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The Passion of Max von Oppenheim

Lionel Gossman


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Frontispiece. “My Tent” (Max von Oppenheim in the desert). “Mein Zelt” (My Tent). Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf durch den Haurān, die Syrische Wüste und Mesopotamien (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1899), vol. 1, frontispiece.

  • 1 Ernst Jäckh papers, Yale. Princeton University Library, Microfilm 11747, folder 47. Jäckh took a s (...)

1I am neither an archaeologist nor a scholar of the Middle East. I came across the figure of Baron Max von Oppenheim while preparing a new translation and edition of an autobiographical memoir by Hermynia Zur Mühlen, the daughter of an Austrian aristocrat and minor diplomat, who had accompanied her father to Cairo in 1906 and who tells of hearing much talk there of the mysterious Baron. I included him among the figures of whom I prepared thumbnail sketches for my edition of Zur Mühlen’s memoir (The End and the Beginning [Cambridge, England: Open Book Publishers, 2010] pp. 214–20). The sketch of Oppenheim turned out to be rather longer than most, because of the enigmatic and intriguing character of the individual and because I had become sufficiently curious about him to have already begun some quite serious research on him. I found that, besides references to him in works on the archaeology and ethnology of the Middle East, Oppenheim figures quite prominently in the considerable literature on German-Turkish relations just before and during the First World War and on German war strategies in 1914. In addition, Princeton’s Firestone Library is one of the few libraries in the United States that holds a copy, on microfilm, of the important “Denkschrift betreffend die Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde” (“Memorandum concerning the Fomenting of Revolutions in the Islamic Territories of our Enemies”), which Oppenheim prepared for the Auswärtiges Amt, the German Foreign Office, immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914. The microfilm was made from a version of this memo preserved among the papers, now in the Beinecke Library at Yale, of Ernst Jäckh, a journalist, author of an important book on Turkey, founder in 1912 of a German-Turkish society, and associate of Oppenheim’s in promoting Turkish-German collaboration in the First World War.1 The memo lays out in detail a strategy for inciting a religious jihad among the Muslim subjects of Germany’s enemies—the British, the French, and the Russians—against their colonial masters.

2At the end of January 2011, I was alerted by an English colleague who teaches in Germany that Oppenheim had become the topic of many articles in the German press in connection with an exhibition, just opened at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, of the 3,000 year-old artefacts and sculptures Oppenheim brought back from his important excavations at Tell Halaf in northern Syria. Subsequently I found that the English and American media had also picked up on the exhibition.2 The Tell Halaf artefacts had been housed in a makeshift museum that Oppenheim himself had created in the 1920s out of a disused factory in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, after the Pergamon Museum, to which he had offered them, declined to purchase them, allegedly for lack of funds. When the Tell Halaf Museum was hit by an incendiary bomb during one of the allied air-raids on the German capital in late 1943, the combination of the extreme heat from the fire and the cold water used to extinguish it resulted in the shattering of the sculptures into 27,000 pieces of basalt, many no larger than a human thumb. Oppenheim arranged for the rubble to be salvaged in the hope that one day the sculptures might be recreated. Thirty of them have now been reconstituted—a stunning achievement of restoration by the team of conservators who worked on the project for about a decade. The Pergamon Museum exhibition brought Oppenheim’s discoveries at Tell Halaf back again into public view, more prominently than ever.

3As a result, Oppenheim himself has also come back into public view—in a new guise: no longer the “Kaiser’s Spy,” as he was referred to by his British contemporaries in Cairo at the time of Zur Mühlen’s visit, at the Foreign Office in London, and by most British writers on the First World War ever since, but rather as a hero of German archaeology, comparable with two other great amateurs, Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, and Carl Humann, the excavator of Pergamon. In April 2011, I came upon a lively TV docudrama about Oppenheim, based on a text written by Gisela Graichen, the author of Schliemanns Erben (Bergisch Gladbach: Lübbe, 2001). Oppenheim is seen here again, above all, as a passionate explorer of ancient civilizations, though his political activities are not entirely overlooked and he is also presented as a kind of German Lawrence of Arabia—amateur political intriguer and amateur archaeologist combined. In fact, his one encounter with T.E. Lawrence, which is described in Lawrence’s correspondence, is the occasion of a re-enacted scene in the film.3 On the other hand, a reviewer in the Journal of the American Oriental Society of a recently published, short, illustrated book about Oppenheim with the upbeat title Der Tell Halaf und sein Ausgräber Max Freiherr von Oppenheim: Kopf hoch! Mut hoch! und Humor hoch! [Tell Halaf and its Excavator, Baron Max von Oppenheim: Head high! Chin up! Keep smiling!] describes the book’s hero as “the last of the great amateur archaeological explorers of the Near East” and makes no mention of his career as a government agent or as the instigator of a policy of deliberately inciting religious passion and exploiting it for secular geopolitical and military ends.4 The luxury Geneva Mont Blanc company even produced an expensive fountain pen dedicated to the “mécène d’art,” Max von Oppenheim.

4The picture I had begun to trace of Oppenheim was more complicated and more sombre than those that appeared in connection with the exhibition. My reading of his books on Tell Halaf and on the Bedouins had convinced me that as an archaeologist and ethnologist he was not at all the fraud that some of his contemporaries among the British in Cairo and London believed him to be. Subsequent investigation demonstrated that, though an amateur, he was both talented and dedicated and was taken seriously by the most respected professionals (British and American as well as German) in the two fields. His political activities and projects, however, both before and during the First World War and then again, under the National Socialists during the Second, were troubling. Above all, the attitude of this half-Jewish (according to the Nuremberg Laws) scion of a prominent Cologne Jewish banking family to National Socialism, Jews, and the anti-Semitism from which it was impossible for him not to have known that his career had suffered during the Kaiserreich and from which he had even more to fear under the Nazis, was puzzling, unsettling, and raised many question not only about him but also about the affluent, conservative, highly assimilated, and strongly nationalist German-Jewish milieu from which he came.

5Reflecting the diversity of Oppenheim’s interests and activities, this study of him is something of a mosaic. It derives its unity in turn from the unity Oppenheim sought to give to his own persona. Descended from a family of Jewish bankers, the son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who had converted at the time of his marriage, Oppenheim seems to have found his heterogeneous identity burdensome and to have sought escape from it by reinventing himself as a one hundred percent German patriot— whence perhaps his propensity to place himself, both as a diplomat and as an explorer, in situations where he dealt with non-Germans. As a diplomat, the half Jewish banker’s son represented Germany to non-Germans and defended Germany’s interests against the agents of other nations; as an explorer and ethnologist, he stood out as a German among the exotic peoples he studied and at the same time sought their friendship and trust not only for the sake of his—and German—scholarship but in order to enhance German influence among them. There seems never to have been the slightest crack in Max von Oppenheim’s absolute identification with and dedication to Germany. He always insisted that he won the confidence of the Bedouins not, as many other explorers had done, by adopting the disguise of a Muslim Arab but by presenting himself as nothing but the German aristocrat he was (or strove to be).

6Cultural historians and literary scholars have shown that many well-established and assimilated German Jews, whether practising or not, converted or still nominally Jewish, were uncomfortable with their mixed identity and sought mightily to reconceive themselves, and have others acknowledge them, as fully German—“plus allemands que les Allemands,” an unsympathetic observer might have said. Doubly divided, of part Jewish, part Catholic descent, Oppenheim may well have desired, no less than any full Jew, to redefine himself as wholly and undividedly German. There is in fact no indication that he ever showed interest in either Jewish or Catholic religious practices or institutions. Diplomat, scholar, intrepid explorer, Baron Max von Oppenheim was never anything but a thoroughgoing German patriot. In all likelihood he did his best to suppress even his own awareness of other components of his identity, since that awareness would in itself have represented a threat to the unity and stability of the persona he presented not only to the world but to himself.

7Throughout the essay, I have quoted at considerable length from my sources. Even though some of them are still surprisingly pertinent to the current situation in the Middle East, a great deal of this material has fallen into oblivion or become unfamiliar except to specialists. Much of it, moreover, is not easily accessible. Finally, notwithstanding the fact that the texts quoted have obviously been selected by me, I hoped by this means to let the reader hear history speak, as far as this is possible, out of its own mouth.


1 Ernst Jäckh papers, Yale. Princeton University Library, Microfilm 11747, folder 47. Jäckh took a somewhat different view from Oppenheim of Turkey’s eventual role in the War. He was convinced that Turkey would enter the War on the side of the Central Powers and he agreed with Oppenheim that this would create a “bloc separating the Allies in the West and in the East, and thus preventing any joint action,” and would “draw off Russian, French, and British strength from Germany’s fronts—to the Caucasus front, the Dardanelles and the Mesopotamian and Egyptian fronts.” The total number of enemy troops thus affected, he thought, might amount to about one million. In a memorandum to the German Foreign Office, written on 6 August 1914, he made no mention, however, of fomenting a Muslim jihad against the Allies. A supporter of the modernizing movement in Turkey, he almost certainly had reservations about stirring up old religious passions, even while recognizing the value to Germany of such a strategy. (The memorandum is quoted in Ernst Jäckh, The Rising Crescent. Turkey Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow [New York: Farrar and Reinhart, 1944], pp. 122–23; see also Malte Fuhrmann, “Germany’s Adventures in the Orient,” in Volker Langbehn and Mohammed Salama, eds., German Colonialism. Race, the Holocaust and Postwar Germany [New York: Columbia University Press, 2011], pp. 123–45 [p. 136]). Jäckh moved in a different direction from Oppenheim after the War. He became a supporter of the Weimar republic, helped to found the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik in Berlin, and left Germany for Britain after Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. In 1940 he took up a teaching position at Columbia University, where he was one of the founders of the University’s Middle East Institute. He died in New York City in 1959. Oppenheim, in contrast, as we shall see, remained in Germany throughout the years of National Socialism and contributed to the formulation and execution of the regime’s Middle Eastern policy.

2 See, for instance:,1518,741928,00.html. See also:;;; [All links in footnotes active on 30 September, 2012].


4 Gary Beckman in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 123 (2003): 253. Cf. the very different view of Oppenheim as having “initiated the creation of global political Islam” in its modern form (“made in Europe by non-Muslims, exported to, adapted in, and globalized beyond the Muslim lands”) presented by Wolfgang Schwanitz, “Euro-Islam by ‘Jihad Made in Germany’,” in Nathalie Clayer and Eric Germain, eds., Islam in Interwar Europe (London: Hurst, 2008), pp. 271–301 (p. 301). See also Schwanitz, “Die Berliner Djihadisierung des Islam: wie Max von Oppenheim die islamische Revolution schürte,” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Publikationen, 10 November 2004 ( Abu Jihad”—father of the modern political jihad—and, as the historian Martin Kröger acknowledged with regret in 2010, this catchy tag has stuck, as have the tags attached to other European archaeologists and government agents in the Middle East, such as T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Gertrude Bell (“Queen of the Desert”). (“Max von Oppenheim im Auswärtigen Dienst,” lecture to the Historische Gesellschaft of the Deutsche Bank,

Table des illustrations

Légende Frontispiece. “My Tent” (Max von Oppenheim in the desert). “Mein Zelt” (My Tent). Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf durch den Haurān, die Syrische Wüste und Mesopotamien (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1899), vol. 1, frontispiece.
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