relations with the Turks have been on such a hand to mouth basis that we have been unable to approve any such [propaganda] plan.’

The changing war situation was the key difficulty for the propagandists. What was needed in the early stages, when Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, was really quite different to what was needed once Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, given Turkey’s long-standing fear of Russia. As the war developed with theatres in Egypt and Greece and the Anglo-Soviet takeover of Iran, it was necessarily difficult to create messages which were consistent and effective.

Eventually, Turkey did join the Second World War symbolically in its dying months, once it was clear who was winning and there was no downside to Turkey’s decision to join the Allies. The propaganda line that Britain was using at the time – that to be part of the post-war order, you had to be part of the United Nations who defeated Germany – probably had the most effect. But a lot of the propaganda work that took place in Turkey throughout the war had a longer lasting effect as well. The teaching of English and raising awareness of British cultural values and the British war effort, created a sympathy that was long-lasting, with the effects being felt for much of the rest of the twentieth century.

Edward Corse is an Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for the History of War, Media and Society at the University of Kent and the author of A Battle for Neutral Europe: British cultural propaganda in the Second World War (Bloomsbury, 2013). Image provided by the author.

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