Today, Western powers worry about the "China model" with which the Beijing government is winning over large swathes of Africa, building dams and bridges, disbursing development aid with no (human rights) strings attached in exchange for political influence and access to crucial mineral resources for the Chinese economy. A hundred years ago, they fretted about Germany in the Middle East, which was busy transforming the Ottoman Empire with railroads, military advisors and credits, in the hope of displacing the once dominant Anglo-French influence.
The centrepiece of this endeavour was the famous Berlin-Baghdad railway, designed to connect the German capital with the Ottoman provinces in Mesopotamia, and eventually the Persian Gulf. Once completed, it would not only open up the region to trade and development, but transform the whole strategic landscape. It would then have been quicker to move troops from Central Europe to the Gulf than by ship from Britain.
As Sean McMeekin shows in his riveting new book – based on a knowledge not only of the British and German records, but also the Russian-Turkish documents – Berlin's strategy in the Ottoman Empire went well beyond the railroad, which was still winding its way through Anatolia when war broke out in 1914. It formed part of a much broader project of fomenting internal revolution in order to weaken the entente powers, and if possible to knock one or the other out of the war altogether.
With respect to the Tsarist Empire, the Germans supported the aspirations of the non-Russian populations, especially the Jews. In the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, on the other hand, Berlin not only played the "Muslim card", but choose to sponsor a particularly virulent anti-Semitic form of jihad to lever open the British empire in Egypt, India and elsewhere.
The vanguard of this endeavour was made up of characters who were no less colourful and eccentric than Lawrence of Arabia. Some, such as "Baron" Oppenheim, were straightforward adventurers, as concerned to sample female Turkish delights – his Zeitfrauen or temporary concubines - as to promote holy war. Others, such as Curt Pruefer and the Austrian Alois Musil, were serious Oriental scholars who made a genuine attempt to provide realistic assessments to Berlin.
Between them, they undertook a series of expeditions to unleash jihad in Persia, Afghanistan and North Africa. It all came to very little in the end: the much-heralded assault on the Suez Canal was soon repulsed, the intrepid Senussis in Libya were never more than an irritant, and the Turks who put up such ferocious resistance at Gallipoli seem to have been motivated primarily by local, national or Ottoman patriotism.
The reasons for this were varied. In general terms, "jihad" proved to be much less of a rallying call than Berlin hoped, and London feared. Most just took the money and ran; some were openly hostile towards German agents. McMeekin's description of the experiences of these emissaries is truly comic, with one expedition being so systematically robbed over a period of time that it was eventually reduced to travelling in their underwear.
It was hardly confidence-inspiring that the Ottoman authorities confessed to their German allies that a vital visit to parts of the Hejaz was out of the question because they could not guarantee their safety. By the final stages of the war, even the Turks themselves could barely disguise their hostility.
The author draws a fascinating contrast here between the success of the German strategy in Russia, where Lenin was conveyed in a sealed train from Switzerland in order to inject the poison of communist revolution into the Tsarist system. Central to this approach was the cooperation of Jews confined by Russian prejudice to the Pale of Settlement on the western fringes of the empire, and German Jews for whom Tsarism was understandably the main enemy. One therefore wonders what would have happened had the Berlin backed the Zionist project in Palestine - something which the Kaiser had toyed with before the war.
As it turned out, it was the British who revolutionised the Middle East against the Ottomans rather than the other way around. In the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, issued in the hope of winning over Jews worldwide to the entente, they promised the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Remarkably, this initiative was pushed through in the face of strongly anti-Semitic elements in the Foreign Office. McMeekin cites an astonishing memorandum, not long before the war, in which officials attributed the Young Turk revolution to "Oriental Jew[s]" who were "adept at manipulating occult forces".
At the same time, the British persuaded the Sherif of Mecca to rebel against the Ottomans. This revolt – immortalised in Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom – has gone down in history as an Arab nationalist rising against the Turks, but as McMeekin reminds us, it was really a rival jihad. Britain also backed Ibn Saud's Wahhabi tribes, the most theologically extreme game in town.
Germany and the Ottomans, in other words, were hoist by their own petard. The long-term consequences of all this included the creation of Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, events which have profoundly shaped the international politics of our own times.
In his final chapter, the author turns to the legacy of Germany's wartime engagement with the Middle East after 1918. Many of those who had sought to promote jihad during the First World War now became radical anti-Semites who offered their services to Hitler when a second chance beckoned during the Second - even Oppenheim, who was himself of Jewish origin. They were pushing an open door within the region, where hatred of Jews was powered not so much by the Zionist project in Palestine, which the British were already backing away from, but the millions of propaganda leaflets distributed by the German and Ottomans during the previous war.
By 1941-1942, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was calling upon Hitler to eliminate the Jews worldwide, while Adolf Eichmann was preparing to send an SS Einsatzgruppe behind Rommel's advancing Afrika Korps to kill the Jewish population of Palestine. The author, in other words, recognises anti-Semitism for what it is: not simply a reaction to Jewish behaviour, but a systematic world view. Understanding this distinction is as vital for the historian as it is for politicians and the public today.
Brendan Simms is Professor of the History of European International Relations at Cambridge UniversityReuse content