Germany and the Middle East

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German involvement in the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Brief contacts between Prussia and the Ottoman Empire occurred before the 1880s. In 1760 Frederick the Great sought an alliance with the Ottomans during the Seven Years' War; and in the 1830s Helmuth von Moltke, later chief of the Prussian General Staff, served as adviser to the Ottoman military in Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Nineteenth Century

After 1870, the new Germany was not concerned with the Eastern Question. German prime minister Otto von Bismarck, acting as the "honest broker" at the Berlin Congress in 1878, wished to avoid conflict with Austria, Hungary, Britain, and Russiacountries that already had imperialist stakes in the area. German intellectual interest in Iranian culture, language, and poetry had led to a treaty of friendship and commerce between Prussia and Persia (Iran) that was renewed in 1873; the relationship was cautious, however, because Bismarck understood that the area was under the domination of Russia and Britain. He agreed to open a German legation at Tehran in 1885 but would not meet with Naser al-Din Shah when the Iranian ruler visited Berlin in 1889. Similarly, in 1882 Bismarck reluctantly agreed to send military officers to the Sublime Porte after Abdülhamit II decided to replace France's military advisers with military personnel from Germany.

In this case, Germany's military mission inaugurated a more active political and economic policy toward Turkey that was advocated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ascended the throne in 1888 and replaced Bismarck in 1890. Germany's "drive to the East" (Drang nach Osten) was the means by which it would achieve imperialist parity with France and Britain through cultural and economic penetration of the declining Ottoman Empire. Advocated by Baron Hatzfeld, Germany's ambassador to Turkey from 1879 to 1881, the policy took into account the possibilities for Germany that resulted from the vacuum created by Britain's loss of prestige in the area after they assumed control of Cyprus (1878), occupied Egypt (1882), and became involved in Ottoman affairs because of the Ottoman public debt. Wilhelm II's visit to the Middle East in 1898, during which he advocated friendship with Islamic peoples, solidified ties between Germany and Abdülhamit II (called by some the Bloody Sultan because of his treatment of the Armenians). Acquiesence to Ottoman sensibilities resulted in lack of official
support by Germany for Zionism, in spite of an initial favorable reaction to discussions with Theodor Herzl, and for the German Templars, Protestants from southern Germany who were seeking to establish ideal communities, began settling in Palestine in 1868.

From 1885, Germany's military mission, now under the command of Kolmar Freiherr von der Goltz, was responsible for instituting a network of military preparatory schools and reorganizing the Ottoman officer corps on the Prussian model. German advisers worked with Ottoman troops throughout the crises that beset the Sublime Porte before World War I. By that time, despite Germany's diplomatic failures in the Moroccan crises (19051906, 1911) and Ottoman defeats in the Balkan Wars (19121913), German officers were teaching and working in Turkey, and Turkish officers were sent to Berlin for advanced training.

Germany's ambassadors to Turkey, Marschall von Bieberstein (18971912) and Hans von Wangenheim (19121915), worked assiduously to open markets for their nation's products. Concessions were granted to a German bank (Deutsche Bank) and an arms merchant (Mauser) to build the Berlin-Baghdad Railway and the Hijaz Railroad; and in 1906 the Hamburg Amerika steamship line sailed the Persian Gulf in competition with ships from Britain. By 1914, Germany's share in the Ottoman public debt reached 22 percent (it had been 4.7% in 1888), and it had a 67.5 percent share in Ottoman railway investment. The Deutsche Bank played a major role in the Turkish economy, as did the Deutsche Palästina Bank in Palestine.

World War I

Despite Britain's presence in Turkey, Germany's influence, especially in the army, increased throughout the Young Turk period. Disunity in the approach of the Committee of Union and Progress to foreign policy led some to seek different allies as Europe headed toward war. The negotiations of Enver Paşa and Mehmet Talat with Germany resulted in a secret alliance on 1 August 1914. The Ottoman Empire entered World War I in November 1914.

Once the lines of communication between Germany and Turkey were secure, hundreds of German military officers were transferred to Turkey, some in command of Turkish troops, but not as decision-makers regarding policy and strategy. As head of the military mission since 1913, General Otto Liman von Sanders advised the Turks to invade the Ukraine from Odessa; Enver, however, insisted upon the ill-fated Caucasus campaign. Liman von Sanders commanded the defense of Gallipoli in 1915 and intervened successfully in the Armenian deportations at İzmir. Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, a restraining influence on Cemal Paşa, served in Palestine. Field Marshal Kolmar Freiherr von der Goltz was called back to defend Baghdad in 1915; Lieutenant General Hans von Seeckt (chief of the Turkish General Staff in 1917), General Erich von Falkenhayn, and Franz von Papen (who was ambassador to Turkey during World War II) also fought with the Turkish army.

German Middle East academic specialists were utilized in the war effort. Influenced by predecessors who had been engaged in philological and archaeological research in the Middle East since the latter part of the nineteenth century, some claimed German-Turkish racial affinities. Orientalist Max von Oppenheim directed an information service for the East that advocated fomenting Islamic uprisings in Persia, Afghanistan, and Egypt in order to dislodge the British.

In Iran, Germany had no coordinated policy, and as Russia's army moved toward Tehran in 1915, only Wilhelm Wassmuss fought against the British in the south. Germany's competition with Britain in support of Zionist aspirations in order to gain Jewish support became inactive after the United States entered the war.

The defeat of Germany in 1918 and the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles altered Germany's approach to the Middle East. From the Weimar Republic through the early 1930s, official German policy was inherently cautious, more concerned with revising the Treaty of Versailles and not alienating Britain than with taking an active role abroad. Although sympathetic to Zionism, once Germany became a member of the League of Nations (1926), it supported Britain's policy in Palestine and did not take a position on local Arab-Zionist issues. The low-key diplomatic approach, however, did not lessen Germany's economic interest in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran; Iran, due to Reza Shah Pahlavi's pro-German sympathies, was supplied by German companies with arms, machinery, and regular air service through the 1920s.

Third Reich and World War II

Germany's official policy toward the Middle East remained inconsistent through the Third Reich because it was predicated upon ideological, diplomatic, and economic factors that contradicted one another. The Nazi doctrine of racial purity and the search for markets in the Middle East lent themselves to support of the Zionist movement through the ha-Avarah (transfer) agreements as useful tools to rid Germany of Jews. When, after 1937, it was understood that Jewish sovereignty was possible, and that a large population of Jews (a circumstance noted after the war in eastern Europe began) might be a base for activity against Germany, Hitler opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Also opposed to Jewish Palestinian immigration were German nationals, including archaeologists, scholars, members of the Palestine Templars, and diplomatic personnel who worked in the area. Both German nationalists looking back to imperial glory and Nazis became disseminators of German propaganda, finding allies in some pan-Arab groups and the military in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Max von Oppenheim and German Ambassador to Iraq Fritz Grobba advocated financial and military support for local anti-British pan-Arab movements as early as 1937. Meetings between pan-Arab nationalists such as Shakib Arslan, Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, and Aziz Ali al-Misri and German diplomatic officials took place, resulting in a declaration of support in December 1940 but no real aid.

Officially, Germany remained uninvolved in the Middle East, initially leaving the area to Britain. After 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, Germany left the area to Italy, which sought hegemony in North Africa and in the eastern Mediterranean. Italy's losses to the Allies in Greece and in Libya in 1941 sparked a belated interest by Germany, which had planned to turn to the Middle East only after anticipated successes in Russia (Operation Barbarossa).

Last-minute German arms deliveries to the pro-Axis Rashid Ali al-Kaylani government did not prevent Britain's victories in Iraq in June 1941 and in Vichy-ruled Syria in July. Fear that Iran was a potential fifth column because of its economic dependence on Germanybecause of the large numbers of German nationals working there, and because it offered a haven for those fleeing the British in Iraqresulted in Pahlavi's abdication and control of Iran by Russia and Britain. A planned pro-Axis Free Officers' revolt involving Aziz Ali alMisri and Anwar al-Sadat, among others, together with Abwehr (German military intelligence) agents infiltrated into Cairo, failed to coordinate with Erwin Rommel's advance toward Egypt in the summer of 1942. Berlin provided sanctuary for some pro-Axis Arabs, among them the Jerusalem mufti, who left the Middle East during the war and worked for the German propaganda machine in return for Germany's promise to support Arab independence. After the war, a number of Nazis immigrated to the Arab world.

Two Germanys emerged from the war: East Germany, the German Democratric Republic (GDR); and West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (they united in 1991). The GDR followed the policy of the Soviet Union and never established diplomatic relations with Israel.

1950 to the Present

From the early 1950s, the Cold War and political obligations to the United States dominated German foreign policy. While blocking international, especially developing nations', recognition of the GDR, the Federal Republic strove to balance its economic interests in the Arab world with a commitment to Israel and the Jewish people forged in reaction to Germany's Nazi past and the Holocaust. Restitution and reparations agreements were signed in 1952, clandestine arms deals were negotiated throughout the 1960s, and diplomatic relations were established in 1965. All Arab states except Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya severed diplomatic ties with Germany, but had restored them by 1974.

Germany's economic ties in the Persian Gulf grew dramatically in the 1970s through the export of manufactured goods, the recycling of petrodol-lars through German banks, and the import of almost 50 percent of its oil needs from the region. As the price of oil fell in the 1980s, so did German dependence on Gulf markets. Germany's share in the arms market during the Iran-Iraq War represented only 1 percent of the total market (by comparison, France's participation amounted to some 15 percent). German companies' significant but illegal involvement in technology transfers contributed to the development of weapons of mass destruction in Libya and Iraq.

West Germany expressed support for the Palestinians' right to self-determination and, although its relations with Israel remained intact, it increasingly became critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Working through the European Union, Germany supported the 2003 U.S.-led peace plan, Road Map, that called for an independent state in Palestine within three years.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Germany supported United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 660, which condemned the Iraqi occupation, and Resolution 678, which authorized military measures to expel Iraq from Kuwait. It joined the U.S.-led coalition of twenty-eight states by sending air units to Turkey, contributed mine sweepers, and pledged $5.5 billion to the war effort. But Germany offered no such support to the United States as it planned with Britain in 2003 to invade Iraq. The United States and Britain claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was an imminent danger to world security. Together with France and Russia, Germanynow a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Councilopposed a draft resolution supported by the United States, Britain, and Spain that authorized the use of force. Instead, it sought the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq to investigate whether Iraq had WMD. Although Germany helped defeat the resolution, it was unable to deter the invasion of Iraq by mainly the United States and Britain. The Gulf crises and war that followed damaged Germany's generally friendly relations with the United States and Britain.

See also abdÜlhamit ii; arslan, shakib; balkan wars (19121913); banking; berlinbaghdad railway; eastern question; enver paŞa; free officers, egypt; gallipoli; grobba, fritz konrad ferdinand; ha-avarah agreement; herzl, theodor; hijaz railroad; husayni, muhammad amin al-; istanbul; kaylani, rashid ali al-; misri, aziz ali al-; ottoman empire: overview; rommel, erwin; sadat, anwar al-; sublime porte; talat, mehmet; templars; west german reparations agreement; young turks; zionism.


Chubin, Shahram. Germany and the Middle East: Patterns and Prospects. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.

Hirszowicz, Lukasz. The Third Reich and the Arab East. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Nicosia, Francis R. The Third Reich and the Palestine Question. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Simon, Reeva S. Iraq Between the Two World Wars: The Creation and Implementation of a Nationalist Ideology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Trumpener, Ulrich. Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 19141918. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Wallach, Yehuda L., ed. Germany and the Middle East, 18351939. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1975.

reeva s. simon
updated by philip mattar

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