The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918, by Sean McMeekin, Allen Lane, 496 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1846143236
The dominant iconic image of the First World War, particularly for Western students of history, is the extraordinarily murderous conflict in the trenches, with its reduction to the tragically absurd of both the techniques and mindsets then prevailing among Europe’s military castes. One reads with near disbelief of the intricate diplomatic minuets through which European powers, almost insouciantly, partnered each other towards utter catastrophe. The dominant concern on all sides was how to deal with the newly preponderant power of the German Reich. The chief mechanism driving towards disaster was the disconnect between the military and political dimensions of the policies of the European powers. Military plans related to other putative military plans rather than to political context, and, thanks to advances in technology, presumed an altogether more headlong tempo of implementation than the stately rhythms of the diplomacy of the time. It seems strange that so few statesmen seemed to grasp the implications of the busy work of their military planners, still less to try to control them. Like our current Western leaders, baffled by another dominant elite, a financial industry locked into its own version of collectively disastrous behaviours, the politicians refused to change conventional thinking to accommodate unconventional and uncomfortable new realities.
Germany, in the decades between the fall of Bismarck and the outbreak of war, had found neither a role nor an empire commensurate with its ambitions. Its mostly clumsy attempts to do one or the other contributed powerfully to the conditions which made the war probable. Bismarck’s cynical realpolitik had a stabilising effect in Europe. As in an old bridge club, other European players such as Lord Salisbury recognised the national and conservative, indeed predominantly defensive basis of Bismarck’s admittedly oblique tactics, and cooperated accordingly.
McMeekin’s book takes as its theme Germany’s eastward drive, der Drang nach Osten, but he paints a sufficiently broad canvas for it to be a valuable contribution also to a more general history of the war, showing that the description “world war” was justified not only in terms of the range of belligerents, but also the global objectives these belligerents were pursuing. The book interweaves, with many grace notes, four broad themes – the role of Kaiser Wilhelm, the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad railway, German-sponsored efforts at jihad, or holy Muslim war, in this case against the Entente Powers, and finally, the various set-piece encounters, such as Gallipoli, which shaped the fate of the Drang nach Osten.
There is more than a whiff of the permanent adolescent in Kaiser Wilhelm’s character, with its impulsive assertiveness, histrionic bravado and underlying hunger for admiration. Bismarck described him spitefully but accurately as a balloon which had to be held firmly by the string if it was not to drift off into the wide blue yonder. Not the least of the liabilities Wilhelm brought to his world role was his ambivalent relationship to the realm of his grandmother, Queen Victoria. Craving the esteem of his British royal relatives, and yet never obtaining it, at least to his own exacting standards, he developed something close to hatred of them. (He even blamed the English doctor chosen by his mother for a fatal misdiagnosis of his father’s throat tumour, a view endorsed by some modern historians, even if they attribute it to medical incompetence rather than national malice). His suspicion of his uncle, King Edward VII, the hated “Encircler”, was boundless. For Wilhelm the encirclement of Germany was axiomatically a gratuitous and malicious contrivance, unconnected to the demeanour of a state that was becoming an increasingly tone deaf member of the Concert of Europe. The Reich under the Kaiser’s stewardship – and he shared with the pope and the tsar the distinction of having autocratic control of the executive – had managed the tour de force of uniting Great Britain and France, who had been on the verge of war over Egypt, and binding both to Russia, in spite of memories of Crimea and the “Great Game”. The unexpected development of what was to become the Triple Entente owed its coherence overwhelmingly to a perception of German threat, a factor which Wilhelm blithely disregarded.
A child of his time, the kaiser shared the fin de siècle enthusiasm for things oriental, and nowhere was the crash of breaking diplomatic china louder than in his forays into the Islamic world, in particular his repeated attempts to use the issue of Moroccan independence to drive a wedge between London and Paris ‑ which produced precisely the opposite effect. Nevertheless, the kaiser’s instinct, that the Islamic world had an as yet untapped dynamic which might conceivably be harnessed to wider, in this case German purposes, was sharper than those of his British and French contemporaries. Had they looked at the Ottoman Empire through the kaiser’s lens their war with Turkey and all that flowed from it might never have happened.
McMeekin’s book opens with an account of Wilhelm’s visits to Constantinople in 1889, and to Constantinople, Jerusalem and Damascus in 1898. The kaiser unleashed all his powers of seduction on the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid. The sultan was distinctly unmajestic and unprepossessing in appearance, and outlandishly paranoid, admittedly with a great deal to be paranoid about. (He was also a keen fan of Sherlock Holmes novels, presumably for their teach-yourself-detection value. The book contains an entertaining account of the kaiser having to personally unwrap his gift of a choice German rifle from behind the protection of a wrought-iron screen before the wary sultan was reassured that it did not contain a bomb.) During his visit to Damascus, Wilhelm grandiloquently proclaimed to the sultan’s Muslim subjects that the German kaiser would be their friend for all time. That this was not just the exuberance of the moment is shown by a letter to “dearest Nicky”, the Russian tsar, urging him not to forget “that the Mahometans are a tremendous card in our game, in case you or I are suddenly confronted by a war with a certain meddlesome Power”. That the tsar, no less than meddlesome England, also governed many millions of “Mahometans” was a detail the kaiser characteristically overlooked.
It is not unusual for the enthusiasms of the powerful to attract devoted acolytes to the cause, and the Kaiser’s interest in the Muslim card had no more fervent and colourful ministrant than Baron Max Von Oppenheim. Sprung from a wealthy Jewish dynasty still prominent in German banking, his father had married a Catholic and converted to that faith. Von Oppenheim first met the Kaiser through their common membership of the elite Uhlan Guards regiment. The young baron found the allure of the Orient wonderfully incarnated in its seductive womenfolk, and began a lifelong engagement with the Islamic world which led him to learn Arabic, as well as taking full advantage of the Islamic amenity of temporary marriage. He also developed an interest in archaeology, the cover of choice of so many spies and adventurers in the Middle East. In his case it led to the discovery and excavation of significant neolithic remains at Tell Halaf in Northern Syria. (Some 27,000 war-shattered fragments of his finds are currently being painstakingly reassembled in Berlin.)
Oppenheim managed to join the German foreign ministry, but only on a semi-detached basis, either because of his Jewish antecedents, or perhaps because of official mistrust of his free-wheeling ways. Nevertheless his dispatches reached the kaiser’s desk, and his artful massaging of Wilhelm’s predilections resulted in an appointment to Cairo, where he combined the roles of pasha and German diplomat, the latter’s salon carefully separated from the former’s harem. True to his belief, as expressed in one of the dispatches he rained down on the Wilhelmstrasse that “the striking power and demographic strength of Islamic lands will one day have a great significance for European states”, he cultivated leading Islamicist and nationalist figures, drawing such protests from Egypt’s pro-British establishment that the Wilhelmstrasse cut him adrift in 1910. The kaiser thoughtfully cushioned the blow by awarding him the resonant if nebulous title of minister resident at large.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s assiduous cultivation of the sultan promised to pay dividends on one great issue ‑ the rival attempts of the European powers to access Turkey’s very considerable natural resources through a new railway. The sultan bitterly resented the British seizure of Egypt and similar French depredations in nominally Ottoman North Africa. The Germans, with their comparative absence of colonial baggage and immense technical capacity, seemed the obvious choice. For the Reich, a Berlin-Baghdad rail connection, apart from its commercial advantages, promised a link to the Middle East which eluded British sea power and could indeed threaten Suez, and ultimately India, in the event of war. For the sultan it would mean an enhanced capacity to bring his forces to bear on recalcitrant vassals and troublemakers. McMeekin gives an exhaustive account of the convoluted diplomatic and financial manoeuvring which accompanied the proposal, complicated by the sultan’s exacting routing requirements, aimed at enhancing the project’s counter-insurgency potential while ensuring that Russia or internal dissidents could not exploit it. (His conditions also included the prescient requirement that the route should be sufficiently inland to be out of the range of naval guns.) In the original agreement the Germans pledged to finance and build the railroad within eight years from 1899. There were below-the-counter sweeteners on both sides – generous prospecting and archaeological rights in a forty-kilometre strip along the line for the Germans, and Berlin’s intelligence support for the sultan, which was duly delivered, against his “young Turk” dissidents.
The obstacles to the railway, both geographical and human, were formidable. The Taurus mountain range, athwart the route, required tunnelling that would challenge even German capacity to the limit. (The notorious Infidel Mountain, composed almost entirely of quartz, was to wear out over 2,000 drill bits a day.) There was a woeful lack of infrastructure along most of the route, with the local populations often as dangerous for their depredations as they were useless for labour. The scope of the enterprise was breathtaking, and it is hardly surprising that there was considerable slippage in the timetable. In spite of an international workforce of over 16,000 on the payroll by 1912, at the outbreak of the war about a quarter of the projected length remained to be completed, while due to unfinished tunnels it remained unconnected in four separate sections. Its incomplete state was to prove a fatal impediment to German wartime ambitions to project force into the Middle East and beyond. (The postwar history of the railway was prosaic. Removed from German control by the Treaty of Versailles, different stretches came to be controlled by the Turks, Iraqis and British. The line was finally completed in 1940, but political tensions, and the dominance of road transport, meant that it has rarely operated as the coherent system envisaged in the original grand design.)
Sultan Abdul Hamid had provided the indispensable signature to launch the railway, but in spite of his diligent efforts the “Young Turks” had grown sufficiently powerful to force him to resubscribe to the constitution of 1876, which he had gone to enormous trouble to neutralise during his long career. He countered by donning his mantle as caliph and playing the Islamic card, to widespread support. Enver Bey, one of the dominant personalities behind the “Young Turks”, resorted to more direct methods and captured Constantinople by force, deposing and exiling Abdul Hamid and replacing him with a figurehead. (It is strange how little store the British and German embassies set by the liberal agenda and outlook of the Young Turks. The British, dominated by Gerald Fitzmaurice, a native of Howth and former pupil of Blackrock College, obsessed about their supposed origins “in crypto-Jewish freemasonry”, while the German ambassador reported gleefully to Berlin that pan-Islam was back in play, with the deposed Abdul Hamid as its leading martyr.)
Turkey’s entry into the war was preceded by frantic diplomatic manoeuvres, with the European powers veering from support of Turkish interests if a rival threatened to carry off a piece of the prey to threatening them if they sensed an opportunity to be themselves the successful predator. The Turks explored with both sides the possibility of an alliance in return for guarantees of Ottoman territorial integrity. Enver Bey, the thirty-two-year-old war minister, secured the treaty with Germany by ceding to them a state-of-the-art Turkish battleship being completed in a British shipyard, (a concession less generous than it sounded since he knew privately that the ship had just been commandeered by Churchill for the British navy).
Turkish entry into the war was in fact decided by another pair of battleships, the Goeben and the Breslau, commanded by the German admiral Souchon. Hunted by British warships through the Mediterranean on Churchill’s insistent orders, they requested permission to enter the Dardanelles. Turkish refusal would have made a mockery of their recent secret treaty, while agreement risked provoking open war with the Entente powers. Eventually the Turks agreed to let the ships come in, at the price of some steep concessions. The permission forestalled only by minutes a decision which Admiral Souchon was about to take to enter anyway, without permission if necessary, a display of his stubborn character which shortly thereafter led him, in conspiracy with Enver Bey, to turn his vessels’ guns against Russian ports and warships, blowing apart also Turkish attempts at a nebulous equipoise which would satisfy Germany without provoking actual war with the Entente. Given that Turkey’s entry to the war led ultimately to the disappearance of the Ottoman and Tsarist Empires, the Goeben and the Breslau have some claim to rank with Lenin’s sealed train as the most fate-laden vehicles of the twentieth century.
On the day Germany’s secret treaty with Turkey was signed, Baron Oppenheim was summoned to the Wilhelmstrasse and returned to the semi-formal embrace of the foreign office as the impresario of jihad. The German setback at the Marne enhanced the appeal of a German-Turkish attack on the Suez Canal, and a significant sum was earmarked for this project. Now Oppenheim turned his energies to planning how fuses might best be lit to detonate the Muslim populations in British, French and Russian territories. Some dozen rather motley German jihadists set out on his orders to the targeted territories to fan the flames of the holy work. All that was needed to set things alight, the baron promised, was the fatwa of the Sultan-Caliph.
Assiduous efforts in the end produced no less than five fatwas, satisfactorily ranking jihad against Germany’s enemies as the highest personal duty for all Muslims (as opposed to lesser obligations which a believer might, without reproach, leave to execution by others). Oppenheim’s pro-jihad pamphlets, cascading off the presses in all relevant languages, are astonishingly uninhibited in their invocation of the most sanguinary texts of the Koran on the killing of infidels. He even added to this bloodthirsty theology the modern refinement of a production quota, suggesting “each believer takes on him an oath to kill at least three or four of the ruling infidels, enemies of God and enemies of religion”. His recklessness was all the more reprehensible in that his extensive personal experience of the Islamic world must surely have given him a good notion of how inflammable the situation was to which he applied his talents. To their credit, both the German and Austrian ambassadors in Constantinople had deep reservations both about the morality and the likely unintended consequences of the baron’s actions.
McMeekin recalls from oblivion a range of fascinating characters pressed into service in the Drang nach Osten. German-Ottoman preparations for an attack on the Suez Canal led to a frantic search for Arab allies and their indispensable supply of camels. Alois Musil, a Catholic theology student (and cousin of the writer Robert Musil), had offered his services to the Germans on a freelance basis, so freelance in fact that he wandered off in the end with some of their funds to pursue his personal scholarly research. His activities are distinguished by a consistently prescient and clear-sighted view of the forces at play in the shifting sands of the Arabian peninsula. His attempts to bring Ibn Saud (the father of the current Saudi monarch and his sixty-odd siblings) into the forefront of the conflict would have harnessed the peninsula’s most fanatically motivated and powerful tribal force in the attack on Suez, but it failed because of Turkish suspicion that Ibn Saud was in the pay of the British, as indeed he was. Musil’s well-informed and profound scepticism on the military capacities of the Bedouin made him lukewarm about recruiting them to the German cause. In the end the Germans had to purchase the necessary camels at exorbitant prices from a Syrian merchant.
In November 1914, the Ottoman VIII Corps advanced from Damascus to muster in the Sinai. There was a pause in Jerusalem to receive a ceremonial green flag from Mecca, which proved exceedingly cumbersome on the march but whose talismanic effect on Muslim troops on the British side was expected to prove overwhelming. The Sinai crossing involved moving a 20,000-strong army and proportionate numbers of camels and pack animals, heavy guns and even steel pontoons for the canal. It was an impressive military feat. (In contrast Lawrence of Arabia’s 1917 desert march, immortalised in his mythologising account, involved some 500 lightly armed Arab tribesmen.) The climax of the expedition proved however highly anti-climactical. The British general Sir John Maxwell, well informed through aerial reconnaissance, allowed the sappers to get busy with their pontoons and then mowed them down. The Bedouins, followed by the Arab regulars, turned tail (except for some jihadis from Medina, who had taken the precaution of slipping away before battle was engaged). The sacred green flag had provoked no mutiny on the British side. However the Ottoman army managed an impressive retreat to Jerusalem, with only some 800 men missing or dead from an army of 20,000.
The game-changing equivalent of capturing the Suez Canal was the capture of Constantinople and control of the Hellespont, another strategic artery. McMeekin’s account of Gallipoli corresponds to the general consensus of historians, but offers interesting insights on some key personalities among the defenders, in particular General Liman von Sanders, who was in charge of the defence of the capital. Widely detested because of his social gracelessness ‑ the German ambassador had even requested Berlin to send a trained psychiatrist to assess the general’s sanity – his mental faculties were nevertheless sufficient to make him a resolute opponent of Oppenheim’s jihadist school, and to maintain solid confidence in the defences he had prepared in spite of widespread panic in Constantinople that the British navy might force the straits. Churchill always maintained that the decision not to attempt this was the greatest mistake in the debacle forever associated with his name. However the success of Kemal, the future Attatürk, in holding the heights against the Anzac invaders, almost certainly meant that any such attempt would have failed with even more catastrophic losses.
This triumph for the German-Turkish alliance gave Oppenheim a fresh surge of jihadist energy. He was in Constantinople in 1915 seeking to persuade Feisal, the son of the sherif of Mecca, to accept the Turkish caliphate and support its jihad. Feisal, known to English-speaking readers from TE Lawrence’s admiring account, had been deputed by his father to mollify the Turks and monitor their intentions, which he suspected might be to depose him as sherif in favour of a tribal rival. Oppenheim brokered extended discussions between Feisal and the Turks, with Feisal deferring to the inscrutable will of God whenever pressed for future commitment, but abounding otherwise with enthusiasm for jihad. It is likely that Feisal had already made contact at that point with the future protagonists of the Arab revolt, so it was not surprising that he eluded Oppenheim’s blandishments.
Oppenheim was fully aware of the cleavage between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and that a separate fatwa process was needed for the Shia. A mission was dispatched to the grand mufti of Karbala, who explained the constraints on his enthusiasm for the proposed jihad imposed by the fact that Karbala clerics were paid by funds from Indian Muslims, funds moreover channelled through the British consulate in Baghdad. Reassured by the offer of hefty German compensation the mufti duly wrote out a fatwa for jihad, beautifully engrossed on parchment, adding for good measure a letter to the shah of Persia, enjoining jihad on him too.
Afghanistan, the potential launching pad for a Muslim invasion of India, was the main goal of German efforts. Oskar von Niedermayer, an artillery officer with skills in Arabic, Turkish and Pashtun, arrived in Kabul in October 1915 after a year-long journey which had included a stint as free-wheeling saboteur and robber of Russian banks in Persia. The emir, “to whom everything seemed like mere business” according to Niedermayer, may have been deficient in jihadist zeal, but after two months of non-committal meetings was persuaded to sign a treaty supporting the Central Powers against his British sponsors, whose annual subsidy of £400,000 sterling was to be replaced by a German lump sum of £10 million (about $5 billion in modern value). The Germans were to guarantee the independence of Afghanistan and provide as many arms and advisers as the emir deemed necessary for the invasion. On the face of it, Germany seemed to have gained an astonishing triumph. On the other hand the emir, his skills honed by a fourteen-year balancing act between the British and Russian empires, may simply have calculated that if the Germans could deliver these conditions in faraway Afghanistan they must surely be well on the way to ultimate victory, and, if they could not, then the treaty was moot. The unfinished state of the Berlin-Baghdad railway meant the Germans were unlikely to pass the emir’s test.
The end of 1915 was the high water mark for the Central Powers. Bulgaria’s entry into the war and the conquest of Serbia provided a continuous rail link between Berlin and Constantinople. Oppenheim was busy in promoting an invasion of Egypt from the west by the Sanussi brotherhood in Libya. In spite of their glamorous association with the mahdi, who had laid General Gordon low some decades earlier, the attack by the brotherhood came to nothing in the now familiar welter of wasted bribes and broken promises.
Events in Persia proved a further setback to German hopes for jihad. While the shah seemed well disposed, Persia was already being carved into Russian and British spheres, while the Turks, whose brutality was rapidly alienating the Persians, were encroaching from the west. The only native military force, the gendarmerie, was, oddly, under the control of the nominally neutral Swedes. A threatened Russian march on Tehran persuaded the shah to see new merits in the Entente side. Not even a significant Turkish victory at Kut-al-Amara, involving the surrender of some 8,000 British troops, could restore German fortunes in Persia, making an invasion of India an ever more remote option.
The revolt of the sherif of Mecca against the Turks dealt a Mecca locuta est body blow to the German jihadist cause. The sherif, with his “unique selling point” as custodian of the holy places, had every interest in preserving a genial opacity about his intentions, and prolonging the lucrative auction of his good will between the rival fronts. If he ceased to do so it was to forestall the threat that the Turks, busy executing Arab nationalists and aware of the contacts his son Feisal had with them, might forcibly replace him as sherif. McMeekin is dismissive of the military significance of the sherif’s revolt, immortalised in Lawrence’s incantatory prose, but gives full value to its political and symbolic importance. He takes issue with Lawrence that it was rooted in secular Arab nationalism. The sherif justified his revolt by reason of the Turks’ offences against the tenets of traditional Islam and McMeekin suggests plausibly that it is better understood as a rival jihad.
The tide in the Middle East now favoured the Entente powers. A second Turkish attack on Suez in 1916 was easily repulsed, this time with heavy Turkish losses. The “terms of trade” for Muslim support shifted strongly against the Germans, whom even the Turks, drained by war, began to regard as the authors of their misfortune. (Their voracious demands for German gold rose accordingly, the flow being such that in 1916 the Turkish lira actually appreciated against the mark.)
It is a striking irony of German policy that the strategy of infecting the enemy with an ideological virus failed abjectly with regard to Islam but succeeded beyond Berlin’s wildest dreams in its secularist version. The sealed train carrying Lenin to the Finland Station undermined the sickly tsarist regime and meant that Russia, the sledgehammer of the Second World War, ceased to threaten the Reich. The tussle between Germany and Turkey to fill the vacuum left by the abdication of the still formidable Russian Caucasian army almost brought them to war over the oilfields of Baku. Turkey prevailed, but the wider fortunes of the war, and their armistice with the British, meant they vacated their conquest after some six weeks’ occupation.
McMeekin has an epilogue dealing with the Zionist dimension of these events, eminently justifiable given the enormous influence of Zionism on the subsequent history of the Middle East. He recognises rightly the shallowness of the thinking behind the Balfour Declaration, and of equivalent policy impulses on the German side – a lofty and indifferent condescension to Arab and Jewish aspirations alike is probably the best psychological key to these policies. That Germany, in different circumstances, might have become a champion of Zionism rather than of anti-Semitism is a plausible, if counterfactual conjecture.
The author is on more questionable ground in implying that Oppenheim’s bloodthirsty pamphlets had a significant influence on subsequent Arab attitudes. They were written to exploit and harness a pre-existing Islamic theology, and the notion of their enduring importance is at variance with McMeekin’s own caustic demonstration of their ineffectual role in the war itself. That the odious baron should recycle his jihadist notions for Hitler’s benefit is not as surprising as McMeekin seems to find it, and should not require a resort to the tendentious concept of the “self-hating”, or in McMeekin’s variant, “self-pitying” Jew, as if others who actively resist or abandon the embrace of an inherited faith may be presumed to act from preference or conviction while a Jewish person in the same circumstances must be in the grip of a psychosis. The author’s conclusion, that the kaiser’s mistake was not basing his policy “on these prospering, generally pro-European Christians and Jews, but rather on the resentful Muslim majority” shows a fine, if rather anachronistic, contempt for demographics. He ends with apocalyptic warnings against contagion by “the self-pitying disease”, to which “limousine liberals” are particularly susceptible, and which is not only ravaging Western society but “manifests itself at its most obvious in Arab anti-semitism with Israel blamed for every evil which has occurred in the Middle East”.
This bizarrely strident epilogue has little connection, either in logic or intellectual quality, with the body of the book, which generally shows a judicious measuring of cause and effect. As a historian, McMeekin sheds a new light on many hitherto forgotten dimensions of the First World War. The eccentric enterprise of the German jihad produced a correspondingly eccentric cast of characters, from the überFlashman Oppenheim downwards. McMeekin brings them to life in fine ironic prose, so the book is a rich human document as well as a worthwhile contribution to history.
It is also of value for the reflections it prompts on themes that still remain relevant in international affairs. The issue of Germany’s role has not altogether disappeared, even if now reduced to discreet concern that Thomas Mann’s prescient formula of “a European Germany instead of a German Europe”, which anticipated some sixty years of German policy, may no longer be the default setting of German politics.
The kaiser was a pioneer in the notion of using Turkey as a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world. The events chronicled in this book are not particularly encouraging, being more consistent with Dr Ian Paisley’s insight that the trouble with a bridge was that it went over to the other side. Again events have changed so utterly in the intervening century that it is scarcely meaningful to draw inferences from this period for modern circumstances, save perhaps that a modern Turkish government attempting this bridging role will find the task no less challenging than their Young Turk forbears did a century ago.
McMeekin’s book is however highly pertinent as a cautionary tale for our time on the futility of secular powers attempting to exploit Islam for tactical purposes. It is not easy for outsiders to understand how deeply Islam understands itself as an absolute and peremptory faith. The sonorous Arabic cadences of the Koran are not merely inspired in general content and import, as most Christians believe of the Bible: they are the ipsissima verba of the Almighty, and therefore tamper-proof by reference to any merely human wisdom. As the difference between divine truth and other values is paramount, so the difference between believer and unbeliever transcends all other human distinctions. Islam, as the word implies, is a religion of submission to God, a transcendent goal which implies many subordinate submissions, and engenders a culture imbued with the keenest sense of power relationships. Jihad is the ultimate weapon to ensure that believers lose none of the power they have attained in the realm of Islam, where Muslim control prevails, and that it accrues as far as possible to them in the “realm of strife”, the traditional legal definition of these areas which have not yet attained the tipping point to Muslim control. Oppenheim’s bizarre hybrid, a jihad against some selected infidels, could only be rationalised by according to Germany and her friends the traditional exemptions allowed by Islamic tradition to infidels who paid the protection tribute known as jizya – a definition which became progressively less absurd as the German gold needed to lubricate the jihad flowed ever more copiously.
Non-believers are also prone to the opposite error, of underestimating, as Oppenheim so clearly did, the mundane accommodations which are necessary, indeed routine, beneath the overarching dome of high theory. The scope for casuistry in Islamic theology is limited and its adherents learn to live with the sublime belief and the mundane realities at once, often without torturing themselves overmuch about the fine mesh of their integration. Oppenheim’s jihad never outstripped the prospects for German military success, and shrunk implacably in tandem with them. The caliphate evaporated when the Turkish power which had sustained its theological pretensions disappeared. Oppenheim never quite knew which mode the Islamic partners were operating in, unlike some of his more clear-sighted colleagues. It lends him something of the aura of a demented professor, forever stumbling in the unforeseen gaps between theory and practice. Fortunately it meant also that his unconscionable readiness to play with fire resulted more in farce than tragedy. The latter-day sorcerers’ apprentices who armed the jihadists against the Russians in Afghanistan will never be reproached with having produced more farce than tragedy. This book would have made highly instructive reading for them.
Sean OHuiginn retired from the Irish diplomatic service in 2009. His most recent foreign postings included service as Ireland’s Ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Rome. He also served in various capacities in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, including as head of the Department’s Anglo-Irish Division between 1991 and 1997.