The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies (Title of a paper written in October 1914 by German archaeologist and Orientalist Max von Oppenheim which argued for enlisting the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War or jihad against the colonial powers, France and Great Britain)

This is a colourful and entertaining book about Germany’s military and diplomatic involvement with the Ottoman Empire in the decades leading up to, and then during, the Great War of 1914-18.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for Islam

The first 80 pages or so provide background, describing Kaiser Wilhelm’s first state visit to Turkey in 1889 when he met the reigning Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, and his second visit in 1898 when Wilhelm grandiosely rode into Jerusalem through a breach specially made in its walls.

And they detail the very slow progress made on an ambitious commercial scheme to extend the railway line which already stretched from Hamburg on the Baltic Sea via Berlin to Constantinople, onwards across Anatolia, Syria and Iraq, to Baghdad and thence onto the Persian Gulf at Basra.

This railway project – to create a Berlin to Baghdad Railway – the focus of the opening 70 or 80 pages, although described in detail with lots of facts about the funding, selling bonds on various stock markets, the setting up of companies, the engineering challenges and so on – is really only a pretext or way in to the wider story about German-Ottoman relations, and how cultural, economic and political factors drew the two countries closer together in the years leading up the Great War.

McMeekin describes the Kaiser’s over-excitable whims and enthusiasms. One of the most notorious of these saw Wilhelm make a speech at Saladin’s tomb in Damascus on the 1898 trip, when he declared himself and his Reich a friend to the world’s 300 million Muslims. In private letters he announced that Islam was superior to Christianity, he was intoxicated by his visits and his receptions… only to largely forget his enthusiasms once he was back in Berlin.

German High Command develop an eastern strategy

But key elements in the German diplomatic and military didn’t forget; they built on this new idea of expanding German influence down through the Balkans into the Middle East. Germany’s European rivals, France and Britain, already had extensive empires with territories all round the world. Even the Dutch and the Italians had farflung colonies.

It was true the Germans had grabbed a few wretched bits of Africa during the notorious scramble for that continent in the 1880s, but now German strategists realised that extending her influence south and east, through the Balkans and into the Middle East was:

  1. a far more natural geographical extension of Germany’s existing territory
  2. fed into all kinds of cultural fantasies about owning and running the origins of Western civilisation in Babylon, Jerusalem and so on
  3. and offered the more practical geopolitical goals of:
    • forestalling Russian expansion into the area, via the Balkans or the Caucasus
    • breaking up the British Empire by seizing control of its most vital strategic asset, Suez Canal, and sparking an uprising of the tens of millions of ‘oppressed’ Muslim subjects of the British, specifically in British India

So the book isn’t at all a dry and dusty account of German-Ottoman diplomatic relations from 1889 to 1918 (although it does by its nature contain lots of aspects of this).

It is more a description of this GRAND VISION which entranced generations of German political and military leaders and a score of German entrepreneurs, spies and adventurers, a VISION which inspired official reports with titles like Overview of Revolutionary Activity We Will Undertake in The Islamic-Israelite World and Exposé Concerning The Revolutionising of The Islamic Territories of Our Enemies, a VISION of Germany sparking and leading a Great Uprising of Islam which would overthrow the British Empire and… and…

Well, that was the problem. The Big Vision was intoxicating, but working out the details turned out to be more tricky.

Apparently there’s controversy among historians about whether the German leadership had any kind of conscious plan to raise the Muslim East against the British before the First World War broke out in August 1914. But once war was declared, a combination of military and diplomatic officials dispatched to the Ottoman Empire and a colourful cast of freelance archaeologists and regional experts who fancied themselves as spies and provocateurs, give McMeekin the raw material for a book full of adventures, mishaps, farcical campaigns, ferocious Young Turks and double-dealing Arab sheikhs.

The book proceeds by chapters each of which focuses on an aspect of the decades building up to the First World War, then on specific historical events during 1914-18, or on leading personalities, often repeating the chronology as he goes back over the same pre-war period to explain the origins of each thread or theme. Topics covered include:

  • the brutal reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) which combined attempts to modernise the Ottoman Empire with some notorious repressions of Armenians calling for independence, specifically the Hamidian Massacres of 1893 during which up to 300,000 Armenians were killed and which earned Hamid the nickname ‘the Bloody Sultan’
  • the revolution of the Young Turks who overthrew Abdul Hamid, and replaced him with a more compliant ruler during a series of complex events stretching from 1908 into 1909
  • the complex diplomatic manouevring which followed the outbreak of the war in 1914 by which the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) tried to persuade the Young Turk government to take the Ottoman Empire in on their side
  • the intricate tribal rivalries in Arabia between fiercely rival tribes such as the ibn Saud, the Ibn Rashid of the Shammar, An-Nuri’s Rwala bedouin and so on

Why the Ottoman Empire joined the First World War

And of course, some time is spent explaining why the Ottomans did, eventually, come into the war, by launching an attack on Russian ports in the Black Sea on 29 October 1914, although this isn’t rocket science.

The Ottomans:

  1. resented French incursions into Lebanon and Syria
  2. really disliked the ongoing British ‘protectorate’ over Egypt (established in the 1880s) and encroaching British influence in Arabia and the Persian Gulf
  3. and very much feared the permanent threat of attack from Russia, their historic enemy, whose military chiefs and right-wing hawks harboured a long-standing fantasy about invading right down through the (mostly Slavic) Balkans and conquering Constantinople, restoring it as an Orthodox Christian city

This sense of being beset by enemies was steadily compounded through the 1900s as first France and Britain signed an Entente (the Entente Cordiale, 1904), and then Britain reached out to Russia to create the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907, thus creating what became known as the Triple Entente.

Compared to these three known and feared opponents who were slowly drawing together, the Germans were a relatively unknown quantity who, led by the Kaiser’s impulsive gushing enthusiasm for Islam, and combined with the Germans’ undoubted a) money b) engineering abilities, made them welcome partners in not only building the railway but trying to rejuvenate the crippled Ottoman economy.

The Ottoman Caliph proclaims his fatwas against the infidel

But the Germans didn’t just want the Ottomans as military allies. They saw huge potential in getting the Sultan, in his capacity as Caliph of the Muslim world, to raise the entire Muslim world in a Holy War against the infidel… well… the British and French infidel, not the German or Austrian infidel. Maybe the Italian infidel too, although at this early stage of the war nobody knew which side Italy would come in on (Italy entered the First World War on 23 May 1915 on the side of the Entente Powers).

So McMeekin details the diplomatic shenanigans (and the bribes, always the bribes) which led up to the great day, Wednesday November 11th, 1914, when Shaykh al-Islam Ürgüplü Hayri, the highest religious authority of the caliphate in Constantinople, issued five fatwas, calling Muslims across the world for jihad against the Entente countries (Britain, France, Russia) and promising them the status of martyr if they fell in battle.

Three days later, in the name of Sultan-Caliph Mehmed V, the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (the puppet caliph who had been put in place by the Young Turk government) the decree was read out to a large crowd outside Constantinople’s Fatih Mosque and then huge crowds carrying flags and banners marched through the streets of the Ottoman capital, calling for holy war. Across the Ottoman Empire, imams carried the message of jihad to believers in their Friday sermons, and so on.

This was a seismic even and it had been very expensive – McMeekin calculates German payments to the Young Turk government of £2 million of gold, a loan of £5 million more, and massive shipments of arms on credit to persuade them to join the German side (p.233).

Missions and characters

OK, now the Germans had gotten the highest authority in the Muslim world to issue a holy order to rise up against the infidel (the British and French infidel, that is), now all that was needed was to organise and lead them. Simples, right?

The book devotes a chapter apiece to the missions of a number of idiosyncratic German adventurers who were sent out by the German military authorities to recruit Muslim allies in their fight against the allies.

Key to the whole undertaking was Max von Oppenheim, archaeologist and Orientalist who, in October 1914, had published a Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies which argued for enlisting the Sultan to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War against Germany’s enemies, France and Britain. Seeing the possibilities, the German High Command set up an Intelligence Bureau for the East in Berlin and made Oppenheim its head.

From this position Oppenheim helped plan, equip and select the personnel for a series of missions to be led by noted German archaeologist / linguists / explorers all across the Muslim world, with a view to raising it against the British (the French Muslim colonies of the Maghreb are mentioned a few times but were too far West along North Africa to be of any strategic importance to the European war).

These colourful expeditions included:

  • the mission given the ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius to stir up the Muslims of Abyssinia and Sudan against the British (pp.145-151)
  • the mission led by Austrian orientalist and explorer Alois Musil to recruit the bedouin of Arabia to the German cause (pp.154-165)
  • an ill-fated military campaign of Turks and Arabs to try and capture the Suez Canal, led by Freiherr Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, which was badly mauled by the British defenders (pp.167-179)
  • Max Oppenheim’s own negotiations with Feisal, son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca, to recruit the guardian of the Muslim Holy Places onto the German side (pp.191-195)
  • the mission of Captain Fritz Klein to the leader of the Shia world, Sheikh Ali el Irakein, the Grand Mufti of Karbala in modern-day Iraq, ‘to spread the fires of Ottoman holy war to the Gulf’ (pp.203-8)
  • the even more ambitious mission of Oskar von Niedermayer to the Emir of Afghanistan, with a view to recruiting a force which could invade North-West India through the Khyber Pass and raise all the Muslims of India in rebellion against their imperial masters (pp.209-229)

Several things emerge very clearly from McMeekin’s detailed accounts of each of these missions, and slowly dawned on the German High Command:

1. The Muslim world was the opposite of united; it was surprisingly fragmented.

2. The Germans were disconcerted to discover that none of the Arabs they met gave a toss what the Turkish Sultan-Caliph declared in faraway Constantinople; in fact, on one level, the ineffectiveness of the Sultan-Caliph’s call to arms ending up emphasising his irrelevance to most Muslims and, in a roundabout way, undermining the authority of the Ottoman Empire as a whole over its non-Turkish subjects (p.258).

3. Again and again, in different contexts, different German emissaries made the same discovery – the Turks and the Arabs distrusted or even hated each other.

4. When it came to fighting the Germans could trust the Turks but not the Arabs. At Gallipoli the Arab regiments ran away, and had to be replaced by Turks, who held the line under the brilliant leadership of Mustafa Kemal’ (p.189). As soon as the shooting started during the Turco-German attack on the Suez Canal (3 February 1915), all the bedouin who had been so carefully recruited, turned tail and fled, followed by all the Arab conscripts in the Turkish ranks (p.177). The Turks didn’t trust any of the Arab regiments in their army, and made sure they were all led by Turkish officers.

5. All the Arabs were only in it for the money: whether it was the Arabian bedouin, the north African Arabs of Libya or Sudan, the Shia ruler in Karbala or the Emir of Afghanistan, all of them were currently being subsidised by the British and often their people were being supplied with grain and basic foodstuffs by the British. Therefore, the Germans found themselves having to outbid the British subsidies and handing over eye-watering amounts of money. The Emir of Agfhanistan demanded an annual payment of $15,000 before he signed up with the Germans. Ibn Rashid, headman of the Shammar tribe, had negotiated payment from Turkey of 50,000 rifles, a one-off bribe of 15,000 Turkish pounds (worth $20 million today), a luxury car and a monthly stipend of 220 Turkish pounds – but all that didn’t prevent him carrying out secret negotiations with the French to see if he could get a better deal out of them (p.163). And the Emir of Afghanistan demanded a lump sum of £10 million, the equivalent of $5 billion today, before he signed a treaty allying himself to the Central Powers on 24 January 1916 (p.228).

Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide

The book covers a couple of the best known episodes of the Great War in the Middle East, namely:

  • the catastrophic Gallipoli Campaign – February 1915 to January 1916 (pp.180-190)
  • the Armenian genocide – April 1915 to 1917 (pp.241-258)

But McMeekin is not interested in presenting comprehensive factual accounts of either. Plenty of other books do that. Both disasters feature in his account insofar as they affected German plans and policies.

For example, through German eyes the main aspects of the Armenian genocide were that:

  1. it could be used by Western propagandists against the German war effort
  2. most of the skilled labour on the still-unfinished Baghdad railway was Armenian, and now they were being rounded up and sent off to the wild interior of Anatolia, thus depriving the Germans of their labour forc

Hence the German authorities making complaints all the way up the chain of command until the Head of the German General Staff himself made a formal complaint to the Young Turk government, saying elimination of the Armenian workers was hampering work on the railway which was still – in 1915 – seen as a key logistical asset in carrying arms and ammunition to the Arab Muslims in Mesopotamia or the Gulf so they could rise up against British influence in the region.

The symbolism of the Berlin to Baghdad railway

The Berlin to Baghdad railway which dominated the first 70 or 80 pages of the book thereafter disappears from view for long stretches. As and when it does reappear, it snakes its way through the narrative as a symbol of the tricky and ultimately unworkable relationship between the Reich and the Ottoman Empire (the railway was still not completed in 1918, when the war ended in German and Ottoman defeat).

But the railway also stands as a symbol of McMeekin’s approach in this book, which is to approach an enormous subject via entertaining episodes, a peripheral approach.

This isn’t at all dry, factual and comprehensive account of Germano-Turkish diplomatic and military relations in the years leading up to, and then during, the First World War.

It is more a collection of themes and threads, each chapter focusing on a particularly exciting episode (whether Gallipoli or Niedermayer’s gruelling trek to distant Afghanistan) and McMeekin deliberately presents them in a popular and rather sensational style, emphasising the personal quirks of his protagonists. We learn that leading German Orientalist Max von Oppenheim built up a collection of some 150 traditional Turkish costumes, that the Emir of Afghanistan owned the only motor car in the country, a Rolls Royce, that the leader of the military mission to the Ottomans, Liman von Sanders was partly deaf which explained his aloof, distracted manner, and so on. Wherever he can, McMeekin adds these personal touches and colourful details to bring the history to life.

The end of the war

McMeekin’s account of the end of the war feels different from the rest of the book. Up till now we had spent a lot of time getting to know Max von Oppenheim or Liman von Sanders or Young  Turks like Enver Bey or Mehmed Talaat, leading amabassadors in Constantinople, Arabs like Feisal of Mecca or non-Arab Muslims like the Emir of Afghanistan. It had, to a surprising extent, been quite a human account, I mean it focuses on individuals that we get to know.

The end of the war completely changes the scope and scale and tone because, to understand it, you have to fly up to take a vast God-like view of the conflict. McMeekin has to explain the February revolution in Russia, how and why the Russian offensives of the summer failed and were pushed back, the dazzling success of the German scheme to send Lenin to St Petersburg in a sealed train, the success of the Bolshevik coup in October, Lenin’s unilateral declaration of peace, the long drawn out peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, and all the while describe the impact of these increasingly fast-moving developments on the main front between the Ottoman Empire and the Russians, fought in the Caucasus.

In other words, the last 60 or so pages of the book cease to have the colourful and sometimes comic tone of the earlier accounts of individual adventurers and two-faced Arab sheikhs, and become something much more faceless, high-level and brutal.

And complex. The fighting in the Caucasus involved not just the Russians and Turks, but a large number of other nationalities who all took the opportunity of the Russian collapse to push their hopes for independence and statehood, including the Georgians, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis and many others. I can tell I’m going to have to reread these final sections to get my head round the chaos and complexity which carried on long after the supposed peace treaties had been signed…

Two big ideas

1. Bismarck had made it a lynchpin of his foreign policy to maintain the Holy Alliance first established as far back as 1815 at the Congress of Vienna and promoted by the Austrian diplomat, Metternich during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Holy Alliance bound together the three Central and East European autocracies, Prussia (and its successor state, Germany), Austria-Hungary and Russia. According to McMeekin, within weeks of sacking Bismarck (in 1890), the cocky young Kaiser rejected overtures from Russia to renew Germany and Russia’s understanding, determined to throw out everything the boring old man (Bismarck) had held dear, and to embark on new adventures.

The impact on Russia was to make her even more paranoid about the ambitions of Germany and Austria in ‘her’ backyard of the Balkans – shutting down lines of communication which might have contained the Balkan Crises of the 1910s – and made Russia cast around for other alliances and, in the end, improbably, forge an alliance with the ditziest of the western democracies, France.

All this was explained on page ten and struck me as the most fateful of all the Kaiser’s mistakes and, in a sense, the key to everything which came afterwards.

2. After the peace treaties are finally signed, McMeekin presents an epilogue, which goes on for a long time and develops into a complicated argument about the links between Wilhelmine Germany’s encouragement of an anti-western, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish jihad – which his book has described at some length – and the rabid anti-Semitism which emerged soon after the German defeat of 1918, and which carried on getting evermore toxic until the Nazis came to power.

This strikes me as being a complex and controversial subject which probably merits a book of its own not a hurried 20-age discussion.

But before he goes off into that big and contentious topic, McMeekin makes a simpler point. Modern Arabs and Western Liberals like to blame the two colonial powers, Britain and France, for everything which went wrong in the Arab world after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the years after the Great War ended, and obviously there is a lot to find fault with.

But this over-familiar line of self-blame among Western liberals completely omits, ignores, writes out of history, the baleful impact of the prolonged, deep (and very expensive) engagement of Wilhelmine Germany with the Ottoman Empire, with Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen, with the Muslim world from Egypt to Afghanistan. And the fact that it was the Germans who went to great lengths to summon up jihad, to set the Muslim world on fire, to create murderous hatred against Westerners and Europeans, and at the same managed to undermine the authority of the Turkish Caliphate, the one central authority in the Muslim world.

Summary

So if there’s one thing The Berlin-Baghdad Express sets out to do, and does very well, it is to restore to the record the centrality of the role played by the Germans in the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, and the long-term legacy of German influence across the Middle East.


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1 Comment

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

     /  May 6, 2020

    The railways was a great idea, both functionally and symbolically. But even they probably had no idea a world war was coming, a stunning, long railway was always going to be vulnerable. It was always going to be subject to sabotage in a tense, divisive era..

    Reply

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