Dossier 1914-1918

Germany’s Failed Pan-Islamic Propaganda Campaign of 1914-1918

Colonialism, Islam and Nationalism · The strategic and economic situation of Germany at the outbreak of war was, in fact, rather bleak. Mainly for fault of its own, the country would have to face a two-front war. Its allies – Austria-Hungary and Italy — were not exactly instilling much confidence. It thus came as no surprise that German military and political decision-makers were looking for alternatives, or at least to contemplate new alliances. It was this thinking that allowed the German-Ottoman alliance during WW I to materialize.

The Kaiser at Gallipoli, October 1917. From left: German admiral (in Ottoman uniform) Guido von Usedom, Emperor Wilhelm II., Enver Pasha, Vice admiral Johannes Merten.
October, 1917, author/source unknown.

Germany was an imperial late-comer. Not until the 1880s did it acquire colonies. The most important ones were in Africa: there were two territorially large colonies (South-West Africa, today’s Namibia, and East Africa, roughly today’s Tanzania), and two smaller protectorates (Togo and Cameroon). In addition, Germany controlled some territories in the Pacific and a base in north-eastern China (Kiauchou/Tsingtao), which it had obtained after the Boxer Rising of 1899-1901. Yet all of these possessions had one thing in common: they were difficult to defend, due to Germany’s lack of naval bases, and they did not offer great possibilities for economic gain. Thus one of the few not officially colonized areas of the world acquired a new importance for Germany: the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of this region, had long been called the “Sick Man of Europe” and was, by 1914, indeed reduced to semi-independence: but in the opinion of many German industrialists, financiers and politicians, “proper development” in the Middle East could offer great profits. The peoples inhabiting it, in turn, would become a new market hungry for German industrial goods.

The Middle East also was a region of great strategic importance: for Britain, control of the region was vital in order to maintain British control of the Suez Canal, which was frequently given the epithet “the life vein of the British Empire.” Other European Powers also had their design on the Middle East: France was prominently involved in mining operations in Asia Minor and claimed to be the protector of the Catholic population in the region. Russia had, for centuries, had its aims on Constantinople and the Straits. But German interest in the Ottoman Empire was to take an unexpected turn: instead of joining the ranks of those European Great Powers increasingly aiming to destroy and partition the Empire, Germany — on August 2, 1914, the day war broke out in Europe — concluded an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. For almost four years Germans and Ottomans would fight side-by-side in the Middle East: yet fighting side-by-side did not equal identical interests, as the future was to show.

German-Ottoman Cooperation before World War I

Although Germany only became unified in 1871, German-Ottoman contracts in the military field reached back much further. Already during the reign of Frederick the Great (1740-1786), Prussian officers had undertaken training missions in the Ottoman Empire. Hellmuth von Moltke (later to become famous as the Prussian Commander-in-Chief during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871) spent five years in the Ottoman Empire as a military adviser during the 1830s. Several small delegations of Prussian officers served in a similar function, until Baron Colmar von der Goltz became inspector general of the Ottoman Army in 1883, a position he was to fill until 1895. His work had a lasting impact on the Ottoman armed forces.

After the unification of Germany, cooperation began to broaden, particularly in the economic field. The most famous German (or more precisely German-dominated) project in the empire was the so-called Baghdad Railway, for which a consortium led by the Deutsche Bank won the concession in 1903: it entailed the construction of a railway line from Konya (the terminus of the Anatolian Railway) in Central Anatolia with Baghdad; this line was of great economic, but even greater strategic importance. In fact, it was considered to be so worrisome by Germany’s rivals that British and French pressure prevented it from being projected all the way to the Persian Gulf with Kuwait as its terminus: would it be completed, British decision-makers feared, German troops would be able to be transferred to the Persian Gulf from Berlin within a week: they could thus manifest a very serious threat to British-held India.

Germany took great care to portray itself not as another colonizer, but as a power friendly to the Ottoman Empire in particular and “islam” in general. During his 1898 journey to the Middle East, German Emperor William II took the opportunity of a visit to the tomb of sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in Damascus to announce, “that the three hundred million Muslims in the world could rest assured that the German Emperor would forever be their friend and protector.” It was the beginning of German “Islampolitik”, which would become an important pillar of Germany’s war effort in the Middle East.

Germany’s economic engagement in the empire, and the beginning of “Islampolitik” caused the British journalist Evans Levin to coin the phrase of “Germany’s ‘Drang nach Osten’ ” (Thrust to the East). But Levin’s view that Germany’s actions in the Middle East were the results of careful, long-term planning was erroneous: rather, German policies were acts of opportunism and born out of need, not design.

The Ottoman Conundrum

If the Germans had reasons to look glum in 1914, the Ottomans were even more justified to be disheartened. The Empire appeared in the process of dissolution. The war with Italy over Libya had ended in defeat, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 had almost terminated Ottoman presence in South-Eastern Europe — which in some places had lasted well over 500 years. The Ottoman government was well aware that for much of the 19th century Great Power rivalry, not Ottoman military and diplomatic strength, had maintained the Empire. The reckoning was simple: as long as the “Concert of Europe” existed, in the sense of an equilibrium between the Great Powers, the Empire was reasonably safe. Should war break out, the future was bleak: regardless which camp (Triple Entente or Triple Alliance) would emerge victorious, the Empire’s days would be numbered: the victors would share the spoils among themselves. Thus it was vital for the Empire to conclude an alliance with a strong industrial and military power, which would serve as a protector after the war.

Finding allies was easier said than done: the Empire seemed to have nothing to offer either economically or militarily. Russia declined the offer; France did likewise. Germany, however, accepted: alliance was concluded on August 2, 1914. Why did Germany accept an offer France and Russia had declined, given the fact that the economic and military weakness of the Empire was all too obvious?

Reasons for Alliance

In fact, awareness of Ottoman weakness had almost led to the rejection of the alliance in Germany. Political and military decision-makers initially advised against it; only on second thoughts did the potential advantages of the offer occur.

Germany’s main military problem was the inevitable war on two fronts; having the Ottomans as an ally would enable Germany to subject at least Russia to the same fate: Russia would have to combat Germany in Eastern Europe and the Ottomans in the Caucasus; even if this would not amount to much, it would at least weaken the commonly feared “Russian Steamroller.” This formed the basis for the positive view of the alliance for German Emperor William II. Yet there was a secret weapon the Ottomans were supposed to have at their command: Pan-islam.

Western fears of political islam are not a recent development. One hundred years (and even longer) ago, they were strongly in evidence among European politicians. The reason for these fears was the prominent role Islam played in combating European colonial encroachment. France’s invasion of Algeria in 1830 was prominently fought by ‘Amir Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian Sufi leader: it had taken until 1847 to break this resistance. Two of Britain’s most disastrous imperial experiences – the infamous retreat from Afghanistan in 1842-1843 and the so-called “Indian Mutiny” of 1857-1858 had prominently entailed Islamic propaganda. Between 1881 and 1898 the Mahdiyya, a Muslim uprising in the Sudan, wrenched this territory effectively from Egyptian and later European control. The latest to encounter stiff Islamic resistance to European colonialism had been the Italians: their main enemy after their invasion of Libya in 1911 had not been the weak Ottoman troops, but the Sufi order of the Sanusiya. Islamic militancy thus, apparently, was not to be taken lightly. European powers with colonial possessions largely populated by Muslims were quite right to be apprehensive. It thus did not take Max von Oppenheim, a dilettante diplomat, traveler, Orientalist and archaeologist long to come up with an idea that, before him, other Germans had conceived of: liberal politician Friedrich Naumann had envisaged that, before the “death” of the Ottoman Empire, the sultan would call upon all Muslims to fight against the colonizers. Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorff, serving in the Ottoman Empire as chief-of-staff since 1913, likewise thought that a global jihad proclaimed by the Ottoman sultan-caliph would have a great impact. Oppenheim managed to make Pan-Islamic propaganda a part of German policy in the Middle East during World War I: for the four years of the war, Germany was to support the Ottoman Empire generously with funds, weaponry and other goods.

But one question has to be asked about the motivation for Germany’s Pro-Ottoman, Pro-Islamic stance: what would it profit the Germans? The answer was given by commander Hans Humann, naval attaché at the Imperial German Embassy in Constantinople: after the war, he argued, Germany could simply add the Ottoman Empire to the vast economic hinterland it intended to acquire in Eastern Europe, Western and perhaps even Central Asia: given the Empire’s military and economic weakness, it would be entirely in thrall to the Germans by the end of the war. Humann was as mistaken as Oppenheim.

German Failures

In mid-November 1914, Ürgüplü Hayri Bey, the Shaykh-ül-Islam, proclaimed “jihad-I ekber”, the “greatest of all jihads”, in front of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet mosque in Istanbul. Observers noted that an enthusiastic crowd of several tens of thousands listened to the proclamation. German diplomats in the Arab provinces gave less encouraging accounts: the proclamation of jihad, the German consul in Jerusalem reported, had been received with mild ridicule by the local notables. The reason for this sceptisicm lay in the fact that the Young Turk government had, in 1909, deposed sultan Abdülhamid II, who had been the real “Pan-Islamist” in the Ottoman Empire until the revolution of 1908. In that year a military revolt had forced the sultan to put the constitution of 1876 back in place. Thus he had become a constitutional monarch (nothing unheard-of in Islamic history); yet he had also become a constitutional caliph, considered an impossibility by Muslim jurists. In other words, the Young Turks’ sudden discovery of their Muslim piety was regarded as ridiculous rather than inspiring by perspicacious Muslims.

The Germans were forced to recognize that something more than a proclamation – which, as a long-serving field director of the Ottoman secret service Teşkilat-i Mahsusa correctly observed, “could neither fire nor stop a bullet” – was needed to produce a Pan-Islamic revolt. The Germans set to work: a propaganda office (Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient/ Intelligence Office for the East) was set up in Berlin in order to produce propaganda materiel, which then was to be distributed in the Ottoman Empire in so-called “newsrooms” in provincial capitals. Propaganda leaflets were also – with limited success – smuggled to Muslims in the colonial possessions of Britain, France and Russia. Muslim prisoners of war from the Entente armies in Germany were concentrated in special POW camps, where they received good treatment, were allowed to perform their religious duties and were subjected to an intensive propaganda campaign with the intention to make them fight on the German-Ottoman side against their colonial overlords. German expeditions were sent to Shi’ite clerics in Iraq, to the Shah of Iran and to the Amir of Afghanistan, and to the Arabian Peninsula. All of them ended in failure: local leaders were far more interested to maintain their own power (which often entailed to keep good relations with the Entente powers) than to engage in the unpredictable adventure of a Pro-German/Pro-Ottoman jihad. The low literacy in the Near and Middle East also rendered the propagandist value of written propaganda materiel almost useless. German propagandists sent to Muslim rulers were able to offer little more than moral support and limited funds. The Entente powers, first and foremost Britain, usually had troops on the grounds and offered far more gold: the most famous example of a British (short-term) victory in this propaganda war was what went down in history as the “Arab Revolt” of 1916.

Much to their chagrin, the Germans also had to discover that the Ottoman government was far from enthusiastic to become a German thrall. The Ottoman Government had a clear war aim: to rid the Empire of foreign encroachment and to the survival and independence of the Ottoman Empire. Initially it had an “Ottomanist” outlook and sought to preserve the empire as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious entity. Soon after the outbreak of war it changed its policies: as non-Muslim groups were considered unreliable and potentially treacherous, the idea of a Muslim Empire (and even later a Muslim national state) was conceived of. The most extreme outcome of this policy was the Armenian Genocide. At its inception, the opposite to what Germany had envisaged had evolved: rather than dominating the Ottomans, Germany was so deeply committed to the alliance, the breach of which the Germans did not wish to risk, that with the exception of a few individuals no official German resistance to the genocide was offered. This failure to combat a humanitarian catastrophe cost had a disastrous impact on German reputation in both Entente and neutral countries.

Predictable failure

Obviously there was no giant global Pan-Islamic uprising during World War I – nor afterwards. A characteristic of anti-colonial Islamic movements before World War I prevailed: they were local affairs (and in certain regions by no means unsuccessful), but at no time was there a possibility of creating a global Pan-Islamic alliance fighting against Western encroachment. It is not too far-fetched to relate this to present-day conditions. The idea that Germany had no Muslim colonial possessions must be relativised if one takes German East Africa into consideration. And, given the fact that global media were already in existence in 1914, the abysmal behaviour of German colonial forces in South-West and East Africa in the years before had demonstrated that German colonialism was by no means any more lenient or benevolent than that of Britain or France – rather the contrary.

The reasons for the failure were not lack of religious piety or fervour. Muslims were aggrieved and concerned about European colonial encroachment on what was regarded as “Dar al-Islam”, the Muslim land, but much to German chagrin most Muslims were not naïve. Well aware of their lack of military strength they chose to abstain from militant action.

Finally there was the issue of nationalism. A late arrival to the Muslim world (it is commonly argued that nationalism, in its modern sense, originated with the French Revolution), it had by 1914 made great inroads into Muslim societies the world over. The initial Muslim hostility to nationalism – namely that it was an idea to split the world-community of believers (‘umma) into various national groups – had by then been overcome by an idea that every group united by some kind of regional consciousness had common interests against the colonial powers and should act accordingly. It would be an exaggeration to argue that nationalism immediately and totally eclipsed “Islam” as the basis of identity in the Near and Middle East around the time of World War I, but most Muslim politicians and thinkers were already adopting a nationalist – read particularist – perspective in their plans for their homelands by 1914. Most attempted, with more or less success, to find a balance between Islam and national identity; this bode ill for any attempt to unite Muslims the world over in an anti-colonial, Pro-German and Pro-Ottoman jihad.

The Aftermath

The outcome of the First World War in the Middle East was ironic: the Great Powers, deemed to be so superior in economic and military might, gained very little. On the other hand, the Ottomans – or rather the Muslim/Turkish nationalists increasingly dominating Ottoman politics during the war – fared rather well. German financial and material support, together with the military reforms implemented before the war, had turned the Ottoman army into a surprisingly efficient fighting force. It was going to be defeated in 1918, but under the command of Turkish nationalists it managed to achieve victory in the Turkish war of independence and thus allowed the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 – one of the few territories of the Near and Middle East to escape European colonization after World War I.

Germany’s ambitions in the Middle East, however, were entirely shattered in November 1918. The same would happen with the second attempt to realize them during World War II. Ironically, (West) Germany’s “moment in the Middle East” would come during the 1950s: the Federal Republic was a military and political dwarf, but in the process to become an economic giant: as it had never been able to realize its colonial ambitions in the Middle East, it was regarded as an ideal partner for Middle Eastern governments bent on quick development of their countries. It was arguably another example of “Germany losing the war, but winning the peace.” The inherent lessons of this development unfortunately were impossible to be drawn by Germany military and political decision-makers in 1914.