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The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power
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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 16 November 2010
Sean McMeekin has produced a thorough and almost magisterial account of an area of World War 1 strategy and politics not normally given a prime focus; the Ottoman front. This is a very contemporary work using terms very familiar today: the creation of a jihad against the Entente and British in particular; rivalry between Shia and Sunni; Caucasian minority struggles; strategies to control modern Iraq & Iran and at the end a push for middle east oil. Nothing about events today would seem original!

McMeekin shows how Wilhelmine Germany had a rich seam of middle east specialist archaeologists prior to 1914 (as a visit to today's Berlin Museuminsel clearly indicates). He records the excellent use made of this by Berlin in working on the Ottomans, Arabs, Persians, Afghans and others to promote an anti British & French jihad policy from Constantinople to Kabul via Baghdad. The ultimate aim was to bring about a collapse of British India. In passing (see earlier post) McMeekin suggests these German specialists were far more genuine arabists than TE Lawrence ever was.

New light is cast on the context of many elements of Great war strategy & campaigns:

* the German push to India increased a British focus on Iraq and Iran that has persisted.
* the Armenian massacres as an element of Ottoman great war strategy
* the success of the Tsarist Russian army and the later growth from it of Yudenich's White forces

German policy, its problems, costs and successes reads like a primer for post 1945 neo-imperialism. In this the Germans were ahead of the game! The Turks were diplomatically, and often militarily, sharper and shrewder than usually given credit for.

An intriguing Epilogue looks at how the experience of the ottoman War influenced later British & German policies towards Arab and Jewish populations. McMeekin argues that the Balfour declaration was made by a largely pro Arab British government, partly out of pique with German advances to Zionists and a desire to win US zionist support for a speedier US mobilisation. It also traces German - muslim relations to the end of World War 2 showing how these were cultivated as part of the Nazi anti-semitic program - a mainly muslim Waffen SS Division was responsible amongst others for killing 90% of Bosnia's Jews.

Given the unfamiliarity of the characters (especially in the complex central section of the narrative relating to German dealings with the Porte) to most readers a list of Dramatis Personae would have been helpful. Equally the title perhaps suggests more of a focus on the actual Berlin-Baghdad railroad. Although a vital thread in the narrative, it is no more than that. Railway enthusiasts will be disappointed early on by what is perhaps the title of an over-zealous editor.
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 6 September 2011
I read some of the reviews of Dr McMeekin's book here on Amazon with a rising sense of frustration and disbelief. First, I cannot believe that some readers could be so obtuse that they would buy the book expecting it to be a trainspotters' guide - which some reviewers clearly did. Didn't they read the description of the book before placing an order? No, it isn't a technical guide to the Berlin to Baghdad Railway, and not for one second does it purport to be, so ignore the bleatings of purchasers who thought that this is a volume to accompany their books on the Flying Scotsman.

Similarly, there is one extended review which takes McMeekin to task because his purpose as an author, i.e. to give a fresh insight into the relationship between Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire before and during the Great War, leaves unexamined a shopping list of issues and personalities that the reviewer wants, or was expecting, to be examined. Unfairly, in my view. I am not a professional historian, but as an educated dilettante I found the book not only opened for me a new perspective on an aspect of the Great War that has received less attention from Anglophone writers than it warrants, but it does so in a way that makes the story at once readable and comprehensible. British writers on this theatre tend to become fixated on the agonizingly sexually-repressed T.E. Lawrence. McMeekin gave me a fascinating and informative account of how the Ottoman Empire came to side with Germany/Austria-Hungary: surprised though many people in the British Admiralty and War Office may have been at the Sublime Porte throwing in its lot with the Central Powers, McMeekin gives an intriguing account of the waverings and vacillations that occurred in advance of what ultimately was Enver Pasha's huge gamble. More how to fend off the Russians than to share the Central Powers' ambitions in Europe to the west. Having read Peter Hopkirk and David Fromkin, I was not unfamiliar with the scope of this book, which I think makes a significant contribution to the study of a critically important period of history, the ramifications of which we are living and reliving every day.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 10 October 2010
Sean McMeekin has enrichened our knowledge of World War 1 with this excellent book.

It provides a thorough historical study about the German efforts to unleash an Islamitic "Jihad" (= holy war) against the British, in the Arab world between Istanbul and Baghdad. If the Germans should have succeeded, Great Britain would have met considerable difficulties in its many Islamitic colonies. Thus releasing English pressure on Germany along the trenches in France.

The Berlin - Baghdad railroad, then under construction, played and essential part in developing the Kaiser's policies in this part of the world. It functioned as a symbol for superior German engineering, and made rapid transport of Germany's military might possible. The more so, as transport over sea was impossible, due to the then almighty Royal Navy.

All this lead to a fascinating, curious war of military efforts (Gallipoli), bribery, and complicatied policies. As usual, Kaiser Wilhelm II's unstable vanity and German tactlessness contributed in the end to its failure. Nevertheless, this distant theater of World War 1 produced one important result: Turkey's participation in the war on Germany's side closed the Black Sea's entrance for opponent Russia. As a result, Russia's southern economics were severely disrupted, helping Communist Lenin to seize power in 1917.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 3 February 2012
As someone currently interested in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of modern Turkey, I think that this book makes a very useful addition to the literature and presents a fascinating account, drawn from a wide range of diplomatic and political archives, of how the rather erratic relationship between Wilhelmine Germany and the last rulers of the Ottoman Empire led to consequences that have had a central influence on modern world politics. Reading the book, I kept wondering what would have happened if the Ottoman Empire had kept out of the Great War - would the Empire have broken up nonetheless or would it have evolved into a loose confederation of Middle Eastern and North African states, without the influence of the British and French mandates and the rise of the House of Saud in Arabia? Sean McMeekin is at times constrained by his need to link everything back to Germany (and Austria-Hungary), and sometimes the descriptions of the activities of German-speaking orientalist adventurers are a bit too detailed. Also, as other reviewers have noted, the book rather fizzles out at the end, and I think that McMeekin's epilogue discussing the decline of German support for Zionism and the connections between the Nazis and the notorious Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Amim Al-Husseini (ironically a British appointee) was added to provide a more definite "closure" to the book.

But overall this is a book that lives up to its subtitle. The main title "The Berlin-Baghdad Express" is a little misleading, as several other reviewers have commented, but I finished the book wondering "what if the Berlin-Baghdad railway had been completed by 1914?" AJP Taylor suggested that the Great War was determined by railway timetables, so it is likely that a functioning Baghdad railway would have had a substantial strategic impact. McMeekin left me not just with answers but also asking further questions, which I consider to be a sign of a good historical study.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 29 April 2012
First of all I dispute some of the blurb that says the book covers, "previously unresearched subjects of the First World War: the German bid for world power - and the destruction of the British Empire - through the harnessing of the Ottoman Empire." The subject was well covered in Hopkirk's marvelously engaging yarn On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire. Whereas Hopkirk weaves a terrific tale around the stories of individual daring-do, valour and the outrageous audacity of some of the German agents, he gives only fleeting glimpses of the historical events around these actions to give them context. By contrast McMeekin's focus is very much top down, taking a more scholarly look at the big picture of the German plan to exploit the Ottoman Empire's strategic and religious importance and incite muslim subjects of the British and Russian empires to a Jihad against their colonial masters. Much of the territory covered in the book will be familiar to readers of Hopkirk's earlier work, but McMeekin devotes more space to the overall German strategy and some of the lesser-known incidents. For instance, one of the few examples of a successful German/Turkish inspired Jihad was an uprising on the Libyan frontier directed mainly against the British in Egypt, which initially caused considerable alarm in Cairo. The book also gives an account of the failed Turco-German offensive against Suez in 1915 where the total ineffectiveness and self-interest of the Bedouin/Arab auxiliaries - supposedly inspired by bloodthirsty calls to kill the infidel - first becomes apparent.

The key figure in all of these events is Max von Oppenheim, who conceived the idea of a Jihad in a notorious memorandum written for the Kaiser and the German Foreign Ministry. A Jewish-to-Christian convert and an outstanding orientalist, Oppenheim is portrayed as both evil genius and buffoon; his greatest achievement was convincing Kaiser Wilhelm and other gullible figures in Imperial Germany of the feasibility of his plan to stir up 100 million muslims against the British and Russian empires, from North Africa to the frontiers of India. Ultimately the failed strategy was a classic example of German self-interested myopia and delusional wishful-thinking that broke against the rocks of geopolitical reality. The failure to complete vital sections of the Berlin-Baghdad railway that gives the books its title, damned the strategy from the start, as without it, Germany could never hope to match Britain's control of the seas that enabled it to supply its armies and proxies in the region, as well as bribe and intimidate the locals to stay neutral or take up arms against the Turks. Oppenheim's megalomaniac vision of a German-inspired Jihad engulfing its enemies also fell victim to the self-interest of the Arab and muslim tribal leaders, who ignored calls for Jihad, preferring to play one side off against the other and sell themselves to the highest bidder, a game Germany could never win. German and Turkish interests clashed almost from the outset, and relations became increasingly acrimonious until finally, following the collapse of the Russian empire, Germans and Turks were firing on each other in their unseemly haste to grab the oil wells at Baku.

By this time Oppenheim's dream of a German-led Jihad had fallen apart. The author comes to the startling conclusion that it was Oppenheim's inflammatory incitement to Jihad that fuelled both Nazi-German and modern Arab anti-semitism and anti-westernism. The author blames irresponsible German calls for Jihad in World War One for many of the problems that blight today's Middle East: pitting Arab against Jew and Christian, creating an intractable conflict further intensified by the creation of Israel that polarises world politics and Islamic-western understanding to the present day.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 13 January 2012
As other reviewers have pointed out the title of this book is quite misleading. The construction of the railway from Constantinople to Baghdad is only one element of this fascinating tale. The subtitle "The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power 1898-1918 is far more representative of the book's scope.
I sometimes think politicians would do well to spend more time reading books like this than studying their concise one page briefs. They might then be a little warier of repeating the mistakes made by their predecessors facing similar dilemmas. This book is essential reading for anyone seeking some understanding of how the present Middle East was formed. I had not appreciated, for example, the zionist support for Germany during the first years of the war and the almost casual decision by the British Government to issue the Balfour Declaration. This seminal event seems to have been seen merely as an attempt to gain a tactical advantage rather than the result of any sincerely held philosophy.
It is strange that the war with the Ottoman Empire has become almost forgotten to-day. Certain events, the Balfour Declaration and the Armenian massacres may still be recognised but few could put them into any context. The Author writes well and explains a complex situation clearly and authoritatively. Some might consider him a little opinionated as he does not hesitate to assign blame and responsibility and seeks to draw modern parallels. Personally I found his approach stimulating and refreshing.
Recommended
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 September 2014
A fitting tribute in this centenary year to a less known but nonetheless very important theatre of operations of the Great War. An authoritative contribution to balance the undoubtedly more popular and widely discussed Western front narrative. What I particularly appreciated in this outstanding book is the wide use of Turkish and German sources, often interspersed with Russian studies, providing a less slanted view of the events in the Middle East, in comparison with western studies almost invariably centred upon T.E. Lawrence’s exploits. In view of the amplitude of this study, the title is somewhat misleading, as the mentioned railway line does provide only a loose thread for the narrative that encompasses events taking place from Costantinople to Kabul to Baku. The focus of this book is the jihad waged by Turkey and Germany against British and Russian possessions alike and its abject failure with the consequent series of political earthquakes that still reverberates on us a century later, additionally with no prospect for a satisfactory solution in the foreseeable future. Personally I found however the last chapter Epilogue, less convincing in its efforts to derive the current jihad waged against westerners by Sunni Islamists as a consequence of the hazardous opening of the Pandora’s box of extremism by the German Empire. Even the massacres against Armenians according to the author’s are finally to be ascribed to the Germans’ meddling with fatwas against infidels, that had escaped their intentions, but some pages before he himself did point out at the Russian support for Armenians and the widespread killing of Muslim civilians and soldiers by Armenian fighters. A willingness to try to absolve and diminish the responsibilities of Turkey and simultaneously to blame Germans for almost everything went wrong on the Middle East front is noticeable and is responsible for the less convincing assumptions of the book, that in spite of this remains an excellent read on the subject. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everybody wishing to know more about the South Eastern front of the Great War.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 October 2011
The real theme of this book is not the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which receives little attention after the first quarter of the book, but Germany's hope to rouse the Muslims all over the world, and those in the Ottoman Empire in particular, to a jihad to undermine the British and French empires. McMeekin begins the story with the Kaiser who, from the moment of his accession in 1888, was romantically involved in the Orient and saw himself as the protector of Islam against any further encroachments by the British and French on the Islamic world. As relations between Germany on the one side and Britain and France on the other deteriorated and the Germans planned for a possible war with the Entente, they began to foment Islamic jihadism in the imperial possessions of the Entente. Max von Oppenheim was the driving force behind the sending out of agents to those areas for that purpose.

In 1899 and in 1908 the Germans received concessions from the Turks to build the Turkish section of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. They could have lost them during the Young Turk Revolution later in 1908: the new Finance Minister, Djavid Bey, heading a group that admired Britain, considered giving the concession to the British instead. The British egregiously spurned the Young Turk advances. Had they supported the Young Turks, Turkey might well have been on the British instead of on the German side in the First World War. As it was, Enver Pasha, the pro-German War Minister was committed, at first to hostile neutrality via-à-vis the Entente Powers and then to an alliance with Germany.

When the war broke out, just 70 miles or so, from Samara south-east to Baghdad, had been built in Mesopotamia, leaving a gap six times that length to the nearest railhead; and there were also two smaller gaps in the Amanus and Taurus mountains in Syria. The Germans also built the spur from Syria down to the Hejaz railway. But that railway ended at Medina and never reached Mecca, which was one reason why the Turks could not nip the Mecca-based Arab Revolt in the bud.

McMeekin shows that the entry of Turkey into the war on the German side was not a foregone conclusion; but the British seizure of two Dreadnoughts being constructed for Turkey in Britain tipped the balance that way.

When the war broke out the puppet Sultan Mehmed VI duly proclaimed a jihad against the Entente Powers. The proclamation had limited effect. Oppenheim wanted to cajole Hussein, the influential Hashemite Sherif of Mecca, into supporting the jihad; but Hussein resented the way the Young Turks were trying to tighten the control of Constantinople over the Sherifate. The attempts of the Germans to whip up the Muslims in Arabia against the British were singularly unsuccessful: the Arabs were too anti-Turkish for that. Besides, here, as in all the other areas where the Germans hoped to unleash jihad, money always spoke louder than either faith or nationalism. The potential leaders remained neutral for as long as possible and played off one side against the other in an ever-escalating bidding war, extorting vast sums of money and supplies of arms.

The British were successful in enlisting Hussein for their cause in 1916. McMeekin challenges the widespread idea, connected with Lawrence of Arabia, that this was a nationalist revolt: Hussein himself gave as the cause of his campaign that the Young Turk government was unIslamic. Not only the Arabs, but, as time went on, many Turks also turned against German officers and representatives - not so much for jihadi reasons, but to vent their resentment at arrogance of the Germans and because of the feeling that the Germans had dragged Turkey into a war which by 1916 they stood no chance of winning. After 1916 there were many incidents when Germans were killed not only by Arabs but by Turks also.

The Germans had been more successful with the Shia Grand Mufti of Karbala, who was at odds with Sunni Mecca and Sunni Constantinople. After exacting a huge sum of money from the Germans, in 1915 the Grand Mufti proclaimed a jihad to the Shias of the Ottoman and the Persian Empires. But again little came of it. The same was true of the alliance the Germans secured, at huge cost, with the Emir of Afghanistan in 1916. In Libya the head of the Sanussi order was a self-proclaimed Mahdi, who for a long time received bribes both from the Turks and from the British to join them. The Germans won that bidding war, and the Sanussis crossed the Egyptian border; but the British troops drove them back (1915).

With the collapse of any German hopes for a jihad by 1916 and no further developments in the story of the Berlin-Baghdad railway, both the ostensible and the real subject of this book effectively came to an end. McMeekin ends with two chapters which deal with other attempts by the Germans to unleash "quasi-religious" forces to undermine their enemies. The first of these was infinitely more effective than their attempt in the Muslim world: the Germans sent Lenin to undermine the Russian war-effort and financed Bolshevik anti-war publications in Russia. When Lenin came to power, he pulled Russia out of the war. The effect of this on Turkey was that the Russians withdrew from the one area in which their troops had been successful and far from war-weary: Eastern Anatolia, where, in the course of 1916, their armies had broken the Turkish forces and were half-way to Constantinople and to Ankara.

The Epilogue chapter deals with the second German attempt to undermine Russia from within: encouraging her Jews to rise in revolt in return for German support for Zionism. To this end Germany put pressure on the Turks to curb the jihad enthusiasm she was encouraging at the same time. The British were playing the same game, with more success than the Germans. Neither Germany nor Britain seemed to understand how support of Zionism was incompatible with their efforts to enlist Muslims in their cause.

The British, of course, came to regret it, and later did almost everything they could to appease the Arabs of Palestine. As for the Germans, the Nazis would again seek for allies among the Muslim zealots. It was Max von Oppenheim who, despite his own Jewish ancestry, kept the flame of Muslim jihad alive. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was made an honorary Aryan, and in 1940 it was he who put to Hitler the idea of enlisting the Mufti of Jerusalem as a fanatical ally.
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on 26 May 2014
This book is the background narrative to the First World War in the Near and Middle East and Transcaucasus region. It tells the largely untold story of the Kaiser’s plan for Muslim Jihad against Britain aimed at the British Raj, but also at Britain’s Entente partner, Russia.
Whist this book is not a work of fiction (its story inspired Buchan’s excellent Greenmantle) it tells of the Kaiser’s intrigues with the decaying Ottoman Empire, formerly supported by British diplomacy, but outmanoeuvred by Prussian bribes and jihadist extremism. This is signified by the failure to intercept Goeben and Breslau at the beginning of the war in 1914.
The key instrument of the Kaiser’s plan was the railway linking Berlin and Bagdad as well as Basra and the Hejaz railway. If the railway had been completed before August 1914 then it is likely that German subsidised jihadists would have taken Suez and threatened Cairo. As it was the railway encountered numerous physical obstructions including cutting tunnels through southern Europe’s hardest rock in the mountains between Aleppo and Adana. The Kaiser’s project also encountered political turmoil in the displacement and massacre of Armenians and Christians in the Ottoman Empire. All this is told in detail explaining why the railway was only partially completed in Syria and what was Mesopotamia.
The book also tells of the allied failure at Gallipoli and the eventual turning of the tide for the allies in 1916 when the German jihad reached its peak after the Turks suffered half a million casualties and the Kaiser had spent in today’s figures $136 billion in paying for the jihad. It incidentally discusses the part played by Colonel Lawrence and the Arab revolt which facilitated the British advance and the defeat of the Turkish armies. Of perhaps more significance in that accomplishment was the advance of the Russian armies in the Caucasus which were undefeated at the time Trotsky agreed the Russian armies’ surrender at Brest Litovsk. As the author explains ironically whilst this surrender was achieved by the same idea as the Drang nach Osten in the Middle East, but did not work in the case of the British Empire, it worked in Tsarist Russia.
The author’s conclusion is sobering and underlines not only the importance of learning the lessons of history, but ensuring that international relations and diplomacy acknowledge those lessons.
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This book is about attempts by Imperial Germany to forge links with Ottoman Turkey and invoke a holy war against Great Britain and its allies in the years running up to, and including, the First World War. Britain, as a result of its colonies in India and Africa was the largest Muslim empire in the world at the time and the thought of provoking an Islamic revolution in these territories had great appeal to the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his bid for increased world power. The Berlin-Baghdad Express of the title plays a recurring part in this story as it was the key supply line for German weapons and materiel into Mesopotamia, Arabia and Persia. A key element is that the war started before the line could be completed and the missing section through the Taurus and Amanus mountains resulted in massive logistical problems that spelt failure, especially for the Turco-German attempt to attack the Suez Canal in 1915.
The, at times comical, attempts to invoke holy war were masterminded by an outlandish character Baron Max von Oppenheim and a small number of Arab experts, the German Foreign Office having far greater expertise in this area than the British. The author, Sean McMeekin, has utilised German and more unusually Turkish archives to chart the activities of this group and tells a story of adventure and intrigue spread across many countries of the Middle East and often drawing parallels with the fictional work of John Buchan, 'Greenmantle'.
This is an important book, and clearly the result of much research, as it throws new light on aspects of the Turco-German campaign and gets away from the oft repeated histories of Gallipoli and the activities of T. E. Lawrence. The attitudes of the various Arab, Persian and Afghan leaders approached by Oppenheim's agents is interesting and the massive subsidies (bribes) paid to these leaders and the resultant bidding wars between Great Britain and Germany are very revealing. Not all attempts at invoking jihad were failures and the attack upon Anglo-Egypt from Libya by the Sanussi tribesmen of a latter day Mahdi was new to me. In passing it is interesting to note how powerful the Royal Navy was at this time, despite the debacle of the Dardanelles, for wherever the Germans went in their intrigues they found trade and coastal regions (and oilfields) securely controlled by the British Navy.
An excellent book which will provide new information to Western readers and which should give pause for thought to Western politicians who appear to have a mania for interfering in the Middle East, usually disastrously so. Minor criticisms are too frequent American colloquialisms and an absence of a cast-list given the many characters in the book.
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