From Berlin to bin Laden

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

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.

Nor is it of minor significance that German money and influence subsidized the writing and distribution of the succession of fatwas that culminated, on November 14, 1914, in the sultan-caliph’s proclamation of a war in which it became the sacred duty of all Muslims to slay any infidels except those of German, Austrian, Hungarian, or American provenance. The sinister-cum-farcical phrasing of this is easily enough explained by brute realpolitik: the first three categories of infidel were financing the whole business; and the fourth, represented in Constantinople by the imperishable figure of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, constituted an imposing neutral power. The non-Muslim populations of the Ottoman dominion, such as the Armenians and the Greeks, were not specifically named in the fatwas, but after reading McMeekin’s book, I am more convinced than ever that it was the Nacht und Nebel created by the holy war that led to these peoples’ long-meditated extirpation. Indeed, the pretext for the genocides—secretly helping the empire’s enemies—was the same. (And so was the ultimate beneficiary of the madness: Russia.)

The intellectual instigator of the business, von Oppenheim, deserves an English-language book in his own right. An erratic amateur Orientalist (Lawrence had read and admired his travelogue) and a scion of the famous banking family, he seemed at first drawn to the region by a kind of hedonism, but quickly came to see its potential as an avenue of his own advancement. Exploiting his friendship with the kaiser and his own facility with languages and women—do we see the outline of a Teutonic version of Flashman?—he prepared a lengthy report, “Concerning the Revolutionizing of the Islamic Territories of Our Enemies.” His vision was of a mutiny among the Muslim subjects of all empires except those of Germany and Turkey. The fatwas that he paid to have translated and distributed read eerily like the al-Qaeda output of today, complete with references to the worldwide oppression of Muslims and to the tempting rewards of martyrdom, and the issuing of general permissions for murder. Berlin’s propaganda was alarmingly specific on the last point, enjoining each of the faithful to “take upon him an oath to kill at least three or four” of the unbelievers. It is perhaps profitless to speculate about the part played by von Oppenheim’s lifelong desire to live down the thought that he was Jewish (his mother was a Catholic and his father a convert from Judaism to Christianity). We do know that in later life he eagerly sought the Nazi designation of “honorary Aryan” and returned to work in the region, cementing Hitler’s relations with the ultra-reactionary grand mufti of Jerusalem.

The German-Turkish jihad turned out to be one of the great flops of history, as the Berlin-Baghdad railroad proved to be one of the great white-elephant projects. The twin failures were connected. The railroad’s architects, having fallen behind schedule during the construction of its Balkan section (Bismarck could have warned them), became victims of the very war they were supposed to be winning. During the horrific chaos that overtook Turkey’s interior provinces during the massacre of its minorities and its war against Russia, further work on the line was rendered near-impossible. On the politico-theocratic front, also, diminishing returns began to make themselves felt. Having at first been heavily bribed to issue their bloodthirsty incitements, the mullahs began to see the disbursements as regular financing from non-Muslim sources—not unlike the Ottoman taxes exacted on unbelievers. This had a dulling effect on the edge of the sword, as McMeekin drily and mordantly points out. There were a few small mutinies among Muslim troops of the British/Indian army that was sent to the region, but their effect was limited. Finally—and having at first been quick to recruit and finance Shia as well as Sunni subordinates, thus stealing a march on the British, to whom the distinction was largely opaque—the Germans squandered their advantage. A stupid and brutal intervention in Persia, negated by the failure of the vaunted railroad to bring up the necessary reinforcing supplies and personnel, barred their road to Afghanistan and India and radically alienated the Shia of neighboring Mesopotamia as well.

By the end of it, as McMeekin sums the matter up, the caliphate had been not just defeated, but discredited and deposed. The secular Atatürk’s triumph in Turkey itself was followed by decades of Russian Communist control of a huge swath of nominally Muslim republics. British soldiers were in Baghdad and Jerusalem, and British naval vessels were cruising unopposed through the very straits that Winston Churchill had failed to force at Gallipoli. Seldom if ever has a great empire brought itself to such utter ruin in such a short space of time.

This is not to say that politicized Islam was everywhere the loser. In the great cities of Mecca and Medina—whose dependence on the hajj trade caused resentment against Germany and Turkey because of the disruption of the pilgrimage routes—a rather fiercer form of religion, of the sort we now associate with Saudi Wahhabism, began to assert itself. To Sherif Hussein, Enver’s regime still bore the suspect heretical traces of the original Young Turk reformism. McMeekin offers a frontal challenge to the view that T. E. Lawrence and the British were sponsoring a variant of Arab nationalism against Turkish hegemony. This is most certainly, as he puts it, “not how Hussein portrayed his own rebellion.” To the contrary:

In his June 1916 proclamation, the Sherif accused the Young Turks not of suppressing Arab political aspirations, but rather of violating the sacred tenets of Islam. Bringing back all the bad blood born of the 1908 revolution, Hussein reminded Muslims everywhere that the CUP [Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turk movement], despite its opportunistic embrace of Islam since 1909, had begun as a European-style reform party estranged from Muslim traditions, and had never really changed its spots.

In this respect at least, the sherif was almost at one with Lowther and Fitzmaurice in their dire suspicions. Indeed, as soon as Atatürk finally dissolved the caliphate in 1924, Hussein immediately put forward his own claim to it.

The British and French empires, with their many millions of Muslim subjects, have since followed the German and Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Turkish ones into history. Today, secular nationalism in Turkey is fighting for survival, and Sunni and Shia absolutisms in Riyadh and Tehran cannot conceal their mutual hostility. Osama bin Laden refuses even to call Saudi Arabia and Iraq by their political names, regarding the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques” and the “Land of the Two Rivers” only as sacred constituents of a future restored and enlarged caliphate. Again to give a slight nod to the figure of Sir Walter Bullivant, it remains distinctly unwise to think of jihad as a back number.