The Railroad to Imperialism
The Berlin-Baghdad Express and the First World War
'A mine has been laid in the good conscience of the German people: the First World War, a chapter of integrity in Germany's past that seemed to have been overcome and closed forever, would now appear to be as open as the Hitler era.' This quote from the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel in November 1961 is probably the most accurate description of the controversy sparked off by the historian Fritz Fischer in the early 1960s, a controversy that would dominate historiographical discourse in Germany for the next two decades. Fischer refuted the hitherto accepted narrative that Germany's entry into the World War I had been a largely unavoidable consequence of historical circumstances, and one for which the German Empire was not to blame. Indeed, Fischer was the first person to lay the 'blame' for the Great War squarely at the door of the Germans, a blame he said was borne of the German Empire's imperialist and annexionist policy. Although the essence of this thesis did indeed become the generally accepted view, it was accompanied by lively and protracted debates that divided the discipline of historiography into two camps.
The title of Alexander Will's thesis, for which he was granted a doctorate from Saarland University in 2009, refers specifically to this controversy. The title Kein Griff nach der Weltmacht [No Bid for World Power] is a clear reference to the title of Fischer's monograph entitled Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914–1918, which was published in English under the translation of the subtitle of the German book as Germany's Aims in the First World War. The focus of Will's study, which is more than three hundred pages long, is on the activities of the secret services of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in the period immediately preceding World War I and throughout the war itself. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had been a stage on which the various major powers' attempts to exert influence were played out. Austria-Hungary and Britain were particularly keen to make sure that the Ottoman Empire remained a bulwark against an expanding Russia; Britain also wanted to maintain the link to its colony in India; the German Empire hoped to gain economic advantages. Because the Ottoman Empire felt, for its part, that the presence of these states protected its interests and that the foreign capital that had been invested in the empire safeguarded its existence, the major powers had begun jostling for influence, alliances, world views, and economic interests on Ottoman soil as far back as the final decades of the nineteenth century.
Propaganda and holy war
But what was the overriding idea behind these propaganda efforts? Baron Max von Oppenheim, who travelled the Orient and founded the Intelligence Bureau for the East ('Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient'), was the man who in 1914 came up with the idea of appropriating pan-Islamism as a way of dealing with Germany's woes, thereby launching the intense phase of its propaganda measures. This project centred on the Muslims: spread around the world as the subjects of a number of different major powers, they had a strong sense of community, which meant – according to the theory – that were just waiting to be mobilised. In this way, the propaganda was used to cast the Ottoman Sultan as the head of all Muslims around the world, a tactic that Abdul Hamid II, a close friend of Wilhelm II, had already employed a few years previously. The hope was that this premise would ultimately lead to the enemies of the Ottoman Empire becoming the enemies of all Muslims too, the ideal starting point from which to launch a holy war against the Entente of France and Britain. This project quickly turned out to be one of the many oddities and contradictions of Germany's Orient policy in the First World War. The aim was to wage a worldwide jihad, albeit one that included an important caveat: the infidel allies of the Ottoman Empire – German and Austro-Hungarian Jews and Christians – had to be excluded from the global jihad.
The objective behind the brand of pan-Islamism being pushed by the Germans was, according to Will, first and foremost to weaken the Entente powers or, at best, to gain active war support for the Central Powers from the regimes toppled with the help of the revolutions. The aim was that targeted propaganda in the colonies would provoke a wave of unrest that would ultimately lead to a holy war, a jihad, against the colonial powers. According to Will, the German Empire only expected this strategy to offer some relief on the war fronts; it was not – as implied by the prevailing narrative introduced by Fritz Fischer – a precondition for the Empire's expansion to the east. Accordingly, the Ottoman Empire was only of indirect significance to Germany, a means to an end. That said, the Ottomans were also using Germany as a means to their own end. In other words, it was a symbiotic relationship through and through, and one that was born out of a 'position of weakness'.
Vision on wheels
This is where the positions of the two historians diverge. Sean McMeekin gives other reasons for these propaganda activities and for the courting of pan-Islamism.
McMeekin, a professor at Koç University in Istanbul, also addresses the problem raised by Fischer, aware that his study is a contribution to this controversy, which continues to flare up every now and then. He supports Fischer's theory of Germany's insatiable hunger for world power – or at least the essence of it. Running like a thread through McMeekin's book is the Berlin-Baghdad Express, the project so enthusiastically advanced by Kaiser Wilhelm II, that steaming vision on wheels that sought to connect the German Empire to the Orient. Construction began in 1903, but the Kaiser's pet project was beset by many geographical, financial, and logistical obstacles and soon became the bane of the Empire. McMeekin shows that the Berlin-Baghdad Express was right at the heart of Germany's desire to expand. He explains the plans associated with this railway line: speedier delivery of weapons and faster troop movements, the establishment of military bases far to the east, and unhindered access to the Persian Gulf. According to McMeekin, this was to be the starting point for German expansion eastwards. He provides a detailed description of the Ottomans' reluctance to enter the war as Germany's ally, and the corresponding impatience and powerlessness of the German Empire. After all, had the Sultan not joined the war, the jihad plan would have been completely worthless. In late October 1914, the Ottoman Empire finally made up its mind and entered the war as an ally of the Central Powers. The jihad could begin.
This was where the German and Austro-Hungarian 'agents' came in: they were the most important carriers of the pan-Islamic idea. It was their job to lead expeditions into the individual North African and Arab states in order to implement propaganda measures that would ultimately unleash the holy war against the Entente powers. McMeekin succeeds in painting a detailed, vivid picture of the individuals involved, shines a light on their failures, and describes their characters and impact on the Muslims. While some of the 'agents' really were exceptional, competent, and successful in what they did, there were others who jeopardised the success of the pan-Islamic idea with their incompetence and ignorance of the region. The propaganda campaigns were often born of their spontaneity. There were fights and misunderstandings; language barriers and cultural ignorance further exacerbated the situation. Take, for example, Oppenheim's plan to use photos as part of a propaganda measure in Medina. It failed because likenesses of human beings and animals are prohibited in Islam. McMeekin argues that these very deficits coupled with the unexpected lack of willingness in some areas to go to holy war contributed to the inevitable failure of the great German pan-Islamic idea.
Success or failure?
The success of the propaganda campaigns is another point on which the two authors disagree. Unlike McMeekin, Will seeks to revise the negative image of Germany's successes in the Orient that has prevailed until now, which was also shaped by Fritz Fischer. He succeeds in describing these successes in a convincing manner and comparing them with the endeavours of not only the Austro-Hungarian Empire but also France and Britain.
He shows that German propaganda was indeed successful, as long as one measures it using a different yardstick to the one used to measure the outcome of the war. Will bases his thesis above all on British sources that reveal just how much the British feared Germany's influence on the Ottoman Empire. These sources prove that on the basis of the Germans' successes, which were seen as being positive, the British pumped considerable money and material into efforts to counter German propaganda. In this respect, writes Will, the German agents achieved their goal: Britain and Russia were very alarmed and set all wheels in motion to save what was left to be saved. The consequence of this was a significantly reduced presence of Entente troops in the European theatres of war, which meant that the German strategy was – at second glance, at least – successful.
What is noteworthy about these two books is that it is evident neither author knew that the other was writing a book on a theory so diametrically opposed to his own. Nowhere in either book is any mention made of the other author's work. Both were published within such a short space of time – McMeekin's monograph in the UK in 2011, Will's dissertation in Germany in 2012 – that it is highly unlikely they could have avoided including some such reference, had they been aware of their points of disagreement.
Both books paint a broad picture of the ideological, economic, and alliance structures in place before and during the First World War. Despite the complexity of the policies involved, both McMeekin and Will succeed in making the opportunistic policies of the individual major powers – policies that were marked by contradictions and a certain degree of farce – both comprehensible and fascinating.
Moreover, they should both be applauded in particular for calling attention to the close alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, which today seems to have disappeared from the collective memory of both nations, or rather the states that have succeeded them. More than anything else, the intention on the German side to use both the pan-Islamic idea and jihad as a means to achieve its own ends is an anomaly all too often forgotten, one that sheds new light on some developments on the contemporary world stage.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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