The Anglic Reach, Part III

The Kaiser’s Jihad

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, one of Britain’s war aims was to secure the Suez canal and its access to the oilfields of Mesopotamia. The British had a long history of cultivating contacts among the natives in the populations they ruled, and of fielding men who became immersed in the local culture. During the war they benefited from this policy, since they already had a number of experienced Arabic speakers in place in the Arab world, the most notable among them being T. E. Lawrence.

The Kaiser also had his eye on the same strategic area, and, at the opening of the war encouraged his Turkish allies to raise a jihad against the British and French. The Turkish sultan, Enver Pasha, followed the German advice, and the Turks rallied to the call, fighting successfully with ferocious Islamic zeal against the British and Australians in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.

But the Ottoman Empire consisted of more than just Turkey, and the Arab provinces were not the sultan’s to command. Despite all their pre-war espionage and intrigue, the Germans miscalculated the behavior of the Arabs. Donald M. McKale writes:

During the war, while the conflict between Constantinople and the sharif intensified, Berlin eagerly pushed the Turks to allow German contact with Husayn and even direct involvement in Hijaz, the region bordering the Red Sea in Arabia which he ruled. German objectives were confused and their policies toward the sharif were incoherent. At times Germany solicited the sharif’s support, but in other instances it sought to use Hijaz to pursue its imperial interests in Africa.

Part of Berlin’s difficulty resulted from its failure to understand the sharif, his tense relations with the Turks over his rule in Hijaz, and his political goals. In June 1916, Husayn revolted against the Ottoman government after it refused to guarantee him a hereditary, autonomous amirate (territory under the jurisdiction of an Islamic prince) in Hijaz. The sharif wished to secure his position not only against Turkish interference but also against such rival Arab chieftains as Ibn Saud in northeastern Arabia. The Germans, like the Turks and the British, believed Husayn had greater ambitions. They thought that he sought to acquire the caliphate from the Ottoman sultan and to break completely from Turkish political and religious suzerainty.

Lawrence’s invaluable contribution was to see the strategic possibilities inherent in Arab nationalism. His understanding of the Arab character allowed him live amongst the Arabs and influence their decisions. An Ottoman assault on the Suez canal failed, at least in part, because the Arabs would not come to the Turks’ support. In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, the British were able to persuade the Arab tribes to revolt against their Turkish masters. Later in the war Lawrence and his Arab allies retook Baghdad, entered Jerusalem, and eventually pushed the Turks out of the Hijaz. The Germans were never able to threaten British access to the oilfields.

But the Law of Unintended Consequences had the last laugh. The Germans raised a jihad; the British raised an Arab revolt to counter it. In later years, as the Arab states became ungovernable from a colonial standpoint, they also became sinkholes of despotism under their local rulers, creating a fertile seedbed for the Great Jihad which has emerged to confront all of us in the West. Awakening the slumbering monster of Arab nationalism led inexorably to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Gamel Abdul Nasser, Yasser Arafat, Hafez Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, and Osama bin Laden.

7 thoughts on “The Anglic Reach, Part III

  1. I have often thought that the US should support the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire. All the lands from Egypt and Saudi Arabia back through the Levant to Turkey proper should be returned.

    The only problem with the idea is I believe Wahabbism has infected Turkey and the Turks would probably not be as, ahem, “efficient” at managing the Arabs as they were in the past.

  2. I think the Ottomans always had a difficult time managing their Arab subjects. The Arabs aspire to have one of their own be caliph over a polity that includes Turkey — not to mention al-Andalus.

  3. A great post and shows yet again that the First World War was the most important political event in the West since the Fall of Rome. The collapse of the Ottoman, Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires (and the associated fall of their monarchies) ultimately produced multiple disasters — Nazism, Communism, Fascism — all the ugly isms imaginable, and effectively handed large swaths of the world to murderous cranks. Will we never cease paying for it ?

  4. Remember that the collapse of all the old European empires was the collapse of the institutional Christian faith. Christianity was the glue that held the multiethnic polities together. When it would no longer serve, nationalism became the new political idea.

  5. I think El Jefe is onto something, about WWI–one can look at Iraq as one more task in still cleaning up the mess left by Europe in its wake–but I’m not sure that one can characterize some sort of pan European “Christianity” as a glue holding Europe together at the beginning of WWI. The Hussite Wars, The Reformation, Counterreformation, Dutch Revolt, the French Wars of Religion, the 30 years war would all argue against it.

    I suppose there is something that did always bind Europe together–but I’d say it was their collective zeal in killing one another. That it could all turn out so badly was never forseen by those writing out the mobilization orders in 1914.

    I’ll even predict that as we approach the centenary of 1914, we will see more revisionist history maintaining that the biggest mistake (ever) of the USA was getting involved in it.

  6. as we approach the centenary of 1914, we will see more revisionist history maintaining that the biggest mistake (ever) of the USA was getting involved in it.

    That would be hindsight, not revision.

    Here is prescience in 1914: “The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” And so it was…Old Europe did not rejuvenate and now it cannot.

    The outcomes, had we not joined in the fray, would be hard to predict. What is more telling, and what historians now wonder, is what would have happened had the leading lights in Germany not been so bellicose. One cannot examine the events of 1914-18 without reference to national character. While generalized, they are quite accurate. Thus, to presume we could’ve stayed out of that morass is to ignore American character. The Scots/Irish are a bellicose bunch, too.


  7. The original formation of “Europe” from the ashes of the Roman Empire (the Holy Roman Empire, etc.) was most definitely a Christian affair. It was not a single polity, but it saw itself as a single, Christian culture, at least for a while. But by 1914 there was little of that left.

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