The Berlin–Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, by Sean McMeekin.
London, Allen Lane, 2010. 461 pp, ISBN 978-1846-14323-6. £25.
This wide-ranging book is about Germany’s relations with the Ottoman Empire from 1888 (the year of Kaiser Wilhelm’s accession) to 1918, with the main theme being the German- Ottoman attempt to win the First World War by fomenting a jihadist uprising in the East against the British Empire. You may already be thinking of Greenmantle and Richard Hannay hurrying incognito to Constantinople to save the civilized world. In fact, American author Sean McMeekinopenly acknowledges being influenced by John Buchan’s novel, as well as Peter Hopkirk’s On Secret Service East of Constantinople, which aimed to be ‘the true story’ behind Buchan’s work of fiction. Hopkirk is a journalist turned popular historian. McMeekin is a specialist in modern German and Russian history who teaches at Bilkent University in Turkey. Apparently he also has good enough German and Turkish to have used relevant archives in those languages and consequently was well positioned to expand the story with new and interesting detail.
The story of the actual ‘Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway’—a small part of the book, despite its title—is well told. It was interesting to learn that the British and French, Turkey’s supporters during the Crimean War, were also in the running to build the railroad across Anatolia, and indeed did build some stretches of it but then forfeited their influence with the Sultan—the British by encroaching on such Ottoman territory as Cyprus (annexed in 1878) and Egypt (occupied in 1882); the French by concluding a defence treaty with the Russians, Turkey’s long-standing enemy, in 1894. The way was thus left open to the Germans, whose influence was predominant when the Baghdad Railway concession was signed in 1903.
Construction was slow, due to financing problems but also because of the meddling of a paranoid Sultan, who feared his restive subjects might use the railway to loosen his control over them. Years passed, and the Young Turks came to power in Constantinople; with the rising of war fever Germany increasingly considered the railway’s strategic potential against future enemies. In fact, the line was not finished in time for that potential to be fully realized. McMeekin suggests that if the line had been completed by 1915, the threat to British-occupied Egypt would have been far greater than it was. The Turkish attack against the Canal in February 1915 failed miserably, although their soldiers’ march across Sinai was in itself a remarkable feat. Would a fully-functioning railway to the Levant have made a difference then or later? One might argue that the highly defended Canal would still have been a formidable obstacle, and that without the massive Egyptian uprising called for in Germany’s war plan, Turkish success was extremely unlikely.
McMeekin goes further than Hopkirk in retelling the tales of German agents sent to the East to win support among local leaders and throw the allies’ war efforts into confusion: anthropologist Leo Frobenius sent to the Red Sea Coast; explorer and biblical scholar Alois Musil to the Bedouin of northern Arabia; industrialist Otto Mannesman to the Sanusi of eastern Libya; similar missions travelling overland to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan,headed by the likes of Wilhelm Wassmuss and Oskar von Niedermayer. They are all quite amazing tales of adventure, even if most of the missions failed.
An interesting theme running right through the book is the unexpected volatility of German- Turkish relations. This is evident even before the outbreak of war, during the construction of the railway; ultimately it led to a complete breakdown of the alliance in June 1918, when, in the Caucasus, troops of the Ottoman 3rd Army exchanged fire with a local German force under the famous Kress von Kressenstein.
On the whole, McMeekin’s book is well researched, informative and well written. A minor weakness, perhaps, is the author’s penchant for clichés—X is ‘on the money’, Y is ‘the rarest of birds’, and X, Y and Z together are ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’. Another is the author’s occasional lapse into lurid exaggeration. A case in point is his depiction of, and his value judgements concerning, Baron Max von Oppenheim. A few words cannot do this German orientalistarchaeologist- diplomat justice, but it is relevant here that he worked at his country’s embassy in Cairo from 1896 to 1909 as an attaché, a sort of ‘oriental secretary’—the counterpart and contemporary of Britain’s Harry Boyle and Ronald Storrs; and in 1914 he devised a scheme to harness Islam to turn the East against Germany’s foes.
Peter Hopkirk, writing in the early 1990s, correctly identifies Oppenheim as the mastermind behind Germany’s eastern strategy at the start of the war, but his book contains little information about him. Since then a wealth of detail about Oppenheim has become available. The Oppenheims were a wealthy banking family from Cologne—the bank, the Sal. Oppenheim Jr. & Cie, still exists—and there is now a marvellous library there with a large archive of documents by and about Max von Oppenheim. Moreover, the principal archivist and other German historians have written an excellent book entitled Faszination Orient: Max von Oppenheim, Forscher, Sammler, Diplomat. McMeekin has availed himself of this new material, but his depiction of Oppenheim is not flattering. For McMeekin, Oppenheim’s report-writing at the Cairo embassy was obsessive and unoriginal ‘hack work’; Oppenheim and the Kaiser were ‘pursued by demons only they understood’, and they ‘would make the world pay for its failure to recognize [Germany’s] greatness’. Oppenheim, whose mother was Catholic and father a Catholic-convert, is called ‘self-loathing’ because his heritage was Jewish on his father’s side, while later he was against further Jewish immigration into Palestine; and, finally, because Oppenheim sought to stir up jihadi sentiment over nine decades ago, he made ‘a breathtaking error in judgement, and we are all living with the consequences today’ [!!!]. In the light of these and other accusations, it’s somewhat surprising to read in the author’s Acknowledgements, as he thanks the Oppenheim archivists for their help, that he finds Max von Oppenheim to be ‘by no means unsympathetic as a character’.
This reviewer has also worked in the archives and came away with the impression that Oppenheim was colourful, complex and highly talented; that it was inconsistent of him to be vehemently against British and French colonialism in the East but to remain silent about German East Africa, for example. As for his writing, T.E. Lawrence thought Oppenheim’s Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf [From the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf] was ‘the best book on the area I know’. As an archaeologist, Oppenheim did outstanding work at Tell Halaf in northeastern Syria and founded the Tell Halaf Museum in Berlin (destroyed in the bombing of that city in the 1940s). Irrelevant to this assessment but perhaps interesting, Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan knew Oppenheim personally, spending a day with him when they visited the Museum in the 1930s.
Has McMeekin made his case against Oppenheim? Readers of The Berlin–Baghdad Express will judge for themselves. A book like this can scarcely avoid being controversial, and certainly ASTENE members interested in what was happening in our area during the First World War should find it intriguing.