John Wilson

Book Notes

German imperial ambitions and Islam, a century ago.

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John Buchan's novel Greenmantle, published in 1916, tells of an insidious German plot to exploit Islamist resentment, fomenting a holy war against Britain. Often dismissed as mere fantasy, the plot Buchan fleshed out in fiction was grounded in reality, as Sean McMeekin's revealing and rollicking chronicle makes clear.

Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to cultivate his Ottoman counterpart, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (reigned from 1876 to 1909), whose collapsing empire was largely being managed by European powers, and the Muslim faithful the Sultan nominally headed, smarting with resentment at their decayed estate. When the "Young Turk" reformers assumed power, German diplomacy adroitly made the shift. A key element of the German plan was a railroad running all the way from Berlin to Baghdad (indeed, in the most ambitious version, from Hamburg to Basra), an extraordinary venture. Construction began in 1903; it was still far from complete when war broke out in 1914. Meanwhile, well before the opening of hostilities, German agents had been laying the groundwork for jihad. Masterminded by a curious character named Max Oppenheim, who had renounced his Jewish ancestry, the plan was to "incite Muslims from Cairo to Calcutta to rise and 'shake off the yoke' of British imperial rule."

What went awry? In part, the German design failed because the Muslim populace turned out to be less monolithic, more divided in their interests, than the Germans had supposed. Then there were failures in execution (some of them ludicrous, and recounted by McMeekin with great relish). And the counter-measures of the British scored too, though they had their own flops.

What we need now is a book to fill in the gaps between McMeekin's narrative and the findings of Jeffrey Herf and other scholars who have been uncovering the Nazi propaganda campaign in the Muslim world. There are odd imaginative links as well: perhaps some German scholars are already exploring these connections. Once again, truth turns out be stranger than fiction.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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