The Berlin-Baghdad Railway

Before World War One, when suzeranity in the Near East was a game played by Europe's empires, Imperial Germany launched a gambit to achieve economic dominance over all of MittleEuropa. In 1876, Bismarck, Prussia's master politician and wilful Chancellor, dismissed the Levant as not "worth the bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier," but Germany in the 1880s began turning an envious eye towards the riches of the East -- coal, gypsum, and oil topping the list. Alongside this envy dwelt dreams of grandeur and influence, all hinging on a scheme they called, the Berlin-Baghdad Express.
In 1844 Nicholas of Russia, commenting to the British about the once feared Turk, ridiculed the Ottoman Empire as "The Sick Man of Europe." Gone were the shock troops of the Jannissaries, the scimitar wielding Sultan, the military genius of a Grand Vezir like Kara Mustafa, who rattled the gates of mid-17th century Vienna. In the 1800's the Turks were reeling from revolution in the Balkans, upstart political movements at home, and the collapse of their East European hegemony. Great Britian and France vied for influence at the Ottoman court, which was referred to as the Sublime Porte; and Russian troops massed at the Turks' northern border and more than once stampeded into Ottoman lands to free their Christian co-religionists from the imagined horrors of life under the once dreadful Turks; but methodically and cagily, the German Empire worked its machinations to win the Sultan into their camp.
The Treaty of Berlin was the turning point. In 1877 Russia swarmed into Rumania, an Ottoman vassal state, and precipatated an Eastern European war that pitted Russia, newly independent Serbia, and Rumanian nationlists against the reeling Turks. It ended a year later with the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano in March of 1878. Devastated on the battlefield, the Ottoman's European Empire faced virtual dismemberment. Montenegro was destined to be an independent state, Serbia enlarged, Bosnia and Herzegovinia granted autonomy while remaining under the Sultan, and Bulgaria given additional lands from the Black Sea to the Aegean, including much of Thrace and Macedonia.
The Western powers, Britian, France, Austria-Hungary and Germany were alarmed. Russia controlled Rumania and Bulgaria and had marched her armies close to the gates of Constantinople. This was more power than the West could allow, so they convened at Berline, with Bismarck acting as president of their congress, and nullified the San Stefano agreement.
Under the Treaty of Berlin, Russian influence and the threat from Bulgaria were kept at bay by the creation of Eastern Rumelia, a puppet Ottoman state south of the Balkan Range, and the installation of a Bulgarian ruler handpicked by the Sultan. Stymied by the cohesive action on the part of the West, Russia retired to lick its wounds and plan new and future assaults against its Black Sea rival.
To the Turks, Germany was a savior. While the British and the French offered friendship and assistance when times were good, Germany had stepped in when the Turks were down. The Sultan, Abdul Hamid, never forgot that when he turned to the British Empire during his recent war with Russia, he was met with silence.
For the next war, he wanted to be better prepared, so he turned to Berlin for help and the Germans obliged. Military officers descended on the capitol to help the Sultan mold a modern army. Colman von der Goltz took personal command of a new officers training academy in Constaninople. Much loved by the Turks, he stayed 12 years and not only established an officers school, but reorganized the army and set up a reserve system as well.
German industrialists followed the soldiers, as did bankers and entrepreneurs and investment agents. In 1888, a Deutsches Bank-backed syndicate signed a 99 year concession with the Turks to operate the Haidar-Pasha-Ismid Railway. Eventually, this line would be extended to Angora and be the lynch pin on which the Germans would base their entire Mideast strategy. In 1898 Kaiser Wilhelme visited the Sultan, adopted a diplomatic conversion to Islam, promised to held be a "Defender of the Faith" and sealed the pact that would bring Germany to the brink of domination in Eastern Europe and Anatolia.
Oddly, Britian, enscounced in Egypt, their sights on their Indian Empire, welcomed German influence in the region. It acted as a counterweight to French activity in Syria and Russian ambitions. But German ambitions were just as lofty. By 1903, with the 1st stretch of the railway to Bulgurlu completed, the economically sinister aspects of the Berlin-Baghdad Express began percolating to the top. Following the historic highway of the ancient caravans, emerging from the Taurus Mountain Range onto the plans and through the Cilician Gates and across Amanus, east to Mosul and south to Baghdad, the iron freeway promised to be just that -- free.
Germany had no intention of paying customs as it crossed the borders. From Baghdad, through Anatolia and across Eastern Europe, the route was to be duty free. Germany would control land rights wherever the rails lay and the prospect of the Reich gorging itself on the riches of the Ottoman Empire alarmed the European Powers to the same degree as had Russian military machinations.
Luckily for the European Powers, they exerted more than a small degree of leverage. Turkey's finances were administered by the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, an organization created to the foreign debtors who panicked everytime the Sultan's enemies, ranging from recalcitrant Greeks to plotting Turks, went to war or mounted the barricades. Bonded together by the West's desire not to see the Ottoman Empire dissolve into anarchy and chaos through mismanagement, the organization consisted of representatives from Great Britian, France, Germany, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and Italy. As representatives of the foreign bond holders, they exercised absolute control over the Turk's taxes and expenditures. The Ottoman Empire was not just the "Sick Man of Europe," but an economically enslaved invalid as well.
Wielding this power, Great Britian sought to stop the Germans from completing their railway by vetoing the Turks' plan to increase tariffs. From 1903 through 1911, Britian made this their top priority. Without increased tariffs, the necessary funds to pay the German consortium would be lacking. Meanwhile, to persuade the Germans to share the future bounty the railway would made available, they tried to get control over the Persian Gulf section.
Blocked at every instance by this economic tactic, the Germans finally agreed in 1913 to invite 2 Britishers to sit on the Board of the Badhdad Railway Company. In addition, the Germans agreed not to extend the railroad past Basra or establish a port or railway terminus anywhere along the Gulf without British approval. So, on the eve of World War One, an agreement was hammered out that both sides, German and British, could use to their advantage. The Ottomans, meanwhile, scrambled to raise tariffs to pay off the debt holders and keep their nation afloat.
German influence in the region mushroomed and German banks thronged the Middle East as an extension of the Kaiser's economic might. Alarmed, Western politicians considered the Baghdad railway the primary symbol of German domination in Asia Minor. Plans set in motion by France to build a competing line in the region had amounted to little more than talk.
Throughout the years during which the railway was debated and the European Powers struggled to contain the Kaiser's ambitions, the seeds of distrust and malice were slowly and irrevocably sown. Combined with other sources of friction, including Germany's effort to rival Great Britian's sea power, this distrust was easily transformed into war. According to Morris Jastrow in "The War and the Bagdad Railway," the railway, which should have functioned to bring nations together as a medium for exchanging ideas and merchandise, was a primary cause of pulling them apart, leading them to mutual destruction.
By way of intrigue and deception, Germany brought Turkey into World War One and set it against Britian in the Middle East. The prizes were Egypt and the Suez Canal, which would mean control of the flow of oil from Persia and rubber from India. Great Britian, tenaciously clinging to its hold in the region, was at first thwarted in Mesopotomia and set with its back against Suez in Sinia. Eventually, she recovered, fought back, and defeated the Ottomans and their German allies.
The Baghdad Railway, its completion delayed for 18 years by economic attacks, strugged to be a contributing factor to the Turco-German military forces in the region. Throughout the war, track was laid and new spurs were planned.
As soon as Belgrade was captured, express trains from Berlin began running on the European side of the line. With the conquest of Rumania, another route through the Balkans, via Brasso and Bucharest, was made available. This served to connect Germany to the Ottomans and invited the possibility of supplying the Turks by rail.
But it wasn't until January, 1917, when the Taurus Mountains were pierced that this became even a remote reality. Now, it seemed that munitions could be set on boxcars at Essen and transported by rail to the Egyptian frontier, except for ferriage across the Bosphorus.
Slowly, inexorably, Germany sent supplies eastward. Throughout the year, the Ottoman's military fortunes waned. They retreated to Baghdad in Mesopotomia and awaited the coming of a British expedition, which succeeded in capturing the city by the end of March. In Arabia, the King of the Hejaz, routed the Turkish forces up and down the fertile western plain and at Gaza, the gateway to Palestine's Mediterranean coast, the Turks were rocked by repeated attacks by British forces under the command of General Allenby.
Concerned about their Mesopotamian possessions, the Turks slowly collected munitions sent by Germany via the railway. Painstakingly, these were accumulated at Haidar Pasha, the port and terminal near the Sea of Mamora. Then, on September 23, 1917, the arms cache exploded, destroying everything that had been accumulated over the past few months since the Taurus Mountains tunnel was opened.
While the causes of the war that mobilized and killed millions are mired in the obscurity of time, the part played by Germany's policy of thwarting Russia at every turn must not be overlooked. From the perspective of today, a railway running through the arid plains of upper Iraq may seem inconsequential; but 100 years ago rail travel and rail transportation of raw goods was more vital than free and open shipping is today.
By rail, the western United States was built. By rail, German industrialists planned to colonize the Middle East. At the end of the 19th century, transporting the mineral wealth of the Ottoman's dominions back to Central Europe was seen as more than an opportunity for Germany to dominate Anatolia and possible Eastern Europe. The success of the Baghdad-Berlin Express would represent far too much in the way of political prestige and economic mastery. For this reason, Britian led the Western European Powers in opposing it; oddly, for the same reasons, it sought German and Turk concessions that led to the railway's near completion. By allowing the rails to be laid, Britian set the stage for free access by sea to the oil fields of Persia and fast access by rail along the Gulf coast.
With the advent of war, the railway stood as a prize to be won. By taking the Middle East away from the Turks and reducing the once powerful Ottoman Empire to a single state mired in civil discontent, the European Allies of World War One sought to divide Germany's railway amongst themselves. France took control of the lines in Syria. Britian controlled Iraq, which was carved out of the Ottoman's Mesopotamian District, and Palestine. Turkey, meanwhile, finally brought to order by the machinations of Kemal Ataturk and his Turkish Nationalists, struggled to retain their rights to the railway. They succeeded only in gaining control of the lines running from Haidar Pasha to Nisibin, which lay within the new Turk borders.
The railway was cut into zones of influence. The old Deutsches Bank concession for the lines running between Nisibin and Bozanti were assigned to a French conglomerate. The British established the Civil Administration for Irak, whick took over the sections of the railway that ran from Basra to Baghdad and then north to Samarra.
Today, remnants of the old railway are scattered across the deserts of Arabia and the plains of the Middle East, stretching west from Baghdad to the Hejaz, north to Damascus, and from there to Aleppo. And, today, as it was 100 and more years ago, the riches of the region are cause for concern by some and action by others. Oil and passage through the Gulf are the late 20th century issues, although the old animosities, albeit with new faces and different languages and accents, remain. Today, Arabs and Americans vie for dominance where Germans and Ottomans once bargained for power.

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