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.


Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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