It Wasn’t Just a European War: WWI in Arabia




It Wasn’t Just a European War: WWI in Arabia by Shehryar Fazli

April 20th, 2014 reset - +

IF THE YEAR 1914 was once said to have inaugurated the 20th century, it appears now to have outgrown it. Its resilience lies not just in the many ways the war that began that year shaped the world, but in the basic mystery of how that war came to be in the first place. Debates about where and when a titanic clash of empires became inevitable, and whether it could have been avoided, are as lively 100 years on as they were in the early decades after its conclusion. What would have happened if a driver hadn’t made a treacherous wrong turn and instead left a dejected Gavrilo Princip to stay seated in a Sarajevo café? What could have happened differently after Princip’s assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to avoid the human and political carnage that followed? Last year, ahead of the war’s centenary, several leading scholars took a fresh crack at examining the origins of the Great War; while each is satisfying in its way — especially Christopher Clark’s superb Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace — the war’s inception will probably always remain in part a mystery. 

Most of these recent books focus on the roots of the War. Their scene setting is fantastically diverse. Clark begins with a brutal coup in Serbia in 1903 that gave Serbian nationalists a significant political and military apparatus, including operational space for the Black Hand: a violent, essentially non-state militant group on whom the Archduke’s assassination would ultimately be pinned. Margaret MacMillan, in The War That Ended Peace, begins at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900, meant to mark a new century of “progress, peace and prosperity,” but which the major European powers used to assert a new, proud, expansive national identity, thus insinuating the competitive and nationalistic tempers that would eventually produce war. Sean McMeekin in July 1914 more or less begins with the assassination and its immediate aftermath, while Max Hastings, whose Catastrophe 1914 focuses more on the war than its origins, starts with a broader view of the drastic changes sweeping the globe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — social, political, and technological.

The First World War remains an urgent subject, in part because, unlike the Second, it resists the imposition of a plot with well-known protagonists, antagonists, motives, and resolutions. The more microscopic the account, the more difficult it becomes to assign blame to a single state. The record certainly supports the conclusion that Berlin encouraged Vienna to strike Serbia after the assassination in Sarajevo. But German provocation elicited the response it did from Russia, France and Britain because the war parties in their respective capitals outmaneuvered opponents who called for restraint. Often, it came down to a handful of individuals, and while their decisions were undoubtedly informed by the forces and habits of their times, those same circumstances had also produced sizeable constituencies for continued peace.

Yet the argument persists: was Germany not to blame and was it not a good thing, morally, that it lost in the end? This January, London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote a much-quoted op-ed titled “Germany started the Great War, but the Left can’t bear to say so,” in which he claimed that it was “a sad but undeniable fact” that the war was “overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression.” Earlier that month, Britain’s education secretary Michael Gove said that the war “may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war,” and condemned “leftist” academics, the writers of the brilliant comedy Blackadder, and others for belittling Britain and absolving Germany of blame.

Such views aren’t entirely confined to politicians or talking heads. Max Hastings, for example,  eagerly draws a line in the sand when, at the outset of his much-discussed book, Catastrophe, he challenges critics “who castigated the supposed injustice and folly of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, without offering a moment’s speculation about what sort of peace Europe would have had if a victorious Kaiserreich and its allies had been making it.” He says, almost boastfully,

I am among those who reject the notion that the conflict of 1914–18 belonged to a different moral order from that of 1939–45. If Britain had stood aside while the Central Powers prevailed on the continent, its interests would have been directly threatened by a Germany whose appetite for dominance would assuredly have been enlarged by victory.

Such pronouncements may indeed get amplified as commemorations in London and elsewhere take off the closer we come to summer. But what exactly were these British interests that were so worth protecting? And what of British imperial appetites, which didn’t exactly shrink after 1918? Hastings doesn’t qualify his assertion with an explanation of why German imperialism was inherently more sinister than the British or French versions. Even the supposedly innocent bystander, neutral Belgium, in whose defense the British entered the war, was, as Seumas Milne noted in a January Guardian piece, responsible for the massacre of 10 million Congolese in the preceding decades. The pitch, therefore, is more sentimental than sound: but honestly, Hastings and his admirers seem to plead, wouldn’t we all rather live in a house that the British built, rather than a German one?

It is with these arguments in mind that I turn to the Arab Middle East, on the eve of the first World War: a scene that further complicates this question, and indicts the British and French in particular for the geopolitical bungling that continues to plague the region. 

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Paul Fussell’s splendid book, The Great War and Modern Memory, explores the profound ways the war changed our language, as well as our attitudes towards heroism, valor, glory, survival. He finds them reflected in the poetry of Philip Larkin and Siegfried Sassoon, the writings of Robert Graves and Joseph Heller and Ernest Hemingway, and the imagery of barbed wire and machine guns that became so potent in Western culture. Fussell devotes a sub-chapter to the experience of the trenches. “To be in the trenches,” he writes, “was to experience an unreal, unforgettable enclosure and constraint, as well as a sense of being unoriented and lost. One saw two things only: the walls of an unlocalized, undifferentiated earth and the sky above.” The trenches became part of the 20th century’s mental furniture. Fussell quotes Sassoon noting, “When all is said and done, the war was mainly a matter of holes and ditches.” This moving examination of the impact of the Great War also confirmed the cultural hegemony of the Western Front — which continues. Hastings in this case is not alone when he describes his book, and by extension the war, as “a portrait of Europe’s tragedy.”

Certainly, World War I was a European war in its authorship, and it is true that the number of dead in Europe far exceeded casualties anywhere below the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire played a crucial role in the way the war began and its outcome. If Europe was to be recast, so too was the Middle East. If the war and its aftermath prepared the ground for Hitlerism and a second world war, so too did it beget the Arab-Israeli and other Middle Eastern conflicts.

In one sense, the story of the First World War begins with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Not only did this decline produce the vital game piece of an independent Serbia, but Italy’s successful 1911 war with Turkey over Libya, a major Ottoman province, left the bleeding empire vulnerable to further attack, and ultimately inspired the Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece to launch what came to be known as the First Balkan War in October 1912. This in turn led to a Second Balkan War in June 1913. The resulting new order in southern Europe created, in Clark’s words, “a set of escalatory mechanisms that would enable a conflict of Balkan inception to engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914.” As for the war itself: the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, launched in June 1916, became anything but “a sideshow of a sideshow.”

Of course, the Ottoman Empire was bound to collapse sooner or later, with or without a Great War. Europeans ran the major industries; Constantinople was entirely dependent on Western lenders, and an arrangement dating back to the 1500s known as the Capitulations exempted Westerners from Ottoman taxes and courts. As mentioned above, from 1908 to 1914, the Ottomans lost ground to the Italians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, and Montenegrins, particularly in the Balkan Wars. In those years, as MacMillan notes in Paris 1919, the empire lost 425,000 square miles.

Still, the conclusive defeat at the hands of the British and the French in the Great War created a dispensation in the Middle East for major hostility — hostilities that have shaped our present international order. Well before it ended, the Great War would produce two imperial commitments that would explode an earlier promise of Arab independence, and entrench the mistrust between the Arab world and the West that dogs us still. These were the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British, French and, to a lesser extent, the Russians,[1] to divide and incorporate Arab territory, once liberated from the Ottomans, into their zones of influence; and the Balfour Declaration, a diplomatic proposal for the creation of a Jewish state in the then Arab-controlled region of Palestine. The Paris peace conference that followed the war, absorbingly dissected by MacMillan in an earlier book, Paris 1919, mangled the Middle East into an absurdity of British and French mandates, with their arbitrary partitions and kingdoms, which should be fundamental to any examination of “what sort of peace” the winning side yielded.

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One of the most compelling historical accounts of World War I published last year, but largely ignored in centenary-inspired reviews, was Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia. It invites us to see a theater of the Great War that was as vital and consequential as the European one. It was during this period that many of the themes that have come to preoccupy us in this century — Arab nationalism, Zionism, oil, jihad, insurgency, along with the more primordial ones of imperialism and capitalism — were first bottled, and given a hard shake.

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In his introduction to Sleepwalkers, Clark writes of the events of July 1914 that:

 […] what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extra-territorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique […] Indeed, one could say that July 1914 is less remote from us […] now than it was in the 1980s.

The Middle East in 1914 was almost as rich in contemporary leitmotifs as Sarajevo: the Western quest for oil (particularly after Churchill, as first lord of the admiralty, moved the navy from coal to oil), the use of “irregulars” or tribal proxies in war, the Western-backed Islamist jihad. Yet, in the “modern memory,” to borrow from Fussell’s title, the Arab experience of the war has been reduced to T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert, and, in their most unforgettable derivation, the majestic figure of Peter O’Toole in a white robe, cut against the naked desert. These works gave us lasting images of early 20th-century insurgency and asymmetric warfare: of a silent, hidden force in “a vast unknown desert,” as Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars, “not disclosing ourselves till we attacked.” Knowing that the Turks could capably defeat an Arab force of some 20,000 fighters, Lawrence conceived of a different kind of Arabian resistance than his military masters did: “suppose we were […] an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas?”

There are inevitable clashes between David Lean’s Lawrence OF Arabia and Anderson’s Lawrence IN Arabia. To probe the film for historical inaccuracies seems pedantic. It’s just too good a movie — beautifully shot, scored, and acted. Some of its distortions may actually be worth embracing. For example, the fact that the diminutive T.E. Lawrence is played by a physically striking six-foot-three actor did sacrifice authenticity, but also allowed for one of the most arresting performances in cinema — and for that, Mr. Lean, we’ll happily look the other way (towards the screen). But since Lawrence in Arabia has informed the popular view of the Arab Revolt, it falls to the historian to spoil at least some of the fun.

Anderson’s book offers plenty of pleasures of its own. His narration is like a good documentary, with chapters and subsections often ending at a cliffhanger, as if preceding a commercial break. He is even more microscopic than Clark, presenting much of the action through the perspective of a handful of characters, each roaming an alien land in pursuit of peculiar goals. Aside from Lawrence, these include William Yale, an employee of Standard Oil in New York, on a secret mission to discover oil in Arab lands; Curt Prufer, an agent of a newly industrialized Germany looking to expand and compete with the French, British and Russian empires; and Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish-Zionist agronomist who became close to Chaim Weizmann and other leading Zionists. In a sense, they represent the foreign forces undoing the Ottoman Empire from within.

Interestingly, the Germans not the British were the first Westerners to conceive of a 20th century jihad in the Arab world. Carl Prufer, a disciple of Max von Oppenheim, identified the inherent weakness of the British, French, and Russian empires early on, noting that “the Muslim populations […] deeply resented being under the thumb of Christian colonial powers.” Arab lands offered fertile territory for German expansion. In 1905, Germany had won the contract to build the Baghdad Railway linking Constantinople and oil-rich Mesopotamia in the east, a major statement of German arrival.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was an early proponent of an Islamist jihad against European (albeit, not German) imperialism. With the kaiser’s blessing, Prufer and Oppenheim traveled the Egyptian and Syrian hinterlands trying to lay the foundations of a pan-Islamic struggle against Germany’s rival powers. Anderson writes, “As the only major European power never to have attempted colonization of the Muslim world, Oppenheim propounded, Germany was uniquely positioned to turn the situation to its advantage — especially if it could forge an alliance with the Ottoman Empire.”

The problem, of course, was that the Ottoman Empire itself was colonizing Muslim lands; Arab resentment for the Ottomans was well-established. By 1914 the Arab world was undergoing a kind of renaissance. This manifest itself in the founding of the Ottoman-Arab Brotherhood; in branches of an Istanbul-based literary club popping up in major Syrian and Mesopotamian towns; in the Young Arab Society founded by Paris-based Arabs; in reform societies sprouting in Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Basra; and in an Ottoman Decentralization Society headquartered in Egypt, with branches across Syria.[2] But, in addition to Arab urban progressives, Constantinople was also being challenged by conservatives from the hinterlands, who resented the Young Turks’ modernizing reform program and their privileging of ethnic Turks. A German-backed Islamist insurrection might have made sense in Egypt, under de facto British rule, but the turbulence in the Arab heartland were more compelling. Lawrence astutely identified them as the best opportunity to bleed the Ottomans.

Upon Constantinople’s entry into the war, in November 1914, on the side of the Central Powers, the caliph issued a fatwa of holy war, demanding that all Muslims perform the sacred duty of jihad against the entente. Ultimately, the fatwa failed (a failure that provided the pretext for Atatürk’s secularizing program in the 1920s); Arab forces instead joined the fight against the Ottomans.

Audiences of Lawrence, the movie, are familiar with the highpoints of the Arab Revolt: the journey through the seemingly uncrossable Nefud Desert to capture Aqaba, a major Ottoman outpost on the Red Sea; the Bedouin army’s attacks on the Hejaz Railway; the fall of Damascus. What Lean got wrong is the politics. The French and Sykes-Picot aren’t mentioned until the three-hour mark, with Lawrence hearing about it after already winning some of the Revolt’s major battles. In fact, the agreement was concluded, after months of negotiations between London and Paris, a month before Hussein bin Ali, Hashemite leader and Emir of Mecca, launched the revolt in June 1916. The real Lawrence knew about this agreement, even risked a court martial by leaking its details to Faisal, Hussein’s son, who became the most competent Arab commander and Lawrence’s main ally in the Revolt. In the film, on the other hand, Faisal informs a shocked Lawrence of the agreement.

Knowledge of the British and French plan would inform these two men’s calculations throughout the Revolt, and they were constantly aware that the independence they were fighting for would very likely miscarry under a new imperial arrangement. In Seven Pillars, Lawrence wrote about the “agony of mind” with which he disingenuously advised his Arab allies, knowing all the while the hollowness of British promises. “In revenge,” he wrote, “I vowed to make the Arab Revolt the engine of its own success […] and vowed to lead it so madly in the final victory that expediency should counsel to the Powers a fair settlement of the Arabs’ moral claims.” Faisal, meanwhile, maintained a back channel with the Germans to offset the prospect of British betrayal. The “final victory” in the Middle East, however, and in the war in general, belonged to Britain.

The film is also somewhat misleading in its depiction of Faisal’s eventual acquiescence to the allies’ plans. Faisal, played by a superbly deadpan Alec Guinness, explains to a glum T.E. Lawrence that compromise with the Europeans “must be so,” and then, in Lawrence’s absence, tells his British interlocutors that both he and they are now better off without the young colonel. Faisal was in fact far more resistant to the British and French terms; and the British generals weren’t nearly as gentle in their diplomacy as they are in the film’s closing scenes. Furthermore, the Lawrence-Faisal partnership resumed during the Paris talks, and while Faisal did eventually accept “the few crumbs of compromise the French were willing to throw his way in Syria” (Anderson), he subsequently renounced this deal, in response to popular rage, and declared himself Syria’s king in March 1920. Losing his battle against the French, he was forced into exile a few months later. Even when Faisal accepted the British concession to give him the throne of an agitated Iraq in 1921, he proved less pliant than expected, and compelled Britain to grant the kingdom independence in 1932.

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Describing the scene in the years before the war, Anderson writes, “what had been an intermittent nibbling at the Ottoman realm by the European powers was to become a feeding frenzy.” Tragically, that frenzy continued well after World War I, this time by Britain and France, and they fed deeper into the tissue. The result was a warped, divided, and violent region.

Anderson accurately describes the Sykes-Picot as “the last great compact in the service of European imperialism.” After its victory in the war, Britain’s cup was not only full but overflowing, and she was not inclined to honor commitments made in the heat of battle. As MacMillan says in Paris 1919, “Sykes-Picot was made in the midst of the war, when promises were cheap and the prospect of defeat very real.” So, too, was the Balfour Declaration, motivated by the desire to preempt both France’s claims under Sykes-Picot to Palestine and German bids for the hearts of the German and international Jewry. Rarely in history has a short letter, addressed to a private citizen, been retroactively elevated to the status of a “declaration” that would remap a region. The phrasing was ambiguous — “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this objective” — and debates about what was meant by a “national home” raged during the war and at the Paris conference. The fact that this declaration took the form that it did, a short note from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to a British tycoon, Lord Rothschild, was itself evidence of the tepid support the idea had within British policymaking circles. Throughout the war, British representatives assured their Arab allies that the declaration did not denote plans for a Jewish state, but only efforts to enable Jews to emigrate to and share in the political and economic life of Palestine.

The problem Britain faced in Paris, however, was that the French, Arabs, and Zionists were calling in their markers. Thus, France would control Syria, and carve substantial Syrian territory for a separate Lebanon, while the British would retain Palestine, provided they carried out Balfour’s commitment. Whereas previously the British government claimed that “national home” did not mean a Jewish state, it now insisted that those words had always meant a Jewish state. Balfour, who once said, “I am quite unable to see why Heaven or any other Power should object to our telling the Moslem what he ought to think,” didn’t visit Palestine until 1925, three years after the League of Nations endorsed the British mandate there. His hotel was surrounded by thousands of Arab protesters throwing rocks and inviting cavalry fire. This was just one instance of a broader Arab revolt across the Middle East against the mandates, in part inspired by — such are the ironies of history — an American president’s calls for self-determination, in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

Britain would also forge the three very different Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Basra, and Baghdad into a single administrative unit, Iraq, and nominally hand it over to Faisal. Meanwhile, Faisal’s father Emir Hussein would rule the Hejaz, while another of Hussein’s sons, Abdullah, was invited to govern the Transjordan region, which was detached from the rest of Palestine. But the fruits of British appeasement would rot sooner or later. Hussein was overthrown by the Wahhabi fundamentalist Ibn Saud in 1924, creating the Saudi Arabia we know today; and Faisal’s playboy grandson was toppled in the 1958 coup, which abolished the monarchy and turned Iraq into a one-party state, controlled by the Baathists from 1968 until 2003. Hashemite rule only survives in Jordan today. This is not the sort of peace T.E. Lawrence envisioned, but it’s the one the Arabs got — and, in many ways, still have to live with.

Rather than try to assign blame to a single state, or celebrate the victors, we should acknowledge that the variety of imperial actors, agendas and bargains in the Great War denied it a moral center, and that many of the conflicts that followed, including ones that continue to plague us, reflect its uncertain legacy. It seems that it is World War II — overall a war of clear winners and losers, of heroes and villains, and right and wrong — that is the anomaly. Its predecessor wasn’t “plainly a just war,” as the British education secretary claimed — just a “uniquely horrific” one.




[1] With the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and Russia’s eventual exit from the war, Sykes-Picot became an exclusively British and French affair.

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