'A Black Day' in French diplomacy, 100 years on

ERHAN AFYONCU
ISTANBUL
Published 14.06.2019 00:01
Updated 14.06.2019 00:11

For years, we have been trying to counter the use of the Armenian question by France against Turkey. A hundred years ago, Süleyman Nazif, a late Ottoman poet and bureaucrat, gave a retort to France, which still exploits Africa, with a historic article titled "A Black Day." The Ottoman Empire's involvement in the political competition in Europe during the 16th century helped establish a political balance. National monarchies like France, the Netherlands and Britain managed to survive thanks to the Ottomans' fight against the Habsburg Empire. Indeed, in 1532, French King François I admitted to the Venetian ambassador that he saw in the Ottoman Empire "the only force guaranteeing the continued existence of the states of Europe against Charles V."

The Ottomans had supported France against the Habsburgs by sending money and troops and developing commercial relations with it. But after some time, the French forgot that they managed to remain standing thanks to the Ottomans' support. From the mid-17th century onward, they participated in alliances against the Ottomans. First, they helped the Venetians and then Austria. During the 17th century, they had devised plans to invade Turkey. In 1827, during the Greek Revolt, they destroyed the Ottoman fleet in Navarino Bay together with the British and Russians. France eventually sent soldiers to Morea and recognized the independence of Greece. But the French dealt us the biggest blow a century ago, during and in the aftermath of World War I.

Arrogance of a French general

The British, Italians and the French engaged in a race to control Istanbul immediately after the signing of the Armistice of Mudros. Istanbul was full of their troops and soldiers they had brought from their colonies. The French government ordered General Franchet d'Esperey (1856-1942), then commander-in-chief of the Eastern Armies in Sofia, to go to Istanbul. The French general, a national hero, arrived in Istanbul on Nov. 23, 1918, and went to the French Embassy in Beyoğlu.

A few days later, he returned to the Balkans. He came to Istanbul for the second time by early 1919. That time he was welcomed with a spectacular ceremony amid cheers of Greek and Armenian minorities. The Turkish nation, however, had never forgiven the general who proceeded through the "Cadde-i Kebir" (İstiklal Avenue, or Grande Rue de Pera) on a white horse, as if he was a conqueror. The general had a dislike for Turks. Later he wrote in his memoirs, "The only ones who had the energy to do anything are the unionists (ittihatçılar), the rest are not more than a bunch of eunuchs whom I dream of exterminating."

The French general's entry into Istanbul on horseback, emulating Mehmed II the Conqueror, and the exuberance of minorities deeply hurt the Turkish nation. In this atmosphere, an article titled "A Black Day" and published in the newspaper Hadisat on Feb. 9, 1919, by its editor Süleyman Nazif (1869-1927), came as a big blow against the French. Nazif's article was deliberately overlooked by patriots in the censor's office. Upon the publication of the article, General Franchet d'Esperey immediately ordered the arrest of Süleyman Nazif and Aziz Hüdai (Akdemir) Bey (1882-1950) from the censor's office, and their execution by firing squad. Hadisat was closed down for 17 days. Aziz Hüdai Bey was put into prison in the Bekirağa Division after being held in the cellar of the French Embassy for 11 days. Later, he was exiled to İzmir. As for Süleyman Nazif, he was detained by the British after hiding briefly in Istanbul and exiled to Malta. His article had rekindled the nation's hopes at a very dark moment in history.

'A Black Day'

In "A Black Day," Süleyman Nazif wrote: "The demonstration, organized by a number of our citizens (from minorities), on the occasion of the coming of the French general to our city, opened a wound, bleeding till the end of time, in the heart of the Turkic and Islamic people. Even if centuries pass and the present sorrow and misfortune disappear and luck and fervor return, we will still feel this pain and leave this sadness and sorrow to our children and descendants as heritage, crying from generation to generation. The French did not face such a great humiliation even in 1871, when German troops entered Paris passing under the Arch of Triumph, which had been erected to celebrate the victories of Napoleon Bonaparte. And they had not felt the same sorrow and pain that we felt yesterday between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. For every person deemed as French, not only Christians but also French Jews and Algerian Muslims, had wept and blushed in the face of that national mourning in the same sorrow and shame. On the other hand, we witnessed the bitterest insults by the revels and hubbub of certain citizens (minorities) who owe the survival of their nations and language to our generosity. We cannot say 'We did not deserve this,' because we would not have faced that disaster otherwise. Every nation has its moments of glory and despair in its history. It turns out that it was the destiny of our great nation, which had saved French King François I from the dungeons of Charles V and besieged the great city of Vienna several times, to suffer such a dark moment as well. But everything is subject to change. Arabs have a good saying: "Be patient, for Time is not patient."

Osman Esim Olcay's speech

Another similar case was experienced by Osman Esim Olcay, who also served as foreign minister for a time and represented Turkey in the United Nations during the Cyprus Peace Operation of 1974. When Turkey launched the operation, France, which was about to sell tanks, artillery and 50 Mirage fighter jets to Greece at the time, presented a resolution to the U.N. Security Council that targeted Turkey. But that resolution failed to secure support, and the council passed another resolution that condemned Turkey without directly mentioning it and called for negotiating in Geneva. Upon that resolution, Osman Olcay gave a historic speech on Aug. 17, 1974, in which he said: "Turkey cannot agree to talks intended to dictate terms that are obviously proposed by the Elysee. That attitude of France is related to its planned sale of Mirage jets to Greece. I regard with regret the submission and adoption of such a resolution. I also deplore the fact that the opinions expressed within the resolution originated from the ivory tower that France inhabits. France can be a great nation at times, but also descends so low when it is engaged in petty behaviors. What we see now is that petty side of France. The France of foreign legions, the murders of Şakyet Yusuf, and of infamous paratroopers faces us now and attempts to condemn what we Turks are doing. It seems that what drove France to play such a role was a delusion of grandeur. But no one has ascribed greatness to it for a long time now."

That speech is a perfect example of how diplomacy is practiced.

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