Friday, 25 September 2020

The German Jihad: Germany, Britain, and the geopolitics of Islam

The killing of the infidels who rule over the Islamic lands has become a sacred duty, whether it be secretly or openly, as the great Koran declares in its word “Take them and kill them whenever you come across them”.

Contemporaries of Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda, Daesh and Boko Haram may feel all too accustomed to declarations such as these. However, these words were not composed by modern-day jihadists, but by German imperial civil servants more than a century ago. In November 1914, Berlin sought to use its sway over the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph to unleash a global Jihad ‘Für Kaiser und Allah’ against the British global hegemon.

The paradox of a member of the ‘European Club of Civilised Nations’, choosing ‘to fire the entire Mohammedan world in wild insurgency’ – in Wilhelm II’s words – against British power, raises fundamental questions. Not only about how and why German Islampolitik changed from Bismarckian indifference, over Wilhelmian imperialism, to an anti-Western Jihad. But also, about the transformation of the late nineteenth century international order, which – under Britain’s liberal hegemony – was characterised by a ‘Standard of Civilisation’ defined not least in opposition to the ‘Oriental other’.

Today as the West’s ability to maintain the rules-based order hinges once again partly on its relationship with the Islamic world, a closer look at how changes in the geopolitical basis of Britain’s liberal hegemony at the turn of the nineteenth century informed the balance between ideological and geopolitical concerns in other European capitals and their attitudes towards Islam might bear some valuable insight.

Germany moves under British hegemony

In the late 1880s British hegemony seemed at its apex. Based on its control of the seas and its dominance in world trade, it had erected a global system of power and patronage. To ‘lock in’ this favourable balance of power London had also sought to infuse the new order with a sense of values and a common ‘Standard of Civilisation’ that stratified the international order: ‘civilised’, global and liberal Britain was on the top of the echelon; continental and autocratic powers like Germany were sovereign but expected to exercise imperial restraint; ‘semi-civilised’ Islamic countries were merely granted vassal state status, and ‘uncivilised’ non-sedentary peoples had no rights at all.

In this implicit pecking order, German policy makers set out in 1888 to reach in the words of Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor, ‘a treaty (of alliance) between Germany and England’. The aim was to abandon the nerve-racking diplomatic ‘juggling game’ of Bismarck’s old alliance system in favour of a more sustainable alliance with London. To achieve this objective, the new Kaiser initially pushed for a ‘Mitteleuropa’ strategy that gave priority to Germany’s continental position over imperial possessions and that in particular sought to – in the words of Marschall von Bieberstein, the then State Secretary of the German Foreign Office (since 1890) – bolster Britain’s position in the Orient to ‘counterbalance […] a French-Russian fraternisation […] precisely because the Reich is not directly interested in the Mediterranean’.

Yet, when German policy makers approached Whitehall, their advances fell on deaf ears. The flaw in the plan was that although peripheral restraint may have been the best way to forge a closer bond with London for most of the century, changes throughout the 1890s had altered the British global hegemon’s view of its potential allies. With France contesting British control over Suez and Gibraltar; Russia seemingly winning the ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia, and the United States (US) and Japan undermining Britain’s naval supremacy in the Atlantic and Pacific, ‘imperial overstretch’ had caused Whitehall to look for a burden-sharing, rather than a bandwagoning, ally. Though Germany was initially still seen in the United Kingdom (UK) as a ‘natural ally’, ‘the best means of checking tsarist expansionism (in the Middle East)’, and a partner ‘to prevent France from becoming the Mistress of Africa’, the Kaiser’s new policy of ‘great reticence’, as Paul von Hatzfeldt, the then German Ambassador in London, put it, now appeared as a refusal to engage in such burden-sharing.

Berlin did not fail to notice this shift from liberal international norms to hard power in the international system and the Kaiser concluded that the key to an alliance with the UK was now ‘Weltgeltung’ and a mighty fleet: ‘Germany suffers the lack of a strong fleet, as it cannot make herself convincingly felt in the concert’; ‘only when we can hold out our mailed fist against his face will the British lion draw back as he did recently before America’s threats.’ In 1897, Germany’s new Weltpolitik was announced, and Berlin began to build up its navy and strive more energetically for colonial possessions. The real point of this global posturing remained ‘to frighten London into an alliance against Paris and St Petersburg.’ This underlying rationale was most apparent in the Orient, where – reassured by earlier British calls for German engagement – Berlin now saw imperial penetration, for example, through the ‘Baghdad railway’ as an opportunity to secure, as Bernhard von Bülow, the then German Chancellor, put it Germany’s ‘place in the sun’ whilst ‘not … putting anyone in our shadow’.

This strategy seemed initially successful: shortly after Germany declared its change in strategy, Joseph Chamberlain, the then British Foreign Secretary, approached Paul von Hatzfeldt, the then German Ambassador in London, with the ‘wish for a binding agreement between England and the Dreibund’. In the following years London and Berlin came close to a ‘Verständigung’ in West Africa, China, and in particular the Far East, seemingly confirming Niall Ferguson’s claim that ‘there is no obvious reason why an “over-stretched” power (as Britain perceived herself to be) and an “under-stretched power” (as Germany perceived herself to be) should not have co-operated diplomatically.’ Weltpolitik’s failure to quickly produce an alliance at this juncture seemed primarily the result of contingent factors such as poor German negotiation skills, as Berlin refused to settle for an alliance limited to the periphery and wanted to hold out until a more comprehensive continental agreement was finalised. Yet, Whitehall soon felt it could wait no longer. And so, by 1902 it abandoned plans to confront the peripheral challenges and opted instead for a comprehensive strategy of appeasement there. The priority was now given to those powers who posed the most imminent geopolitical threats, seeking agreements with Japan (1902), the US (1903), France (1904) and Russia (1907).

Although the new system of alliances excluded Germany it was not intended as ‘anti-German’. In a sense, Berlin was excluded not because it was too strong in Europe and needed to be balanced, but because it was too weak in the periphery and would not have brought any additional value to an alliance. Nonetheless, in Berlin the impression was now forthcoming that – as Johann von Bernstorff, the German consul in Cairo, put it in 1907 – ‘the other powers have founded a syndicate’ against Germany; and that ‘dislike for Germany provided the patchwork for the entente cordiale’. Spurred by the Kaiser’s disappointment over Britain’s betrayal, German anxiety gave way to paranoia and its grand strategy quickly radicalised. Soon, Berlin no longer aimed to achieve an equal position in the international order, but aimed to overthrow it altogether.

Dissatisfied Germany: the beginning of German Jihad

This revolutionary turn led to a strategic reassessment of the Orient: the ‘furor Islamicus’ suddenly became the last trump against encirclement and more weight was given to individuals such as Max von Oppenheim, a rather romantic orientalist turned want-to-be spy, who was admitted to the German diplomatic mission in Cairo and who now sent memoranda to the Kaiser claiming that ‘in a great European war […] one may certainly expect an overall revolt of the Muslims in the British colonies’.

Such a jihadi utopia had little to do with realities on the ground, as was vividly illustrated by the Young Turk revolution in 1908. Initially interpreted by the Kaiser as the ‘Furor Islamicus [uncoilling] the Prophet’s green flag, in response to which “Allah” will ring out in all corners of Asia and Africa’, Marschall von Bieberstein, Germany’s new Ambassador in Constantinople, soon reported back that the revolution was in fact driven by ‘a strong sympathy for England’. After a counter- and a counter-counter-revolution, a group of young pro-German secular Turkish military men ended up at the head of the Ottoman state. Though not very pious either, the new leadership continued Pan-Islamist politics in practice and in rhetoric, primarily so as to not disappoint Berlin. The bizarre result was a secular Turkish leadership initiating ‘Holy Wars’ in Libya and the Balkans in order to satisfy a Christian power in Europe.

In London, where – with Britain’s geopolitical position secured – ideological considerations had become important once more, Germany’s bid for pan-Islam triggered distrust and paranoia. Even though British policymakers admitted that there was no solid ground for a German-Turkish-Pan Islamic scare, they now considered Berlin as ‘the only aggressive power in Europe’, and ‘a professional blackmailer’ with ‘vague and undefined schemes of Teutonic expansion’ – as Eyre Crowe, the British diplomat, put it in his famous 1907 memorandum. This perception of Germany as an illiberal ‘rogue state’ and its isolation in Europe did not make war between Germany and the UK inevitable. It did, however, increase mutual distrust, and primed Britain to relinquish its traditional role as the protectrice of the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan crisis of 1914, thus facilitating the outbreak of war.

Germany’s Jihad, following Sultan-Caliph Mehmet’s declaration in November 1914 was spectacular enough to inspire novels like John Buchan’s Greenmantle. Yet, the British approach in the Middle East, led by Thomas E. Lawrence, to employ nationalistic sentiment proved much more effective in rousing the region to war. This outcome not only illustrates the extent to which imperial Germany’s seemingly contradictory and incoherent policy towards Islam was less a product of engagement with Islam itself, than a function of changes in Germany’s relationship with the British global hegemon.

Lessons for the twenty-first century

Here, there are two takeaways for the twenty-first century. Firstly, that the sway of liberal norms and institutions over hard power are largely dependent on the existence and strength of the liberal hegemon, as Germany quickly found out. Britain promoted and enforced the former when in a position of dominance, but reverted back to the latter when its prowess was threatened. And, secondly, that the ‘geopolitics of religion’ is often less a result of religious zeal, than of geopolitical conditions and policymakers’ fantasies about how to (ab)use religion in their favour. Thus, the German fantasies of pan-Islam and British paranoia about it, proved significantly less geopolitically potent than the surging nationalistic sentiment in the region that Britain sought tap into in its war effort. To bear these considerations in mind may prove constructive in times when the UK and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies face new challenges as the American hegemon is perceived to be retreating from the global arena, when Islam faces radicalisation, and when both the West and the Islamic world increasingly face one another.


This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

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