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am 30. Oktober 2011
The real theme of this book is not the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which receives little attention after the first quarter of the book, but Germany's hope to rouse the Muslims all over the world, and those in the Ottoman Empire in particular, to a jihad to undermine the British and French empires. McMeekin begins the story with the Kaiser who, from the moment of his accession in 1888, was romantically involved in the Orient and saw himself as the protector of Islam against any further encroachments by the British and French on the Islamic world. As relations between Germany on the one side and Britain and France on the other deteriorated and the Germans planned for a possible war with the Entente, they began to foment Islamic jihadism in the imperial possessions of the Entente. Max von Oppenheim was the driving force behind the sending out of agents to those areas for that purpose.

In 1899 and in 1908 the Germans received concessions from the Turks to build the Turkish section of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. They could have lost them during the Young Turk Revolution later in 1908: the new Finance Minister, Djavid Bey, heading a group that admired Britain, considered giving the concession to the British instead. The British egregiously spurned the Young Turk advances. Had they supported the Young Turks, Turkey might well have been on the British instead of on the German side in the First World War. As it was, Enver Pasha, the pro-German War Minister was committed, at first to hostile neutrality via-à-vis the Entente Powers and then to an alliance with Germany.

When the war broke out, just 70 miles or so, from Samara south-east to Baghdad, had been built in Mesopotamia, leaving a gap six times that length to the nearest railhead; and there were also two smaller gaps in the Amanus and Taurus mountains in Syria. The Germans also built the spur from Syria down to the Hejaz railway. But that railway ended at Medina and never reached Mecca, which was one reason why the Turks could not nip the Mecca-based Arab Revolt in the bud.

McMeekin shows that the entry of Turkey into the war on the German side was not a foregone conclusion; but the British seizure of two Dreadnoughts being constructed for Turkey in Britain tipped the balance that way.

When the war broke out the puppet Sultan Mehmed VI duly proclaimed a jihad against the Entente Powers. The proclamation had limited effect. Oppenheim wanted to cajole Hussein, the influential Hashemite Sherif of Mecca, into supporting the jihad; but Hussein resented the way the Young Turks were trying to tighten the control of Constantinople over the Sherifate. The attempts of the Germans to whip up the Muslims in Arabia against the British were singularly unsuccessful: the Arabs were too anti-Turkish for that. Besides, here, as in all the other areas where the Germans hoped to unleash jihad, money always spoke louder than either faith or nationalism. The potential leaders remained neutral for as long as possible and played off one side against the other in an ever-escalating bidding war, extorting vast sums of money and supplies of arms.

The British were successful in enlisting Hussein for their cause in 1916. McMeekin challenges the widespread idea, connected with Lawrence of Arabia, that this was a nationalist revolt: Hussein himself gave as the cause of his campaign that the Young Turk government was unIslamic. Not only the Arabs, but, as time went on, many Turks also turned against German officers and representatives - not so much for jihadi reasons, but to vent their resentment at arrogance of the Germans and because of the feeling that the Germans had dragged Turkey into a war which by 1916 they stood no chance of winning. After 1916 there were many incidents when Germans were killed not only by Arabs but by Turks also.

The Germans had been more successful with the Shia Grand Mufti of Karbala, who was at odds with Sunni Mecca and Sunni Constantinople. After exacting a huge sum of money from the Germans, in 1915 the Grand Mufti proclaimed a jihad to the Shias of the Ottoman and the Persian Empires. But again little came of it. The same was true of the alliance the Germans secured, at huge cost, with the Emir of Afghanistan in 1916. In Libya the head of the Sanussi order was a self-proclaimed Mahdi, who for a long time received bribes both from the Turks and from the British to join them. The Germans won that bidding war, and the Sanussis crossed the Egyptian border; but the British troops drove them back (1915).

With the collapse of any German hopes for a jihad by 1916 and no further developments in the story of the Berlin-Baghdad railway, both the ostensible and the real subject of this book effectively came to an end. McMeekin ends with two chapters which deal with other attempts by the Germans to unleash "quasi-religious" forces to undermine their enemies. The first of these was infinitely more effective than their attempt in the Muslim world: the Germans sent Lenin to undermine the Russian war-effort and financed Bolshevik anti-war publications in Russia. When Lenin came to power, he pulled Russia out of the war. The effect of this on Turkey was that the Russians withdrew from the one area in which their troops had been successful and far from war-weary: Eastern Anatolia, where, in the course of 1916, their armies had broken the Turkish forces and were half-way to Constantinople and to Ankara.

The Epilogue chapter deals with the second German attempt to undermine Russia from within: encouraging her Jews to rise in revolt in return for German support for Zionism. To this end Germany put pressure on the Turks to curb the jihad enthusiasm she was encouraging at the same time. The British were playing the same game, with more success than the Germans. Neither Germany nor Britain seemed to understand how support of Zionism was incompatible with their efforts to enlist Muslims in their cause.

The British, of course, came to regret it, and later did almost everything they could to appease the Arabs of Palestine. As for the Germans, the Nazis would again seek for allies among the Muslim zealots. It was Max von Oppenheim who, despite his own Jewish ancestry, kept the flame of Muslim jihad alive. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was made an honorary Aryan, and in 1940 it was he who put to Hitler the idea of enlisting the Mufti of Jerusalem as a fanatical ally.
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am 8. Oktober 2012
The subject was well covered in Hopkirk's marvelously engaging yarn On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire. Whereas Hopkirk weaves a terrific tale around the stories of individual daring-do, valour and the outrageous audacity of some of the German agents, he gives only fleeting glimpses of the historical events around these actions to give them context. By contrast McMeekin's focus is very much top down, taking a more scholarly look at the big picture of the German plan to exploit the Ottoman Empire's strategic and religious importance and incite muslim subjects of the British and Russian empires to a Jihad against their colonial masters. Much of the territory covered in the book will be familiar to readers of Hopkirk's earlier work, but McMeekin devotes more space to the overall German strategy and some of the lesser-known incidents. For instance, one of the few examples of a successful German/Turkish inspired Jihad was an uprising on the Libyan frontier directed mainly against the British in Egypt, which initially caused considerable alarm in Cairo. The book also gives an account of the failed Turco-German offensive against Suez in 1915 where the total ineffectiveness and self-interest of the Bedouin/Arab auxiliaries - supposedly inspired by bloodthirsty calls to kill the infidel - first becomes apparent.

The key figure in all of these events is Max von Oppenheim, who conceived the idea of a Jihad in a notorious memorandum written for the Kaiser and the German Foreign Ministry. A Jewish-to-Christian convert and an outstanding orientalist, Oppenheim is portrayed as both evil genius and buffoon; his greatest achievement was convincing Kaiser Wilhelm and other gullible figures in Imperial Germany of the feasibility of his plan to stir up 100 million muslims against the British and Russian empires, from North Africa to the frontiers of India. Ultimately the failed strategy was a classic example of German self-interested myopia and delusional wishful-thinking that broke against the rocks of geopolitical reality. The failure to complete vital sections of the Berlin-Baghdad railway that gives the books its title, damned the strategy from the start, as without it, Germany could never hope to match Britain's control of the seas that enabled it to supply its armies and proxies in the region, as well as bribe and intimidate the locals to stay neutral or take up arms against the Turks. Oppenheim's megalomaniac vision of a German-inspired Jihad engulfing its enemies also fell victim to the self-interest of the Arab and muslim tribal leaders, who ignored calls for Jihad, preferring to play one side off against the other and sell themselves to the highest bidder, a game Germany could never win. German and Turkish interests clashed almost from the outset, and relations became increasingly acrimonious until finally, following the collapse of the Russian empire, Germans and Turks were firing on each other in their unseemly haste to grab the oil wells at Baku.

By this time Oppenheim's dream of a German-led Jihad had fallen apart. The author comes to the startling conclusion that it was Oppenheim's inflammatory incitement to Jihad that fuelled both Nazi-German and modern Arab anti-semitism and anti-westernism. The author blames irresponsible German calls for Jihad in World War One for many of the problems that blight today's Middle East: pitting Arab against Jew and Christian, creating an intractable conflict further intensified by the creation of Israel that polarises world politics and Islamic-western understanding to the present day.
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am 10. Oktober 2010
Writer Sean McMeekin enriches our knowledge of World War I with his study about this distant theater of hostility, located between Istanbul and Baghdad.

Regarded by Berlin as a German sphere of inluence, the Germans tried to set up the Islam-peoples over there to a "Jihad" -- a holy war against the English. This would cause severe trouble in England's many Islamitic oolonies, thus releasing English military pressure on the Western front in France.

Instrumental to the Kaiser's policy was the railroad from Istanbul to Baghdad, in those days still under construction. This monument of superior German engineering allowed a rapid transport of the German military into the area.

It was a strange war of spread military activity, bribery and complicated politics. In which the Germans did not always show a happy touch.

Although the German efforts turned out to be a failure, they produced an important result nobody had foreseen. Due to Turkey's siding with Germany, the entrance to the Black Sea was sealed off for the Russian opponent. This severely disrupted economic life in southern Russia, and contributed significantly to Lenin's take-over in 1917.
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