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.