Robert Fisk's World: The German Lawrence of Arabia had much to live up to – and failed

The victors write the history, so Frobenius's adventures are today virtually unknown
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The Independent Online

His name was Captain Leo Frobenius and he was the German Lawrence of Arabia, tasked to start an Arab Muslim insurgency against British rule in Sudan and Egypt. Colonel Lawrence's mission, of course, was to persuade the Arabs of the Gulf to rebel against the German-allied Turkish army of the Ottoman empire. There were a few differences. A colonel Lawrence may have been; a captain Frobenius was not. His military rank was a fraud. And unlike Lawrence, the secret Frobenius mission in 1915 was a hopeless failure.

So come with me this Saturday morning – with the help of a brilliant Catalan scholar called Rocío Da Riva – with the German Lawrence, an archaeologist (like Lawrence), cultural historian, traveller and adventurer (again like Lawrence) regarded by some as a genius and a leading expert on Africa, by others as a charlatan guilty of abject behaviour (yet again, like Lawrence). But he ended up back in Germany, denounced to Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg as a "tactless" political agent and a liar, stirring up trouble among Germans, Arabs and Turks in equal measure because he did "not understand the Oriental way of thinking". Unlike Lawrence.

The victors write the history, of course, so Frobenius's adventures are today virtually unknown. Already an explorer in pre-1914 Congo, Mali, Burkino Faso, Togo, Morocco, Algeria (twice), Tunis, northern Cameroon and Sudan, Frobenius of Arabia's mission in 1915 was to make his way across Ottoman Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Arabia via still neutral Italian Eritrea to Ethiopia where the marooned German legation in Addis Ababa had no radio or even postal contact with the Reich. Frobenius was to take "mail" (the official version) to the legation while in fact encouraging the Ethiopians to invade Sudan, organise uprisings by the Mahdiya partisans against Britain and challenge the British position in Suez.

He and his expedition – Germans, Turks, an interpreter and eventually 11 Palestinian Arabs, most of whom would be mysteriously put on rations as "gardeners" from Jaffa – travelled across Turkey on those bits of the Berlin-Baghdad railway already completed, the rest of the way by camel through the great passes of the Taurus and Cilician mountains, the road then being "improved by thousands of Armenians, who had been drafted into the Ottoman army for this purpose...".

These, of course, were the remnants of the Ottoman army's Armenian soldiers, already disarmed in preparation for their slaughter by Turkish forces in the 1915 genocide. Through Aleppo, Hama and Homs, our heroic spies chuffed through Lebanon's Bekaa valley by narrow-gauge railway.

From Damascus, Frobenius adopted the name of Abdul Karim Pasha, now dressed like the rest of his amateur agents in Arab costume. They took the Hejaz railway – soon to be destroyed by Lawrence – to al-Ula where they travelled by camel to al-Wajh on the Red Sea. Then came the tricky bit: they had to cross the Red Sea for Massawa and dodge the British and French naval patrols all the way.

Spies had already tipped off the Brits that the Germans were coming; first to stop their boat was the English Empress of Russia, followed by the French cruiser Desaix whose captain failed to spot Frobenius and his men because the crew was selling them picture postcards.

According to a later despatch from the British ambassador to Rome, Frobenius and company "concealed themselves in a corner of the hold, used, apparently, for the same purpose as the 'Sanitary Tank' in a more civilised vessel, having reached this unromantic hiding place through a hole, the uses of which it is difficult to describe in polite language...". Through a crack in their shithole, the Germans even took a photo of the Desaix which remains to this day in the archives of the Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt.

It took Frobenius of Arabia 42 days to reach Eritrea, where the Italians – alerted by the Brits – refused to let him move on to Ethiopia. The Germans then ensconced themselves on the luxury German liner Christian X, a new vessel whose silver cutlery and grand piano must have pleased the pseudo-aristocratic Frobenius. But while he was optimistically trying to arrange a radio cipher to take to the German legation in Addis whence they could communicate with Berlin via the captain of the Christian X, Sir Edward Grey – he of "lights going out all over Europe" fame – was giving permission for the Italians to take the Germans under safe conduct to Rome via Suez.

Frobenius ended up in the Holy City, claiming in the Italian press that he was a plenipotentiary of the Ottoman emperor before admitting he was a secret agent, hoping he would receive an Italian decoration and then entraining for Germany one day before Italy declared war on the side of the Allies. Later German spy missions proved equally dismal. One left for Arabia dressed as an Arab dance troupe; another was betrayed as a German dressed as an Arab; the lack of corns on his feet proved to Eritrean policemen that he had been wearing shoes.

When Frobenius tried to return to Africa after the war, he was stopped in Cairo where the British colonial office, regarding him as a "thieving scoundrel", memorably noted that he was "one of those scientific Germans to whom the word 'Hun' can be applied without raising any controversy". He ended up president of the Institute of Cultural Morphology in Frankfurt, reportedly selling artefacts from his expeditions, his scientific reputation (according to the Foreign Office) "as second rate as his reputation for decent behaviour".

Frobenius of Arabia outlived Lawrence of Arabia by three years. But then again, Frobenius never rode a motorbike.