The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power Hardcover – 2010
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The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power
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The main protagonists were: Kaiser Wilhelm the Second,who got infatuated with the Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire,and,as a result,supported this project after telling his friends that "if we are to be bled, at least the British shall lose India"; Baron Max von Oppenheim,who hated almost everyone including himself because of his Jewish origins. He was the grandson of a founder of the Oppenheim bank in Germany and shared the Kaiser's dream of dealing a fatal blow to the British Empire. To while away his boring hours,he made sure to possess a harem of Arab women in Egypt.
The third protagonist was Abdul Hamid,the Ottoman paranoid Sultan who dreaded the Young Turks. These three hoped that a jihad would materialize-a jihad that would include tens of millions of Muslims who "would bring the British Empire to its knees"(p.82)In the words of Oppenheim,"let us do all we can to ensure hat this blow wil be a lethal one!"
The first third of the book describes in a very panoramic way the main characters mentioned above,giving the reader much information about their background, motivations and their modi operandi.
The next third discusses the historical context of this project and McMeekin does not spare words in order to put the blame for the failure of it on the West,especially on the British, because they did not offer any substantial support to the Young Turks movement.
The railway was supposed to carry tens of thousands of German troops to Basra in Iraq. Due to the harsh geographical conditions,the project was started only in 1903. In the Taurus range alone,"the mountains could be crossed at a serviceable rail grade through extensive blasting and the excavation of thousands of tons of rock. In the end,some three dozen tunnels were needed,many of them several kilometers in length".(p.44)
Kurds,Bedouin tribes scattered along the Otttoman Empire and the endless conflicts between the Turks and Armenians further hampered this fantasy. Many Germans were recruited in an attempt to launch Islamic risings everywhere. Leo Frobenius was one of them. He was an ethnologist who made up his mind to hurt British interests in the Suez Canal area, which "would sever the shortest supply line to British India for troop ships and merchant convoys,while seriously damaging English prestige in the Orient".(p.144)Despite the massive ammunition and other means supplied to Frobenius and his allies (Arabs and Bedouins),he failed and his ambitions to stir up revolts in the Sudan and Abyssinia were dashed.
Another German agent,Oskar von Niederemayer,an ex-Prussian army officer,got the mission to convince the leader of Afghanistan to lead an attack on British India. Niedermayer was once caught in Romania while posing as a German clown in a circus which was full of spies working for his country and was expelled to his motherland. He,too,failed eventually in his attempts,albeit he managed to recruit the Afghanistan leader to some sort of action against the British by using extensive bribery.
So did many other German agents who were mainly archaeologists working in those parts of the worlds.
McMeekin makes it clear that the project designers failed to see that the hatred and disunity among the various Arabs would not deliver the merchadise. He adds:"Who could have imagined that the Kaiser's pan-Islamic gambit would bring Muslim Central Asia and the Caucasus under the thumbs of the world's first explicitly atheist regime in Moscow,which would prove to be a bitter enemy of Muslims? The German Drang nach Osten proved to be a farce and a tragedy".(pp.338-339)
The last part of the book deals with the Nazi-Muslim connections. Oppenheim, the eccentric German, was given a medal for his services "in the name of the Fuehrer and Reichskanzler in 1937", and he continued to play an essential part in recruiting the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem,al-Husseini,in organizing the anti-Semitic pogrom of Jews in Baghdad in 1941,as well as helping him become the spitting image of Aryan brothers.The Muslim voluntary SS battalions in the Balkans were regarded, in Himmler's words,as "among the most honourable and true followers of the Fuerher Adolf Hitler due to their hatred of the common Jewish-English-Bolshevik enemy".(p.362)Many of those Muslim SS men started believing that Hitler was like the Messiah.
The results of this foolish scheme are still felt nowadays in the Middle East,according to the author.
This is a very stimulating and fast-moving book ,with many interesting insights-many of them extremely original. Still,one might ask:why did I not award it five points? Here is the answer:the editing of the book was done in a superficial and perfunctory way, and the adjectives included in each phrase and sentence are repetitive and can exhaust the reader. The word "jihad" seems to be a super favourite and it becomes redundant. This,however,does not diminish from the book's importance and originality of research and the reader will gain new and fresh perspectives about the current conflict between the Islamic and Western ideologies.
McMeekin does better with his narrative of German efforts to ncite Islamic unrest against the British Empire. The narrative is generally solid and McMeekin seems to have synthesized a fair amount of information in a useful manner. His language and analysis, however, is sometimes incongruous. He makes much of the dangers of German efforts to stir up Jihads against the British, but his narrative largely shows desperate and often credulous German agents being manipulated by a broad range of pragmatic Islamic leaders. These efforts were a bust, and testify more to naive "orientalist" German views of Islam than to what McMeekin regards as the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. McMeekin is not a very careful writer. An unwary reader might get the impression, for example, that Wahhabis were an Arabian clan rather than a reformist Islamic sect. In several cases, such as his conventional assertion that the British Mandate in interwar Palestine favored the Arabs or his discussion of the Bolsheviks and the end of Russian participation in WWI, he is actually misleading.
McMeekin concludes with a confused effort to argue that German policies had an important role in the formation of teh modern Middle East. This seems to be partly an effort to modify conclusions in David Fromkin's well known A Peace to End All Peace, which emphasized the role of British and French actions after WWI. McMeekin is correct in the very limited sense that things would have gone differently if the war had ended with a German victory but this not the same as arguing that specific German policies had a lasting effect. McMeekin tries to argue German efforts to ignite anti-British Jihads had something to do with the emergence modern Islamic fundamentalism. This is a rather strained argument and his principal exhibit appears to be the nauseating Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and his Nazi connections. This is a tendentious effort to connect Germany in WWI, fascism, and modern Islamic fundamentalism. McMeekin ignores his own narrative about the impotence of German efforts to incite Islamic uprisings and quite a bit of other contrary evidence. One of the strongest links between fascism and the Arab world, for example, occurred in the Lebanese Christian community in the form of the Phalange party, explicitly modeled on European fascist parties.
McMeekin shows how Wilhelmine Germany had a rich seam of middle east specialist archaeologists prior to 1914 (as a visit to today's Berlin Museuminsel clearly indicates). He records the excellent use made of this by Berlin in working on the Ottomans, Arabs, Persians, Afghans and others to promote an anti British & French jihad policy from Constantinople to Kabul via Baghdad. The ultimate aim was to bring about a collapse of British India. In passing (see earlier post) McMeekin suggests these German specialists were far more genuine arabists than TE Lawrence ever was.
New light is cast on the context of many elements of Great war strategy & campaigns:
* the German push to India increased a British focus on Iraq and Iran that has persisted.
* the Armenian massacres as an element of Ottoman great war strategy
* the success of the Tsarist Russian army and the later growth from it of Yudenich's White forces
German policy, its problems, costs and successes reads like a primer for post 1945 neo-imperialism. In this the Germans were ahead of the game! The Turks were diplomatically, and often militarily, sharper and shrewder than usually given credit for.
An intriguing Epilogue looks at how the experience of the ottoman War influenced later British & German policies towards Arab and Jewish populations. McMeekin argues that the Balfour declaration was made by a largely pro Arab British government, partly out of pique with German advances to Zionists and a desire to win US zionist support for a speedier US mobilisation. It also traces German - muslim relations to the end of World War 2 showing how these were cultivated as part of the Nazi anti- semitic program - a mainly muslim Waffen SS Division was responsible amongst others for killing 90% of Bosnia's Jews.
Given the unfamiliarity of the characters (especially in the complex central section of the narrative relating to German dealings with the Porte) to most readers a list of Dramatis Personae would have been helpful. Equally the title perhaps suggests more of a focus on the actual Berlin-Baghdad railroad. Although a vital thread in the narrative, it is no more than that. Railway enthusiasts will be disappointed early on by what is perhaps the title of an over-zealous editor.
Sean McMeekin's gripping and welcome retelling of just such an old, long-forgotten story relates the failed German attempt in World War I to stir the Muslim world to holy war against their British, French and Russian enemies. McMeekin's exceptional powers as a storyteller conjures up a really, cool, almost Indiana Jones-like world in which archaeologist/spies and soldiers rabble-rouse(!), cross brutal, broiling deserts(!), fight savage Arab tribesmen(!), all in the service of Kaiser and Kaiserreich.
But seriously, McMeekin's accounts of these men's activities is really entertaining and informative, and for this alone, "The Berlin-Baghdad Express" is worth reading. By the way, it is a much more interesting read than it's chief predecessor, Donald McKale's "War by Revolution" (Peter Hopkirk's "In Secret Service East of Constantinople" I haven't read, so I can't comment on its relative quality).
Be careful, though. This book, while entertaining and informative, is seriously flawed.
Beware of uncritically taking McMeekin's text at face value as being reliably accurate. The wealthy of historical detail with which he loads his narrative sometimes obscures mistakes.
For instance, while overall, he correctly attempts to present a nuanced portrait of the Ottoman triumvir Djemal Pasha as being something less than the bloodthirsty tyrant his detractors has painted him as being, McMeekin's details clash with this view. He mentions the human shield incident at Alexandretta early in the war, in which Djemal threatens British prisoners with retaliatory execution in the face of an offshore bombardment by a British warship. McMeekin fails to mention, though, that, for instance, American foreign service records show that Djemal worked successfully (if grudgingly and haltingly) with American ambassadors and consuls to negotiate the evacuation of enemy nationals from Ottoman territory.
He states also near the end that most of Iraq's Jews had been expelled during Feisal's first reign in the '20s and '30s. Wrong. Dead wrong. Iraq's Jews did not start leaving in large numbers until after World War II.
Also, while he correctly introduces a nuanced view of the German reaction to the Armenian massacres by registering the official German complaint to the Turkish government, he doesn't mention that several lower-level diplomats and soldiers out on the frontline areas were making a lot of noise about it, although they were in some cases silenced by their superiors. One German consul (I think it was Rössler in Aleppo) complained loudly to the local Turkish authorities. Another high-ranking German officer, after witnessing the Armenian slaughter threatened local Turkish authorities that if the killing didn't stop, the Germans would stop it for them. The killing stopped. The truth on that one is somewhat more complex than indicated.
By the way, it seems that McMeekin, in spite of the impressive amount of research he did in many non-American records repositories, apparently didn't do a lot of work at the US National Archives, which houses a lot of the material that would have provided information that might have softened some of his harsher judgements. I know this because I have done a tremendous amount of research on this subject myself at the National Archives, particularly in records of the German Foreign Office, the US State Department and the Military Intelligence Division of the US War Department.
Just to nitpick a little further: McMeekin describes the Grand Mufti Muhammad Amin al-Hussaini as having blond hair and blue eyes, "unlike many Levantine Arabs." Has Sean McMeekin ever BEEN to the Levant? If so, he would see that, particularly in many parts of Israel and the West Bank, there are a fair number of Arabs who are strikingly European-looking (descendants of Arab locals and European crusaders, no doubt). The funny thing is that McMeekin, being an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara is close enough to the Levant to have seen this for himself. Odd...
I would take issue with the assertions he makes along the way, especially those assertions that lack citations. In his chapter on the troubles on the Baghdad railway, he speculates that the German attempt to resolve the tortured irony posed by the fomenting of Islamic jihad by an infidel nation found some Islamic theological underpining in the concept of the jizyah tax. He cites the authoritative verse from the Kur'an on jizya taxation, but offers no primary-source musings of Islamic leaders that demonstrates that this was an element driving their thinking in excepting Germans and Austrians from the consequences of the jihad decree.
Also, he states in the epilogue that the British Mandatory authorities pardoned the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem after convicting him of provoking riots in 1920, not because they shared his vicious anti-semitism, but because his anti-semitic views "were shared by the Arab majority," and had to be indulged for political reasons. Whoa. Where's the proof that the vast majority of Arabs in Palestine possessed anti-semitic views? That's a serious charge which demands documented proof. None is forthcoming.
Some of his assertions don't necessarily ring false, but just lack explanation, like his statement about the bitter mistrust and hostility of Muslims towards the Young Turk regime. I get how the Young Turk's modernizing and Europeanizing may have created this bad blood, but I don't really get an explanation of exactly why and how it did, something I'd be very interested in understanding.
Ditto with his explanation of the German interest in the Middle East. I sort of get it from his explanations, but the exact whys and wherefores are missing. I still leave this book wondering exactly what in German geopolitical ideology drove them to seek power and influence in this part of the world, and what in the Kaiser's complex psyche drove him to break with Germany's Bismarckian past in terms of its foreign policy.
Some of his assertions conflict with each other, such as his relating of the Armenian massacre. On the one hand, he is careful to explain the validity of Turkish concerns for security in frontline areas and describes the insurrectionist activity of Armenians in eastern Anatolia and in the Caucasus. But then at the end of that chapter ("Trouble on the Baghdad Railway"), he links the Armenian genocide to the unleashing of religious fanaticism by the holy war effort, which his earlier narrative seems to try to refute. In the end, he sends a rather confusing message.
McMeekin's credibility completely comes apart at the seams in his conclusions, though. He trots out the old canard of the Nazi-Islamist link, narrating in lurid detail how the poster boy of "Islamo-fascism," the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who by the way was put forward for notice in Berlin by the inveterate spymaster and agent provacateur, Max von Oppenheim), got buddy-buddy with the Nazis and helped them implement the Final Solution.
It gets worse.
After describing the enthusiasm of recruits for the ideas taught in the Mufti's training school in Berlin for SS officers learning about the points of convergence of Nazi and Islamic ideas, McMeekin actually says: "Little wonder German tourists were still being greeted decades later with enthusiastic 'Heil Hitler!' salutes by Muslims in Casablanca, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad." His sources for this seem to be ridiculous polemical screeds like "Icon of Evil" by Dalin and Rothmann, which no serious historian should use as a source.
It gets still worse.
McMeekin actual draws direct lines of descent between the "toxic self-pitying disease which gave rise to Naziism" and the "syndrome [which] manifests itself in common Arab anti-semitism, with Israel blamed for every evil which has occurred in the Middle East in modern times."
And McMeekin just keeps right on digging...
You see, there's a subtler version of this Nazi/Islamist poison that infects the thinking of Westerners which drives Westerners to 1). excuse the crimes of post-colonial dictatorships while decrying European imperialism and 2). indulge in self-loathing, as did Max von Oppenheim, the Jewish convert to Christianity cum jihadist provocateur.
Oh, and get this: Oppenheim and his self-loathing, imperialist-trashing, Western descendants are "limousine liberals."
Yeah. This guy McMeekin, with his pretensions to being a serious historian, not only reveals that his whole purpose in writing the book was so that we would not repeat Oppenheim's ghastly mistake of fomenting worldwide war targeting innocent civilians (i.e., he's saying that Islamic terrorism is the bastard child of Oppenheim's holy war ideology), but that we must oppose the "limousine liberals" who appease the Islamists.
Frankly, I really had to laugh out loud when I read McMeekin's conclusions. In half a chapter, the quality and credibility of his narrative sinks from the level of "The Guns of August" to somewhere slightly above "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
I mean, really. McMeekin's intentions are simply bigoted against the Muslim world, plain and simple, for which he deserves to be laughed out of the historian community until he can redeem himself with something more serious than this.
McMeekin provides a closer look at the oft-neglected Eastern front of World War I, examining the economic, military and political ties that drew the Germans and the Ottoman empire together. Rather than focusing on the eponymous railway, however, the book becomes an overview of the German's attempts at fomenting jihad amongst the Islamic peoples of the world. This is not as ridiculous as it might first appear -- the British also seriously considered the possibility that the Ottoman sultan, who was also the Sunni caliph, might cause the Sunni population of India to revolt. However, McMeekin's work fails to do justice to the subject matter. Half the book is spent portraying the jihad as a rising wave threatening to sweep away the British empire while the other half is spent explaining that the jihad was a huge failure. Additionally, when given the choice between presenting something accurately or using Hollywood-esque hyperbole, McMeekin chooses the latter every time. The book's greatest deficiency, however, is it its portrayal of Islamic people themselves.
The Great Power shenanigans taking place during the first World War in the Middle East require enough suspension of disbelief as is (see, for example, Fromkin's account of the conquest of Damascus in "A Peace to End All Peace,"); there is absolutely no justification I can see for McMeekin's insistence on further sexing up the narrative with silly lines like, "The Germans had ridden the tiger of Islamic rage and resentment a long way... but the tiger was now chafing and clawing wildly in all directions. The Germans were losing the last semblance of control over the animal beneath them." (p. 258) It doesn't help that the author uses the 1916 spy thriller "Greenmantle" to structure his story.
This is a segue to my second point, which is: as much as McMeekin wants to convince us that the German-inspired jihad was a "tiger," or a serious threat, or a powerful undercurrent in the Islamic world, he readily undermines his own point. Frequently, he mentions that the Sultan's fatwa had little effect, that only a handful of protesters took to the streets, or that the Afghan ruler seemed more interested in playing the Great Powers off each other than "heeding the call of Islam" (duh!). Ultimately, this undermines the book's credibility: either tell me that the jihad was effective or give me serious reasons why it wasn't, but don't try and say both.
The book's greatest flaw, however, is in its treatment of Muslims. Throughout the book, they are the subjects of the narrative, without a voice of their own. We hear what the Germans thought again and again about Islam or the Ottomans or how Muslims should respond to the call of the Caliph, but there is no analysis of how this was thought by members of the Ottoman leadership, or by the Arabs, Persians, Afghans and Indians who were theoretically the fatwa's captive audience. Notice as well that almost every quotation from the book is taken from a Western statesman -- you would think that no leader within the Middle East had ever taken the time to reflect upon his situation.
This negation of the Muslim viewpoint is replicated again and again throughout McMeekin's narrative. For example, he describes Djemal Pasha's ruthless rule over the Levant. Djemal took several dozen Europeans hostage and when the British ships started bombing Beirut, he threatened to kill three Europeans for every Ottoman subject who died, which was in violation of the laws of combat. McMeekin doesn't consider that the "international" laws of combat were in fact European laws imposed on the rest of the world, or contextualize this in light of the capitulations that the Ottomans had been making to Europeans for more than a century, or see it as an unfortunate example of the ruthlessness of war; rather, sans analysis, he jumps to the conclusion that Djemal is "heeding the higher call of Islam," which Europeans cannot understand. For McMeekin, Djemal is a Muslim first and everything else second. This is the same ignorance that is replicated throughout much scholarship of the Middle East, the media, and the government.
So here is the point: there's no thought given to who might respond to a jihad and who doesn't and no analysis of why the jihad was unsuccessful. There is no examination of the internal politics of the Ottoman empire. Instead, McMeekin has thrown together a trashy, half-researched, Eurocentric pulp thriller that unfortunately raises more questions than it answers. This is an interesting topic; I regret that the author did not do it justice.
Read "A Peace to End All Peace" instead.