The Berlin-Baghdad Express

The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power

by Sean McMeekin

19 October 2010

Kaiser Wilhelm II's oriental fixation had... the feeling of a love affair, as he courted the affections of the various peoples of the Ottoman Empire... Wilhelm wanted Germans to lead the way in 'civilizing' the Middle East, reinvigorating its moribund economy and integrating it with Europe’s.
cover art

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power, 1898 to 1918

Sean McMeekin

(Harvard University Press)
US: Sep 2010

Excerpted from The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empires and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898 to 1918  by Sean McMeekin (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2010 by Sean McMeekin. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Some day, when the full history is written – sober history with
ample documents – the poor romancer will give up business
and fall to reading Miss Austen in a hermitage.

  — John Buchan, Greenmantle (1916)

Prologue: The View from Haydarpasha
On a small promontory jutting out from the Asian shoreline of Istanbul, where the Bosphorus meets the Sea of Marmara, sits the stunning neo-classical façade of Haydarpasha station. So perfectly does the edifice fit the small peninsular setting that, from a distance, Haydarpasha appears almost to float on the water. This is no accident. A masterpiece of German architecture of the late Wilhelmine era, Haydarpasha in fact rests not on the shore itself but on over a thousand wooden piles, each driven into the earth by steam-hammer, which support a state-of-the-art steel-carcass bearing system. Although damaged over the years by fires, explosions and sabotage, the original structure still stands as a monument to German engineering in its golden age.

The dramatic setting brilliantly captures the allure of the city which lies astride two continents. Haydarpasha, Istanbul’s railroad gateway to Asiatic Turkey and the East, is physically oriented towards the West, commanding one of the finest views of Istanbul’s European shoreline. The minarets of the Blue Mosque beckon across the upper reaches of the Sea of Marmara, along with the golden cupola and faded red brick of the Hagia Sofia, and the outlines of Topkapi Palace and the Sublime Porte, just above the old fortress walls of Byzantium. Scanning to the right, one takes in the entrance to the Golden Horn, and further north, on a very clear day, it is just possible to catch a glimpse of the suspension bridges spanning the Bosphorus.

Like many of the world’s great buildings, Haydarpasha seems to come from a vanished era, its very grandeur a reproach to the bland mediocrity of the present age. Built almost exactly one hundred years ago, Haydarpasha conjures up the astonishing confidence of Europe’s fin de siècle era, the crusading imperial spirit of an age which knew neither irony nor apology. There is nothing subtle about the station, or the intent behind it. Haydarpasha was designed to be a flagship station of the beloved Berlin to Baghdad railway of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Here the German Emperor’s Weltpolitik first took concrete form, seeking to unite East and West, Asia and Europe, and put imperial Germany firmly on the path to world power.

It was an intoxicating vision, one of the all-time great gambits of history; and yet it is all but forgotten today. The Kaiser’s dream of empire has mostly fallen down the memory hole, a victim both of the amnesia accorded history’s great losers and of its having been overlaid by the nihilistic horrors of Nazism. Even without the comparison of the ideas of his hideous successors, the Kaiser’s vision remains oddly appealing. Wilhelm’s oriental fixation had something of the feeling of a love affair, as he courted the affections of the various peoples of the Ottoman Empire. To be sure, Wilhelm wanted Germans to lead the way in ‘civilizing’ the Middle East, reinvigorating its moribund economy and integrating it with Europe’s. In this sense, Germany’s Wilhelmine Drang nach Osten was akin to the Russian push into Siberia and Central Asia or America’s path to the Pacific under Manifest Destiny – and a good deal more sensible in economic terms than the mad European Scramble for Africa. The Kaiser’s vision was the most romantic, and arguably the most sympathetic, of all of these imperial projects. The subjects he wished to bring into the modern age were not primitive tribesmen, but the once-great peoples of the Near East, whose ancestors had given the world writing, Abrahamic religion, democracy, philosophy and science. Let the Americans have the plains, the Russians Siberia, the French and Belgians and British various malaria-ridden lands in Africa. Germany would build her own economic empire in the very cradle of Western civilization.

Wilhelm’s motivation was not exclusively economic, of course. Rummaging around in a London apartment vacated by a German family after the outbreak of war in 1914, the new English tenant ‘came across a German geographical globe with a system of projected and completed railways clearly marked from Berlin to Madras via Constantinople, southern Persia, Baluchistan, and Bombay’. Here was the map of an empire to crown all empires, with Wilhelm strutting across the world stage as a true modern Alexander, taking in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Persia and toppling the British Raj. German steel rails would conquer this vast expanse, fording deserts, mountains and swamps to introduce European technology to Asia, while bringing the silks, spices, minerals and raw materials of the Orient to the markets of the West. Whereas Hitler was willing to concede the British their global, sea-based empire in exchange for recognition of his own domination of the Eurasian landmass, Wilhelm wanted the British Empire too, including its crown jewels of Egypt and India.

It may have seemed like a pipe dream, but Wilhelm had a trump card up his sleeve: Islam. Long before the formal crowning of the Triple Entente in 1907, the Kaiser had begun sizing up the enemy coalition coalescing against him. Russia, France and particularly Great Britain all shared one colossal Achilles heel: they each now ruled over millions of unruly Muslim subjects, whose resentment at being dictated to by infidels might easily be inflamed in a European war. Strange as it might seem today in our post-colonial age, the greatest Muslim power on earth a hundred years ago was not Afghanistan, Persia or even Ottoman Turkey (then the only independent Islamic countries of note) but the British Empire, which counted over 100 million Muslim subjects, scattered across the Indian subcontinent, the Gulf States, Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Even Tsarist Russia’s count of 19 million Islamic subjects was greater than the entire Ottoman population, infidel and Muslim alike, and France was not far behind. Imperial latecomer Germany, by contrast, could reasonably claim innocence in the Islamic world, having only a smattering of Islamic subjects in her own tiny African empire.

That the world’s Muslims had less ground for resenting Germany than her enemies in the Triple Entente did not, of course, necessarily mean they saw themselves as German allies. Not for nothing, however, had the ancient Chinese notion that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ become a favoured proverb in the Arab world. The Kaiser would not have to make Muslims love him if he was to weaken the Entente powers, merely ensure that the furies of their pent-up ressentiment were directed at their proper target – and far away from the Germans. So long as the powers remained at peace, Wilhelm would have to be reasonably careful about spreading sedition in the colonial territories of the Entente. If a war of the Great Powers ever came, however, the gloves would come off.

In the meantime, Wilhelm could busy himself with one of history’s great diplomatic charm offensives. Sultan Abdul Hamid II, whose paranoia about foreign designs on his Ottoman realm was legendary, was a promising target for seduction. Menaced by the Russians in the Balkans, the French in North Africa, and the British in Egypt and Arabia, the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ was desperate for a strong European ally who could stand up to the Entente bullies. The Kaiser, who dreamed of extending German influence into the Islamic world of the Near East, was in need of a sponsor who could give him credibility with Muslims – and Sultan Abdul Hamid was by title also Caliph, or supreme religious authority, of Sunni Islam. It was a match made in heaven.

Although there were fits and starts along the way, the romance between Kaiser and Sultan was in full flower by the first decade of the twentieth century. Spurred on by a sense of shared threat of Entente encirclement, a team of German engineers and Turkish workmen broke ground at Haydarpasha in May 1906. The signing of the longfeared Anglo-Russian Convention in August 1907 only heightened the sense of urgency, and the great neo-classical masterpiece on the Asian shore was completed ahead of schedule in summer 1908, shortly after the signing of the third and final Baghdad railway convention between Kaiser and Sultan. As German railway experts began the first surveying work on the Taurus mountains near the Cilician Gates once traversed by Alexander’s army, it seemed there was nothing that could stop the expansion of German influence in the Near East, as Teutonic engineers began prospecting for oil and mineral resources in Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Arabia, even as salesmen plied German machines, manufactures and medicines. Once the Orient Express was up and running from Berlin to Baghdad and the Persian Gulf, it would be game, set and match in the German bid for world power.

Sean McMeekin is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Turkey.

© 2010 by Sean McMeekin

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