Berlin to Baghdad

November 28 2006

When President Bush spoke of his war on terror a few years ago as a “Crusade”, he had to be informed that that was not the word to use when addressing the middle east. (He is unlikely to have thought of replying that Islam has held previously-Christian territory for longer periods than Christianity has ever held previously-Moslem – but that is not a road one wants to go down.)

On Armistice Day earlier this month, as far as I could see unnoticed, he did it again, at Arlington National Cemetery:

“From Valley Forge to Vietnam, from Kuwait to Kandahar, from Berlin to Baghdad, our veterans have borne the costs of America’s wars, and they have stood watch over America’s peace.”

A few in the middle east might have winced at that, because the planned “Berlin to Baghdad” railway was a famous piece of imperialistic intervention at the beginning of the twentieth century. This railway from Berlin to “Byzantium” and on to Baghdad and ultimately to Basra was a German-sponsored scheme. If you prefer to exchange consonants, it was to run from Potsdam to Persia. The plan was to link Germany with the Persian Gulf.

I suppose some or all of the lines as far as Constantinople already existed. In 1888 a syndicate headed by Deutsche Bank obtained a concession from Turkish leaders to extend the Haydarpaşa-Izmit Railway to Ankara. (Haydarpaşa is close to Kadiköy, opposite Istanbul on the Asian side.) The second stage was from Ankara to Konya. That line was completed in 1896. The Hejaz railway (these links are to an earlier post, but I am using modern place-name spellings here) was also built by German engineers.

In 1903 the Ottoman Government gave permission to an Ottoman corporation to build the railway from Konya to Baghdad. This Baghdad Railway Company was controlled by German banks – which were no doubt run by “Jews” (I am alluding to conspiracy theories of the time). There was consternation in Russia, France, and Britain as the implications of the German scheme became apparent. The railway would provide Germany with a connection to her colonies in Africa, ie German East Africa and German South-West Africa. German access to a Persian Gulf port could allow them to rival British shipping in trade with India. Even more threatening to British interests was the linkage of German industry to oil from Iraq and Persia: oil was not exploited on the Arabian side of the Gulf until the 1930s. And this German push also threatened Russia: the Anglo-Russian entente was formed in 1907. Previously Britain had been propping up Turkey to prevent Russian expansion.

The Baghdad Railway had not been completed when war broke out. By 1915 it ended some 50 miles east of Diyarbakr, the Kurdish centre of eastern Turkey. Another spur, heading east from Aleppo, ended at Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis, or Greek Antiochia Mygdonia), in south-eastern Turkey. Some further rail had been laid starting in Baghdad and reaching north to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, and south to Kut, on the way to Basra. This left a gap of some 300 miles between the lines. The breaks meant that the Ottoman government had difficulties in sending supplies and reinforcements to the Mesopotamian Front, where the British, and Indians and others, were fighting. During the war, Turkish and German workers laboured to complete the railway for military purposes, but with limited manpower. The gaps were not closed.

In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles cancelled all German rights to their Railway. The Deutsche Bank had been required to transfer its holdings to a Swiss bank. The settlement gave various interests in Turkey, Italy, France and Britain a certain degree of control. The British Army had completed the southeastern section from Baghdad to Basra, so that part was under British control. The French held negotiations to obtain some degree of control over the central portion, and Turkish interests controlled the oldest sections that had been constructed inside Turkey, but talks continued to be held. An American involvement began in 1923, when Turkey approved the Chester concession, to the consternation of France and England.

In his book on Turkey published in 1917, from which I’ve already quoted, Toynbee says much about German interests in Turkey. This book is a wonderful mixture of Toynbeean scholarship and propaganda, as are his early writings on the Armenians. He quotes a Dr Wiedenfeld:

“We are certainly interested in the economic advancement of Turkey … but in setting ourselves to make Turkey strong we have been influenced far more by our political interests as a State among States (das politische, das staatlich-mächtliche Interesse). Even our economic activity has primarily served this aim, and has in fact originated to a large extent in the purely politico-military problems (aus den unmittelbaren Machtaufgaben) which confronted the Turkish Government. Exclusively economic considerations play a very subordinate part in Turco-German relations. … Our common political aims, and Germany’s interest in keeping open the land-route to the Indian Ocean, will make it more than ever imperative for us to strengthen Turkey economically with all our might, and to put her in a position to build up, on independent economic foundations, a body politic strong enough to withstand all external assaults. The means will still be economic; the goal will be of a political order.”

Toynbee adds:

It is worth remembering that a railway, following [a] route from the Syrian coast to the Persian Gulf, has more than once been projected by the British Government. As early as the thirties of last century Colonel Chesney was sent out to examine the ground, and in 1867 the proposal was considered by a Committee of the House of Commons. For the economic development of Western Asia it is clearly a better plan, but then Dr. Rohrbach bases the “necessity for the East Anatolian section of the Bagdad Railway” on wholly different grounds.

“The necessity,” he declares, “consists in Turkey’s military interests, which obviously would be very poorly served” (by German railway enterprise) “if troops could not be transported by train without a break from Bagdad and Mosul to the extremity of Anatolia, and vice versa.”

The Bagdad Railway is thus acknowledged to be an instrument of strategy for the Germans and for the Turks of domination – for “vice versa” means that Turkish troops can be transported at a moment’s notice through the tunnels from Anatolia to enforce the Ottoman pretension over the Arab lands.

Route from Turkey through Syria into Iraq, Wikimedia Commons

Turkey, A Past and a Future, Hodder & Stoughton, 1917

11 Responses to “Berlin to Baghdad”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Stephen Marsh writes:

    1) One wonders how much the German and British governments,bankers etc really thought about what concrete advantages ,political, military, economic etc they would gain from the completion of these vast (and presumably v expensive) projects. An unkind analysis of the situation would be to say that they were simply drunk on alliteration (Berlin to Baghdad ! Cape to Cairo!).

    2) I would remove the scare quotes round ‘Jews’ if I were you, or at any rate add some words of explanation.

    [Wouldn’t that make it look offensive? I assume no-one thinks it is now. I’m obviously referring to conspiracy theories of the time.]

    3) Did the completed sections of the railway inside Ottoman territory play any part in the Armenian genocide (or “genocide” [in quotes], as the Turks would prefer to call it)?

    [All of the railway after Constantinople was inside Ottoman territory. The answer is they did: vide Toynbee. He also questions the economic value of the railway as planned by the Germans.]

  2. […] David Derrick spots a surely unintended historical echo in a recent speech by president Bush: “The planned ‘Berlin to Baghdad’ railway was a famous piece of imperialistic intervention at the beginning of the 20th century. This railway from Berlin to ‘Byzantium’ and on to Baghdad and ultimately to Basra was a German-sponsored scheme. If you prefer to exchange consonants, it was to run from Potsdam to Persia.” […]

  3. Adrian Murdoch Says:

    Of course the famous fictional discussion of the railway is John Buchan’s Greenmantle.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Come to think of it, “Prussia to Persia” sounds better than “Potsdam to Persia”.

  5. roger strukhoff Says:


    Contact me. I want to send you a new magazine I’m helping create.


  6. […] India against possible aggression on the part of Russia or some other continental Power. [Such as Germany.] When the short through-route by water from Britain to India was opened up by the cutting of the […]

  7. Paul Arblaster Says:

    This isn’t really a comment on the blog – I just wondered if, in the light of your other (and not updated in a year) blog on, among others, Thomas Derrick, you might be a nephew or cousin of the writer Christopher Derrick? I’ve been trying to find out how to get in touch with him (if he’s even still alive – a blog-borne rumour that the mainstream media haven’t confirmed or denied says he died recently) and wonder whether you could help me?
    I’m a researcher attached to the Literature Department in Leuven (Belgium) and I’ve had an interest in Christopher’s work ever since he gave a talk to the Newman Society when I was an undergraduate in Oxford (and I happened on “Trimming the Ark” in a 2nd-hand bookshop the very next week). I’ve recently been making more of an effort to read those of his books I hadn’t, and have just come across a reference to him in Josef Pieper’s “Autobiographische Schriften”, and would really like to get in touch with him if it is still possible (or even, if he really has died, with whoever will be responsible for his papers).
    Sorry to bother you with this, especially if you aren’t related, but neither Ignatius Press nor Douai Abbey has yet replied to my queries as to whether they could provide an address. Of course, if you are related and reports of his demise have not been exaggerated please allow me to extend my condolences.

  8. […] Babylon in Berlin July 12, 2008 Berlin to Baghdad […]

  9. […] economic concerns have an essentially political intention – certain sections of the projected Bagdad (sic) railway occur at once to our minds – and here we may be compelled to require Germany to abandon her […]

  10. […] Berlin to Baghdad Railway (post here) was being built at the same time. It, too, was incomplete in […]

Leave a Reply to Babylon in Berlin « The Toynbee convector Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s