Friday, August 20, 2010


I have been reading Sean McMeekin's The Berlin-Baghdad Express, subtitled The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power 1898-1918.

Professor Norman Stone, author of The Eastern Front 1914-1917 and father of crime writer Nick Stone, is quoted on the front flap, 'This superb and original book is the reality behind Greenmantle.'

Sen McMeekin teaches at Yale, and at Bilkent University in Ankara, where Norman Stone is a Professor in the International Relations Department.

Usually the current Middle East situation is blamed on the British for making promises they could not keep in order to disrupt the Ottoman war effort.
McMeekin puts a portion of the blame on Kaiser Wilhelm, and his advisers such as Baron Max Oppenheim for attempting to raise a jihad against the infidel, unless those infidels happened to be German or Austro-Hungarian.
It is clear from the many quotes from John Buchan's Greenmantle [1916] that the author was far more knowledgeable about the politics of the region than many diplomats. Of course John Buchan became Director of Information in 1917, and later went on to be Governor General of Canada.
Would crime writers make a better job of governing us than the politicians?

I was inspired to read The Berlin-Baghdad Express when watching our current Prime Minister David Cameron on his recent visit to Turkey.
He was asked about Turkey's entry to the European Union and the probable effect on immigration levels to the UK.
From his expression I am not sure he knew a lot about Turkey's past relationship with the Russians, Persians, Arabs, Armenians, Circassians, Jews, Levantine Christians, Kurds, Cyprus or the Greeks.
He made a comment about income levels becoming equalized throughout the EU, and that population movements would therefore not be necessary. That certainly amused me because income levels between Cornwall, where his daughter was born yesterday [congratulations to him and his wife Samantha] and his own constituency, Henley, will take a lot of equalizing.
Equalization between London and Anatolia might take a fraction longer.

The Berlin-Bagdhad Express is introduced with a quote from John Buchan's First World War spy story :

Some day, when the full history is written with ample documents-the poor romancer will give up the business and fall to reading Miss Austen in a hermitage.
John Buchan , Greenmantle [1916]

There are more references to Greenmantle in the book which tells a sad story of incompetence, brutality, arrogance mixed with a total lack of understanding of the aspirations, and inclinations of the various peoples in the region. Buchan seems to have understood this better than most.

Colonel Stumm warns the neutral American Blenkiron in John Buchan's Greenmantle, one needed to be extra careful when speaking English while the world war was on, because the locals 'don't distinguish between the different brands'.

The Berlin-Bagdhad Express is a sad book although occasionally the sheer lunacy of events can bring a smile to the reader's face.

German propaganda had turned into a farce.
Oppenheim's jihad bureau in the Pera Embassy was a laughing stock after the story broke that his lead holy war writer in the Turkish press, 'Mehmed Zeki Bey', was actually a Romanian Jewish conman, who had recently done a turn running a bordello in Buenos Aires.

But it also has some interesting comments to make about our present situation.

But there is a subtler version of the virus coursing through the veins of the West, such as the fashionable Third Worldist auto-critique which decries every sin of European imperialism while absolving the world's most wicked post-colonial regimes of responsibility for their crimes.

The more I read crime and spy fiction novels the more it seems that the writers, whatever the agendas they favour, know a lot more about the problems of society, and their world, than the politicians.
I have digressed from my original intention, and perhaps it is a bit cruel to mention at this particularly happy time for him, David Cameron's foreign policy and historical gaffes on his trip to Turkey and India, but politicians as well as:
'Generals have over their troops a power of life and death that is terrifying' [The Siege: Russell Braddon], therefore they have to be held to account.

I bought The Siege in 1971, having read Russell Braddon's brilliant previous book The Naked Island about the fall of Singapore, and was shocked that so few people had even heard of this disastrous defeat on the banks of the Tigris.
The frightening thing is that the more one reads about history the more one realises that politicians and their generals repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again.....
The cause of these mistakes is a cocktail of arrogance, ignorance, and a lack of care for the men and women who serve, that sometimes defies belief.
The information is all out there for the politicians, but they just ignore it, and sail on regardless.

From the second paragraph from Chapter One of The Siege.

Because it was then, at Kut el Amarah, after a futile siege of 147 days, that thirteen thousand British and Indian troops surrendered to the Turks and began a horrifying march into captivity. Kut el Amarah was the most humiliating disaster to have befallen a British Expeditionary Force since 1842 when, in a lunatic retreat from Kabul, sixteen thousand men died because of the decision of one half -witted general. It was to remain the most humiliating disaster until Singapore fell in 1942, because of the decisions of a series of half -witted military planners. In 1916, however Kabul had been forgotten, Singapore was inconceivable, and Kut seemed an unprecedented defeat at the hands of the despised Oriental.


Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's one passage I noted from Greenmantle:

"The ordinary man again will answer that Islam in Turkey is becoming a back number, and that Krupp guns are the new gods. Yet — I don't know. I do not quite believe in Islam becoming a back number."

Not a bad assessment for 1916.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

12:05 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, I read Greenmantle so long ago that I can't remember much about it except that Buchan obviously knew his politics. Another one to re-read I need to live a lot longer. ;o)

12:09 PM  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read Greenmantle three years ago on a trip to England and illustrated my blog posts about it with photos I took in Devon.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

12:26 PM  

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