Obituary: Zeki Kuneralp

David Barchard
Tuesday 11 August 1998 23:02

ON MANY occasions over the last 20 years, unexpected visitors would turn up in a quiet street in an Istanbul suburb beside the Sea of Marmara: one day a former US Secretary of State, on another perhaps a professor of late Roman history from Princeton, on others ambassadors from any of half a dozen countries. Such were the visitors throughout the two decades of the retirement of Zeki Kuneralp, one of the most remarkable diplomats Turkey has produced this century.

They came to visit a man in a wheelchair, bent almost double by progressive multiple sclerosis and effectively imprisoned in his book-lined study, but with a serenity and detachment achieved by very few. It came at the end of a life in which professional brilliance and cruel personal tragedy were mixed in almost equal proportions. Somehow Kuneralp transcended them both effortlessly. "I would come to Istanbul just to see Zeki. He is one of the most inspiring people I know," a leading American historian once said.

Kuneralp was born in Istanbul in 1914. His father was Ali Kemal, a leading late Ottoman liberal journalist and politician. On his mother's side, he was the grandson of one of the leading pashas of the Empire. During the British occupation of Istanbul (1919-22), his father leaned politically against the nationalists in Ankara and was kidnapped and murdered in 1922. His mother took the family into exile in Switzerland and he received a Swiss education, going all the way up to a law doctorate from the University of Berne in 1938.

For the rest of his life, Kuneralp's ties with Switzerland remained strong and affectionate. He would chuckle at the discomfort of Swiss businessmen who found themselves sitting next to a foreigner able to understand Swiss German, but he remained in touch with his Berne schoolfriends and the land of his childhood till the end.

Despite his father's controversial reputation in modern Turkish history, the Turkish Foreign Ministry accepted Kuneralp into its ranks in 1910 with the express approval of President Inonu, Ataturk's successor. He served in Bucharest, Prague, Paris, and with Nato.

He belonged to a generation which was schooled to believe that friendship between Greece and Turkey was the cornerstone of international order in the eastern Mediterranean. By the time he came to London for his first spell there as ambassador in 1964, Cyprus was dominating Turkey's international agenda and absorbed most of his energies as a diplomat.

By now he believed firmly that the future for Turkey must lie in integration into the nascent European Union, a view which he learned from Fatin Ru du Zorlu, a casualty of the 1960 coup in Turkey but one of the Turkish foreign ministers whom Kuneralp most admired.

During his two ambassadorships in London (1964-66 and 1969-72) Kuneralp pursued his interests in history and the arts, as well as his professional career. Arnold Toynbee, whose vision of the history of world civilisations appealed to Kuneralp, became a friend.

He had by then already served as Secretary-General, i.e. permanent under- secretary, of the Foreign Ministry and his mobility was already affected by the beginnings of his multiple sclerosis. So he was content that his final posting be to Spain, a country whose culture and arts appealed to him, as too perhaps did its conservatism. In his penultimate year there tragedy struck his family again.

During the 1970s Armenian gunmen murdered Turkish diplomats and their families in cities across the world. Kuneralp, now elderly and walking on crutches, might have seemed an unlikely victim. But one morning his wife, Necla, and his brother-in-law, also on sticks, were murdered outside their home by gunmen who were never caught. The marriage had been an extremely happy one, but Kuneralp bore his loss with dignity and fortitude. He made only one public comment and it was characteristically restrained. When the Economist described the murder as "an act of vengeance against a cruel hereditary enemy", Kuneralp wrote a reader's letter to the magazine gently asking how events said to have taken place before her birth could possibly justify the murder of his wife.

A year later Kuneralp left Spain and went into retirement. He had by now lost all his mobility and his physical condition was sometimes distressing for visitors. He himself paid no attention to it, writing an autobiography which was published in both Turkish and English, Just a Diplomat (1981, and 1992 in English), and then a volume on his father, Ali Kemal (1869-1922): a portrait for the benefit of his English-speaking progeny (1993), while professing that he had renounced the world and current affairs. His charm, intellectual distinction, and affection for his friends remained as strong as ever. Perhaps his spell over them came from the fact that, unlike some in his profession, he never said anything that he did not fully believe and had not carefully thought through.

He is survived by two sons, whose careers each reflect Zeki Kuneralp's main interests, one being a diplomat and the other a publisher of history books.

David Barchard

Zeki Kuneralp, diplomat: born Istanbul 5 October 1914; Turkish ambassador to Berne 1960; Turkish ambassador to London 1964-66, 1969-72; Secretary- General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ankara 1966-69; Turkish ambassador to Spain 1972-79; married 1943 Necla Ozdilci (died 1978; two sons); died Istanbul 26 July 1998.

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