Mehmed Cavid Bey was one of the most influential members of the Committee of Union and Progress, especially when it came to the financial relations of the Ottoman Empire with European powers and financial houses. After World War I, he joined the Turkish delegation at Lausanne as a consultant. We talked about the life and many identities of Cavid Bey with Ayşe Köse Badur, a PhD candidate in History at Boğaziçi University.
JC: Who was Cavid Bey and how did you become interested in him?
AKB: Cavid Bey was an intellectual, a financier, a politician and a negotiator. I became interested in him during my postgraduate studies at Boğaziçi University. My plan was to write the biography of a prominent figure in the late Ottoman Empire. I thought of several figures such as Hüseyin Cahid or Kara Kemal, but Cavid seemed particularly interesting because of his unique role among the Unionists. I knew that he kept diaries, which were published by the Turkish History Association in 2015-6. They shed much light on his life.
JC: From 1908 on Cavid seems to have had a remarkable international profile. Just the other day I happened upon a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from around 1920. In a piece about the economic history of Turkey it referred to Cavid as a “financial wizard.” Was he really that different from previous finance ministers? Was he really a Young Turk?
AKB: In my opinion, yes, he really was a Young Turk. He was a Unionist, but he was also a civil and liberal man among the Unionists, which is why the title of my dissertation is “A Civil Unionist”. He joined the Young Turk movement as early as 1903, five years before the 1908 revolution, and remained a Unionist until the end of his life. As for his financial skills, yes, he was a game changer. He tried to leverage the Ottoman finances, especially during loan talks in France in 1910, employing tactics which challenged the European financial milieu.
Two things stood out in his approach. First, he was from Salonika, one of the main port cities in the Eastern Mediterranean. During the belle epoque and the first wave of globalisation, port cities were one of the gates for the global economic penetration of the Ottoman Empire. People from different backgrounds lived in close proximity to one another: foreign merchants, bankers, people of diverse religious orientations. In Cavid’s primary school, dönme and Muslim children studied side by side. Cavid was a member of this dönme community in Salonika: the dönmes had converted to Islam in the seventeenth century but still preserved many of their rituals. Cosmopolitan origins influenced his financial outlook.
Secondly, Cavid graduated from the Mülkiye, the Civil Service Academy, in Istanbul, where liberal economic thought was adopted. He was influenced by this. His book, İlm-î İktisat (The Science of Economy) was a manifestation of his liberal economic orientation.
JC: As you note, Cavid played many different roles. At times it seems the intellectual and the politician were pulling him in different directions. He repeatedly considered abandoning politics, but he kept coming back to office. Why?
AKB: First of all, Cavid Bey is known mostly as a homo economicus. But he was also a homo politicus. True, in my reading of his diaries, letters, and even in the published secondary sources, I’ve repeatedly come across his desire to quit politics. But he was a man with ambitions. Political ambitions. He always came back to politics and he knew that he would come back. He even told Talaat Bey his desire to lead the peace negotiations after the Great War. But Talaat would leave political issues not to Cavid, only economic issues were entrusted to him.
Cavid was very close to Talaat Bey, right until the end of Talaat’s life. He could not say “No” to him. In 1917 Cavid returned to office as Minister of Finance, even though he doubted whether it was a good idea, and even though he resented his colleagues for excluding him from decision-making around the time of the Ottoman entry into World War I. But Cavid was a man of duty. He was a statesman. He kept working for the Ottoman government. In Berlin and Vienna, he ran the financial negotiations. He knew that the other Unionists needed him.
JC: Cavid was there at Lausanne, during the peace negotiations in 1922-3. He was in a privileged position to re-connect with many of the same bankers he had worked with in the early 1910s. A few months later, however, he was pushed aside by Ismet. He even moved out of the Turkish delegation’s hotel. How can we explain this sudden change in his influence?
AKB: In my opinion Lausanne was Cavid Bey’s first and last chance to be reconciled with the Ankara government.
Cavid had not been in Ankara during the national independence war, and there was a fault line between those who had participated and those who had not. Ismet Pasha invited Cavid Bey to Lausanne because Ottoman debts and capitulations were very complicated issues, issues Cavid had been working on for a long time. He joined the Turkish delegation as a counsellor together with Huseyin Cahid. During the negotiations, two issues created conflicts among the Turkish delegation.
First, Cavid was very close with the French delegation, especially with Maurice Bompard and his family. These caused speculations about Cavid’s loyalties. Cavid was also a representative of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, which symbolised the traditional western control over Ottoman finances. He was in a doubly delicate situation.
Then there was the repayment of Ottoman debt. Cavid argued that the Ottoman debt could not be divided among the states founded after the Balkan Wars and World War I, because the debt consisted of two elements, the capital and the interest. Other consultants agreed with Cavid. But Rıza Nur, one of the main Turkish negotiators, disagreed, citing the division of debts after the Treaty of Berlin (1878) and the Balkan Wars (1912-3). Rıza Nur argued that they could divide the debts. A lengthy discussion began. Franz Günther of Deutsche Bank was consulted. Rıza Nur also called Ferid Tek in Istanbul. Both showed him how the debts could be divided among the post-Ottoman states. And then Cavid was immediately dismissed from the Turkish delegation.
He returned to Istanbul and continued his work at the Public Debt Administration until the end of his life. His last work for the Republic of Turkey was to prepare a report for the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce at the request of Ali Fethi Okyar. Cavid analysed the economy of Istanbul, still drawn by a sense of duty.
JC: Your dissertation has clearly addressed Cavid’s life and career in detail. Are there any aspects of Cavid Bey’s life which remain to be explored, which you or other scholars might tackle?
AK: The diaries of Cavid during the Lausanne Conference are still to be published. We will know more about Cavid’s observations at Lausanne when they are. Cavid’s role in the 1913-4 loan negotiations also needs to be explored further.
JC: Let us hope we aren’t left waiting too long! In the meantime, thank you for sharing your research into this remarkable man with us.