Bare Facts – The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin

Welcome to Bare Facts: a new, monthly *crosses fingers* feature for 2013 which is all about non-fiction.  The books reviewed in Bare Facts are intended to help provide a historical, geographic and political context  – with subjects ranging from international history, politics, personalities on the world stage, religion, philosophy, etc.

“The Great Game” is the term used for the 19th and early 20th century struggle between Russia & Great Britain for control of the Middle/Near East.  Sean McMeekin’s book, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, examines the period surrounding the first World War, when Germany made their play at the region through strengthening their relations with the Ottoman Empire and building a railroad that ran from Berlin to Baghdad.  You’ll want to keep a map at your elbow while reading this book.

A warning:  train and railroad enthusiasts should contain their enthusiast because the title is somewhat misleading.  It refers to McMeekin’s premise that Germany & the Central Powers’ failure in the region was in a large part the result of their inability, due to geography and political conflicts, to build a continuous rail network between Berlin and Baghdad.  Unfortunately, as I just demonstrated, you don’t need 400+ pages to make this point. So, while some discussion happens at the beginning and the end of the book, the bulk of The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power focuses on the complicated (and often preposterous) German machinations to incite a global jihad.

The Porte – the governing body of the Ottoman Empire – had recently been taken over by a group known as the “Young Turks”.  This new, progressive government attempted to put the nation on a more secular path.  In an attempt to reach his goal, the “sick old man of Europe” decided to throw his lot in with the Central Powers.  And while it played the board surprisingly well, the Ottoman Empire was in a tenuous situation from which it never managed to escape.  Germany and the British actively courted the Porte with gold and weapons, but Russia was a constant threat in the East.  The reality was that the “sick old man” was never viewed as more than a pawn in the Great Game played by these three powers.  Albeit a well-payed pawn.  (I particularly like this cartoon from Punch Magazine, showing the Kaiser loading a cannon with a shell representing Turkey – which pretty much shows the situation Turkey found themselves in)WWI Cartoon

But what a game it was!  Berlin-Baghdad Express is filled with fascinating historical minutiae – the kind of spy vs. spy drama seemingly more suited to a John LeCarre novel than something published by Harvard University Press.  (McMeekin is all too aware of the genre element in his story and makes frequent references the novel Greenmantle by John Buchan).   No author could ask for a more romantic period or place – this was the time of Lawrence of Arabia and the setting for the Indiana Jones films.  A colorful cast of whirling dervishes, sheiks and sultans, Bedouins and dragoman, archeologists and Orientalists, traipse across the page.  At one point even “the Duke of Westminster made an appearance, commanding a ‘Light Armoured Car Brigade’ which included ‘six armoured Rolls-Royces mounted with machine guns’.

The failure of Germany rested on more than an incomplete rail system.  Despite having what they thought were the necessary men on the ground, Orientalists who (like Lawrence) had supposedly “gone native”, there were still large holes in German understanding of how the Muslim religion operated.  Only after it was too late did they understand the subtle but important differences and delicate relationships between different sects (Shia & Sunni), tribes and – perhaps most importantly – between Arabs & Turks.  The following extract is wordy, taken from two separate chapters of the book, but it eloquently explains the opportunistic way in which the European powers attempted to manipulate their supposed allies.  That the Germans wore rose-colored glasses is an almost comical understatement of the situation.

Despite his own holy war promises to Kaiser Wilhelm, in October even Enver had cold feet about issuing a full-on global jihad declaration, for fear the Germans, too, would be ensnared if it were taken literally.  The result was a ‘proclamation of holy war against all Europeans with the exceptions of Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans’ – was something of a mess, neither uncompromising enough for the Germans, nor theologically proper enough to satisfy Muslim clerics.  Read literally, moreover, it meant that citizens of neutral countries could be targeted.  So, too, could Belgians, who were specifically named in Ottoman jihad decrees, and Serbians.  By contrasts, US citizens resident in Turkey were specially exempted, along with employees of American missionary colleges….

…Considering how much blood, arms and treasure the Germans had invested in summoning up the ancient spirit of Islamic holy war to bring down the Entente empires, one can understand the creeping sense of disappointment for each successive failure of Oppenheim’s jihad to ignite.  But a true scholar of Islam could have told the Germans exactly what to expect.  As infidels themselves, the Germans could hardly summon up a holy war on their own.  In terms of Islamic jurisprudence, the notion of selective jihad against some, but not all, Christians, as we saw in chapter 6 above, is nonsensical.  On the other hand, the practice of infidels paying for protection – as the Germans, in effect, were doing each time they asked Muslims to spare them while attacking other Christians – is firmly established in Islamic law.  The theological grounds for this jizya, or compulsory tax paid by non-Muslims, is explained clearly in the Koran, Sura 9:29: ‘Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden with hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book [i.e. Christians and Jews], until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued’ (emphasis added).  German requests for Islamic fatvas and jihadi uprisings against the Entente powers may not have been conceived in Berlin as jizya offerings, but that may have been just how they were interpreted by many Turkish, Arab and Persian imams and clerics.

The product of ignorance?  A lot of gold was spent in the Middle East during the period between 1914-1915 to negligible effect.

The book’s final chapters carefully explain the context and future repercussions of these events.  Because WWII is essentially the lynchpin of 20th century history, McMeekin takes the time to discuss how the German’s cynical attempt to incite a targeted jihad was a precursor to the anti-Semitism of not only the Holocaust, but the attitudes that exist in the Middle East to this day.  He shows how Zionism, a movement which actually began in Germany, was embraced/co-opted by the British.  He deals with the Russian situation: where the Central Powers successful nurturing of the Bolshevik Revolution produced results beyond their wildest dreams.  Thankfully, The Berlin-Baghdad Express goes far beyond how for lack of proper train schedules a war was lost.

Publisher:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 674 05739 5

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City of Ravens: London, the Tower & its Famous Birds by Boria Sax

When the last raven leaves the Tower of London, Britain will fall.  Boria Sax looks closely at the history behind the legend, which is popularly believed to date back to King Charles II (1630-1685).  What he discovers is that the tale is of a much more recent vintage.  Probably as recent as the late Victorian period.

It must be difficult being the person who debunks a beloved piece of national mythology – even if it’s someone else’s nation.  Perhaps to redeem himself Sax uses his discovery as a jumping off point from which he explores the role ravens have played in British culture & traditions – both practical (as carrion they acted as an early sanitation system) to the macabre (often consuming the remains of the executed) to the magical (the Raven King).  His research always returns, though, to the link between the ravens and the Tower.

Ravens have always been a symbolic bird, in and out of Britain.  Whether among the Native American population in the United States, Aztec representations in Latin America or Anglo-Saxon/Welsh mythology – there’s always been a magical element attached to the bird genus Corvus.  It may have something to do with the fact that common ravens have one of the larger brains among birds and are considered very intelligent.  They can imitate human speech, problem solve, engage in activities that can be considered play and have been known to pull pranks.  One famous Tower raven story is of a raven named Edgar Sopper who, after seeing the attention given to another dead bird on the Tower Green, learned how to play dead.

These were in my opinion the most interesting sections of City of Ravens. Those which, like the story above, focus on the more modern history and provide anecdotes about the current feathered residents, their caretakers – dubbed “Ravenmasters” and who appear in full Beefeater uniform – and how they are cared for.  I found it fascinating that in many ways the individual birds are treated as members of the guard, are given food allotments and have been dismissed for behavior “unbecoming of Tower residents” (which can range from food aggression to attacking television antennas).

On Saturday 13th September 1986, Raven George, enlisted 1975, was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Conduct unsatisfactory, service therefore no longer required.

Other interesting facts:  a breeding program was initiated at one time, but has since been discontinued. (The chicks were released in the wild).  Many of the early birds were gifts to the tower from anonymous donors.  Others are ravens who’ve been injured in the wild and could not survive independently – making the act of clipping their wings to keep them from flying away much more palatable.  Sax touches briefly on the connection between Dunraven Castle and the Tower ravens, something I wish he’d discussed in more depth.   All these items, which are given a few lines or at best a few paragraphs, could have improved the book if they’d been developed into full chapters.

Therein lies my biggest criticism of City of Ravens.  The physical book is approximately 5″x6″ square, 206 pages (of which 39 are taken up with the bibliography and footnotes).  I would describe it as narrative non-fiction only in the broadest terms.  As a scholar Boria Sax is focuses on his hypothesis – the origin of the legend.  But City of Ravens is not a scholarly paper and I would have liked to see a more comprehensive look at the ravens and their history (similar to what Mark Kurlansky did in his book on salt).  As it is written, I had difficulty engaging with the text and found myself skimming.  Despite their obviously rich and colorful history – for readers who don’t already have an interest in ravens it is doubtful that City of Ravens will inspire one.

Publisher:  Duckworth Overlook, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 59020 777 2

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