Austrian Ambassador Johann Markgraf von Pallavicini was making his final preparations to leave the Venetian Palace in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu in November 1918. He had moved to this embassy building, which was once the home of the Venetian bailo (a resident ambassador of the Republic of Venice), in 1908. He was born in Padova, Venice as an Italian nobleman. However, he studied in Vienna and served this state for years as the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Istanbul.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire had sided with Turkey during World War I (1914-1918) and was defeated now. Istanbul was occupied by allied opponents, and Italian Count Carlo Sforza was waiting for him to leave the building in front of the Venetian Palace. The victorious European powers were represented by the high commissars in Istanbul; Count Sforza would also carry out this task on behalf of Italy.
The first thing Count Sforza did when he entered the Venetian Palace was to place a Venetian Lion figure on the front facade of the building. The 46-year-old count was a member of the loyal Sforza dynasty, the Duke of Milan related to the Pallavicini family as well as other Italian black noble families such as the Medici and Orsini.
Count Sforza did not visit Istanbul for the first time in 1918. His first visit was in 1901 and also stayed in the city from the beginning of 1907 until July 1909. As a diplomat, he was a regular of Cercle d'Orient building, which is known as Serkildoryan in Turkish back then. He even met his wife in Istanbul as his father-in-law, coming from an old Belgian family related to the Habsburg dynasty, was Belgium's ambassador to Istanbul.
Count Sforza witnessed both the revolution of the Young (Jeune) Turks in Thessaloniki in 1908 and the capture of the Turkish Sultan Abdülhamid II by the Action Army (Army of Freedom), established by the Young Turks in April 1909. He was a fan of Italian Mason Giuseppe Mazzini, the founder of Young Italy. Therefore, he also sympathized with the Young Turks, who were organized according to Mazzini’s Young Italy model.
However, he thought that these Young Turks, who revolted for constitutionalism, did not know what constitutionalism meant. They only learned the history of the French Revolution in the lodges of the secret societies of Thessaloniki, where Italy was very active. The count mentions in his book “Fifty Years of War and Diplomacy in the Balkans” that he also got to know Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Turkish Republic who was a 28-year-old young officer, at those times. He would meet the pasha once again in Istanbul.
Since Enver, Talat and Cemal Pashas, the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), fled abroad after the Armistice of Mudros was signed in 1918, the Unionist Young Turks were left leaderless. The owner of the villa where Sultan Aldülhamid II was taken captive was the Italian Jewish Allatini family. The unionists gathered at the Galata branch of the Thessaloniki Bank, which belonged to the Allatini family. During the meetings, they proposed that Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who returned from the Sinai and Palestine campaign – the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I, be the head of the CUP.
Count Sforza met Mustafa Kemal Pasha in his house and he was aware of this pasha’s dislike for Germans. According to Mustafa Kemal's claim, Sforza wanted to meet with him first, while Sforza claimed that Mustafa Kemal came to him to get his support against the British who wanted to drive him to Malta. It was a great chance for the pasha to contact Count Sforza, regardless of whom the first offer came from.
Mustafa Kemal Pasha and Count Sforza met at least twice in Istanbul. The first meeting was shortly after the pasha arrived in Istanbul. His friend Fethi Bey was also with him. In the report he sent to the Italian Foreign Office on Dec. 11, 1918, Sforza claimed that he "got two Turkish officers" without specifying names. But a later report on Dec. 17, he mentioned the details about his meeting with Mustafa Kemal and Fethi Pashas.
Sforza told the pashas that Izmir and its surroundings would be occupied by the Greeks and that they had to form a national armed resistance against this invasion. He promised that Italy would support them with all kinds of weapons and materials and reassured the Italian Embassy’s backing for them. The friends of Mustafa Kemal strictly recommended him to be the head of the organization. Mustafa Kemal and Fethi Bey thought that CUP should continue in the future of Turkey as they were planning to establish the United States of Turkey. Therefore, they wanted Italy’s support if they accede.
Sforza believed in U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's principles. He knew that the era of land occupation for colonialism ended with World War I. In his “Makers of Modern Europe,” he asserted that military power was of no use to Italian influence; a national movement for long-term business interests had to be supported. On Feb. 11, 1919, he wrote a letter to Elia, who led the Italian army in the Aegean Sea. In his letter, he explained that the British and French, through their expert spies, organized pro-Anglo-French independence movements in Arab countries. A similar movement had to be organized "very urgently" in the places occupied by Italy. According to him, it was impossible for Turks to create an independent state without the support of European power. And for their long-term benefit, Italy should be this European power.
Occupying commissioners in Istanbul used to meet once a week to discuss issues related to the administration of the city and the country. Count Sforza did not allow the Greek commissioner to attend these meetings. Right after the Greek army landed in Izmir, Mustafa Kemal Pasha started the journey that would mark his name in history. Upon the request of Count Sforza, he left Istanbul with the visa given by the British and reached Samsun by ship, where he was welcomed by the British troops. Ostensibly, he was the 9th Army Troops Inspector, and the count also had a hand in his assignment to this task in Anatolia.
But the pasha’s main intention was to organize the resistance against the Greek Army and to establish a new state. First, he participated in the congress held in Erzurum on behalf of the eastern provinces. In the congress, the National Forces, the irregular Turkish militia forces, were recognized as the only force. The pasha was elected as the head of the Committee of Representation, which represented the Associations for Defence of Rights, the regional resistance organizations established in the Ottoman Empire between 1918–1919 in eastern Anatolia.
Then on, he went to Sivas to attend another congress that convened on behalf of the whole country. Italian Professor Biagio Pace, in his article written in February 1920, named the Sivas Congress which he attended as the “September Revolution” and defined the purpose of the revolution as “to establish a new state that resists the possible decisions of the Paris Peace Conference.”
Italy had a great contribution in the organization of resistance to the Greek invasion, up to the first bullet fired in Izmir. Although the Italians occupied Anatolia before the Greeks, there was no armed resistance against them; in fact, an armed struggle had been started against Greece from the very first day.
Italy had occupied the Mediterranean basin, especially Antalya. The Italian Carabinieri, or the gendarmerie organization, known as "Arma" in short, was working in this occupied area. The most active of these units brought to Anatolia was the 379th Gendarmerie Team in Kuşadası and was led by Lieutenant Ugo Luca.
Luca was the chief of the Italian intelligence service in Anatolia, who happened to be quite adept at guerrilla warfare and spoke well Turkish. Later on, he would become famous as the "Lawrence of Anatolia." First National Forces against the Greek were established with the support of the organization headed by Luca.
Italy also tolerated the smuggling of weapons and people from Istanbul to Anatolia. On Jan. 17, 1919, the Ottoman police force was affiliated with the Control Committee administered by the Allies. In February, Colonel Count Balduino Caprini, from the Italian Carabinieri, was appointed as the head of this committee.
The world war, which resulted in the occupation of the capital Istanbul, started with the murder of the Austro-Hungarian Prince by a gunman named Gavrilo Princip. Princip was a member of the Young Bosnians, founded on Mazzini's Young Italy model, and worked for the secret military "Black Hand" organization. Young Turks in Istanbul had also established a similar organization: Black Arm. Colonel Caprini, who was highly experienced and knew Unionist Young Turks closely, was allowing the organization to smuggle weapons and people to Anatolia and was protecting them.
In addition to the weapons and humans, Italy was also transmitting crucial news and events to Ankara. They foretold that parliament would be occupied in Istanbul in March 1920. According to their briefing, a major operation was launched by the allies in Istanbul. The assembly was raided and some of the Unionist Young Turks were exiled to Malta under British rule. The Committee of Representation in Ankara protested this occupation in the international arena by using the station of the Italian representation in Antalya. Yet, this harsh intervention of the Allies served in the favor of Ankara. Young Turks such as Ismet Inönü, and Halide Edip went to Ankara with the help of Colonel Caprini. Thanks to those who escaped from Istanbul, the Committee of Representation was turned into a Grand National Assembly.
After Mustafa Kemal Pasha passed to Anatolia, Sforza was called back to Italy to become the foreign minister of the newly established government. Sforza continued supporting the Kemalists, while he initiated the first official talks between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Italy. The Bolsheviks, who overthrew Tsarism by a revolution, were providing arms and money to Ankara, which was also revolutionary. It’s because their communist leaders’ path once passed through Italy.
Joseph Stalin worked as a ringer at the Armenian monastery on the island of Saint Lazarus in Venice in 1907. This monastery belonged to the sect founded by the Armenian Mekhitar of Sebaste, or modern-day Sivas. The ideas of nationalism were imposed on the Ottoman Armenians from this island. The nickname of Stalin in Venice was “Jozef from Ice,” meaning Jew from the cold land. Perhaps for this reason the Bolsheviks sided with Ankara alongside the Italians.
As Italy was the greatest supporter of the Young Turks, the first unofficial representation of the Ankara government abroad was opened in Piazza dell'Esquilino in Rome. Count Sforza was again the first statesman to defend the revision of the Treaty of Sevres, which was signed in 1920 between the Allies of World War I and the Ottoman Empire and thoroughly discredited the government in Istanbul.
On top of that, he invited the Ankara government to the London Conference held in February 1921, while only the Government of Istanbul was invited as it was not possible to invite Ankara as an unofficial government. In this way, he gave the Ankara government an international formality.
Thereafter, the Kemalist delegation representing the Ankara government first went to Antalya and went to Italy with the Italians. After meeting with Count Sforza and receiving the necessary instructions, they went to London.
After the opening of Parliament in Ankara, Count Sforza also made successful diplomatic attempts to release the Young Turks who were exiled to Malta and managed to set them free. These Turks attended the Ankara government and reinforced Ankara against Istanbul.
The Greek army, which had been convinced by Komitadji Venizelos from Crete in 1919, stepped into Izmir and moved further into Anatolian lands. However, upon Venizelos' resignation in 1920, the army lost British support. The Italian Commercial Bank opened some loans to Ankara in March 1921; therefore, Ankara was getting stronger by purchasing weapons. According to writer Fabio L. Grassi, Italian merchant Mario Pellegrini was supplying laundry, weapons and ammunition to Ankara's army. Moreover, Pellegrini reported to Ankara that volunteers from Italy landed in Kuşadası to fight in the Kemalist army. According to this claim taken by the author Grassi in his book, these Italian volunteers fought against the Greeks in the İnönü Battle together with the army of Ankara.
The Greek army could not resist against the Ankara government anymore as it was supported by Italy, France, the U.S. and Russia. The Greeks retreated from Turkish lands in September 1922. The victorious Ankara surely did not forget these favors provided at a time of struggle for existence. After the Greek army left Izmir, Fethi Bey made the following statement to foreign newspapers on Sept. 11: "Turkey is pleased that Italy defended our rights in the name of humanitarianism. Italy was the first to argue that we should continue our existence right after the armistice. Count Sforza will not be forgotten.”