The reports of Deutsche Bank’s “man in Lausanne” shed light on one of the many ghosts at the Lausanne feast: the Germans. By Jonathan Conlin
In 1909 Deutsche Bank (Doyçe Bank) opened its Istanbul branch, part of that wave of new European and American banks and brasseurs d’affaires flooding the city in the wake of the Young Turk Revolution. Franz J. Günther (1861-1937) was already familiar with the city, as head of the Anatolian Railway Company, who owned the famous Baghdadbahn. During the war he would play a role saving the lives of 800 Armenians, railway employees who would otherwise have fallen victim to the genocide.
Sent to Lausanne to defend Deutsche Bank’s interests in 1922, however, Günther was in a delicate position. He was present incognito – at least, until the press corps stumbled across him on 8 December. Calling on Celalettin Arif Bey in Rome prior to arriving in Lausanne, Günther was relieved to find him friendly. Celalettin noted that the Turkish people had looked upon the Germans kindly, as a defeated ally made to sign a humiliating peace treaty. But the failure of the German courts to convict Talât’s murderers had turned them against Germany. And in any case, Celalettin noted, “nobody writes letters to the dead”. In Lausanne Günther was a dead man walking. Or was he?
Günther’s reports back to Berlin paint a lively portrait of the two-year negotiations, larded with local colour and spiced with codenames. He notes that the Turkish flag flying from the roof of the Beaurivage is exactly the same size as the French flag, for example, as well as the press corps’ obsession with oil. At first Günther is delighted to find so many old friends among the Turkish delegation, including former Finance Minister Cavid (codename “Goldmann”), whose “big bald head lit up the vestibule of the Palace Hotel like the sun”. Within a week of Cavid’s arrival, on 27 December 1922 Günther writes that Cavid has become the Turkish delegation’s lode star in all economic questions. As the French occupation of the Ruhr softens anti-German feeling in Lausanne, Günther hopes not only to defend Deutsche Bank’s railway and oil rights, but lay the foundation of renewed Germano-Turkish friendship.
The Americans had a key role to play in his scheme. Deutsche Bank had taken the precaution of parking its Ottoman assets in a Swiss bank for the duration of the war: the Bank für Orientalische Eisenbahnen. Standard Oil was given an option on these rights, an option which would expire on 31 December 1922. At first Günther seemed to win American diplomats over to the idea of buying the Swiss bank and using its assets to strengthen the Americans’ bargaining position. It was a case of “hammer or anvil”: which did the Americans want to be?
Early 1923 saw the end of such dreams, as well as the break-up of the conference. To Günther’s dismay, Standard Oil let the option lapse. As for Cavid, his influence evaporated as Ismet’s authority grew:
His rivals used his ties to Kobra [France] as a rope to hang him with, claiming that he was putting his personal interests before those of Dawn [Turkey]. The mood was so bad that he left the stage before the climax of the drama. He and his wife went to Davos, returning only to catch the train back to the Office [Istanbul]. Even then, he spent the previous night in a different hotel, sending his wife to pick up their luggage from the delegation hotel, to ensure he himself did not run the risk of bumping into anyone
Only in 1928 would the Anatolian Railway reach an agreement with the Republic of Turkey, selling its interests for 440m Swiss Francs. Payments were to continue until 2002, but ceased in 1944, never to be resumed. The Bagdadbahn’s assets in Iraq were nationalised in 1932. No compensation was paid.
Archives of the Historisches Institut der Deutschen Bank, Frankfurt.
Historische Gesellschaft der Deutschen Bank, 100 Jahre Deutsche Bank in Istanbul (Frankfurt: Deutsche Bank, 2009).
Werner Plumpe, Alexander Nützenadel and Catherine R. Schenk, Deutsche Bank, 1870-2020: The Global Hausbank (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).
Manfred Pohl, Vom Stambul Nach Bagdad: die Geschichte einer Berühmten Eisenbahn (München: Piper, 1999).