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Harry Stuermer

TWO WAR YEARS IN CONSTANTINOPLE

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CHAPTER V

The economic situation—Exaggerated Entente hopes— Hunger and suffering among the civil population— The system of requisitioning and the semi-official monopolists—Profiteering on the part of the Government clique—Frivolity and cynicism—The "Djemiet"—The delegates of the German Zentraleinkaufsgesellschaft (Central Purchases Commission)—A hard battle between German and Turkish intrigue—Reform of the coinage—Paper money and its depreciation—The hoarding of bullion— The Russian rouble the best investment.

During the entire course of the war as I have briefly sketched it in the foregoing pages, the economic situation in the whole country and particularly in the capital became more and more serious. But, let me just say here, in anticipation, that Turkey, being a purely agricultural country with a very modest population, can never be brought to sue for peace through starvation, nor, with Germany backing and financing her, through any general ex-

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haustion of commercial resources, until Germany herself is brought to her knees. Any victory must be a purely military and political one. The whole crux of the food problem in Turkey is that the people suffer, suffer cruelly, but not enough for hunger to have any results in the shape of an earlier conclusion of peace. This is the case also with the Central Powers, as the Entente have unfortunately only too surely convinced themselves now after their first illusions to the contrary.

There is another element in the Turkish question too—the large majority of the population are a heterogeneous mass of enslaved and degenerate beings, outcasts of society, plunged in the lowest social and commercial depths, entirely lacking in all initiative, who can never become a factor in any political upheaval, for in Turkey this can only be looked for from the military or the educated classes. If the Entente Powers ever counted on Turkey's chronic state of starvation and lack of supplies coming to their aid in this war, they have made a sad mistake. Therefore in attempting to sketch in a few pages the conditions of life and the economic situation in Tur-

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key, my aim is solely to bring to light the underlying Turkish methods, and the ethics and spirit of the Young Turkish Government.

During the periods of the very acute bread crises, which occurred more than once, but notably in the beginning of 1916, some dozen men literally died of hunger daily in Constantinople alone. With my own eyes I have repeatedly seen women collapsing from exhaustion in the streets. From many parts of the interior, particularly Syria, there were reliable reports of a still worse state of affairs. But even in more normal times there was always a difficulty in obtaining bread, for the means of communication in that vast and primitive land of Turkey are precarious at best, and it was no easy matter to get the grain transported to the centres of consumption.

Then in Constantinople there was a shortage not only of skilled labour, but of coal for milling purposes. The result was that the townspeople only received a daily ration of a quarter of a kilogramme (about 8 oz.—not a quarter of an oka, which would be about 10 oz.) of bread, which was mostly of an indigestible and

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occasionally very doubtful quality—utterly uneatable by Europeans—although occasionally it was quite good though coarse. If the poor people in Constantinople wanted to supplement this very insufficient allowance, they could do so when things were in a flourishing condition at the price of about 2 1/2 or 3 piastres (1 piastre = about 2 1/4 d.) the English pound, and later 4 or 5 piastres. Even this was for the most part only procurable by clandestine means from soldiers who were usually willing to turn part of their bread ration into money.

This is about all that can be said about the feeding of the people, for bread is by far the most important food of the Oriental, and the prices of the other foodstuffs soon reached exorbitant heights. What were the poor to feed on when rice, reckoned in English coinage, cost roughly from 3s. 2d. to 4s. 4d. an oka (about 2 1/2 lb.), beans 2s. 4d. the oka, meat 3s. to 4s., and the cheapest sheep's cheese and olives, hitherto the most common Turkish condiment to eat with bread, rose to 3s. and 1s. 8d. the oka?

Wages, on the other hand, were ludicrously low. We may obtain some idea of the standard

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of living from the fact that the Government, who always favoured the soldiers, did not pay more than 5 piastres (about 1s.) a day to the families of soldiers on active service. I have often wondered what the people really did eat, and I was never able to come to any satisfactory conclusion, although I often went to market myself to buy and see what other people bought. It is significant enough that just shortly before I left Constantinople—that is, a few weeks after the Turko-Bulgarian-German victories in Rumania and the fall of Bucharest—the price of bread in the Turkish capital, in spite of the widely advertised "enormous supplies" taken in Rumania, rose still higher.

I cannot speak from personal experience of what happened after Christmas 1916 in this connection, but everyone was quite convinced, in spite of the official report, that the harvest of 1916, despite the tremendous and praiseworthy efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture and the military authorities, would show a very marked decrease as a result of the mobilisation of agricultural labour, the requisitioning of implements, and the shortage of buffaloes,

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which, instead of ploughing fields, were pulling guns over the snow-covered uplands of Armenia. There was a very general idea that the harvest of 1917 would be a horrible catastrophe. And yet I am fully convinced, and I must emphasise it again, that, in spite of agricultural disaster, Turkey will still go on as a military power.

And now let us see what the Government did in connection with the food problem. At a comparatively early stage they followed Germany's example and introduced bread tickets, which were quite successful so long as the flour lasted. In the autumn of 1915 they took the organisation of the bread supply for large towns out of the hands of the municipalities, and gave it over to the War Office. They got Parliament to vote a large fund to buy up all available supplies of flour, and in view of the immense importance of bread as the chief means of nourishment of the masses, they decided to sell it at a very considerable loss to themselves, so that the price of the daily ration (though not of the supplementary ration) remained very much as it had been in peace time. The Government always favoured the

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purely Mohammedan quarters of the town so far as bread supply was concerned, and the people living in Fatih and other parts of Stamboul were very much better off than the inhabitants of Græco-European Pera.

Then Talaat made speeches in the House on the food question in which he did all in his power to throw dust in the eyes of the starving population, but he did not really succeed in blinding anyone as to the true state of affairs. In February 1916, when there was practically a famine in the land, he even went so far as to declare in Parliament that the food supplies for the whole of Turkey had been so increased by enormous purchases in Rumania, that they were now fully assured for two years.

It was no doubt with cynical enjoyment that the "Committee" of the Young Turks enlarged on the privations of the people in such publications as the semi-official Tanin, in which the following wonderful sentiment appeared: One can pass the night in relative brightness without oil in one's lamp if one thinks of the bright and glorious future that this war is preparing for Turkey!"

One could have forgiven such cheap phrases

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if they had been a true, though possibly misguided, attempt to provide comfort in face of real want; but at the same time as such paragraphs were appearing in the Tallin and thousands of poor Turkish households had to spend the long winter nights without the slightest light, thousands of tons of oil were lying in Constantinople alone in the stores of the official accapareurs.

This brings me to the second series of measures taken by the Turkish Government to relieve the economic situation—those of a negative nature. Their positive measures are pretty well exhausted when one has mentioned their treatment of the bread crisis.

The question of requisitioning is one of the most important in Turkish life in wartime, and is not without its ludicrous side. In imitation of German war-time methods, either wrongly understood or wittingly misapplied by Oriental greed, the Turkish Government requisitioned pretty well everything in the food line or in the shape of articles of daily use that were sure to be scarce and would necessarily rise in price. But while in the civilised countries of Central Europe the supplies so requisitioned were

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sagely applied to the general good, the members of the "Committee of Union and Progress" looked with fine contempt and the grim cynicism of arch-dictators on the privations and sufferings of the people so long as they did not actually starve, and used the supplies requisitioned for the personal enrichment of their clique.

When I speak of requisitioning, I do not mean the necessary military carrying off of grain, cattle, vehicles, buffaloes, and horses, general equipment, and so on, in exchange for a scrap of paper to be redeemed after the war (of very doubtful value in view of Turkey's position) —I do not mean that, even though the way it was accomplished bled the country far more than was necessary, falling as it did in the country districts into the hands of ignorant, brutal, and fanatical underlings, and in the town being carried out with every kind of refinement by the central authorities. Too often it was a means of violent "nationalisation" and deprivation of property and rights exercised especially against Armenians, Greeks, and subjects of other Entente countries. If there was a particularly nice villa or

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handsome estate belonging to someone who was not a Turk, soldiers were immediately billeted there under some pretext or other, and it was not long before these rough Anatolians had reduced everything to rack and ruin.

I do not mean either the terrible damage to commercial life brought about by the way the military authorities, in complete disregard of agricultural interests, were always seizing railway waggons, and so completely laming all initiative on the part of farmers and merchants, whose goods were usually simply emptied out on the spot, exposed to ruin, or disposed of without any kind of compensation being given. What I do mean is the huge semi-official cornering of food, which must be regarded as typical of the Young Turks' idea of their official responsibility towards those for whom they exercised stewardship.

The "Bakal Clique" ("provision merchants," "grocers") was known through the whole of Constantinople, and was keenly criticised by the much injured public. It was, first of all, under the official patronage of the city prefect, Ismet Bey, a creature of the Committee; but later on, when they realised that dire

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necessity made a continuance of this system of cornering quite unthinkable, he was made the scapegoat, and his dismissal from office was freely commented on in the Committee newspapers as "an act of deliverance." The Committee thought that they would thus throw dust in the eyes of the sorely-tried people of Constantinople. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish pounds were turned into cash in the shortest possible time by this semi-official syndicate, at the expense of the starving population, and found their way into the pockets of the administrators.

That was how the Young Turkish parvenus were able to fulfil their one desire and wriggle their way into the best clubs, where they gambled away huge sums of money. The method was simple enough: whatever was eatable or useable, but could only be obtained by import from abroad, was "taken charge of," and starvation rations, which were simply ludicrously inadequate and quite insufficient for the needs of even the poorest household, were doled out by "vesikas" (the ticket system).

The great stock of goods, however, was sold secretly at exorbitant prices by the creatures

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of the "Bakal Clique," who simply cornered the market. That is how it happened that in Constantinople, cut off as it was from the outer world and without imports, even at the end of 1916, with a population of well over a million, there were still unlimited stores of everything available for those who could pay fancy prices, while by the beginning of 1915 those less well endowed with worldly goods had quite forgotten the meaning of comfort and the poor were starving with ample stores of everything still available.

In businesses belonging to enemy subjects the system of requisitioning, of course, reached a climax, stores of all kinds worth thousands of pounds simply disappearing, without any reason being given for carrying them off, and nothing offered in exchange, but one of these famous "scraps of paper." Cases have been verified and were freely discussed in Pera of ladies' shoes and ladies' clothing even being requisitioned and turned into large sums of cash by the consequent rise in price.

The profiteering of Ismet and company, who chose the specially productive centre of the capital for their system of usury, was not, how-

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ever, by any means an isolated case of administrative corruption, for exactly the same system of requisitioning, holding up and then reselling under private management at as great a profit as possible, underlay and underlies the great semi-official Young Turkish commercial organisation, with branches throughout the whole country, known as the "Djemiet" and under the distinguished patronage of Talaat himself.

After Ismet Bey's fall, the "Djemiet" took over the supplying of the capital as well (with the exception of bread). We will speak elsewhere of this great organisation, which is established not only for war purposes, but serves towards the nationalisation of economic life. So far as the system of requisitioning is concerned, it comes into the picture through its firm opposition to German merchants who were trying to buy up stores of food and raw materials from their ally Turkey. The intrigues and counter-intrigues on both sides sometimes had most remarkable results.

One of the really bright sides of life in Constantinople in wartime was the amusement one extracted from the silent and desperate war

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continually being waged by the many well-fed gentlemen of the "Z.E.G." {"Zentralein-kaufsgesellschaft" "Central Purchasing Commission") and their minions who tried to rob Turkey of foodstuffs and raw material for the benefit of Germany, against the "Djemiet" and more particularly the Quartermaster-General, Ismail Hakki Pasha, that wooden-legged, enormously wealthy representative of the neo-Turkish spirit—he was the most perfect blend of Oriental politeness and narrow-minded decision to do exactly the opposite of what he had promised. On the Turkish side, the determination to safeguard the interests of the Army, and in the case of the "Djemiet" the effort not to let any foodstuffs out of Germany—a standpoint that has at last found expression in a formal prohibition of all export—then the quest of personal enrichment on the part of the great "Clique"; on the German side, the insatiable hunger for everything Turkey could provide that had been lacking for a long time in Germany: the whole thing was a wonderfully variegated picture of mutual intrigue.

The gentlemen of the "Z.E.G.," after months of inactivity spent in reviling the

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Turks and studying Young Turkish and other morals and manners by frequenting all the pleasure resorts in the place, managed at last to get the exports of raw materials set on the right road, and so it came about that the fabulous sums in German money that had to be put into circulation in payment of these goods, in spite of Turkey's indebtedness to Germany, led to a very considerable depreciation in the value of the Mark even in Turkey for some time.

But until the understanding as to exports was finally arrived at, there were many dramatic events in Constantinople, culminating in the Turks re-requisitioning, with the help of armed detachments, stores already paid for by Germany and lying in the warehouses of the "Z.E.G. and the German Bank!

On the financial side, apart from Turkey's enormous debt to Germany, the wonderful attempt at a reform and standardisation of the coinage in the middle of May 1916 is worthy of mention. The reform, which was a simplification of huge economic value of the tremendously complicated money system and introducing a theoretical gold unit, must be re-

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garded chiefly as a war measure to prevent the rapid deterioration of Turkish paper money.

This last attempt, as was obvious after a few months' trial, was entirely unsuccessful, and even hastened the fall of paper money, for the population soon discovered at the back of these drastic measures the thinly veiled anxiety of the Government lest there should be a further deterioration. Dire punishments, such as the closing down of money-changers' businesses and arraignment before a military court for the slightest offence, were meted out to anyone found guilty of changing gold or even silver for paper.

In November 1916, however, it was an open secret that, in spite of all these prohibitions, there was no difficulty in the inland provinces and in Syria and Palestine in changing a gold pound for two or more paper pounds. In still more unfrequented spots no paper money would be accepted, so that the whole trade of the country simply came to a standstill. Even in Constantinople at the beginning of December 1916, paper stood to gold as 100 to 175.

The Anatolian population still went gaily on. burying all the available silver medjidichs

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and even nickel piastres in their clay pots in the ground, because being simple country folk they could not understand, as the Government with all its prayers and threats were so anxious they should, that throughout Turkey and in the greater and mightier and equally victorious Germany, guaranteed paper money was really much better than actual coins, and was just as valuable as gold! The people, too, could not but remember what had happened with the "Kaimé" after the Turko-Russian war, when thousands who had believed in the assurances of the Government suddenly found themselves penniless. In Constantinople it was a favourite joke to take one of the new pound, half-pound, or quarter-pound notes issued under German paper, not gold, guarantee and printed only on one side and say, "This [pointing to the right side] is the present value, and that [blank side] will be the value on the conclusion of peace."

Even those who were better informed, however, and sat at the receipt of custom, did exactly the same as these stupid Anatolian country-people; no idea of patriotism prevented them from collecting everything metal they

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could lay their hands on, and, in spite of all threats of punishment—which could never overtake them!—paying the highest price in paper money for every gold piece they could get. Their argument was: "One must of course have something to live on in the time directly following the conclusion of peace." In ordinary trade and commerce, filthy, torn paper notes, down to a paper piastre, came more and more to be practically the only exchange.

A discerning Turk said to me once: "It would be a very good plan sometime to have the police search these great men for bullion every evening on their return from the official exchanges. That would be more to the point than any reform in the coinage!"

Those who could not get gold, bought roubles, which were regarded as one of the very best speculations going, until one day the Turkish Government, in their annoyance at some Russian victory, suddenly deported to Anatolia a rich Greek banker of the name of Vlasdari, who was accused of having speculated in roubles, which of course gave them the

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double benefit of getting rid of a Greek and seizing his beautiful estate in Pera.

Only the greatest optimists were deceived into believing that it was a profitable transaction to buy Austrian paper money at the fabulously low price the Austrian Krone had reached against the Turkish pound, which was really neither politically nor financially in any better a state. The members of the "Committee of Union and Progress" had of course shipped their gold off to Switzerland long ago.

Acknowledgements:

Source: Stuermer, Harry. Two War Years in Constantinople. USA: George H. Doran Company, 1917.
Provided by: Aram Arkun, Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center
Scanned by: Karen Vrtanesyan
OCR: Lina Kamalyan

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