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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 this did not deter German investors, who provided two thirds of the colossal sum needed to start construction in 1903. The Germans were rewarded with mineral exploration privileges for some twelve miles on either side of the tracks, and with the right to keep all artifacts found by their archaeologists in the country, which yielded rich dividends to Berlin’s museums in the years that followed.

The project provoked predictable foreign alarm. A St. Petersburg newspaper declared that when the railway was completed, “Turkey will be completely subjected to German economic control.” French intelligence assumed that the scheme had been hatched by the German General Staff, and Downing Street expressed concern. But it was the bankers who had cause for lamentation. In 1905, exhaustion of resources stopped work after the track had advanced a mere 120 miles from Constantinople, to an obscure halt named Bulgurlu where travelers were invited to transfer to camel caravans for the journey across the Taurus.

The signing of the Triple Entente between Britain, France, and Russia in 1907 inspired a new surge of German enthusiasm for the rail project. Foremost among the zealots was an exotic figure named Max von Oppenheim, a scion of the Jewish banking family, though his father had converted to Catholicism. Von Oppenheim, born in 1860, was a former guards officer who fell in love with the East and spent much of his life there. He assembled a collection of 150 Muslim women’s costumes and often affected local garb. He conducted a shootout with bandits in the Rif Mountains (they dispersed after his five bullets pierced their five water bottles) and established a personal harem in Cairo in which his principal concubine was changed annually.

If von Oppenheim was a considerable charlatan, he impressed T.E. Lawrence, another Arabist of whom McMeekin also thinks poorly. Lawrence described the German’s work From the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf (1889) as “the best book on the area I know.” The Kaiser agreed. He was strongly attracted by von Oppenheim’s passion for the creation of a Pan-Islamic front against Britain and often met with him. Another such enthusiast was a serious young Orientalist, Curt Prüfer, who came to hate the British after they vetoed his appointment as director of the Khedivial Library in Cairo. Like von Oppenheim, Prüfer affected Arab dress among the Bedouin.

In 1907, upheavals descended on Turkey that changed almost everything. An army mutiny and demonstrations in the streets prompted the eclipse of Sultan Abdul, the reinstatement of the constitution, and the summoning of parliamentary elections in July 1908. The prime movers were Young Turk revolutionaries of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) party, secularists who spurned the sultan’s Pan-Islamist pretensions. Some were strong admirers of liberal Britain, notable among them Ahmed Riza, known as “English Ali” because of his fluency in the language. As an exile in Paris, he wrote to his sister:

Were I a woman, I would embrace atheism and never become a Muslim. Imagine a religion that imposes laws always beneficial to men but hazardous to women such as permitting my husband to have three additional wives and as many concubines as he wishes, houris awaiting him in heaven, while I cover my head and face as a miller’s horse…. Keep this religion far away from me.

Ahmed Riza achieved prominence in Turkey’s government, but renewed turbulence unseated him. The CUP government was blamed for the Ottoman Empire’s loss of Bosnia and Bulgaria in October 1908. The following April, mobs stormed the parliament building demanding the restoration of Sultan Abdul and the introduction of sharia law. Ahmed Riza, his brief hour ended, was obliged to seek refuge in a German railway company building.

On April 24, however, the army staged a counter-counterrevolution. The sultan was deposed, this time for good, and replaced by the figurehead Mehmed Reshad V. A new government was dominated by Young Turks. The Germans in Constantinople, panting to keep pace with these bewildering changes, received decisive assistance from an unexpected quarter.

The British ambassador, Sir Gerard Lowther, responded to the rise of the new secularist modernizers with lofty disdain. His dragoman, Gerald Fitzmaurice, a violent anti-Semite, described the new finance minister, Djavid Bey, as a “Crypto-Jew…[at] the apex of Freemasonry in Turkey” and likened the revolutionaries to French Jacobins. Britain resisted the new government’s advances. German influence became powerfully resurgent because the Turks saw nowhere else to turn.

In 1910, the Baghdad railway project was revived with a new loan of 160 million francs from Deutsche Bank. Krupp began to supply arms to Turkey, heedless of the slender prospects that these would ever be paid for. German power could do nothing to prevent the severe reverses that fell upon the Ottoman Empire in the years that followed, with Italy’s seizure of Libya in 1911 and the loss of four fifths of its European territories—Macedonia, Albania, and Thrace—to the Balkan League in 1912–1913. But the Germans were much excited by the waves of passion and anger that swept the Muslim world, including British India, in the face of these blows to the Caliphate.

Eighteen rioters were killed by police in Cawnpore in India in August 1913. The German consul general in Calcutta reported to Berlin that year, as Balkan armies threatened the ancient Ottoman capital of Adrianople:

A thousand channels flow from here to Constantinople, and if the inheritance of the prophet [i.e., the Caliphate] were in strong hands it could bring forth apparitions, which could seriously shake the equilibrium of this land [India].

The onset of European war in August 1914 made the allegiance of Turkey seem an important prize, above all because the Dardanelles controlled western access to Russia through the Black Sea. Baron Max von Oppenheim now had his hour as “the prophet of global jihad.” In Berlin, he was appointed to lead an Islamic propaganda bureau and began recruiting agents. McMeekin writes: “Germany’s leaders saw in Islam the secret weapon which would decide the world war.” Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff, instructed the German foreign office that “revolution in India and Egypt, and also in the Caucasus, is of the highest importance.”

The Germans achieved a notable propaganda coup when they dispatched the cruisers Goeben and Breslau through the Mediterranean, evading the Royal Navy, to reach Constantinople where they were presented to Turkey as a substitute for two dreadnoughts under construction in Britain for Turkey, and now appropriated by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, to the fury of the Turkish people.

While the world waited to see which way the Turkish government would jump, German officers worked with their Turkish counterparts to plan an assault on Suez. A group of prominent German Arabists assisted the Berlin government in drafting a policy paper entitled “Overview of Revolutionary Activity We Will Undertake in the Islamic-Israelite World.” This proposed that Germany should sponsor both an anti-British jihad in the East and an Israelite-cum-Zionist rebellion in Russia. It is striking that, in World War I, Germany’s rulers flirted with the notion of publicly espousing Zionism as an aid to their cause.

Germany’s international prestige rose steeply following its victory over the Russians at Tannenburg in East Prussia at the end of August 1914. The German ambassador in Constantinople reported that Sherif Hussein of Mecca was eager to fight the British—or at least to be on the war’s winning side. The diplomat asserted that Enver Pasha, prime mover in the Young Turk government, “fears only that the war will be over before the various rebellions [in Entente countries and dependencies] break out, the preparations for which will take several months.”

Max Roloff-Breslau, an Islamic scholar who had lived in Dutch Indo- nesia, was dispatched in Arab disguise on a mission to Mecca, though it is uncertain whether he ever got there. The Bavarian officer Oskar von Niedermayer, who had traveled extensively in the East, was dispatched with a large mission to Persia and Afghanistan through neutral Romania. This was disguised as a traveling circus. Unfortunately its cover was blown when an alert Romanian customs officer noticed wireless aerials protruding from baggage labeled as tent poles. Large bribes had to be paid before the mission proceeded on its journey, which became an epic of privations and frustrations.

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

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