Books March 2011

From Berlin to bin Laden

A history of the Baghdad Express illuminates the resilience of politicized Islam.
Marc Yankus

Few moments in the annals of derring-do will surpass the one at the opening of John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916) when Sir Walter Bullivant explains the Ottoman side of the Great War to Richard Hannay:

You are an intelligent fellow, and you will ask how a Polish adventurer, meaning Enver, and a collection of Jews and gypsies should have got control of a proud race. The ordinary man will tell you that it was German organization backed up with German money and German arms. You will inquire again how, since Turkey is primarily a religious power, Islam has played so small a part in it all. The Sheikh-ul-Islam is neglected, and though the Kaiser proclaims a Holy War and calls himself Hadji Mohammed Guilliamo, and says the Hohenzollerns are descended from the Prophet, that seems to have fallen pretty flat. The ordinary man again will answer that Islam in Turkey is becoming a back number, and that Krupp guns are the new gods. Yet—I don’t know. I do not quite believe in Islam becoming a back number … There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.

Sean McMeekin is a professional historian with a deft popular touch, based at a modern Turkish university, and he is careful to salt his engrossing and enlightening narrative with frequent allusions to this famous thriller, which after all contains the most that many people know about the First World War’s forgotten front. He gently corrects Sir Walter’s deranged diagnosis of Enver Pasha and the “Young Turk” revolution he led in 1908, while pointing out that it was in fact the actual view of the British Foreign Office. According to the two most senior of His Majesty’s diplomats in Constantinople, Gerard Lowther and Gerald Fitzmaurice, Enver and his associates were rooted in crypto-Jewish Freemasonry, with its adeptness at “manipulating occult forces,” and modeled themselves on “the French Revolution and its godless and levelling methods.”

Rather to the contrary, the Young Turks were to become the enthusiastic allies of German imperialism and the promoters of global jihad. This bizarre fusion of ancient and modern, revolutionary and reactionary, was symbolized above all by the grandiose project of a railroad extending from the capital of Germany to the capital of Mesopotamia: a line that could eventually challenge British command over Suez and India. If asked to discuss some of the events of that period that shaped our world and the world of Osama, many educated people could cite T. E. Lawrence’s “Arab Revolt,” the secret Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement portioning out the post-war Middle East, and the Balfour Declaration, which prefigured the coming of the Jewish state. But who can speak with confidence of Max von Oppenheim, the godfather of German “Orientalism” and a sponsor of holy war? An understanding of this conjuncture is essential. It helps supply a key to the collapse of the Islamic caliphate—bin Laden’s most enduring cause of rage—and to the extermination of the Armenians, the swift success of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the relative independence of modern Iran, as well as the continuing divorce between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

The bluff Sir Walter was quite right about one thing: German technical and military skill were only half the story. And if it had been up to Germany’s greatest military tactician, Otto von Bismarck, their combined impact would have been even less. The “Iron Chancellor” was above all interested in playing Russia against France, and regarded the Orient rather as he regarded the Balkans—as the swamp to end all swamps. Determined to escape from his conservative shadow, the young and conceited Kaiser Wilhelm II undertook two momentous eastern voyages as the guest of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. On the second tour, in 1898 (the significant centennial of Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt), he brought ostentatious gifts of weaponry and led triumphant parades through Jerusalem and Damascus. On the second stop, he visited the tomb of Saladin and commissioned a lavish refurbishment of it. And it was during this pilgrimage that he confided to his then-ally Tsar Nicholas II that if he had come to Jerusalem “without any Religion at all [he] certainly would have turned Mahommetan!” Thus, as McMeekin notes,

was born Hajji Wilhelm, the mythical Muslim Emperor of Germany … Following the visit to Damascus, rumors of the Kaiser’s conversion to Islam spread widely throughout the bazaars of the Middle East, helped along by the discovery of “passages in the Koran” which “showed that the Kaiser had been ordained by God to free Muslims from infidel rule.”

(The citation is from Thomas Hughes’s work on the 1915–16 German mission to Afghanistan, which shows how far-flung was the effort and how dog-eared is our notion of the Muslim “street.”)

Some historians—most recently David Fromkin—have been inclined to relegate this Wilhelmine fantasy to a peripheral role in German strategy. But two kinds of evidence sustain McMeekin’s view that jihad was a salient part of Berlin’s design. The first is material: the systematic provision by Germany to Turkey of all the sinews of war, from rail to artillery, accompanied by German military advisers of the highest caliber. The second might be called ideological: no sooner had war erupted with Britain and Russia, in the first days of August 1914, than General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the kaiser’s general staff, was cabling to Constantinople asking Enver (then nominally the head of a neutral regime) to begin inciting “Islamic uprisings.” And Baron von der Goltz, who had already seen enough service in Turkey to have earned the title of pasha, was transferred from the military government of invaded Belgium to become military aide to the sultan. These are not mere details.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In