The German Emperor and his Jihad
At the beginning of World War I, the German Empire tried to weaken the colonial powers by triggering a jihad in the Muslim world. In his latest novel, Jakob Hein sends his Jewish hero Edgar Stern on a preposterous journey.
By Holger Moos
Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, we find the title character of Hein’s novel Die Orient-Mission des Leutnant Stern (The Orient Mission of Lieutenant Stern) in a posh summer resort on the Belgian coast, holidaying and enjoying the French-style cuisine. But once the war begins, the Germans have to leave Belgium as quickly as they can.
Lieutenant Stern, a bourgeois who changed his name to Edgar Stern-Rubarth after marrying Josefa Rubarth in 1919, has surprisingly modern views, and these don’t always find favour with the traditionally more aristocratic German military – such as his belief that colonies are an outdated concept: “After all, the German Empire is doing splendid business with distant lands in the Orient, the kind France and Great Britain can only dream about.” Accordingly, he considers economic imperialism as we know it today, “without firing a single shot”, to be more in tune with the times.
The German emperor Wilhelm II. is on friendly terms with the Muslims. Unlike the hated major colonial powers of Great Britain and France, Germany is held in relatively high esteem in the Muslim world, a fact the German military leadership intends to exploit. They want the Sultan of Constantinople to call for a jihad. The Germans believe that this will start wide-spread conflict in the Muslim world and lead to Great Britain and France coming strongly under pressure in their respective colonies. Their ultimate goal is to improve the German Empire’s (not exactly rosy) prospects of winning the war as quickly as possible.
“Obviously this whole Muslim thing is a little more complicated than anticipated”To implement this plan, Lieutenant Stern is sent on an expedition to Constantinople led by diplomat and Orient expert Karl Emil Schabinger von Schowingen (a name you couldn’t make up any better if you tried). With them are 14 former Muslim prisoners of war the Germans have freed from French captivity. Their purpose is to lend the mission more credibility and whip up public opinion in Constantinople by telling their Muslim brothers just how badly the French have treated them.
Among these 14 Muslim prisoners of war is Tassaout, a young man from the Moroccan village of Megdaz, situated high in the Atlas Mountains. He realises early on that the Europeans aren’t actually capable of telling apart different ethnicities. At one point, he expresses surprise that the Moroccan Sultan Moulay Youssef is supplying the French almost exclusively with Berbers like him for the “Great War” – and hardly any Arabs. A fellow Berber elucidates him: “The French don’t care. They can’t tell a Berber or an Arab from a Gnawa, and were he as dark as soot. They simply demand bodies from the Sultan. And he gives them bodies.”
The Germans aren’t even entirely clear on the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. After all, a call for jihad from the Sunni Sultan of Constantinople won’t have much effect on Muslims in other parts of the world, particularly among Shiites. The Germans only realise later that their belief that a call to battle would overcome the split between Sunnis and Shiites was naive in the extreme, as a German major discovers: “Obviously this whole Muslim thing is a little more complicated than anticipated.”
History well told and a story well toldThe story is told from multiple perspectives, adding layers of richness and depth to the novel. Maybe Hein wants to “inspire his readers to question, learn more and ponder [...],” as Laura Henkel speculates in the FAZ newspaper. Indeed, the appendix, called “paralipomena” in beautifully high-brow fashion, offers historic details for further reading.
In addition, Hein tells his story with plenty of wit and subtle irony. The Prussian bureaucracy Stern is grappling with as he prepares for his journey is described as a “bureaucratic marvel”. This marvel works quite well as long as all you require is work-to-rule: “If, however, like Stern, you faced a task hitherto entirely unknown to this bureaucracy and wanted to get it done within a short period of time on top of that, the entire marvel started to make about as much sense as having to urgently determine a sick person’s body temperature with nothing but a Swiss watch.” Elsewhere, he writes: “If we managed to steer our enemies’ assaults through the pathways of our bureaucracy, we would have years to prepare for every war.”
It doesn’t always work when a writer appropriates historic events and turns them into literature. Jakob Hein, however, manages both: His novel is both history well told and a story well told. An audio book version, read by Wolfram Koch, is also available.
Hein, Jakob: Die Orient-Mission des Leutnant Stern (The Orient Mission of Lieutenant Stern)
Berlin: Galiani Berlin, 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN (Audio Book): 978-3-8398-1634-9
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