As a wartime strategy, Germany tried to foment a Grand Jihad in Muslim lands.
The Ottoman Empire took its time to die. Hovering around the death bed, the Great Powers of the late 19th century—Russia, France, Germany and Britain—were eager to have a share of the spoils and fearful that others might pre-empt them. None was so eager or so greedy as the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
A grandson of Queen Victoria, the kaiser nonetheless found the British a “hateful, lying, conscienceless people of shopkeepers.” He especially resented that they were ruling India. In the course visiting Turkey and its Arab provinces, he fantasized that he could build an empire out of these lands, a German counter-weight to British India. This foolish and neurotic fellow has much to answer for. Sean McMeekin, a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, now produces a charge sheet, and it is detailed and instructive.
The first step in the kaiser’s policy of expansion was to build a railway from Germany to Constantinople, eventually terminating in Baghdad, with an extension to the Persian Gulf. This great engineering feat, begun in 1903, was intended to carry German merchandise on German rails, but its military purpose was clear—to establish German hegemony in Ottoman lands. But intervening mountain ranges in eastern Turkey made for slow progress and prevented the railway’s completion in time to help fulfill the kaiser’s ambitions before war broke out in August 1914.
In Turkey itself, in the prewar years, revolution was in air, complicating the Germans’ calculations. The Young Turks, conspirators with an army background, rebelled against the sultanate and pushed for constitutional reforms, forming the government in 1908. Still, they were uncertain how to modernize and preserve the empire. In the crisis of 1914 they were pressured into an alliance with Germany, and this alliance brought about the collapse that they had hoped to avoid.
For Germany, the Ottoman alliance was a help, but not enough in itself. Facing Russia in the east and Britain and France in the west, Germany simply did not have the manpower or the means to fight on multiple fronts. Complex strategies of subversion were devised instead. They were to pay off in one notorious case, when the Germans, in 1917, sent Lenin in a special train to launch the Bolshevik Revolution and take Russia out of the war. The Germans encouraged Zionism, too, in the belief that Germany could recruit the loyalty of persecuted Russian Jews.
The strategy of subversion that most interests Mr. McMeekin in “The Berlin-Baghdad Express” was the kaiser’s plan to foment rebellion among Muslims living under British rule. Toward this end he pushed for a Grand Jihad, the aim of which was to revive the figurehead of a Sultan Caliph, to whom all Muslims of the world would show loyalty. If Muslims in Egypt and India could be persuaded to rise and free themselves from their colonial masters, the kaiser believed, the British Empire would lose its prize possessions and the British could not win the war.
In charge of this Grand Jihad was Baron Max von Oppenheim, a rich dilettante, an Arabist and an Anglophobe who knew how to excite the kaiser with the news that all Muslims were looking to him for leadership. Urged by the Germans, Ottoman sheiks, all of them Sunni, duly issued fatwas ordering Muslims to kill infidels. Mr. McMeekin makes it plain that this gave Turks license for the mass murder of Armenians and Greeks, the infidels and enemies within reach. The impact of the fatwas was dissipated by the absurd fact that they had to exempt infidels who were allies, namely Germans, Austrians and Hungarians.
Meanwhile, Oppenheim put out a mass of printed propaganda and sent German agents fanning out to one Muslim ruler after another, urging each to pursue jihad. As Mr. McMeekin shows, these agents had experience of the Muslim world; they were usually linguists, explorers and scholars, at least as impressive and as hardy as Lawrence of Arabia on the Allied side. To their dismay, though, Oppenheim’s agents discovered that the position of Sultan Caliph was of no more interest in the broad Muslim world than the position of Holy Roman Emperor was in Christendom.
What really mattered to the Muslims, as Mr. McMeekin puts it, “was superior force in theatre, pure and simple.” The Shia Grand Mufti of Karbala gave the Germans a solitary success by signing up for jihad, but the emir of Afghanistan, the shah of Persia and the religious dynasty of Sanussi in Libya were among those waiting to see which side would ultimately win the war before committing themselves. Of course, Muslim leaders were delighted to be propositioned by German agents and in return for subsidies and armaments made the airiest promises of support, exactly as they were doing with the British, playing one side off against the other.
Sherif Hussein of Mecca, Mr. McMeekin notes, was the most skillful of all these blackmailers. Head of the Hashemite family and engaged in tribal rivalry in Arabia, he had made sure to send his sons to treat with Oppenheim while also testing what the British might give him. The price he extracted from Britain was kingdoms for himself and for two of his sons, and he was duly rewarded with them when the war ended.
In addition to bringing to life a fascinating episode in early 20th-century history, “The Berlin-Baghdad Express” contains several timely lessons and cautionary tales. Purchased loyalty is worthless. Western countries may possess superior military force, but they are outwitted time and again by diplomacy as practiced by Muslim leaders. Lastly, there is no such thing as global Islamic solidarity—jihad is an expedient, not a belief system.
Mr. Pryce-Jones is the author of, among other books, “The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.”
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