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The threat of holy war

John Buchan’s Greenmantle remains a marvellous read, even if its plot is absurd.

24 July 2010

12:00 AM

24 July 2010

12:00 AM

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 Sean McMeekin

Allen Lane, pp.461, 25

John Buchan’s Greenmantle remains a marvellous read, even if its plot is absurd.

John Buchan’s Greenmantle remains a marvellous read, even if its plot is absurd. Who could credit a story about German attempts, headed by the unlovely Kaiser Wilhelm and the glamorous and suitably ruthless Hilda von Einem, to stir up a world-wide Muslim holy war against the Allies during the first world war and ultimately build a vast German empire stretching to India itself? Now Sean McMeekin shows that fiction, after all, was not so far from the truth, and he makes the most of what is a very good story.

He starts in the late 19th century with the construction of the Berlin to Baghdad railway. It drew in some of Germany’s greatest engineers and sucked up huge sums of German money, and in return was meant to spread German influence and sell German goods throughout the decaying Ottoman empire. Kaiser Wilhelm, who never passed up an opportunity to show off on the world stage, rushed to Istanbul in 1898 to assure the introverted and paranoid Ottoman Sultan (who, as Caliph, also claimed to be the supreme spiritual leader to Muslims) that he was the friend of all Muslims for all time. (When Wilhelm tried to present the latest German rifle to the Sultan, the poor creature shrank away in terror of assassination; it was a harbinger of the uneasy and mutually suspicious relationship between their two peoples.)

If the novel has Hilda and the sinister, gorilla-like Colonel Von Stumm, history features a collection of equally formidable German soldiers and improbable ‘eastern’ enthusiasts such as the Kaiser himself and Max von Oppenheim, spoiled rich boy, linguist, explorer, diplomat and anti-Semite (although his ancestors were Jewish bankers). The outbreak of world war in 1914 gave them the opportunity to put their dreams into action.

Some of the history reads more like Flashman than Buchan: German military supplies destined for Istanbul disguised as ‘circus tent poles’ are seized by the Romanians when an alert customs officer notices radio aerials sticking out. A German agent in Palestine tries to recruit Jews for the jihad because they are more reliable than Arab Muslims. The mufti, who leads the Sanussi tribesmen on the borders of Egypt, asks that his bribes be paid in British bank notes because they are easier to carry in the desert than gold. An Austrian Arabist promises to gather the Bedouin to attack the British and then simply carries on with his own researches.

It is easy at this distance to forget that the threat of a holy war was also deadly serious. As the stalemate developed on the western front, and the demands of total war weighed increasingly heavily on the belligerents, both sides tried to use appeals to nationalism and religion as weapons against the other. While the Kaiser boasted about inflaming the Muslim world against the British, ‘this hateful, lying, conscienceless people of shopkeepers’, it was a prospect that sent shivers through the British, and the French and the Russians, with their millions of Muslim subjects. By October 1914, when the Ottoman empire entered the war, it looked as though the nightmare was about to come true; that from India to Morocco, Muslims would rise up against their colonial rulers en masse.


The Germans had some reason for optimism. There was growing resentment of the great European empires in the Middle East, India and North Africa, although how much of it was nationalist and how much religious is hard to disentangle. When the war broke out, some Germans, including the Kaiser, talked grandly of how the very threat of a jihad, and the mere mention of an attack on Suez, would force the British to make peace at once, and on unfavourable terms. ‘The intervention of Islam’, promised Oppenheim, in an overwrought memorandum, will be ‘a terrible blow’ to the Allies. (Liman von Sanders, the German general who organised the Turkish defence at Gallipoli, dismissed such talk as ‘obscure fantasies’.)

In November 1914 leading Muslim clerics in the Ottoman empire issued fatwas — which were at once translated into French, Arabic, Persian and Urdu — for a global jihad. In language which sounds uncomfortably like that of al-Qa’eda, they called on the 100 million or so Muslims under British rule and the 40 million apiece in the French and Russian empires to wage war on the infidels. In 1915, the Allies faced fresh challenges when a German party bribed the Grand Mufti of the holy city of Karbala to issue a similar fatwa to Shia Muslims, and the Gallipoli expedition failed to deliver a fatal blow to the Ottomans.

Yet in the end how grave a threat was it? If I have a serious reservation about what is in many ways an admirable and well-researched piece of work, it is that the author accepts too easily the assumption of the Kaiser and his fellows that there was something called ‘the Muslim world’ and a unified ‘Muslim’ perspective. (Should we assume these exist today?) ‘We must not forget’, Oppenheim declaimed, ‘that everything taking place in a Mohammedan country sends waves across the entire world of Islam.’ And events proved him wrong.

McMeekin talks about widespread Muslim rage against the West. But that is not true today, nor was it true then. In India, to take just one example, Muslims were often the most loyal subjects of the Raj because they saw in it a bulwark against Hindu dominance. Moreover, he too often treats wishful thinking as serious evidence; his sources for Muslim anger in India, even before 1914, about threats to the caliphate turn out to be German consuls in India. He also overstates the importance of the Kaiser, whose effusions about the Muslim world, and much else, were not taken seriously by his own government. During the war the German generals and statesmen were focused on the struggle in Europe. The rest of the world was always a sideshow.

There was also one glaring difficulty with the jihad and that was that the Germans and their Austrian allies were infidels too. Not surprisingly, many of the faithful who answered the call had trouble in making the distinction and turned on those who were meant to be their allies. Furthermore, warriors of Islam they may have been, but Arabs, Turks and Persians did not often trust each other.

Another problem was the railway. It was just over half completed by the end of 1914 and two crucial gaps, in the mountain ranges between Istanbul and Baghdad, meant that it was impossible to get anything like sufficient supplies into the hands of potential allies. Even if the railway had been finished, would it, as McMeekin seems to think, really have enabled Germany to control the Middle East, the Gulf and ultimately India? Railways can be easily cut, and Germany simply did not have the resources to pour significant forces into a far-off theatre of war.

In the end, the German and Turkish advance to the Suez Canal in 1915 was easily countered. (It did not help that their Bedouin allies gave away the element of surprise by shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ loudly.) A mission to Afghanistan to persuade the wily Emir to declare war on the British also failed, despite German promises of copious amounts of money and arms (which they could not deliver anyway), and presents that included 12 alarm clocks. Nor could the German emissaries deliver enough to the young shah of Persia to make his confronting the British and the Russians worth the risk. ‘The holy war,’ said one of the leading German agents, ‘is a tragicomedy’.

By 1916 the tide was turning against the Germans and the Turks in the Middle East. The Russians invaded the north of Persia and north-east Turkey. In June the Sharif of Mecca, who had taken gold and weapons from both sides, finally jumped to the Allies, apparently fearful that he was about to be deposed by the Ottomans. (In a nice touch, he accused his former masters in Istanbul of being poor Muslims.) In March 1
917 the Turks abandoned Baghdad to the British without a fight.

The collapse of Russia in 1917 curiously did not help matters. The Turks and the Germans now competed to grab the rich oil fields of the Caucasus. In June 1918 their forces exchanged gunfire. In Istanbul Oppenheim’s jihad bureau was now widely despised and a laughing stock when it turned out that his key propagandist, Mehmed Zeki Bey, was actually a Romanian Jew who had once run a brothel.

Germany spent many billions in the Middle East and in the end got little for its money, as its allies took as much as they could get and gave as little in return as possible. Moreover the excesses of its Turkish ally, including the massacres of the Armenians, helped to swing American opinion towards the Allies. The manifest failure of jihad also undermined the already shaky status of the Sultan as Caliph. In 1924 Ataturk abolished the office altogether. The railway lines proved to be more durable, and are still used today.


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