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The Passion of Max von Oppenheim

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Lionel Gossman

I. Family Background, Diplomatic Career, Role in World War I

6. Promoter of German Economic Expansion and the Berlin-Baghdad Railway

Texte intégral

  • 1 Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahre 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der As (...)

1The fervent German nationalism sustaining Oppenheim’s activities as the “Kaiser’s spy” and adviser to the Auswärtiges Amt in Oriental matters was not confined to the sphere of politics. Even his work as explorer, archaeologist and ethnographer was aimed not only at advancing knowledge and satisfying his own genuine curiosity, but also at enhancing Germany’s standing in the world and winning for her, through extraordinary achievement in scholarship and culture, the “place in the sun” to which, like all devoted supporters of the Wilhelminian Kaiserreich, he believed she was entitled. Thus it was his intention that his discovery of Tell Halaf should bring honour and glory to Germany, as the engineer Carl Humann’s excavations at Pergamon had done several decades earlier. Though he was unable to undertake a thorough excavation of the site when he first discovered it in 1899 but had to replace the stone figures he had found and cover them over again with earth, Oppenheim wrote, it was his earnest hope that “it would be vouchsafed to German scholars to bring them back out again from their graves and deliver them to our German museums.“1 Likewise, while the baron may have defected from the family business and sought instead to align himself with the aristocratic ideals and way of life of the conservative German ruling class rather than with the bourgeois values of industriousness, entrepreneurial speculativeness, and intelligent pursuit of financial gain that had presided over the Oppenheims’ rise to wealth and social distinction, the banker’s son was by no means oblivious of the role economics played in increasing a country’s power and prestige. The example of England, which he seems to have had constantly in mind, left little doubt about the connection between industrial and commercial might and world dominance and, as we shall see, he quickly perceived the coming preponderance of the United States.

  • 2 C. Becker, Deutsch-türkische Interessengemeinschaft (Bonn, 1914), p. 17, cit. in Lothar Rathmann, (...)
  • 3 See ch. 2, note 30 above.
  • 4 Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf durch den Haurān und die Syrisc (...)
  • 5 Lothar Rathmann, Stossrichtung Nahost 1914–1918, p. 29, note 25. Even in his relations with the Be (...)

2By the time the First World War broke out, it was not unusual for German scholars of the “Orient” to emphasize their country’s economic interest in the region. In 1914 Carl Becker, for instance, wrote that “we have the greatest interest in supporting Turkey for a double reason: because of our geographical location and because our industries need to be able to expand. The more pieces of the Ottoman Empire are broken off and fall under the sway of our economic competitors, the narrower the field of activity available to us. Who will protect the railways we are building and the agricultural developments we are financing from Kurdish hordes or marauding Arab Bedouins? We can never penetrate with our armies deep into the interior of a sovereign Turkey. Our economic and cultural investment there can be protected only by the Turks themselves.”2 Oppenheim, for his part, had been attentive to economic matters from the very beginning of his career. He had shown keen interest, as noted earlier, in the commercial exploitation of the German East African colony when he visited it on one of his “Forschungsreisen” [journeys of research and exploration] in the early 1890s3 and in the narrative of that journey through Syria and Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf, published in 1899, along with meticulous geographical descriptions and sympathetic accounts of the peoples and the artistic treasures of the region, he included several pages on railway construction and railway projects in the area of Haifa, Beirut and Damascus, information on their financing, and thoughts on their chances of profitability.4 According to one scholar, he at one time supported proposals by the extreme right-wing Alldeutscher Verband [Pan-German League] to settle German colonists on land in the Middle East.5 He was an early and enthusiastic advocate of a German-devised project, for which the Kaiser had obtained authorization from the Sultan in 1898 and which was viewed with disquiet by the other great European powers, especially the British, to extend the railway line linking Haydarpaşa on the Eastern side of the Bosphorus, directly across from Constantinople, with Angora (present-day Ankara) and Konya in central Anatolia, to Baghdad (and eventually, it was hoped, to Basra on the Persian Gulf). To Oppenheim, as to many others at the time, the construction of a railway line running continuously from Berlin to Baghdad, from Germany to the East, would be a major step both in expanding German power and influence and in undercutting British dominance of the trade with Asia through the Suez canal, while also, at the same time, improving the lot of the local population.

  • 6 Dr. Baron Max von Oppenheim, Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, trans. Gerald Wheele (...)
  • 7 Letter to Moritz, cit. Teichmann, “Grenzgänger zwischen Orient und Okzident,” Faszination Orient, (...)
  • 8 Ross Burns, Monuments of Syria: An Historical Guide (London: I.B. Tauris, 1992, rev. edn 2009), p. (...)

3In fact, the journey north from Damascus in 1899, in the course of which Oppenheim made his truly momentous discovery of Tell Halaf—the basis of his reputation as an archaeologist—was undertaken in response, as he later explained, to a request “by Georg von Siemens, one of the founders of the Deutsche Bank, to determine the best route for the stretch of the proposed Baghdad railway between Aleppo and Mosul.”6 The Deutsche Bank, of which Siemens was then a director, was heading the consortium behind the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway project, and it was entirely natural that it should seek the advice of an experienced traveller in the Middle East who also happened to be a member of one of Germany’s most prominent banking families. The Auswärtiges Amt would not allow Oppenheim to accept this commission openly, however, for fear that the participation of its Cairo agent in the controversial project would be viewed with displeasure and suspicion by the British. Deeply unhappy about being blocked from taking part in a project in which he was keenly interested (“eines, wie Sie wissen, längst von mir gehegten Lieblingsplanes,” as he wrote to Bernhard Moritz, a friend and fellow-Orientalist), Oppenheim undertook to travel through the area in a private capacity and to carry out the commission simultaneously with and under cover of an extension into Northeastern Syria of his ongoing ethnographic study of the Bedouins.7 It is easy to understand how the discoverer of Tell Halaf came to be (mis)identified in a recent (1992) English-language guide to the ancient monuments of Syria, as “Baron Max von Oppenheim, a Prussian engineer involved in surveying the route of the Berlin-Baghdad railway.”8

  • 9 Or was it three days? In the “Bericht” (Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 36, 2 (...)
  • 10 Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahre 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der As (...)
  • 11 Thus Oppenheim advised against attempting to extend the line eastwards from Ankara because of the (...)
  • 12 Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahre 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der Asiatischen Türkei, (...)
  • 13 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, pp. 1–2.

4The 30-page Bericht über eine im Jahr 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der asiatischen Türkei [Report on a journey of exploration in the Asiatic territories of Turkey undertaken in 1899], which Oppenheim chose to publish in 1901 in the journal of the Berlin Geographical Society, rather than in a journal devoted to archaeology or the ancient cultures of the Middle East, reflected the conditions that had presided over the journey. It offered a description of the places visited on the trip prior to the discovery of Tell Halaf, a brief account of the Tell Halaf site with some speculations as to its origin and character, and a short survey, with some illustrations, of the first striking finds at the site. It also included, however, a comparative account of the various possible routes for the construction of the Eastern sections of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, along with an analysis of the economic advantages and disadvantages of each route and the likely economic impact its selection would have. Indeed, just as only a day and a half 9 could be devoted to exploration of the Tell Halaf site because the travellers had to “keep moving on” [wir mussten weiter marschieren], more space was allotted in the Bericht to discussion of the railway project (the last seven pages or so of the published report) than to Tell Halaf (three pages). Oppenheim conceded that “it would be inappropriate here,” i.e. in an article in a scholarly geographical journal, “to consider in detail the question of the profitability of this project in relation to world trade, mail connections with India and East Asia, and other factors unconnected with the land itself.” But he justified devoting so much space to the projected rail line on the grounds that “carefully observing the economic conditions and prospects of a land and its people is as much part of the task of a scientific exploration of unknown regions, with due consideration of the history of each, as studying them from a purely geographical, archaeological, or other similar point of view.”10 The reader of Oppenheim’s report learned which of the routes currently under consideration for the various sections of the Eastern part of the line was likely to be easiest and least expensive to build,11 what mineral deposits (copper, coal, oil) along the proposed routes were or might be expected to become available for commercial exploitation once the railway had been constructed, what the possibilities were for more intensive agricultural cultivation (cotton, tropical products) in particular areas, and how likely the various populations were to discern the value to them of the access provided by the railway and to use it to their advantage. “We Germans,” he wrote, “are to be congratulated on being called upon to lend a hand in this great work of civilization, which will at the same time open up new markets for our German industries and in turn give us access to indispensable subtropical products.”12 Oppenheim subsequently expressed his “great joy that my proposal to take [the line] through the middle of the desert by way of Jerablus and Ras el Ain was accepted.”13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 1. “Um für den Bau der Bagdadbahn die dortigen Erfahrungen bei der Erschliessung noch un (...)
  • 15 “I have delightful memories,” he wrote later, “of the important lessons learned, and of the friend (...)

5Three years after the 1899 journey through northern Syria Oppenheim’s interest in the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway project was still very much alive. He made two trips to the United States, in 1902 and 1904, to study how a combination of private enterprise and federal policy had encouraged the vast railway expansion westward and to ascertain how “areas hitherto unopened or only slightly opened were brought to the highest pitch of prosperity through new railways.”14 He appears not to have been acting for his own personal benefit or for that of the family bank. The latter, though it had been heavily involved in railway construction in Germany, was not involved in the financing of the Baghdad railway. At the same time, there is no evidence that he was attached to the German Embassy and on an official mission, as he claimed in his 1931 book Der Tell Halaf. The outcome of those two trips, which were widely discussed in the American press and during which he was fêted and entertained by leading families in New York and Newport,15 was a 350 page volume entitled Zur Entwickelung des Bagdadbahngebietes und insbesondere Syriens und Mesopotamiens unter Nutzanwendung amerikanischer Erfahrungen [On the Development of the Areas through which the Baghdad Railway will Pass and, in particular, of Syria and Mesopotamia in the Light of American Experiences], published in Berlin in 1904 at the expense of the Deutsche Bank. The book, doubtless intended to stimulate investor interest, consisted first, “of an investigation of the American situation, of the support given to private initiatives by public agencies,” which was likely to be of great interest to the German bankers involved in the Berlin-to-Baghdad project, inasmuch as they had to work out an appropriate collaboration of private enterprise and the Turkish State; second, detailed reports on the areas through which the line to Baghdad was expected to be built and which would thus be more firmly connected with Constantinople and thereby with Germany; and third, the labour situation and the relevant agencies and authorities the builders of the railway might have to deal with. Overall, the book proposed a vision of a revived Middle East closely connected with Europe and above all with Germany. In this vision Oppenheim’s passionate devotion to Germany and his attraction to and interest in the Islamic world were seamlessly woven together.

6“At present the Orient is learning from Europe,” Oppenheim noted. In turn, “Europe is learning from America.” Railways in America had been the most efficient means of spreading civilization to the West; from that experience Europe in turn could learn how the Baghdad Railway could be made to play a similar role for Europe. America, he wrote with some apprehension, “constituted a growing economic threat to Europe,” both because of its vast wealth and because of the efficient way in which private enterprise and public policy worked together there in the national interest. At the same time, however, much as he admired the country’s openness, optimism, and energy, he warned of coming crises in America. Europe, in his view, would be well advised to “make herself independent of America,” and the Baghdad Railway, by opening up vast new areas of the Middle East, would offer an alternative to America both as a market and as a supplier of natural resources. On her own, Germany could not stand up to the growing power of the United States. For that reason it was necessary to reorganize Europe as an economic power and to develop the Middle East as a complementary region. Thus what was needed was a transfer of knowledge and civilization: from America by way of Europe to the Middle East. Germany, he judged, was “best suited to take the lead in this process” since, having no territorial designs on the Ottoman Empire, she enjoyed the trust and friendship of the Sultan and the Muslim populations of the Empire. The greatest potential for development of the region, in Oppenheim’s view, lay in the development of agriculture in the once “fertile crescent” and in the exploitation of the petroleum resources of the region. The principal agent of this process would be the privately financed Baghdad railway in “tactful” collaboration with the government of Turkey. Oppenheim recommended that the sources of financing (the German banks) remain discreetly in the background: “The Sultan and the populations of the areas affected should have no doubt that the development of their land was for the benefit of Muslims and as far as possible the work of Muslims.” If he did at one time subscribe, as has been claimed, to the Alldeutsch plan for setting up colonies of Germans to develop the Middle East, he had left that idea behind him. There should be no question of colonists and missionaries: “The area to be opened up by the Baghdad Railway belongs to Islam.”

  • 16 See Gabriele Teichmann, “Fremder wider Willen,” pp. 239–40; idem, “Grenzgänger zwischen Orient und (...)
  • 17 Die Beduinen, vol. 1, pp. 8–9.

7As it turned out, the visionary aspect of Oppenheim’s book did not appeal to Siemens’ successor at the Deutsche Bank, Arthur von Gwinner: “No one who bears responsibility for large sums of other people’s savings can invest several hundred million marks of German capital without adequate guarantees,” he commented dryly. Oppenheim’s predictions about the development of the region were no more than muddled “drivel” that ought to have stayed in the inkpot; the explorer himself had been mainly interested in “drawing attention to himself and making himself seem important.”16 Years later, however, in his book on the Bedouins, Oppenheim again insisted that “the whole area was covered with ‘Tells’ (hillocks concealing ruins), bearing witness to an earlier time when it had supported a large population. Besides,” he added, “it was by no means, as many people think, a barren desert. It was neither a sandy wasteland nor a marshland. It was part of that territory which Professor J.H. Breasted—the late Director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute—defined as ‘the fertile crescent,’ and in which in ancient times great kingdoms and princedoms had flourished.”17

  • 18 There is a copy of this pamphlet in the Archives of the Auswärtiges Amt (see A Catalog of Files an (...)

8That Oppenheim took economic matters very seriously and was keenly interested in them is further confirmed by a memorandum printed by the Imperial Printing Office in 1916, apparently for distribution to various embassies and Auswärtiges Amt personnel. Entitled Die Nachrichtenstelle der Kaiserlich Deutschen Botschaft in Konstantinopel und die deutsche wirtschaftliche Propaganda in der Türkei, von Max Freiherrn von Oppenheim, Kaiserlichen Minister-Residenten [The Intelligence Bureau of the Imperial German Embassy in Constantinople and German Economic Propaganda in Turkey, by Baron Max von Oppenheim, Imperial Minister Resident], the 30-page booklet emphasized the economic importance to Germany of Turkey and the Ottoman lands as a trading partner in which Germany already had invested heavily and which had great potential as a market for the exports of German industry. Eleven pages of carefully designed tables provided comparative statistics of the total value of Turkey’s trade in 1913–1914 with twenty of its foreign trading partners (in which Germany occupied third place after England and Austria-Hungary), a break-down of imports and exports to each of those countries according to product categories, and a further break-down of these twentyeight categories into sub-categories.18 Apart from justifying his own activity as organizer of the Nachrichtenstelle, the intelligence and propaganda bureau in Berlin and Constantinople, Oppenheim’s chief objective in the pamphlet was to persuade his countrymen and their government that it is in Germany’s interest to take advantage of the wartime political alliance with the Ottomans and the goodwill enjoyed by Germany, according to him, in the Muslim population, in order to secure a prominent place for Germany, after the war, both as an investor in the Ottoman economy and as a major trading partner. According to Oppenheim, this required a concerted effort to replace the hitherto dominant French culture by distributing German magazines, brochures, and films, especially those that concern the German economy and German achievements in industry, to schools, clubs, local cinemas, and the Nachrichtensäle (the reading-rooms he had set up in various locations in Turkey), and by showing how German products—agricultural machines, for instance—and German know-how could benefit the local populations and help them develop economically.

Notes

1 Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahre 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der Asiatischen Türkei,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 36, 2 (1901): 69–99 (p. 91).

2 C. Becker, Deutsch-türkische Interessengemeinschaft (Bonn, 1914), p. 17, cit. in Lothar Rathmann, Stossrichtung Nahost 1914–1918. Zur Expansionspolitik des deutschen Imperialismus im ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin: Rütten & Loenig, 1963), pp. 29–30.

3 See ch. 2, note 30 above.

4 Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf durch den Haurān und die Syrische Wüste (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1899), vol. 1, pp. 21–23.

5 Lothar Rathmann, Stossrichtung Nahost 1914–1918, p. 29, note 25. Even in his relations with the Bedouins, a key contact and an indispensable source of information about them, according to Oppenheim himself, was Mohammed Ibn Bessam, “one of the most important wholesale merchants in the Arab world, whose family was close to the all-powerful Rashidis [the longtime rivals of the Saudis as rulers of Arabia], and had branches of their business in Mecca and Jiddah, Damascus and Baghdad, Bombay, where they supplied horses to the British army […], as well as Cairo and Tripoli.” (Die Beduinen [Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1939], vol. 1, p. 7). It seems fair to assume that the interest in economic matters of the banker’s son from Cologne facilitated the formation of the close relationship he came to enjoy with the wealthy Arab trader.

6 Dr. Baron Max von Oppenheim, Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, trans. Gerald Wheeler (London and New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, n.d. [1933]), p. 1. This is the authorised English translation of Der Tell Halaf. Eine neue Kultur im ältesten Mesopotamien (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1931). Wherever possible, references will be to this translation. Reviewing the English text in the TLS in 1933 (8 June, p. 395), the British archaeologist Campbell Thompson observed that “Baron von Oppenheim, who was originally in the service of the German diplomatic mission in Egypt in 1896, was sent to prospect for the line of the Baghdad railway” and that it was while on this mission that he came upon Tell Halaf, which “fired the Baron’s desire to become an archaeologist.”

7 Letter to Moritz, cit. Teichmann, “Grenzgänger zwischen Orient und Okzident,” Faszination Orient, p. 40. See also Oppenheim’s own account of this venture in Die Beduinen (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1939), vol. 1, p. 8: “Georg von Siemens, the Director of the Deutsche Bank, had approached me with the request that I lead an expedition that was to advise the bank about the best route for the proposed Baghdad railway. At the request of the Auswärtiges Amt, however, I had to refrain from accepting this invitation as well as from further publication on the topic of the Orient. My superiors judged it unacceptable for an agent of the Political Section of the Auswärtiges Amt to treat matters in which the interests of England and France were far greater than ours. As a result, the expedition to seek out the best route for the Baghdad railway was led by the German Consul-General in Constantinople, Dr. Stemmrich, who was responsible for our commercial interests in Turkey.” Nonetheless, “I was at least able to respond to a further request from Herr Siemens—to inform him in a private capacity of what I judged to be the best route for the line on the especially difficult stretch between Aleppo and Mosul. To my great delight, my suggestions were adopted.”

8 Ross Burns, Monuments of Syria: An Historical Guide (London: I.B. Tauris, 1992, rev. edn 2009), p. 295.

9 Or was it three days? In the “Bericht” (Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 36, 2 [1901]: 69–99) Oppenheim writes of working on the site for “leider nur anderthalb Tage” [unfortunately only a day and a half], but in his 1931 book Der Tell Halaf. Eine neue Kultur im ältesten Mesopotamien (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1931), p. 16 (Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 8), he refers to the preliminary excavation as having lasted “nur drei Tage lang” [three days only].

10 Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahre 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der Asiatischen Türkei,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 36, 2 (1901): 69–99 (p. 91).

11 Thus Oppenheim advised against attempting to extend the line eastwards from Ankara because of the mountainous terrain and advised instead building outwards from Konya to Aleppo and Mosul and creating an extension to the Mediterranean, so that inner Mesopotamia could have access to a port. In a recent popular study by Wolfgang Korn, Schienen für den Sultan. Die Bagdadbahn, Wilhelm II, Abenteuerer und Spione (Berlin: Fackelträger, 2009), it is claimed, in contrast, that “Oppenheim had hardly carried out the task assigned to him, which was to look into whether and how the topography might be suitable for laying a railway line. As he did not deliver on that, the Baghdad Railway Company had to send out its surveyors and engineers to determine an appropriate route without the benefit of prior information” (pp. 141–42).

12 Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahre 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der Asiatischen Türkei,” p. 99.

13 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, pp. 1–2.

14 Ibid., p. 1. “Um für den Bau der Bagdadbahn die dortigen Erfahrungen bei der Erschliessung noch unbebauter Landstrecken für die grossen Eisenbahnsysteme zu studieren.” (Cit. Wilhelm Treue, “Max Freiherr von Oppenheim: Der Archäologe und die Politik,” Historische Zeitschrift, 209 [1969]: 37–74 [p. 55]).

15 “I have delightful memories,” he wrote later, “of the important lessons learned, and of the friendly welcome and the great hospitality I met with on this occasion all over the United States” (Tell Halaf: A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 2).

16 See Gabriele Teichmann, “Fremder wider Willen,” pp. 239–40; idem, “Grenzgänger zwischen Orient und Okzident. Max von Oppenheim 1860–1946,” in Faszination Orient, pp. 40–45; Wilhelm Treue, “Max Freiherr von Oppenheim: Der Archäologe und die Politik,” p. 56; and Wolfgang Korn, Schienen für den Sultan. Die Bagdadbahn, Wilhelm II, Abenteuerer und Spione, pp. 141–42. The Library of Congress has one of the extremely rare copies of Oppenheim’s Zur Entwickelung des Bagdadbahngebietes und insbesondere Syriens und Mesopotamiens unter Nutzanwendung amerikanischer Erfahrungen (Berlin: Printed by Liebheit & Thiesen, 1904); call number 4DS.905.

17 Die Beduinen, vol. 1, pp. 8–9.

18 There is a copy of this pamphlet in the Archives of the Auswärtiges Amt (see A Catalog of Files and Microfilms of the German Foreign Ministry Archives 1920–1945, ed. George O. Kent, 4 vols. [Stanford: The Hoover Institution, 1962–1972], vol. 3, p. 375). I gratefully acknowledge the kindness of the Universitäts-und Staatsbibliothek Köln in making a copy available to me by Interlibrary Loan.

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