The Turkish-German Jihad

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kaiser Wilhelm II and Enver Pasha on board the battle cruiser Goeben, Constantinople, October 1917

In 1916, John Buchan published his best-selling thriller Greenmantle, which imagined a German plot to rouse the eastern legions of Islam against the embattled British Empire and its hundred million Muslim subjects. The book lightened the captive hours of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia before his 1918 murder by the Bolsheviks.

At the time Buchan wrote his adventure yarn, he was serving as director of information for the British government and thus had access to some privileged intelligence. But there is no evidence from his autobiography or biographers that he knew how strongly his fantasy was rooted in reality. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany enjoyed a personal romance with Islam, intensified by national strategic imperatives.

Sean McMeekin, who teaches international relations at Turkey’s Bilkent University, has written the story, unfamiliar to most Western readers (though Hew Strachan addresses it well in his magisterial history of World War I1), of how Germany and its agents played the Great Game with the Ottoman Empire and in Muslim lands beyond its frontiers. In 1914–1915, they strove to mobilize Islam against the Allies in just the fashion Buchan suggested. “There is concrete evidence,” writes McMeekin, “that Turco-German-jihad action plans were ready to go when the guns of August started firing.”

The Kaiser’s Islamic enthusiasm was fired by an 1889 visit to Turkey, which Bismarck opposed on the grounds that it would gratuitously alarm the Russians. Wilhelm met the murderous Sultan Abdul Hamid II and enjoyed the sinuous gyrations of the Circassian dancers in his Constantinople harem. In 1898 Wilhelm returned to the Ottoman Empire and rode into Jerusalem through a breach specially made in its walls, allegedly to dedicate the new Church of the Redeemer, built by German Protestants.

This pilgrimage was deemed somewhat less benign than it sounded, since the Kaiser wore a field marshal’s uniform with holstered pistol. Moreover, his sentiments were notably unchristian. “My personal feeling in leaving the holy city,” he wrote to his cousin the Tsar, “was that I felt profoundly ashamed before the Moslems and that if I had come there without any Religion at all I certainly would have turned Mahommetan!” McMeekin: “Thus was born Hajji Wilhelm, the mythical Muslim Emperor of Germany.”

The Kaiser and some influential German diplomats, bankers, and soldiers were powerfully attracted by the notion of establishing a bridgehead in the Near East to exploit its natural resources. The foremost manifestation of German influence would be a railway built from the Asian shore of Constantinople to Baghdad, crossing not only Turkey’s vast wildernesses but the Taurus Mountains and bandit regions of Syria and Mesopotamia.

Wilhelm’s ambassador to the Ottoman court, Baron Marschall von Bieberstein, wrote that the railway must be constructed “with only German materials and for the purpose of bringing goods and people to [Asia]…from the heart of Germany.” The Ottoman Empire was bankrupt, but …

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    Hew Strachan, The First World War (Viking, 2004).