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The Berlin-Baghdad Express

September 7, 2010

David Pryce-Jones in WSJ Books:

The Ottoman Empire took its time to die. Hovering around the death bed, the Great Powers of the late 19th century—Russia, France, Germany and Britain—were eager to have a share of the spoils and fearful that others might pre-empt them. None was so eager or so greedy as the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A grandson of Queen Victoria, the kaiser nonetheless found the British a “hateful, lying, conscienceless people of shopkeepers.” He especially resented that they were ruling India. In the course visiting Turkey and its Arab provinces, he fantasized that he could build an empire out of these lands, a German counter-weight to British India. This foolish and neurotic fellow has much to answer for. Sean McMeekin, a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, now produces a charge sheet, and it is detailed and instructive.

The first step in the kaiser’s policy of expansion was to build a railway from Germany to Constantinople, eventually terminating in Baghdad, with an extension to the Persian Gulf. This great engineering feat, begun in 1903, was intended to carry German merchandise on German rails, but its military purpose was clear—to establish German hegemony in Ottoman lands. But intervening mountain ranges in eastern Turkey made for slow progress and prevented the railway’s completion in time to help fulfill the kaiser’s ambitions before war broke out in August 1914. [More]

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