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The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power Hardcover – August 9, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Sean McMeekin has written a classic of First World War history... superb and original. (Norman Stone, author of World War One: A Short History)

A seminal work that demonstrates for the first time that Imperial Germany's jihad strategy in World War I-- exploiting pan-Islamism in the Middle East to stoke the fire of native Muslim revolts against the British and against Russia-- played a crucial role in German plans to win the war. Now students of the 'Great War' will no longer be able to dismiss the German 'holy war' strategy as merely peripheral. There is much to be learned in this superb work about the recent past and today in the Middle East. (Donald M. McKale, author of War By Revolution: Germany and Great Britain in the Middle East in the Era of World War I)

A riveting account. (Brendan Simms The Independent)

In this excellent, well-researched, and fascinating book, Sean McMeekin has given us a welcome and stimulating perspective on a highly important but neglected aspect of the First World War... A tale of high adventure, ambition and political chicanery with a cast of colourful, brave and sometimes ruthless characters. (Lawrence James Literary Review)

An exciting new book by a talented young historian, Sean McMeekin, who is one of the few to have penetrated the notoriously difficult Ottoman archives, despite the crucial importance of Turkey in the first world war. (Niall Ferguson The Observer)

A terrific book...McMeekin's learned story of death-defying secret agents, intrepid archeologists, and double-dealing sheikhs makes for wonderful entertainment. (The Sunday Times)

McMeekin has written a powerful, overdue book that for many will open up a whole new side to the first world war, while forcing us to be less reticent in confronting indelicate matters, such as the origins of Nazi-Islamist links. (George Walden The Guardian 2010-07-18)

In addition to bringing to life a fascinating episode in early 20th-century history, The Berlin-Baghdad Express contains several timely lessons and cautionary tales. Purchased loyalty is worthless. Western countries may possess superior military force, but they are outwitted time and again by diplomacy as practiced by Muslim leaders. Lastly, there is no such thing as global Islamic solidarity—jihad is an expedient, not a belief system. (David Pryce-Jones Wall Street Journal 2010-08-23)

Germany saw the ambitious Berlin-to-Baghdad railway as a powerful tool to win World War I. But the doomed project wasn't completed until 1940. The railway debacle provides a colorful backdrop for historian McMeekin's look at the Great War from the German-Turk perspective; as a cast of ruthless characters illustrate Germany's attempt to topple what was then the largest Middle East power: the British Empire. (Billy Heller New York Post 2010-09-11)

Sean McMeekin shows how the ambitious plan to build a railroad from Central Europe to Mesopotamia was the key to some of the most crucial episodes in the First World War, including the Armenian genocide and the Arab Revolt. (Adam Kirsch Barnes and Noble Review 2010-09-20)

The Berlin Baghdad Express is a refreshing kind of military history that approaches World War I from a truly fresh angle. The Ottoman focus certainly makes this a singular and highly original book but, more significant is McMeekin's interest in the workings of empire during the war. As he demonstrates here, the imperial concerns of all of the European powers played a bigger part in the war than is often acknowledged. (Alan Ashton-Smith popmatters.com 2010-09-27)

All the more brilliant is Sean McMeekin's telling of this complex tale in The Berlin-Baghdad Express. He recounts the convolutions and involutions of detail, the ambiguities and equivocalities of intention, the necessities and urgencies of dangerous international entanglements, with remarkable clarity. His ostensible subject is the building of a railway from Berlin to Baghdad in the years before and during the First World War, a railway conceived by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany as an artery along which the lifeblood of a new and mighty German empire would flow. Instead, one of its immediate consequences was the copious shedding of the more ordinary sort of blood. As if the faltering line of that railway were a thread, McMeekin strings along it a tale of intrigue, callous calculation, human misery, skullduggery, cheating, revolution, murder and war. The result is not only wondrously fascinating in itself, but, alas for the mess that the world is in today, painfully educative. Because of this angle of approach McMeekin brings a fresh perspective to the history of the Eastern Question, the Young Turk revolution, and Britain's demolition of the Ottoman Empire...The story is so complex and so richly told by McMeekin that no summary can do it justice: it needs to be read, and readers will mutter and shake their heads with wonder at every page...This is one of the essential books about the Middle East's labyrinthine recent history, perhaps the most telling case of how a knowledge of history is necessary to an understanding of the present. And that fact makes one wish that McMeekin had written his book a decade or more earlier. (A. C. Grayling Barnes & Noble Review 2010-10-08)

In a fascinating, must-read for anyone interested--or more importantly, engaged--in Western policy-making in the Middle East, Sean McMeekin's new book, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power, takes us on a tour of one of modernity's grand follies: the attempt by Imperial Germany to establish an "anti-Orientalist" empire in the Middle East through an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. The goal was to create a strategic, economic and military force that could challenge if not destroy the British Empire, then its main rival for global dominance...The parallels between Imperial Germany and Imperial America--both in overextending wars to enhance their position versus powerful rivals--are as informative as they are troubling. Americans would do well to consider how Germany came out of its first world war: bitter, battered and primed for fascism. (Mark Levine Huffington Post 2010-10-06)

Sean McMeekin's account possesses the large merit that it tells a story little known to Western readers, drawing extensively upon German sources. It depicts a splendid cast of characters heroic in their endeavors if absurd in their lack of accomplishments. (Max Hastings New York Review of Books 2010-12-09)

This is the story of Germany's plans to bring the Ottomans into World War I and then to play the jihad card against the Allies, which held most of the Muslim world in colonial thrall. It is good, old-fashioned history as biography. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the mercurial archaeologist Max von Oppenheim, and "the Three Pashas," Cemal, Enver, and Talat, loom large. But many others--friends, foes, and would-be Muslim recruits to jihad--are also well delineated. In telling the story of the Central Powers' less-than-successful recruitment of locals, from Libya to Arabia to Afghanistan, McMeekin demonstrates the fragility of this jihadist dream. And his accounts of the victory over the Allies at Gallipoli and the failure to complete the Berlin-Baghdad rail line nail down the greater importance of military skill and geopolitical givens in determining outcomes. (L. Carl Brown Foreign Affairs 2011-01-01)

Sean McMeekin is a professional historian with a deft popular touch...[This is an] engrossing and enlightening narrative. (Christopher Hitchens The Atlantic 2011-03-01)

[McMeekin] does a stellar job framing newer issues of both diplomatic and intellectual history that are important to Europeanists and Ottomanists alike. The subject matter is fresh, and the style is engaging--a worthwhile read. (J. K. Cox Choice 2011-07-01)

About the Author

Sean McMeekin is Assistant Professor of History at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1St Edition edition (September 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674057392
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674057395
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #667,281 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
One of the most bizzare episodes in modern history was the building of the Berlin-Baghdad railway,whose purpose was to fight and undermine British interests in Asia. This project was completed only in 1940,but its history is full of intrigue and from its inception this project was doomed and has eventually become a farce.
The main protagonists were: Kaiser Wilhelm the Second,who got infatuated with the Islamic world and the Ottoman Empire,and,as a result,supported this project after telling his friends that "if we are to be bled, at least the British shall lose India"; Baron Max von Oppenheim,who hated almost everyone including himself because of his Jewish origins. He was the grandson of a founder of the Oppenheim bank in Germany and shared the Kaiser's dream of dealing a fatal blow to the British Empire. To while away his boring hours,he made sure to possess a harem of Arab women in Egypt.
The third protagonist was Abdul Hamid,the Ottoman paranoid Sultan who dreaded the Young Turks. These three hoped that a jihad would materialize-a jihad that would include tens of millions of Muslims who "would bring the British Empire to its knees"(p.82)In the words of Oppenheim,"let us do all we can to ensure hat this blow wil be a lethal one!"
The first third of the book describes in a very panoramic way the main characters mentioned above,giving the reader much information about their background, motivations and their modi operandi.
The next third discusses the historical context of this project and McMeekin does not spare words in order to put the blame for the failure of it on the West,especially on the British, because they did not offer any substantial support to the Young Turks movement.
The railway was supposed to carry tens of thousands of German troops to Basra in Iraq.
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Format: Hardcover
In this relatively short book, McMeekin tries to provide a history of the Ottoman-German alliance, document German attempts to provoke Islamic unrest against the British Empire, and to expose how German actions before and during WWI influenced the post-war settlements. This is a very ambitious list, and these are all interesting topics, but McMeekin comes nowhere near providing an adequate treatment of any of these themes. McMeekin begins with German attempts to extend influence into the Middle East, particularly via the famous Berlin-Baghdad rail project. This is an important project but McMeekin fails to provide any good context for this effort, which has be seen against the background of the great expansion of the German Navy and the often brutal colonial adventures in Africa. Instead of discussing why the Germans pursued these destructive foreign policies, we get some fairly gossipy accounts of the Kaiser's fumbling diplomacy. This relatively superficial treatment is typical of the treatment of the German-Ottoman relationship. This is a pity, because this is clearly a topic that deserves more attention, though it is not as neglected in the English language literature as McMeekin implies. A fair amount of Huw Strachan's To War, the first volume of his uncompleted history of WWI, is devoted to German policy towards the Middle East and the role of Turkey. Partly because of the author's focus on other topics, important episodes, such as the Gallipoli campaign and the Mesopotamian theater, are covered in a fairly cursory way. McMeekin quotes some impressive statistics indicating the depth of German investment of manpower, supplies, and cash in Turkey, but overall, readers get a relatively limited view of Turkey's role in WWI.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Sean McMeekin has produced a thorough and almost magisterial account of an area of World War 1 strategy and politics not normally given a prime focus; the Ottoman front. This is a very contemporary work using terms very familiar today: the creation of a jihad against the Entente and British in particular; rivalry between Shia and Sunni; Caucasian minority struggles; strategies to control modern Iraq & Iran and at the end a push for middle east oil. Nothing about events today would seem original!

McMeekin shows how Wilhelmine Germany had a rich seam of middle east specialist archaeologists prior to 1914 (as a visit to today's Berlin Museuminsel clearly indicates). He records the excellent use made of this by Berlin in working on the Ottomans, Arabs, Persians, Afghans and others to promote an anti British & French jihad policy from Constantinople to Kabul via Baghdad. The ultimate aim was to bring about a collapse of British India. In passing (see earlier post) McMeekin suggests these German specialists were far more genuine arabists than TE Lawrence ever was.

New light is cast on the context of many elements of Great war strategy & campaigns:
* the German push to India increased a British focus on Iraq and Iran that has persisted.
* the Armenian massacres as an element of Ottoman great war strategy
* the success of the Tsarist Russian army and the later growth from it of Yudenich's White forces
German policy, its problems, costs and successes reads like a primer for post 1945 neo-imperialism. In this the Germans were ahead of the game! The Turks were diplomatically, and often militarily, sharper and shrewder than usually given credit for.
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