Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Blood on the Tracks: The First Global Jihad
Kaiser Wilhelm II believed he could harness the martial power of the Caliphate in the furtherance of German imperial interests — and failed utterly in one of the boldest gambles of the great game.
By Matthew Price. The National, July 23, 2010

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power, 1898-1919, by Sean McMeekinThe Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1919
Sean McMeekin
Allen Lane, Dh140

The story of how the modern Middle East was born out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War is well known. With the British and French acting as midwives, the former provinces of this once mighty imperium were put on a (difficult) path to modern statehood. But there was hardly anything inevitable about the inglorious demise of the Ottomans. Though it had been convulsed by internal disputes, the Ottoman Empire was still a formidable power in 1914. But, as so often happens in history, a wrong bet had profound historical consequences. That bet was the alliance with Germany that brought the Turks into the war on the side of the Central Powers. It was a fateful decision. Prodded by the Kaiser (the allure of German marks also helped) the Turkish regime went to war against its historical enemy, Russia. This, in itself, was not an absurd wager. However, the German end of the bargain was an altogether different proposition: taking aim at the British empire and its 100 million Muslim subjects, Wilhelm II cooked up a breathtaking plan to unleash the furies of an Islamic power on the British Raj and Egypt and harness the glories of the Near East to German imperial interests.

The historian Sean McMeekin, in The Berlin-Baghdad Express, his masterful history of this remarkable if preposterous undertaking, calls it the “first ever global jihad”. Historians have tended to downplay the role of pan-Islamic agitation in the First World War, arguing that the Turco-German campaign was marginal to the strategy of the Central Powers. However, McMeekin, who has consulted numerous Turkish and German sources, convincingly puts the plan front and centre, and gives us a fuller, more complex picture of how the Great Powers influenced the future of the Middle East.

It is a story that takes in grotesque misapprehension, outlandish propaganda, sordid compromise, abject failure, and comic — or tragic — outcomes. A professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, McMeekin has written a sophisticated, if sometimes tendentious, account that gives us a much broader view of a story whose echoes persist into the present day: the efforts by western powers to exert influence in the Middle East, and the way in which those efforts — often involving attempts to marshal the force of religious fervour — have so reliably backfired.

The Berlin-Baghdad Express is also a phenomenally entertaining narrative. Featuring a dramatis personae that puts Indiana Jones to shame, McMeekin’s book opens up a window on to the vanished, all-but-forgotten world of German Orientalism and the band of scholar-adventurers who fanned out across the Middle East to win converts to the cause. Lawrence of Arabia has won all the glory, but these agents were, to a man, every bit his equal. (It’s refreshing to read about a moment in 20th-century history when Germans acted no better or worse than their British and French adversaries.) Travelling to the most forbidding regions of the Muslim world, where no infidel was welcome, they carried out their briefs with élan and derring-do, though with little success in the end.

Indeed, McMeekin offers, among other things, a brilliant exposé of a geopolitical disaster. From the start, there was something unseemly about the Kaiser’s embrace of Islam — “Hajji Wilhelm” was always a man of sudden, contradictory, enthusiasms. After a visit to Jerusalem in 1898, he declared to his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, that “My personal feeling in leaving the holy city was that I felt profoundly ashamed before the Moslems and that if I had come there without any Religion at all I certainly would have turned Mahomettan!” (At the same time, he was enthusing to Theodore Herzl about Zionism.) But the Kaiser thought he also had found a weapon: “the Mahometans were a tremendous card” in the game against “the certain meddlesome Power!”— Great Britain.

Thus began Germany’s ardent courtship of the Sublime Porte and Sultan Abdul Hamid. Building a railroad from Constantinople to Baghdad to Basra — the eponymous express — would become one linchpin of German strategy. The other would be exploiting the symbolic potential of the Caliphate to stir the passions of Muslims. Under any political circumstance, this was a risky move. And the Germans weren’t the only ones with their eyes on the Caliphate: the British entertained notions of detaching it from the Ottoman Sultan and moving it to Mecca. They lavished funds on the Sherifiate and Ibn Saud’s Wahhabist legions in an attempt to buy their support. (As one leader writer put it in a pro-British Egyptian paper, “it is Mecca, not Constantinople, which is the centre of the Muslim faith. It is towards the Kaabah, not towards the St Sophia, that the Moslem turns his eyes as he prays”). About this faintly absurd jousting amongst the Great Powers, competing to prop up the long-expired authority of the Caliphate, McMeekin writes, “It was like a race to the reactionary bottom, to see which ‘infidel’ power could conjure up the purest strain of fundamentalist Islam.”

Helping to whip up passions was one of history’s most unlikely jihadists, Baron Max von Oppenheim, who directed the Kaiser’s “jihad bureau” for the duration of the war. The scion of a Jewish banking family, an archaeologist, writer, and veteran Near East hand, Oppenheim thundered that Muslims “should know that from today the Holy War has become a sacred duty and that the blood of the infidels in the Islamic lands may be shed with impunity”. (Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians were granted exceptions, of course.)

Oppenheim supervised a crack team of Orientalists, among them Alois Musil, cousin of the novelist Robert, who trekked to central Arabia in 1915 to enlist Arab tribal sheikhs, and Oskar von Niedermayer, who made a perilous journey across the Persian desert to spur the Emir of Afghanistan into attacking the Indian Raj. Despite the effusions of pious rhetoric, the Turco-German plan foundered badly. McMeekin is at his best explaining why, as a strategic adjunct to the war, the “jihad” amounted to very little. In the two resounding Turkish victories over British forces, at Gallipoli and Kut-El-Amara, Islamic sentiments counted for nothing on the battlefield; tenacity and superior tactics did.

Almost everywhere — Persia, the Shia strongholds of southern Mesopotamia, Afghanistan and the Hejaz — German agents found themselves contending with endless logistical traps. With the British Navy in control of the seas, the still incomplete railway took on a vital importance. There was simply no way for the Ottomans to ship arms and materiel across vast distances to supply their would-be allies. The “jihad”, in actuality, turned into a series of cash transactions, with the Germans (and British) resorting to subventions, financial blandishments, and outright bribery. For their support, the Turks themselves asked for millions of marks; in Afghanistan, the Emir “demanded from Berlin a lump sum of £10 million sterling, the equivalent of some $5 billion today”.

The Germans — and British — both exploited and misunderstood the issue of the Caliphate. Shia clerics were never going to fall in behind a Sunni Caliphate, whose authority they would never recognise. And, besides, the Caliphate was a nearly moribund institution in 1914. As McMeekin explains, the Caliphate was not analogous to the papacy; it was a “political-military power” backed up by superior force of arms and Ottoman military might. And even this counted for little in the Arab holy lands of the Hejaz, where the Ottomans were unable to put down a revolt by the Emir of Mecca in 1916 (on which the British lavished several billions, in 2010 dollars). The uprising by blood relatives of the Prophet rendered null and void any remaining authority of the Caliphate.

Though McMeekin frequently lapses into cliché (“The Syrian and Mesopotamian stretches on the other side of the mountains were no picnic either”), he is a vivid, confident stylist with a keen eye for the farcical anecdote. During an attack on the Suez Canal, Bedouin tribesmen shouting “Allahu Akhbar” give away Turkish positions to the British; in Constantinople, it turned out that “the lead holy war writer in the Turkish press, ‘Mehmed Zeki Bey, ’ was actually a Romanian Jewish conman who had recently done a turn running a bordello in Buenos Aires.” McMeekin writes equally as well on the horrors of war in the Ottoman provinces and the grim fate of Armenians in 1915-1916.

But for all his trenchancy, McMeekin overstates his case, and, in doing so, fails to explain what, exactly, we are to make of “Germany’s historic role in the Middle East”. Looking back to the First World War from the vantage point of a world obsessed with radical Islam of the bin Ladenist variety, McMeekin argues that “the Kaiser’s promotion of pan-Islam, while a strategic failure in the World War, threw up flames of revolutionary jihadism as far afield as Libya, Sudan, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, Iran, and Afghanistan, which never entirely died down after the war.” Yet McMeekin’s notion of “revolutionary jihadism” is off-key, and he skips a beat in his argument. As he forcefully reminds us in his epilogue, “Wilhelmine Germany was also the spiritual and political home of Zionism”, which was an ethno-nationalist movement. As the Middle East moved from protectorates and mandates to independent nation states, nationalist movements set the terms of political debate. The revolutionary jihadism of today, in fact, emerged only after the collapse of Nasser’s secular pan-Arabism. Kaiser Wilhelm’s “jihad” against Britain — foolhardy, ambitious, and fantastically enthralling in hindsight — casts precious little light on the problem of contemporary religious extremism.


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