Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire

by Peter Hopkirk. Kodansha, 384 pages, $25.00.
Having chronicled the Anglo-Russian contest for influence in central Asia in The Great Game, Mr. Hopkirk has turned his attention to the turn-of-the-century German attempt to gain control of the same region, which became little short of bizarre. Wilhelm II envisioned what one of his supporters described as an empire stretching “from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, absorbing Holland, Switzerland, the entire Danube basin, the Balkans and Turkey,”not to mention the Russian Caucasus and, ultimately, India. The Kaiser had India very much in mind, and hoped to arm a Muslim-Hindu rising there. This led to a comic-opera gun-running plot that got nowhere, and to the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway and an alliance with Turkey, which alarmed both Russia and Britain. When the Kaiser provoked, perhaps unintentionally, the First World War, German operations in the East were curtailed and a number of brave and clever agents were left floundering. Their British opposite numbers, who had not been idle, were little better off. Mr. Hopkirk’s history starts rather slowly, because he must explain the diplomatic background in Europe from 1890 to 1914, but when he gets to on-the-spot action, the tale is absorbing and well populated with odd characters. There are the two wily Germans who made it to Afghanistan through dreadful country and the Allied cordon designed to stop them, there to encounter the equally wily, graciously hospitable, permanently evasive Emir. There is Enver, the de facto ruler of Turkey, officially a German cat’s-paw but harboring his own imperial ambitions. There are acknowledged British agents, disguised spies, and military commanders, all of whom dodged about, losing here and winning there. By the war’s end the area harbored Germans, English, Turks, White Russians, and Bolsheviks, while the indigenous inhabitants included proand anti-German groups, proand anti-British groups, proand anti-Russian groups, antieverybody Persians, rival Muslim sects, unaligned tribesmen, and simple bandits. There were train chases, gold thefts, a siege, captures and escapes, flights by night, and chaotic communications. Mr. Hopkirk has done a splendid job of sorting out the whole wild affair. He believes that he has even discovered what became of the gaudiest of the British intelligence officers, Reginald Teague-Jones, who disappeared from all records at the end of the war. One hopes that his supposition is correct. It is, by the way, advisable to have a map at hand when reading this fine book, for the geography involved is a formidable expanse.