The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power, 1898-1918

November 25, 2010

Sean McMeekin's riveting book tells the tale of two dysfunctional undertakings of the First World War. One was the famous, yet incomplete and therefore largely unusable, Baghdad Railway built by German capital, material and engineers; the other, an abortive jihad that Germany and the Ottoman Empire desperately tried to ignite against their foes.

What if these undertakings had been successful? The first would have enabled rapid troop movements to Mesopotamia, helped to pull Egypt and the Persian Gulf region away from British domination, and eventually opened Afghanistan and India for Germany's Drang nach Osten. The second would have sparked rebellions among the Muslim colonial subjects (particularly Britain's) in Egypt, the Sudan and India, and converted semi-colonial British and Russian spheres of influence such as Persia and Afghanistan to the German war cause.

A similar (but inferior) book to this one, based only on secondary sources and written by Wolfgang Korn, appeared in the German market in 2009. (Its title, Schienen für den Sultan: Die Bagdadbahn: Wilhelm II., Abenteurer und Spione, can be translated as Rails for the Sultan: The Baghdad Railway, Wilhelm II, Adventurers and Spies.) It seems, then, that the historical literature of diplomacy, espionage, intrigue and pan-Islam is making a comeback after an almost two-decade break since Peter Hopkirk's On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire (1994). The reasons, as partially acknowledged in McMeekin's epilogue, are developments since the events of 11 September 2001, and the desire to cater to the curiosity of a wide readership thought to be looking for the historic causes of, or precursors to, current jihadist movements.

McMeekin implies in his epilogue, where he analyses the Nazi-Muslim connection as a further bridge, that the German, Ottoman and British (via Sherif Hussein of Mecca) calls to jihad in the early 20th century are not only related to, but also a cause of, the anti-Semitic jihadist movements of the 21st century. Unfortunately, this diminishes the value of the book, which benefits from a masterful handling of primary sources (including Russian, Ottoman, German, British, French and Austrian) and a very fluent style, and which is successfully directed at both the general reader and the scholarly.

In fact, the First World War's "jihad" was anything but, let alone an anti-Semitic one. Money, the lust for power by tribal leaders, their inclination to use the Great Powers for territorial aims and incipient nationalism counted for much more than Islamic unity in endeavours to ignite "Islamic revolts", as McMeekin demonstrates via case after case.

Another problem is that the railway that gives the book its title hardly gets sufficient treatment, with only four secondary sources consulted, and much of the material emanating not from McMeekin's primary research but from Jonathan McMurray's Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway (2001). The Anatolian Railway that formed the longest continuous chunk of the Baghdad Railway, although more than 1,000 kilometres long, is tellingly called "a modest project", and is only briefly referred to in two paragraphs.

The work's main strength is its excellent overview of the First World War in the Middle East. Consideration of the Gallipoli, Kut (Mesopotamia) and Suez fronts is blended successfully with that of the Arabian revolt and Armenian massacres. But while he does not deny the scope and brutality of the latter massacres, McMeekin tends to give some credence to the official, apologetic Turkish view that the Armenians, like the Hejaz Arabs a while later, could become a fifth column, especially after the defeat of the Ottoman Third Army against Russia had left the gates of Eastern Anatolia wide open.

Indeed, McMeekin states that the Armenians were deported only in Eastern Anatolia. How can we then account for the fact that, for example, this reviewer's west-central Anatolian home town, Eskisehir, before the war had an Armenian quarter and a Rue Arménienne that no longer exist?

McMeekin is not silent regarding German complicity in this tragedy, but his book would have benefited from a consideration of recent analyses by Hilmar Kaiser and Isabel Hull. On the other hand, his handling of two very complex subjects, namely how the Ottoman Empire entered the war, and what really happened on the Caucasian front after the Bolshevik capitulation in 1917, are the best one will encounter in the historical field.

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power, 1898-1918

By Sean McMeekin. Allen Lane, 496pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781846143236. Published 24 June 2010

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