Mission to Kabul, a Footnote in Weltpolitik STODDARD MARTIN


Wilhelm II

Mission to Kabul: a Footnote in Weltpolitik

Stoddard Martin discerns a curious continuity in German foreign policy

The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul: A Secret Expedition to Afghanistan in World War 1, Jules Stewart, I. B. Tauris, London, 2014, HB, £20

It does not surprise me that the U.S. National Security Agency should have wanted to tap the telephone of Angela Merkel. A Prussian ‘eastie’ who becomes leader of the conservative, historically western Christian Democratic Party must be, at least on the surface of it, a riddle wrapped in an enigma[i]. Frau Merkel goes religiously to the Wagner festival at Bayreuth and cheers volubly in Brazil for her World Cup-winning football team while sitting two seats away from Vladimir Putin – a German speaker who spent nine years running the KGB in East Germany’s most west-damaged city, Dresden. Following the Iraq War-opposing chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, deposed to become Germany’s main dealmaker with Gazprom, Mrs Merkel has been billed as a west-friendly leader, the German Margaret Thatcher etc. She smiled at George W. Bush, befriended David Cameron (though doing little to help him against his Euro-sceptic flank) and appears at the same time to be the originator of Barack Obama’s policy dictum, ‘Don’t do stupid stuff!’ She is alleged to have conspired to bring down one crooked European colleague, Silvio Berlusconi, yet overtly campaigned to keep another in power, Nicolas Sarkozy; latterly she is said to have had good relations with the former[ii], while formerly it was claimed she had bad relations with the latter. Who is she really? The NSA might be forgiven for wondering, even if a likely answer is that she is a sphinx without a secret.

A German friend asked by an English colleague ‘What does Mrs Merkel want?’ responded without hesitation, ‘To win the war’. This may or may not give the game away. What is reasonable to posit is that Angela Merkel, possibly more than any postwar German leader, is the true face of her country’s historic role. In foreign affairs she speaks softly, smiles, proceeds with caution, keeps a bit under the radar with an eye always on the national interest. But what is that interest precisely? To the extent to which it is opaque, the NSA would not be doing its job not to try to find out, just as the BND (Germany’s equivalent, Bundesnachtrichtendienst) would be failing in its remit not to try to ascertain America’s deepest intentions, thus phone-taps on Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, to which it recently admitted. Full score to both sides on that issue, and quits. It feels like shadow play and is possibly in aid of getting German inclusion into the Echelon system of intelligence sharing, up ‘til now restricted to the ‘five eyes’ of old Anglo-Saxony: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Who might object to modern German inclusion? Perhaps mainly those who feel that their historic primacy is being eroded: on the American side Britain, which helped set up the CIA in the first place, on the German, France, which has been the postwar face of European military policy, for obvious reasons. Old spooks may be cautious about inviting in old enemies. But Germany has by now long been second to the U.S. as the major western economic and political power, so it is only logical that she should be its principal partner in strategic management, even if adjustment to this status must carry on slowly enough so that the others can get used to their new places at the table.

The traditional view is that Germany is a land power which, apart from Lebensraum in contiguous regions, has little colonial ambition. This may have been true before the later 19th century, though the Holy Roman Empire – Germany’s First Reich – pushed boundaries continually west, south and east. Under the Hohenstaufen, it seemed to invade Italy every summer, only to retreat in the autumn, either from fever or insurrection. The emperors went with other potentates of Christendom on the Crusades – Barbarossa is as much of a name to conjure with in that context as Coeur de Lion – and this was arguably the start of European imperialism. The Crusades may be filed in the category of contiguous land grab – Vienna to Constantinople to Jerusalem is an unbroken trek – and in future centuries Baghdad to Persia to Afghanistan merely continue that outreach into ‘Aryan’ heartlands. This form of German foreign policy is what The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul is about, taking the subject from the establishment of the Second Reich to the present day. There were of course movements in other directions once Bismarck had consolidated that Reich: Germany, while not participant in the carve-up of the New World and Africa with England, France and Spain, or even little Portugal and Holland, in the 16th-19th centuries, did under Victoria’s favourite grandson, Wilhelm II, throw itself energetically into that ‘great game’, with its expats in the Americas and China and explorers in west and east Africa having major impact on development in those far-flung regions.

The Moslem world became a major target. In Morocco Germany was involved in a dispute that threatened world war a decade before the first one broke out. In Ottoman lands she cultivated friends from Constantinople to Baghdad, leading the decayed empire to align itself with the Central Powers. Once world war had commenced, the Kaiser (rumoured for propaganda reasons to have embraced Islam) approved a mission to Afghanistan so as to threaten British India sufficiently that it could not send troops to the western front. The mission was led by a Bavarian soldier, Oskar von Niedermayer, and a Prussian diplomat, Otto von Hentig, the former to train fighters, the latter to persuade the king to forswear cession of foreign policy to the Raj as well as the subsidies that secured it. German activity in this guise appeared on the side of indigenous self-determination; the Indian revolutionary Mahendra Pratap was also in the party, which was partly directed from the Oriental desk of the Auswartiges Amt in Berlin by the lifelong enthusiast for anti-colonial jihad, Max von Oppenheim. In Baghdad German operatives stimulated insurrectionist elements, as did ‘the German Lawrence’ Wilhelm Wassmuss in the deserts of Iran. Meanwhile, at Kabul, Niedermayer  trained up an army of 40,000 while Hentig made far-sighted attempts to influence ‘hearts and minds’. After German reversals in 1916, the mission had to be abandoned, and the pair returned home by divergent yet equally perilous routes, Hentig’s through China and the U.S. involving arrests and escapes which made the British F.O. view him as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel. Jules Stewart tells a tale of adventure as if out of Conrad or Kipling; his main purpose, however, is to show how the mission laid groundwork for major developments in Afghanistan in the postwar epoch and after.

Weimar Germans came to build roads, dams, schools and infrastructure. They provided credits, even contracts at a loss, to get their feet under the table – the Kabul to Berlin air service via Baghdad, for example, lost money but constituted a public relations coup. Given the inflation of the ‘20s and unemployment of the ‘30s, German engineers and designers were willing to expatriate themselves at a much cheaper rate than their British counterparts; a result is that by 1937 Germany was shipping steel to Afghanistan worth 2.8 million rupees while Britain was only managing 38,600 worth. Hitler, being racist, was loath to back any project which might advance Indian independence – like many Nazis, he hoped for common cause with a British Empire made German-friendly – thus in the second war, Hentig, now at the Auswartiges Amt himself, was unable to advance any mission like the one he had fronted on the ground for the Kaiser. As a footnote to his story, he was apparently able to help persuade the Führer that Germany had an interest in encouraging a Jewish state in Palestine: though demonstrably not an anti-Semite, Hentig played on the prejudices of his leader shrewdly enough to promote a cause that might have otherwise seemed anathema[iii]. The anti-Semitic French writer Céline liked to rant that, whatever Hitler preached, the Foreign Office in Berlin was still run by ‘yids’[iv]; and while this may be a flagrant instance of Célinian rigolade, Stewart argues that Max von Oppenheim was still partly directing German Middle Eastern policy behind the scenes: ‘There is in fact every reason to believe that [he] was… actively involved in relations and negotiations between officials of the Third Reich and leaders of the pro-Axis Arab independence and unity movements.’[v]

Postwar Germany, once it had regained its footing, continued to ply a path towards Afghanistan, as well as over the 14,000 miles of country separating it from Kabul. The German capital was selected as site for a first major international conference about the future of that faraway land after bombing of the twin towers by Al Qaeda in 2001 resulted in western action against its Taliban government. Germany provided the third largest NATO force operating in the region; in the tradition of Niedermayer it busied itself training army and police, while in that of Hentig it encouraged a policy of ‘hearts and minds’. Closer to home Germany has been one of the six nations directly involved in negotiating nuclear matters with Iran; and in Iraq, despite Schröder’s famous refusal to join in the younger Bush’s ‘abenteuer’, it has now taken a lead in European action against ISIS to defend Kurdistan. Its relations with Turkey remain strong, and its links to Israel – though often opaque – are essential. Thus we can see the thrust and continuity of German foreign policy without even beginning to discuss how it operates in regard to Russia, the Caucasus, China, Africa and Latin America. For a nation which still believes it prudent to take a low profile, it is increasingly ‘batting at its own weight’, if not – to paraphrase David Cameron – above it. From a strategic point of view intelligent policy-makers in old Anglo-Saxony must recognize the benefit of this development in a fused ‘new world order’. One of them, General Sir David Richards, has contributed an appreciative foreword to Jules Stewart’s fast-moving account of an Ur-modern German covert op. The book is a page-turner, and I. B. Tauris should once again be commended for having produced in handsome form fine insight into the historical forces at work in a complex and conflicted region of our contemporary world.

[i] cf. Churchill in a radio broadcast in October 1939: ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.’

[ii] By Berlusconi himself, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight earlier this year.

[iii] A memorandum Hentig wrote ‘served as a basis for the Report to Hitler by the Foreign Office’; this led to a private meeting in which he argued the case to a bemused Führer. Stewart cites among sources Nora Levin, The Holocaust: the Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945 (New York: Crowell, 1968), p. 132.

[iv] See my ‘Celine Redux‘ in Quarterly Review (Autumn 2011).

[v] Stewart quotes Lionel Grossman, The Passion of Max von Oppenheim (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2013), p. 232.


Stoddard Martin is an author and publisher



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