Book Review: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

By Sean McMeekin

Based on a studious knowledge not only of the British and German records, but also the Russian-Turkish documents, McMeekin has written a powerful and illuminating book that for many will open up an untouched angle on the first world war, while encouraging us to be more rigorous in confronting complex matters, such as the origins of Nazi-Islamist links.

Price: £10:99
Publication Date: 2010
ISBN: 1846143233
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A hundred years ago, Germany was busy transforming the Ottoman Empire with railroads, military advisors and credits, in the hope of displacing the once dominant Anglo-French influence on the Middle East. 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.

Though the Berlin-Baghdad railway runs like a thread through the narrative, McMeekin's book is less about a railway and more about the failed attempts to accomplish the goals of a strategic alliance between Germany's Kaiser and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
It was Wilhelm who persuaded Turkey into joining the first world war with a mixture of gold, blandishments and promises. These included not just the recovery of territory and the championing of Constantinople against its religious rival, Mecca, but a jihad to liberate all Muslims under British domination. The result would be a world where Islamism and a German empire would peaceably intermingle.

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 Muslim sects 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. Though they failed to stir up holy war, the Germans did have  better luck in dispatching Lenin back home to cripple Russia's war effort. Unfortunately for Berlin it was this, together with Germany's success in bringing Turkey into the war, that hastened the downfall of the Romanovs and the onset of Bolshevism.

In conclusion, 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 World War. They were constantly 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.

This book, despite the title making it appear like just another military history jaunt,  carries immense importance and originality of research and the reader will gain new and fresh perspectives about the current conflict between the Islamic and Western ideologies.