Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the construction of the Baghdad Railway

Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the construction of the Baghdad Railway

Martin, Vanessa

Jonathan S. McMurray, Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the construction of the Baghdad Railway, Praeger, Westport CT (2001), 156 pp., L53.90.

Using unpublished private papers of the Baghdad Railway Company, the Deutsche Bank and the German Foreign Trade Division, amongst other sources, this work sets out to explore German and Ottoman interpretations of the railway and its role in their political interests, as well as its effect on their mutual relations. Previous historians have offered the views that the railway was a means of German political and economic exploitation of the Ottoman Empire, that the incentive of unlimited natural resources enticed Germany (Pohl); that the railway was intended to compensate for Germany’s late involvement in imperial ventures (Mulmann); that it had the insidious purpose of enslaving the Ottomans (Meade Earle); and that it was a vehicle of monopoly capitalism (Rathmann). McMurray, however, tends to the conclusion that the railway worked more to the advantage of the Ottomans and subsequently the Turkish Republic, than the Germans, partly through astute Ottoman policy, and partly through the force of circumstances of the First World War.

McMurray sees the railway as emerging from an idealistic and largely cultural German interest in the Ottoman Empire, which fostered the belief that Germans could personally reverse Ottoman decline, one means being through a railway that connected Istanbul with its distant provinces in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. At this point problems of understanding emerge, as the author speaks of Europeans managing everything in the Ottoman Empire and obstructing reform, perhaps not sufficiently questioning the views in his original sources. For example, the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, though managed by Europeans, followed a financial policy that was dictated by Ottoman views of Ottoman interests.

If German aims on the railway were idealistic and confused, Sultan Abdul Hamid saw possibilities of acquiring European capital from a country with no obvious territorial ambitions (or opportunities for them). McMurray places much emphasis on the role of individuals in Germany’s adoption of the railway policy, but he himself gives the more likely cause in the fall of the hard-headed Bismarck (uninterested in the railway) and subsequent flowering of Wilhelm II’s dreams of glory. Another obstacle was removed when the British became embroiled in the Boer War.

In 1899 the Sultan agreed to the railway provided it was Ottoman property and funded by both government loans and operations contracts. A contract was signed in what the author terms ‘a new spirit of inter-cultural collaboration’, but, unsurprisingly, given the financing, was only 10 per cent complete eight years later – which is perhaps why the author fails to give attention to the way in which it was perceived by the British. The noble endeavour of Germany reviving Ottoman fortunes, to which McMurray gives rather more credence than it deserves, apparently persisted after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Whereas both Ottomans and Germans saw commercial advantages in the railway, the Ottomans gave priority to strategic concerns, which became apparent when they declined to route the railway through Alexandretta. The company was forced to recognise its growing dependence on the Ottomans to see the project through, whereas the Ottomans feared that Germany was loaning the Empire into bankruptcy. The problems of the railway were also compounded by the difficult working conditions, which included illness, and the round-the-clock tedium of tunnelling. By 1914 the railway was nowhere near the Gulf, and Germany had been forced to accept that the British would only permit its progress if it never achieved its end.

McMurray, who has a persistent vision of the Ottomans as subservient to European governments, argues that the First World War made them equals. The war began well for the alliance, with the Ottomans, as ever, holding the clearer objectives, determined to use German interest in the railway to support their own goals. By 1915 the enterprise was suffering deeply from financial problems, and not even the forced labour of British prisoners of war could overcome the disadvantages of lack of supplies. The enterprise in effect ended when the British took Baghdad in 1917. In the end, states McMurray, the railway was of minimal strategic value. The war impeded its construction as much as its unfinished section impeded the war. Germany got nothing from it, but it did increase the political security of Anatolia, encourage economic development, and assist Ataturk in his nationalist campaign.

The study suffers from an over-focus on the particular topic and a lack of understanding and knowledge of the Ottoman background, and Great Power politics in the region. It tends to meander by meticulously tracing changing relations year by year, but failing to establish underlying themes and trends in the interests and objectives of the parties involved, which would help the reader understand some of the apparent inconsistencies in policies. It would also have been illuminating to be told more about German railway policy in general at this period, and how railways were viewed at a time of the emerging significance of oil and road transport. However, McMurray does offer a detailed and balanced account, which credibly emphasises the Ottoman contribution and the greater pragmatism in objectives which enabled them to gain the ultimate advantage. He also contributes much, both to knowledge of the shifting complexities of Ottoman-German relations and to that of the problems involved in the construction of railways at this period.

Vanessa Martin, Royal Holloway, University of London

Copyright Manchester University Press Sep 2003

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