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The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power (review)

From: Journal of World History
Volume 23, Number 1, March 2012
pp. 218-220 | 10.1353/jwh.2012.0010

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The history of the Ottoman Empire during the last few decades of its existence has largely been presented in the form of overly general works filled with stereotypes and inaccuracies or scholarly monographs directed at Ottoman specialists. The Berlin-Baghdad Express provides readers with an entertaining yet scholarly story of the relationship that developed between the Ottoman Empire and Germany and their ultimate alliance in World War I. The very nature of this relationship and the means by which the Germans try to carry out their eastern mission fill this tale with intrigue and heartbreak, a perfect combination for a compelling read.

Following the disastrous war with Russia in 1877-1878, the Ottoman Empire had lost a significant amount of territory and was seen as being on the verge of collapse by the Great Powers. Rather than succumbing to what many viewed as the inevitable, Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) attempted several strategies by which to reverse the present dire situation. In addition to engaging in a massive program of educational and political reform, the sultan used his unique position as the caliph, that is, leader of the entire Islamic community, to create the image of a united Muslim front against the Great Powers throughout the world, and, finally, he cultivated a relationship with the rising power of Germany.

McMeekin uses the early chapters of The Berlin-Baghdad Express to describe the growing fascination of Kaiser Wilhelm II with the Ottoman Empire as he searches for Germany's "place in the sun." The author incorporates numerous German writings from a variety of archives to provide a very detailed portrait of the German efforts initially to win the railway concession in the Ottoman Empire and to ingratiate itself with the sultan. The value of the German perspective on the Ottoman Empire and the entire Eastern Question is immeasurable, since very little has been published in English about the growing Ottoman-German relationship up through the war.

The author's discussion of the period up to the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 presents very valuable, as well as intriguing, information from the German and European perspective; however, it shows some weakness when depicting the Ottoman Empire itself. Although this does not take away from the overall importance of this work, it is disappointing that the author ignored the major scholarship available on Sultan Abdulhamid. In the last fifteen years numerous studies of the sultan's long reign have been published in both English and French. Kemal Karpat's The Politicization of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Selim Deringil's The Well-Protected Domains (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), and Francois Georgeon's Abdulhamid II (Paris: Fayard, 2003) would have allowed the author to have a much better understanding of the period from 1876 to 1909. Both Karpat and Deringil wrote at length about many of the issues, such as Islamism, with which the author grapples. By neglecting these sources, the author accepts wholeheartedly the long-held stereotypical depiction of the sultan as the bloody or red sultan who was nothing but a reactionary autocrat. One cannot dispute Abdulhamid's autocratic nature, but his ability to modernize the empire and politicize religion transformed the empire.

Through his politicization of Islam, the sultan paved the way for the German jihad dreams, the topic of more than half the book. As the Germans courted the Ottomans to ally with them, fascinating characters like Max von Oppenheim attempted to figure out how to create a global jihad that would unite the world's Muslims against the colonial powers that rule them, that is, in India, Central Asia, and North, Northwest, and East Africa. It is here where the book has its greatest value. McMeekin not only provides the reader with scores of German archival materials on the matter, but it is presented in a manner that would translate well in Hollywood. It is impossible for the reader not to be transfixed by the narrative.

In his description of the war, the author makes clear how costly the war in the Middle East truly was. Although the expenses paled in comparison with the western front, the Germans were constantly required to make large payments to...

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