Dossier 1914-1918

German Asymmetric Warfare in World War I

Reassessing the Strategy of Holy War in the Middle East · Germany’s unorthodox World-War-I-operations in the Near and Middle East do not suit as proof for aggressive imperialism. These operations were rather signs of both weakness and the ability to adapt to a strategic situation of weakness which the Central Powers faced in the oriental theater of war.

Arab tribesmen, enlisted for the Arab Revolt, 1916.
Library of Congress.

May His Majesty the Sultan and may all of the 300 Million Muslims scattered over the face of the earth and honoring him as their Caliph be assured—the German emperor will be their friend anytime1.

This fragment of a speech by the German emperor Wilhem II, delivered in 1898 in Damascus, may be one of the most controversial statements of the monarch. It may also be one of his most disputed. For many historians in the last 50 years it surely was reason to believe in a historical continuity of German imperialism in the Near and Middle East which runs from the day of Damascus in 1898 right to the First World War and the surrender of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. To these historians an important part of this continuity consists in German operations which are known by the terms “War by Revolution,” as Donald McKale2 coined it, or ‟Holy War made in Germany.” This narrative, however, seems no longer vindicable. There are new and surprising findings in the archives. There is the realization that the Ottoman Empire was no defenseless victim in the late 19th and early 20th century, but in spite of the decline of its power acted as a self-conscious, autonomous power with considerable diplomatic skills. Last but not least, there is reasonable suspicion that this alleged continuity is a construction of the 1960’s and 1970’s historiography, which rated the above mentioned operations part of a ruthless German Sonderweg in modern warfare. This paper attempts to prove the contrary.

After the German-Austrian-Ottoman alliance

Truly, it was war that changed everything. On August 2, 1914, Germany concluded a military alliance with the Ottoman Empire—something unthinkable only a few months before. In peace time, it has not been an objective of German foreign policy to forge such an alliance. Quite contrary: The general staff and the foreign office actually feared the burden a German-Ottoman alliance could have been, since the Balkan Wars had already exhausted Turkey. Thus the chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, wrote to his Austrian counterpart Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf in February 1914:

In military terms Turkey is a dead loss. . . Her army is in a state that defies description. In the old days there was the word about Turkey being “a sick man”. Today we have to call her a “dying man”3.

Opinion in Germany, however, changed drastically when the Great War became reality. Now Germany was in need of every ally she could get. On the Ottoman side, this alliance was the result of careful considerations. The Ottomans signed the treaty only after preliminary negotiations with Russia and Britain had failed. Mustafa Aksakal has impressively shown that the Ottoman decision for the German alliance was based on rational arguments and motivated by strategic considerations, which were ultimately meant to stabilize the Ottoman state4. Aksakal entirely disenchanted the old legend of a Turko-German alliance that was only concluded because of German pressure. The origin of this durable legend may be identified in the writings of the former American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, who depicted the Ottomans as political weaklings and the Germans as unscrupulous schemers. However, with the conclusion of this alliance new frontlines, new strategic chances but above all new and serious problems emerged.

The situation of the Central Powers in southeast Europe and the Near and Middle East in 1914/1915 may be described as follows: In Europe things looked incalculable. For the time being Bulgaria and Rumania remained neutral. Sympathies in these countries oscillated between Entente and the Central Powers. British and French naval units closely guarded the entire coast of Asia Minor. Turkish navigation thus was reduced to almost zero. In Egypt, strong British forces were present. Britain soon established a tight regime of occupation. The country became the main base for any large-scale operation against Turkey—first at the Dardanelles and later in Palestine. British land-forces started an offensive into the delta of Euphrates and Tigris shortly after the Turkish declaration of war. The border with Persia—several hundred Kilometres long—was open. However, Persia itself, being neutral, was controlled by Russia and Britain. North and northeast of Mosul soon heavy fighting between Turkish and Russian troops commenced.

The Ottoman Empire was in no way prepared for war. The Balkan Wars had strained the resources of the country and the political and economic situation was judged desperate by many German policy-makers. The army was in the process of rebuilding. A German military mission was entrusted with this task by the Ottomans, who had asked for the deployment of the German officers. Conditions, however, were far from favourable. There was no manufacturing industry in Turkey, which was able to produce supplies for the army. Almost every piece of equipment had to be imported from Germany or Austria. In spite of this, the Turkish mobilisation did run surprisingly smooth although the insufficient internal lines of communication prevented fast and surprising relocations of troops. It was also impossible to deploy German or Austrian troops in the Middle East. The dangerous situation on the German western front and the Austro-Russian front were prohibitive. Moreover, the connection from Constantinople to Austria and Germany via the Balkans was closed until the ultimate defeat of Serbia in December 1915. Thus, the only two offensive Turkish operations—against Russia and against the Suez Canal—failed. In the following years, Turkey fought a strictly defensive war, driven by the hope it could be concluded victorious automatically if Germany was able to defeat France and Britain in Europe.

The strategic situation of the Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers in the Middle East thus was a situation of weakness. On the other hand, the alliance with the Ottoman Empire of 1914 constituted a unique opportunity to carry the war into the periphery of the British Empire. An attack from Ottoman Territory on Egypt or the British zone of influence in Persia could have cut off the connection to India, an important share of British trade and above all the flow of oil and other raw materials. Since the Central Powers did not have the strength to accomplish this objective by classical military means, by an offensive deep into enemy territory for instance, other ways had to be found and were found.


On the first view this means seems to be the “Holy War of Islam” (editor’s note: “djihad”, in arabic) advocated, propagated and preached by Turkish, German and Austrian agents. The concept of Holy War was extensively researched in recent years, as we will see later on. However the spectacular term itself, the sense of irrationality, exotism and incomprehensible strangeness it carries, frequently blocked the view on the actual core of the Turko-German strategy, which is, of course, not Holy War for the sake of Holy War but the sparking of revolutions in areas controlled or dominated by the enemy. Holy War in itself was only a means to this end. In other areas—Ireland or Russia for instance—the Germans tried to utilize other ideologies—Irish-Catholic nationalism or communism—to trigger revolutions.

The strategy to utilize internal conflicts in enemy-territory to foster revolutionary movements was neither new nor is it outdated today. Thus 18th century Britain dispatched a mission to Spanish America in 1740 in order to spark a revolution against the Spanish. During the Franco-German War of 1870/71 Prussia tried to create uprisings in Tunisia. The Greek King George harbored plans to declare the disposed Sultan Abdulhamid ruler again in order to provoke a civil war in the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan War of 1912. In 1990, after the Second Gulf War, the USA sponsored an uprising of Kurds and Shiites in Iraq to accomplish a regime-change, which was not covered by the UN-resolution for the liberation of Kuwait.

The idea to attack the British enemy in the Near and Middle East by means of revolutions emerged in the German foreign office right after the outbreak of war. Emperor Wilhelm II strongly advocated respective plans to spark uprisings especially in British colonies and in British-dominated areas of the Middle and Near East. In October 1914 Baron Max Von Oppenheim summarized these ideas in a paper called ‟Revolutionizing the Islamic dominions of our enemies”. To coordinate and supervise the upcoming operations the General Staff formed a “Sektion III. B., Politik.” It was supposed to cooperate closely with the Foreign Office. Chief of III. B. was Rudolf Nadolny, his counterpart in the Foreign Office Legationsrat Von Wesendonk. III. B., however, was not only responsible for operations in the Near and Middle East but also for activities in Ireland, Russia and the United States. Max Von Oppenheim became chief of the ‟Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient”(Oriental News Service). This unit of the Foreign Office was solely in charge of propaganda in favour of the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph, the Holy War and revolutionary movements in the Near and Middle East. Thus, a double-structure was established that created considerable problems coordinating operations on the ground. Because there were several more German agencies operating in Turkey—the embassy and the Military Mission for instance—the decision process became even more painful.

It was characteristic of the War by Revolution that the autonomy of its agents increased the further east they came. This was due to the fact that the areas of operations—Persia or Afghanistan for instance—were far off and communication was extremely difficult. Within the Ottoman Empire telegraphy was reliable, roads, however, were in bad conditions and the capacity of the railways was limited. This complicated the transport of equipment tremendously. Outside the Ottoman borders telegraphy failed. It was impossible to reach Afghanistan. Telegrams to Teheran took up to five days and other cities in Persia were off-limits for German telegrams. To improve communications deep into Asia, the German military set up a system of wireless stations. In Constantinople-Osmanie a relays-station was built, which could contact the central German wireless-installation at Nauen (a little city in Prussia, not far from Berlin). Smaller immoveable wireless-stations were installed in Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem and Beirut. They were supposed to work as switchboards for small mobile stations, which could be carried by horses. However only two such installations were employed in the War by Revolution, leaving the problem of communication between the agents in the field and the command in Berlin and Constantinople unsolved until the end of the war.

The Turks wholeheartedly joined the German efforts for revolution. In Constantinople Enver Pasha’s Secret Service, the Teşkilāt-i mahsusa under the Central Bureau for the Islamic Movement, a division of the Ministry of War, planed and coordinated the Turkish activities. The TM was a European-style secret service with a strong ideological background, clear objectives and a firmly established plan of actions, which Philipp H. Stoddard describes as: “Pan-Islamic propaganda to cement the solidarity, espionage, to root out the groups and ideologies which threatened the Ottoman system and guerilla warfare to aid or replace regular army troops”5. It is important to notice that this service was already operational with exactly the same agenda during the Turkish-Italian war in Libya in 1911/1912. Stoddard discovered a number of successful operations there and also observed an extreme and very effective secretiveness as a special feature of the TM. This may be the reason that there was apparently no institutional cooperation between the TM and the Germans during World War I. There are no hints to that respect in German or Austrian sources. Not even the name of the Turkish service is mentioned.

Operations on the ground

The German War by Revolution may be divided into two stages. First came propaganda, than downright incitement to rebellion. Sometimes propaganda and incitement went hand in hand. Moreover the “Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient” conducted massive propaganda-operations inside the Ottoman Empire, which were directed by quite different objectives. They rested on more than 70 so-called Nachrichtensälen (news halls). There newspapers, pamphlets and above all pictures were presented to the largely illiterate Ottoman population. These “news halls” were organized and manned by the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient. Main objective was to convince the Ottoman population of the power and superiority of the central powers compared to the Entente, in order to strengthen the Ottoman-German alliance and to eliminate pro-Entente sympathies. The clear intention of this kind of propaganda was a stabilizing one, very much opposed to German propaganda outside the Ottoman borders in Persia, Egypt or Afghanistan, which was downright destructive. The ultimate goal there was to stir up unrest, foster revolutionary movements, and topple the existing regimes and to install new governments friendly to the Central Powers. In the months before the Ottoman declaration of war this kind of propaganda was the responsibility of the German Consuls in Syria and the Lebanon. They operated a network that smuggled pamphlets and agents into Egypt. This kind of activity ceased when Britain took firm control over Egypt and established a tight system of occupation there. Moreover the consul’s networks proved inefficient the farther away the areas of operations were situated. Thus, when Turkey became an actual combatant in November 1914, Germany, Austria and Turkey dispatched a number of small expeditions into enemy territory. Their task was not only propaganda, but also incitement to rebellions.

The most important German revolutionary project was, however, the so-called Persian project. Persia then was divided into zones of influence by Britain and Russia. The power of the Persian government was limited to the capital, Teheran. Major forces in Persian politics were tribes of different ethnicity. German and Turkish agents infiltrated Persia since early 1915. These agents were able to win over a large number of tribal chiefs and notables. They were successful because they used a combination of bribery and anti-Entente, pro-independence propaganda. Moreover most officers and men of the Swedish-led Gendarmerie, the only native force was on the German side. To cut a long story short—the coup d’état, which followed in November 1916 failed but it was almost successful. It is still a miracle why the Germans and their Persian allies did not succeed. It seems that it was mainly due to personal shortcomings of the personnel on the ground. The German military attaché, Graf Kanitz, for instance, warned the wife of the British ambassador, that a coup might happen anytime, as the British ambassador reported later to London:

. . . the German military attaché whom we had known very well at Constantinople, secretly sent a letter to my wife assuring her that he would give her warning of any attempts, as, Germans do not make war on women and children6.

Results in other areas of the oriental theater of war on the first glance seem to be similar. There was no revolution in Egypt, Afghanistan did not join forces with the Central Powers and Sudan remained quiet. We will, however, see that things were not that simple.


When war was over, involved Germans were rather harsh when they evaluated their operations and the very idea to revolutionize the Orient. Otto Liman von Sanders, Chief of the German Military Mission and Turkish Marshal, criticised the respective plans as “far-reaching but unclear”7. Even more devastating was Richard Von Kühlmann’s judgement. The former ambassador to Turkey and later Unterstaatssekretär wrote in his autobiography: “These expeditions were menaces. In German brains the Orient still was resembling the Arabian Nights”8. One of the principal protagonists of the German revolutionary campaign for Egypt, Curt Prüfer, denounced his own activities later as half-witted, based on illusions.

However, one has to keep in mind that all of these men belonged to the defeated of the war. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch has shown, the defeat led many Germans later into analysing their own wartime actions and thinking in a way that was full of self-hatred and ignored achieved successes, which, of course, were also a reality of the lost war.

Research on the revolutionary strategy of Germany started in the 1960s. Fritz Fischer is the name which has to be mentioned here. Two presumable certainties are due to him. Firstly, he rated every single operation with the aim to spark revolutions in the Middle East a failure. Secondly, he understood these operations exclusively in the context of German imperialism. To Fischer the revolutionary program of 1914 to 1918 was part of a scheme, which started in 1898 with Emperor Wilhelm’s visit to the Ottoman Empire and with the objective to establish German supremacy over Ottoman territories. To him the Turkish-German alliance was concluded with the explicit aim to spark a pan-Islamic movement.

Although the 1960s were a decade of intense political confrontations between West Germany and the communist East, there is striking consent in historiography, which becomes very intelligible in the case of research on the War by Revolution during World War I. In the East application of Marxist theory led to results very similar to Fischer’s findings in the West. Thus the communist historian Lothar Rathmann saw the War by Revolution as proof of the aggressive nature of the German Kaiserreich as early as 1963. Eva Maria Hexamer judged it an attempt of German imperialism to abuse “the nationalism of suppressed peoples for its own ends”9, which again is very similar to certain findings of Fritz Fischer. One might observe considerable ideological agreement between West German left-wing researchers and East German historians in the pay of the regime. Fischer’s interpretations, however, proofed very powerful in the West. Researchers like Renate Vogel, Wolf Dieter Bihl, Peter Hopkirk, John Keegan, Wolfgang Schwanitz and above all Donald McKale followed them over the course of 30 years.


These interpretations are doubtful. First, as we have seen earlier, Germany was in no position to foster imperial dreams in the Near and Middle East. It was just too weak. Actually, it had to resort to a strategy that was able to compensate this weakness. Thus German decision-makers developed asymmetric plans to attack the enemy from within, by means of revolutions.

Secondly, what Fritz Fischer and his followers interpreted as a crucial sign of German imperialism—the sparking of a pan-Islamic movement—was by no means a German invention. The “Holy War made in Germany” as the Dutch orientalist Snouck Hurgronje put it in 1915 was not made in Germany, but was a long tried means of Ottoman policy. The Ottomans forged this weapon because they were weak. After they had lost a large portion of their European possessions with a Christian majority, pan-Islamic ideas formed an important base of Young Turk ideology. It was especially useful in conflicts with Christian powers as for instance in Libya at the beginning of the 20th century. Jan Erik Zürcher and Feroz Ahmed have shown this in the past. Moreover, Pan-Islamic ideas were a major ingredient of Sultan Abdulhamid’s thinking. At the end of the 19th century this Ottoman ruler came forward with the claim to represent all Muslims worldwide even if they lived in areas not under his immediate control. Thus, it was not the Germans, who implanted an alien ideology into the Middle East. They rather used a native school of thought, which was already there. The German orientalist and later Prussian minister of education Carl Heinrich Becker pointed out exactly this point already as early as 1904. He especially emphasized Panislam being a result of weakness, not strength:

The sudden dependence on Non-Muslims was something completely new. Accustomed to perceive culture, religion and state as an entity for centuries, Muslims had no choice but to recognize the new threat as an entity too, as the imminent rule of Christianity. The inevitable reaction was the return to Islam, the strengthening of the Islamic idea against disbelief: Panislam10.

It may be added that both Germans and Turks used their pan-Islamic ideology in a very pragmatic way. While pan-Islamic propaganda was elevated and intense, practice on the ground was flexible and varied according to the immediate needs. Thus during the quest for revolution in Persia one can discover a shift in German propaganda. At the beginning, there was only Panislam. When this, however, did fail to attract crucial forces in Persian politics, the Germans immediately changed horses and switched their propaganda to the support of Persian nationalism, which culminated into a pact with the Democratic Party. Moreover, the Germans frequently curbed pro-Islamic propaganda, which was judged as too far-reaching by the Foreign Ministry. In December 1915 this Ministry for instance prevented the publication of a pamphlet by the German-Turkish Association (Deutsch-Türkische Vereinigung). Last but not least, an episode from German East Africa shows that there was no consistent German long-term strategy to utilize Islam for imperialistic means. It rather proofs that there was a considerable amount of suspiciousness and wariness concerning Islam as such. This in turn illustrates the German opportunism of August 1914: because it seemed to be a promising means to foster uprisings against Entente-Powers in the Near and Middle East, German decision makers jumped on the bandwagon of Panislam, which was originally an Ottoman ideology as we have seen. In October 1913 the governor of German East Africa, Heinrich Schnee, had sent a downright anti-Islamic circular to all military and civil officers of the colony. Schnee suggested curbing pro-Islamic propaganda by native governmental employees and asked his officers for respective suggestions. He proposed to ban native teachers and other government employees to perform circumcision and to conduct prayers at mosques. Moreover, Schnee suggested developing pig breeding in order to contain the further spread of Islam. Ironically, the British used the respective papers in their propaganda against Germany during the War, when they captured them in 1916.

But there is another point, which may show that the German War by Revolution was not driven by colonialist ambitions—the simple absence of any such ideas in the sources. Before the war the German government even tried to avoid contact with Muslim officials. Wilhelm II himself rudely declined a meeting with the Persian Shah, when this monarch visited Europe. “Tut! How disgusting!” Wilhelm replied when the Foreign Ministry approached him with the suggestion for a royal meeting. During the war the Chief of Staff, Erich Von Falkenhayn, on the other hand, clearly mapped out the role the War by Revolution in Persia had to play in the context of the Great War. On February 11, 1916, Gerold Von Gleich, an officer who was appointed to serve in Persia, met Falkenhayn in his headquarters in Charleville-Mézières on the Western Front. Von Gleich was briefed on his tasks in Persia and later quoted the Chief of Staff to this respect: “You will have to bind strong Russian and English forces. The ultimate decision we will seek here “ he was told by Falkenhayn.

Falkenhayn thereby clearly expressed the relieving role the Persian project was supposed to play for the general military situation of the Central Powers. The Chief of Staff’s main concern clearly was not the establishment of German supremacy in the Near and Middle East but the help a new pro-German Persian government could bring with a declaration of war on Britain and Russia. The German War by Revolution thus was driven by the simple idea that the enemy of an enemy must be an ally. Revolutions were seen as attacks on the enemy not as activities that were meant to establish German rule over a certain region instead of British, French or Russian rule. In Persia this absence of far-reaching German interests even seduced leading Austrian diplomats to develop plans, which would have turned the country into an Austrian dominion.

The rather devastating interpretation the outcome of the German War by Revolution experienced was already mentioned. However to a large extent these seem to be misinterpretations. For example, let’s go back to Persia and have a look at the attacked side of the conflict—the British. It is rather surprising that until recently hardly anybody tried to understand the German strategy by the interpretation of British sources. One can find there how close to success the German agents in Persia actually were. The British ambassador to Teheran wrote to London in May 1915:

There is no disguising the fact that the Turko-German campaign has achieved a considerable measure of success. It is built up almost entirely on the foundation of Persian hatred for Russia. There is an acute satisfaction at seeing Russia flouted by the Germans, and public opinion dislikes and opposes any action of the Government, either in the capital or the provinces, which interferes with the German activity11.

In September 1915 the British Viceroy of India saw a Persian revolution and a Persian declaration of war as a matter of weeks and in November 1915 the British Foreign Minister labeled the Germans “Masters of Teheran”. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company almost imploringly begged the British government to send troops for the protection of its oil fields in Southern Persia, which were threatened by the German agents. The British ambassador agreed with this request and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey supported it, warning about “a situation which otherwise can scarcely fail to become in the near future a cause for the gravest concern to His Majesty’s Government”. The British military was equally concerned about the German activities. Even after the coup d’état had failed, an analysis by the General Staff described the situation in Persia as “far from satisfactory.” The British had failed to check German propaganda. The General Staff therefore advised a “far more active policy” and a strategy which appears to be a downright copy of the German means of operation. The paper advocated the deployment of “small mobile, well equipped, well-armed parties led by adventurous men such as England has never lacked in an emergency, and does not lack today” and the recruitment of native support. The consequence was the creation of another military unit—the South Persian Rifles—in early 1916.

One can sum up that between 1915 and 1917 fewer than 100 German agents tied down some 10 000 British and Russian troops in Persia. Moreover, the German activities were not expensive, but even cheap. The Imperial Government spent about 48 Million Marks in gold for the whole of its War by revolution between 1914 and 1918. For comparison: Roger Chickering estimated Germany’s total cost of war to 168.6 Billion Marks in gold12. A look into British sources makes the comparison even more impressive: Britain spent more than 30 Million Pounds in gold only for its defense against the German War by Revolution. That equals 600 Million Marks in gold. These numbers show that the German revolutionary programme was pretty effective. Britain was forced to spend much more for defence than the Germans were ever able to raise for their schemes.

In addition to the direct threats on the ground the British were especially worried about the pan-Islamic ideology which was used by the Germans to revolutionize Muslims. This was a direct threat to the security of India with her strong Muslim minority. Already as early as December 1914, high-ranking British and French officials met in Paris to discuss the matter. The meeting produced a number of ideas, how Britain and France were able to repulse the new pan-Islamic threat. Firstly, in the Muslim dominions of both powers Muslim notables were to be contacted and pursued to denounce the Holy War. Secondly, British and French agents were used to influence Muslim students at several universities. Thirdly, both powers promised to show a favourable inclination towards Islam in general. In the British ruled part of the Muslim world this led to harsh, complex and expansive measures. The British administration in Sudan was concerned by pan-Islamic propaganda as early as December 1914. According to the officers there were hints, “that . . . tend to confirm the suspicion that Turkey is endeavoring to spread the ‘Jihad’ throughout the Mohammedan world by means of pilgrims returning from the Hedjaz.” The administration thereupon introduced a process of screening in order to identify possible hostile agitators. All pilgrims were brought to Khartoum before they were allowed to return to their villages. In the capital, they had to pass a “course of moral disinfection at the hands of reliable religious leaders.” The content was derived from the British strategy to counteract pan-Islamic propaganda:

The Mamur [native junior civil servant] should then warn them that the propagation in the Sudan of Turkish doctrines and ideas is absolutely forbidden, as such doctrines and ideas are contrary to the general accepted traditions of Islam and subversive of all good Governments. In particular they should be reminded that the great Mohammedan religious sheikhs in every part of the world have decided and publicly affirmed that in the present war no religious interest whatever is involved. Therefore any reports to the contrary are baseless and malicious lies spread by the Turks, at the instigation of the Germans, and the repetition of such will be severely punished. This should be explained to them both in Arabic and their own tongue13.

Britain, however, went another step further. In January 1916, the Arab Bureau in Cairo was founded. This institution became famous because plans for the so-called Arab Revolt were developed and supervised there. Its most famous agent was the notorious Lawrence of Arabia. It is, however, generally overlooked that the reason for its foundation initially was not the sparking of a revolutionary movement among Ottoman Arabs, but the defence against the Turkish-German pan-Islamic threat. One may even go one step further. The Arab Revolt—which was in reality a series of tribal raids of rather small military value—was much more a tool of counter-propaganda than an effective military operation. When the Sherif of Mecca took up arms against the Sultan in 1916 a major part of the Arab Bureau’s work consisted of communication. The idea was to delegitimise the Ottoman Sultan and the Holy War of Islam by an uprising of his Muslim subjects against his rule. In the first months of the Sherif’s rising news of the events were given widespread publicity in Northern Africa, India, Egypt, Sudan and among the Muslim population of sub-Saharan Africa.

The interpretation of the rising was always the same: Now, that even the Sultan’s own Muslim subjects started a war against him—how can this Sultan call a Holy War of Islam against the Entente? The British even printed stamps in the name of the Sherif and used them exclusively for communication within their Muslim possessions to prove the actual existence of the rising. The results of this counter-propaganda were, however, extremely limited: surprisingly enough the news of an uprising against the Sultan was simply not believed in most areas of the Near and Middle East and Northern Africa. In northern India and Egypt the news even strengthened pro-Ottoman sympathies. As the High Commissioner of Egypt, Henry MacMahon summarised the antisherifian mood of the Egyptians with the words: “Hussein is seen as a rebel against the Caliph and servile instrument of the British”14. In India an anonymous report concluded: “There is no sympathy for the Arabs . . . and no propaganda of which Arab movement is the main feature could have beneficial effect.” This report proves that German and Turkish pan Islamic propaganda was much more successful than believed until now.

Another symptom is a change in the British line of propaganda. While the British tried to use the Sherif’s rise as a means to counteract a threat on the base of religion in the first months of Hussein’s war, the Foreign Office started to avoid any reference to religion from mid-1916 onwards. Religion even became a matter of dispute between the Sherif and his British allies. The nominal leader of the Arab Rising published a proclamation without consultation with the British in early July 1916. The pamphlet of 1600 words was “of a strongly pious nature, fortified with many extracts of the Koran”15 and justified the Arab Revolt on religious grounds. This constituted a blow to British propaganda, which tried to avoid any reference to religion at this time. The British could not do much, since the proclamation had already been published in Arabic. However, the publication in English was accordingly censored by the Department of Military Intelligence, the Foreign Office and the Arab Bureau thereby obliterating references to Islam as much as possible. From around July 1916 onwards the so-called Arab Rising was not used in propaganda in areas other than the Ottoman Empire anymore. It was, moreover, reinterpreted as a rising, which had the purpose to fulfill solely the national aspirations of the Arab people. The British thus tried to exploit national conflicts between Arabs and Turks as the Germans tried to benefit from antagonism between Muslims and Christian powers, which ruled over Muslim lands.

How threatening a pan-Islamic movement and the concept of “War by Revolution” was perceived by the British government also after the Entente’s final victory in the Great War may be illustrated by the activities of the Interdepartmental Committee on Eastern Unrest (IDCEU) during the 1920s. The IDCEU consisted of high-ranking officials from India, Colonial, War and Foreign Office. The committee considered Panislam as one of the major threats to British supremacy in the Near and Middle East. Thus one of its papers explicitly states that “pan-Islamic propaganda had resulted in a close sympathy between the different Mohammedan States, with each other’s objects”16. The members of the IDCEU especially feared a possible alliance between radical, pan-Islamic Muslims and Russian Bolshevism, which was suspected of attempting the creation of a revolutionary movement in India. Obviously communist Russia had replaced imperial Germany as an inspirator of revolutionary threats in the perception of many British decision makers. It was not anymore the Holy war made in Germany that constituted a threat, but a Holy War made in Soviet Russia. Today we know that atheist communism and radical Islam are mutually exclusive. In the early years of Soviet Russia, the British were obviously convinced of the contrary.


There are three major conclusions we may draw. Firstly, when we talk about the German Strategy of Holy War we talk about weakness not about strength. The War by Revolution was not an offensive tool to achieve German imperialist ambitions but an asymmetric weapon against a much stronger enemy. It was a global strategy, which was also applied to areas where German colonialism was beyond question. Secondly, it was much more successful than believed hitherto. To counteract the poison of Holy War the Entente-powers were forced to spend much larger resources than Germany and the Ottomans employed. Thirdly, the War by Revolution based on the doctrine of Panislam was not a sign of another German Sonderweg but of a rather clever strategic thinking, which based on a native school of thought and the underlying idea of the enemy’s enemy, who is a friend.

But what about Emperor Wilhelm and his words about the 300 Million Muslims and Germany’s eternal friendship? Don’t they seem to proof German imperialism in the Middle and Near East? As always in history, a closer look at the sources is worthwhile. The actual events of November 8, 1898, seem to be passed down only by two sources. Wippermann’s Deutscher Geschichtskalender reports that Wilhelm attended a banquet at the Damascus city hall. There an address was delivered by the Chief Justice of Damascus which Wippermanns relates as follows:

The city‘s chief justice, Sheikh Abdullah Effendi, in an address lauded the Emperor and the German Empire. By means of his visit Emperor Wilhelm not only earned the gratefulness of the Ottomans, but also the enthusiastic love of 300 Million Muslims who honour the Caliph as their spiritual leader, he said17.

The emperor simply related to the words of the Chief Justice later in his reply. The official report on the emperor’s visit to the Ottoman Empire, which appeared in the same year, confirms this course of events. Ernst Freiherr Von Mirbach, the empress’s Oberhofmeister, who was present at the banquet in Damascus, wrote the respective chapter of the report. His account explicitly mentions the spontaneous nature of Wilhelm’s reply. Thus, we may interpret Wilhelm’s statement simply as a friendly answer to a friendly welcome by his host. It was in no way the utterance of an imperial claim concerning the Muslim world as the long-standing legend goes. As always, the sources teach best.

1Karl Wippermann, Deutscher Geschichtskalender für 1898 (Leipzig: Fr. Wilh. Grunow, 1899), 30.

2Donald McKale, War by Revolution, Germany and Great Britain in the Middle East in the Era of World War I (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1998).

3Helmuth von Moltke to Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, 13th of March 1914. Quoted as in Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Aus meiner Dienstzeit 1906 – 1918, Band 3 (Wien: Rikola Verlag,1922), 612.

4Mustafa Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 193.

5Philipp H. Stoddard, “The Committee of Union and Progress, 1911 – 1918: A preliminary study of the Teşkilāt-i mahsusa”, In: Carl Leiden, The Conflict of Traditionalism and Modernism in the Muslim Middle East (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966), 134–140, here 137. Philip H. Stoddard, The Ottoman government and the Arabs 1911 – 1918: A preliminary study of the Teskilāt-i mahsusa (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton, 1963).

6British ambassador at Teheran to Foreign Office, London, 1st of February 1916. NA, CAB 37/142/5

7Otto Liman v. Sanders: Fünf Jahre Türkei (Berlin: Scherl, 1920), 62.

8Richard von Kühlmann: Erinnerungen (Heidelberg: Schneider, 1948), 458.

9Eva-Maria Hexamer, Indien in den Planen des deutschen Imperialismus während des ersten Weltkrieges (Ph.D. dissertation, Berlin, 1987), 182

10Carl Heinrich Becker, “Panislamismus”, In: Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, VII, 1904. 180.

11British ambassador to Persia to Foreign Office, 18th of May 1915. NA, FO 371/2430

12Roger Chickering, Das Deutsche Reich und der Erste Weltkrieg (München: Beck reihe, 2002).

13MacMahon to Foreign Office, 3rd of July 1916. FO 371/2773.


15Arab Bureau to Department of Military Intelligence, 9th of July 1916. NA, Fo 371/2774.

16John Fischer, “The Interdepartmental Committee on Eastern Unrest and British response to Bolshevik and other intrigues against the empire during the 1920s,” In: Journal of Asian History 34, 2000.

17Wippermann, op. cit.