Max of Arabia

A 100-year-old bestseller managed to predict some of the future.

Men on camels near Wadi Rum (photo credit: REUTERS)
Men on camels near Wadi Rum
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One hundred years ago last year, a Scottish writer and British World War I propaganda official named John Buchan published a spy novel called Greenmantle.
The book’s plot revolves around attempts by a British agent named Richard Hannay to investigate efforts by Imperial Germany to foment jihad among the Muslim populations in India, North Africa and the Middle East during the Great War.
Largely forgotten in 2017, Greenmantle was a bestseller that the famed director Alfred Hitchcock later unsuccessfully sought to make into a film.
Yet, Buchan’s book is less fantasy and more fact than perhaps even he realized.
Both the Kaiser’s Germany and the Nazi regime did attempt to encourage a religious war against those it deemed enemies in the region, namely the British Empire and later, the Jews.
These efforts met with varying degrees of success. But they’ve dramatically influenced the world that we live in. The story – largely overlooked by today’s press and policymakers – begins with a Prussian aristocrat named Max von Oppenheim.
Born in 1860 to a Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism, Oppenheim spent his early adulthood traveling through what was then called the “Muslim world.”
His study of Arabic and published observations of the region brought him to the attention of Germany’s Foreign Ministry, which was “concerned about Islam’s spread into its African colonies,” as Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz detailed in their 2014 book Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
Shortly after his appointment in 1896 as attaché to the German consulate in Cairo, Oppenheim became convinced that Berlin could harness the pan-Islamic movement, using it as a strategic weapon.
At the time, the decrepit Ottoman Empire, suffering from decades of territorial losses and a failure to modernize, was increasingly emphasizing Islam as a unifying force.
Many of its subjects resented the influence of Western, Christian powers such as France, Britain and Russia in lands that had been, for centuries, dominated by Muslim rule.
Germany, however, did not have any colonies in the region, and Oppenheim sensed an opportunity. In dispatches to Germany’s then ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm, Oppenheim “advised him to back Islamism as a political movement,” Schwanitz and Rubin point out.
Kaiser Wilhelm acquiesced and, the scholars note, in the fall of 1898 an “alliance with Islamism and the launching of jihad were officially adopted as German policy.”
Oppenheim and a group of like-minded German officials hoped that a single figure could, with support from Berlin, rally the Muslim world to their side and against the other Western powers. Yet, in treating Muslims as homogeneous, and in ignoring sectarian, ethnic and tribal divides, the young attaché fumbled. But this did not stop the Kaiser from pursuing the strategy.
Wilhelm, siding with the Ottoman sultan, refused to support the growing Zionist movement led by Theodor Herzl, which advocated Jewish statehood, preferably in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland. The German autocrat – a grandson of Queen Victoria – even paid homage to Saladin, the famous Muslim general who beat back Christian powers during the Crusades and conquered Jerusalem – calling him a “fearless knight.”
Money followed Wilhelm’s mouth and a German Orient Bank was established in 1906, which backed a variety of infrastructure projects in the Middle East, including a Berlin to Baghdad railroad. Britain, already concerned over the Kaiser inaugurating a naval arms race, now warily eyed a German “foothold in Mesopotamia.”
Oppenheim’s plans were rewarded when, on November 14, 1914, Ottoman religious leaders, acting under direction of the sultan, issued a fatwa (religious decree) calling for all Muslims “be they young or old, on foot or mounted, [to] hasten to partake in jihad” against the Allied Powers of Russia, England and France.
Many subjects of the large, disparate empire ignored the decree and sought to avoid conscription. Others, including a young man born in the Ottoman province of Syria and hailing from a ruling Jerusalem family, Haj Amin al-Husseini, joined the Ottoman forces.
Under Oppenheim’s direction, “propaganda bases” were established throughout Ottoman lands. Religious propaganda, often in the form of pamphlets, was distributed, with titles like “They Cheat God and the Infidels” and “England and the Caliphate.”
Captured allied troops from French-ruled North Africa and British-ruled India were indoctrinated in two special Berlin camps, replete with mosques and a multilingual weekly handout entitled “al-Jihad.”
Although the Central Powers of Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire lost that war, the ground was prepared for Berlin’s strategy in the next.
The rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler saw a rekindling of interest in the Middle East – and a renewed appreciation for Oppenheim’s thinking. In a precursor to the Nazi ideology regarding the Jews, the Foreign Ministry official considered Middle Eastern minorities, namely the Armenian Christians slaughtered by their Ottoman ally, “cowards” who were “great at plotting and scheming.”
Once in power, the Nazis sought to construct an axis of support for anti-Western, anti-British allies in the Middle East. As Schwanitz and Rubin note, many of the individuals involved in setting up this network were “veterans” of Oppenheim’s operations.
Husseini, who had switched sides in 1916 and became a British agent, was one of several to receive support.
The British, who ruled Mandate Palestine after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, appointed Husseini the grand mufti of Jerusalem in 1921; the highest Muslim cleric in the land. The former Ottoman subject dreamed of a large Syrian state that would include what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Viewing his nominal allies, the British, as an obstacle to these plans and sharing the Nazis’ antisemitism, Husseini – at times with aid from Nazi ally Fascist Italy – supported terrorist attacks against Jews, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, living in Mandate Palestine. Seeking Nazi assistance for his plans, Husseini sought to portray himself as leader of the world’s Muslims and Arabs and even helped fund a Nazi-connected think tank, the Islam Institute in Berlin.
It worked. A partnership was formed, with Oppenheim, now in his seventies, still involved. Both before and during World War II, the Nazis supported Husseini – who recruited SS units for them in the Balkans, among other acts – as well as the prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali Gaylani. The latter sought to overthrow British rule and helped orchestrate the “Farhud,” in which 180 Iraqi Jews were murdered and thousands more expelled on June 1-2, 1941.
Husseini himself was granted a personal audience with the Fuhrer and, with his friend and pen pal SS head Henreich Himmler, would tour the death camps that he hoped to replicate in the Middle East in the event of a Nazi victory.
In addition to assisting with recruitment, the grand mufti became a weapon of Nazi propaganda. As the historian Jeffrey Herf documented in his 2009 book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, Husseini’s Nazi-funded World War II radio broadcasts declared the West and Jews to be enemies.
Among the broadcasts’ many listeners was the future founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Oppenheim died on November 15, 1946, 18 months after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Many of his Nazi associates were given refuge in the Middle East, often advising dictators like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Assad family of Syria and others. Both Rashid Ali and Haj Amin Husseini would die in 1970s Beirut, the latter living to see a relative take control of the Palestinian movement – a Cairo- born man named Yasser Arafat.
Indeed, Max von Oppenheim’s legacy is arguably as easy to discern as that of his more famous British rival, T.E. Lawrence – even if Oppenheim never got Peter O’Toole to play him on the big screen.
Today, the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, a terrorist group whose charter quotes Hitler.
In July 2005, after an al-Qaida bombing in London, the BBC had to cancel a radio adaptation of Greenmantle.
“The past,” the American writer William Faulkner famously observed, “is never dead.
It’s not even past.” Perhaps John Buchan would agree.
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst based in Washington, DC. The views presented in this article are his own.