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

By Seal, Thomas E. | Naval War College Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Seal, Thomas E., Naval War College Review


McMeekin, Sean. The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power, 1898-1918. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2010. 496pp. $29.95

If ever there was a story of epic unintended consequences and "might have beens," Sean McMeekin's The Berlin- Baghdad Express is it. Approaching the First World War in the Middle East from the German and Ottoman perspectives, McMeekin expands our Anglo-centric understanding of the conflict. In doing so, he unveils a breathtaking catalogue of misunderstandings, miscalculations, simple mistakes, and missed opportunities that would be comic if not so horribly tragic.

While the title conjures images of the fabled Orient Express, the book is a first-rate history of the diplomatic jockeying of the German and Ottoman Empires to gain advantage over their respective archrivals, Britain and Russia. The railway would be a tool to enable Germany's Drang nach Osten (drive to the East) while strengthening the Turks (bitter enemies of Germany's Russian rivals) by linking the farthest reaches of the Ottoman Empire with the seat of power in Istanbul. The completion of the railway, first to Baghdad and then extended on to Basra, would have profound political, economic, and strategic importance.

To achieve this end Germany designed a strategy to undermine the cohesion of the British Empire through Islamic holy war. That strategy was an outgrowth of Kaiser Wilhelm II's reckless and amateurish meddling in Oriental affairs. The kaiser believed that his affinity for Sultan Abdulhamid II, Caliph of the Faithful, and for all things Islamic would enable him to engineer a jihad against the hated British, targeting the empire's large Muslim populations in India, Egypt, and beyond. The kaiser, in league with the sultan and later the Young Turks, embarked on ambitious propaganda and military campaigns designed to rally Muslims to the sultan's call for jihad, despite the facts that most educated Muslims had long given up the idea of the caliphate; that there was no distinction in Islamic jurisprudence or practice between a bad infidel (British, French) and good one (German, Austrian, American, or maybe Italian); that Sunni and Shia Muslims had vastly different views of jihad; and that the British had for years controlled access to Mecca for the hajj. McMeekin also points out the oddness of German support for jihad juxtaposed with the German-based Zionist movement, which actually anticipated Britain's Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

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