It’s utterly compelling. Sadly, it’s compelling in the same way as a car crash. Or rather, like some impossibly intricate multiple pile-up, stretching out years and hundreds of miles. “How the Middle East ended up in such a godawful mess” was Liadnan’s own subtitle.
The book covers the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the modern Middle East, so from the start of the First World War to the attempts at agreement that followed it, up until 1922. In large part, it’s told from the perspective of British interests, and often Fromkin seems to concentrate on two key figures – David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
This is in keeping with a particular kind of history that likes to pinpoint the Great Men Who Made Stuff Happen. Just like in Knight Rider, one man can make a difference. And yet the one man who really changes everyone’s fortunes is the bloke who single-handedly won the First World War. Bothersomely, he was French.
“Suddenly – and unexpectedly – an Allied breakthrough came in Bulgaria, where General Louis-Félix-François Franchet d’Esperey, the new French commander of the Allied forces in hitherto-neglected Salonika in Greece, launched a lightning offensive at the end of the summer. Bulgaria collapsed and, on 26 September 1918, asked for an armistice. The request should have been forwarded to the Supreme War Council of the Allies in Paris, but Franchet d’Esperey dared not chance the delay. He composed the terms of an armistice himself, and had it signed within a matter of days so that eh could turn immediately to mount a devastating offensive on the Danube against the Germans and Austrians, thus successfully executing the ‘Eastern’ strategy that Lloyd George had been advocating in vain ever since the war began.”
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, p. 363.
Fromkin argues that this turned out to be a bit of a nuisance, as Lloyd George and US President Wilson weren’t quite ready with a plan for an armistice, at least not one that would hand them the best spoils. The war was suddenly over, and the West’s leaders were running to catch up with new powers in the Middle East.
It’s a monstrously complex mix of stories, plots and conspiracies, and Fromkin thankfully divides even his short chapters into sections. Yet I found I kept having to refer back to the index to remind myself who was who, and there’s just four maps with which to try and untangle the mess of various place names and people.
Though the grand narrative is rather hard work, Fromkin peppers it with tremendous and brilliant detail. He explains and critiques the self-mythology of TE Lawrence (who was blushingly caught at the Albert Hall, enjoying a sell-out performance of a film version of his own heroic endeavours). He gives context to the Tashkent adventures of Colonel Bailey, and even the misadventures of Enver Pasha are full of weird and lurid intrigue. British – and French and American – interests were, though, little troubled by any of this contemporary complexity.
European powers had famously seen the Ottoman Empire as that “sick old man” for a good century, but it served as a useful buffer between the imperial machinations of Britain and Russia. As the venerable Dr Challis argues in her published work, the Crimean War was just one example of the Ottomans’ relative weakness. For the next few decades, British warships patrolled her waters and British travellers helped themselves to her antiquities.
But Western assumptions about the East meant Britain massively underestimated the Ottoman position on the outbreak of war. Fromkin is good at following the various diplomatic intrigues – British, French, German and Russian – that saw the Ottomans joining the war and, rather to the surprise of those four powers, not tumbling out of it pretty much instantly.
The Middle East region was important to Britain as the link between its colonial riches in Africa and India, and much of Britain’s attempts at settlement hoped to create a safe trade route stretching from Cape Town to Australia. Fromkin is good at explaining the economics of this; that the European powers were parasitic of Africa and Asia, and that this to some extent justified the attention Lloyd George gave the Middle East while (as the Times argued at the time) ignoring important issues of welfare at home.
The economics is also important in explaining why Britain’s hold over these territories unravelled. The local populations only suffered such regimes because revolt was put down so brutally. As with Iraq after 2003, the new treaty agreements needed to be more than just words, but deploying lots of soldiers to keep the peace proved to have to high a price. It wasn’t just the money; the British people were exhausted by four years of appalling warfare, like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
“It has been estimated that the total of military and civilian casualties in all of Europe’s domestic and international conflicts in the 100 years between 1815 and 1915 was no greater than a single day’s combat losses in any of the great battles of 1916.”
Ibid., p. 232.
As a result, the domestic pressure for post-war demobilisation scuppered all Britian’s efforts, and at a time when Lloyd George had just expanded the territories over which Britain was keeping watch.
Where Fromkin disagrees with Rob Newman is in the role of oil before war broke out. Churchill was, Fromkin argues, unusual in seeing the importance of the region’s oil prior to 1914. The military importance of oil was generally recognised by 1918, but Churchill, arranging before the war,
“for the British government to purchase a majority shareholding in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, aroused a great deal of opposition, especially within the Government of India, from British officials who did not see the need for it.”
Ibid., p. 354.
That said, this doesn’t quite square with Fromkin’s own account that,
“a month before the outbreak of the Ottoman war in the autumn of 1914, London had ordered a standby force to be sent from India to the Persian Gulf to protect Britain’s oil supplies from Persia in case they should be threatened.”
Ibid., p. 200.
So if not about the oil, what was it all about? As Fromkin says, Britain’s concerns about Germany’s influence in the Middle East in the lead-up to the war were not about the well-being of the indigenous people. Rather they worried that, “Asia might be left as a vast slave colony in Germany’s possession, and its wealth and raw materials would fuel Germany industry and allow it to dominate the globe” (p. 357). Clearly that sort of thing should be left to the much more honourable British.
The Middle East was also important to the West for historical, cultural reasons. This was the land of the Bible, of the Iliad and the founding of civilisation as we know it. The names used for the regions in question – Syria, Mesopotamia, even Palestine – betrayed that the Western powers were some 2,000 years out of date with their local intelligence. Fromkin is good at showing what little concern there was for the contemporary, complex mix of languages, people and traditions. “The [Ottoman] empire was incoherent,” he says (p. 34).
“It was evident that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces. The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces, and the commercial predominance of the Jewish community in the city of Baghdad made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective, and widely supported.”
Ibid., p. 307.
And the Western powers tried to untangle these disparate groups with little more than the stories they’d learned at school.
“Lloyd George, who kept demanding that Britain should rule Palestine from (in the Biblical phrase) Dan to Beersheba, did not know where Dan was. He searched for it in a nineteenth-century Biblical atlas, but it was not until nearly a year after the armistice that General Allenby was able to report to him that Dan had been located and, as it was not where the Prime Minister wanted it to be, Britain asked for a boundary further north.”
Ibid., p. 400.
US President Wilson had no better weight of local knowledge to support his lofty ideals for the territorial settlement. His “experts” based their assessments on old maps and one encyclopaedia.
“The Middle Eastern group, composed of ten scholars operating out of Princeton University, did not include any specialists in the contemporary Middle East; its chairman was a specialist of the Crusades. The chairman’s son, also a member, was a specialist in Latin American studies. Among other members were an expert on the American Indian, an engineer, and two professors who specialized in ancient Persian languages and literature.”
Ibid., p. 261.
It was this lack of detail that proved fatal – literally. The disastrous Gallipoli campaign was the result of the available maps being so out of date (as well as an atrocious lack of planning about what to do once the beach had been taken).
But the West didn’t acknowledge their own shortcomings, and just assumed they knew what was best for all these funny foreign people. There's a misguided belief, perhaps a Whig liberal idea, that the locals will be glad to see us wading in, even if we don't really speak the language. Wilson’s high principles were, to be put it mildly, not practical.
“The President’s program was vague and bound to arouse millennial expectations – which made it practically certain that any agreement achieved by politicians would disappoint.”
Ibid., p. 262.
The lack of local knowledge and insight inevitably led all too often to the achievement of entirely the opposite of what was wanted.
“Nothing, however, could have provided a better description of what was going to happen at the Peace Conference than [US President] Wilson’s speeches about what was not going to happen. Peoples and provinces were indeed ‘bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were chattels or pawns in a game’. It was not the case that every settlement was ‘made in the interest and for the benefit of the population concerned’; on the contrary such settlements were made (though Wilson said they would not be) in order to provide an ‘adjustment or compromise of claims among rival states’ seeking ‘exterior influence or mastery’. Not even his own country was prepared to follow the path that he had marked out.”
Ibid., p. 390.
There were also awful consequences for groups affiliated with the Allies, which again the Allies seem not to have considered at any point. The Turks avenged themselves on those groups they took to be helping the Allies – the Armenians and Christian minority groups, and (it seems strange now that they get just a footnote) the Kurds. Constantinople and the Dardanelles were effectively held hostage by the Greeks to ensure, “Turkey’s good behavior in such matters as the treatment of Christian minorities” (p. 411).
Fromkin is also damning of many of the promises made by the Allied powers. “This was sheer dishonesty,” he says at one point, “for the Arab Bureau officers did not believe that Arabs were capable of self-government” (p. 345).
It’s ironic, too, that Feisal and other leaders in the region were told to trust the Entente powers, when those powers couldn’t even trust each other. The language used at the time gives some idea of the suspicion and contempt for any kind of foreigner, even the ones on your side. The French referred to “the brutal rapacity of our allies” (p. 442), the British spoke of Transjordan as “partially inhabited by predatory savages” (p. 443).
All this meant trouble for the various communities caught up in the disputed lands – such as the Armenians, Kurds, Assyrian or Nestorian communities. But the book especially concentrates on the plight of – and problems caused by – Jewish groups.
“London’s policy of Zionism might have been expressly designed to stir up trouble, and must have been devised by far-off officials who did not have to live and deal with local conditions.”
Ibid., p. 445.
There’s a temptation to see all of Middle Eastern conflict as a war between Jews and Arabs. That is mistaking race for culture, that all Jews are the same, that all Arabs are the same. It would be as wrong to assume that all the Christian peoples of Europe had the same national identity, or could be controlled in the same way. Even as the British made their first woolly commitments to a Jewish state, Zionism was a contentious topic among much of the Jewish community. Edwin Montagu was not alone in his concerns that a Jewish Palestine would mean exile for British Jews.
“The second son of a successful financier who had been ennobled, Montagu saw Zionism as a threat to the position in British society that he and his family had so recently, and with so much exertion, attained. Judaism, he argued, was a religion, not a nationality, and to say otherwise was to say that he was less than 100 percent British.”
Ibid., p. 294.
Fromkin struggles to reconcile British Zionism with an implicit, institutionalised anti-Semitism. I think you can reconcile these two extremes by considering the Nazis’ later plans to make Madagascar the new Jewish nation; giving the Jews their own country meant they could be excised from yours.
Fromkin shows Britain to be rabidly anti-Semitic. British intelligence (or rather, stupidity) was fast joining up the dots between disaffected Jewish groups in Germany, Jewish designs for Palestine and Jewish members of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. This seems to have been helped along by the publication in London and Paris in 1920 of “The Jewish Peril”. This translated “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion”, apparently the records of Jewish and Freemason meetings “in which they plotted to overthrow capitalism and Christianity and to establish a world state under joint rule” (p. 468).
The Protocols had first appeared in a Russian newspaper in 1903, but had really become something in 1917,
“when it was remarked that several Bolshevik leaders were Jews and the communist doctrine bore a certain resemblance to that described in the Protocols … As such, the Protocols explained – among other things – the mysterious revolts against Britain everywhere in the East.”
Ibid., p. 469.
They were, of course, a forgery and, like so many of these things, cut and pasted from earlier works (including a satire on Napoleon III and even a fantasy novel).
But British intelligence seems to have been blinded to the dodginess of this dossier by their own eagerness to believe the conspiracy. They even decided the Young Turks who’d revolted against the Sultan must be Jewish led, because one of them had a name a bit like a bloke in New York. Fromkin quotes the manic conspiracy theorising that opens John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, and then reminds us that Buchan “later became director of information services for Lloyd George’s government” (p. 247).
(It'd be easier to justify these rantings as the mad paranoia of a character in the book were the book then not to confirm the character's suspicions. Sherlock Holmes' Last Bow includes a similar cell of anarchists working to bring about war, so you could easily create a shocker plot without having to make the baddies such stereotypical Jews.)
This institutional anti-Semitism came with a high price in lives. The British refused to help arm Jabotinsky and other Jewish veterans of the British Army so that they could defend themselves from the violence that broke out in Jerusalem on 4 April 1920. No casualties were suffered where Jabotinsky's forces were (they had bought weapons from a gunrunner); all the Jewish casualties were in the Old City of Jerusalem,
“which British army units prevented Jabotinsky’s forces from entering. Adding an especially ominous tinge to the bloodletting in the Old City was the cry of the rioting mobs that ‘The Government is with us!’ That the mobs were not unjustified in their cry became evident when the British military authorities meted out punishment. Only a few rioters were punished by serious court sentences; but Jabotinsky and his colleagues were swiftly brought before a closed court martial, charged with distributing arms to the self-defense group, and sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour in the fortress-prison of Acre.”
Ibid., p. 447.
Richard Meinertzhagen, head of Military Intelligence in Cairo, was sent to Palestine to investiogate, where he discovered that the,
“British colonel who served as chief of staff of the administration was conspiring with the Arab Mufti of Jerusalem to foment new anti-Jewish riots.”
Ibid, p. 448.
This does not mean that the Jewish groups themselves were entirely innocent of all wrongs. Churchill was also prescient about problems inherent in the settlement of Palestine for the Jewish people, arguing as far back as October 1919 that the Jews “take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience” (p. 494).
Also, the West might have been wildly paranoid about the Bolsheviks and their influence. Yet Fromkin is quick to point out that “[Lenin’s] was a minority regime that had seized power by force and that held on to power by employing as many as a quarter of a million secret policemen” (pp. 476-7). There were good reasons to be paranoid.
But again and again it’s the West’s own wilful blindness, paternalistic assumptions and damnable pride that are the cause of so much of the horror inflicted on the region. Fromkin traces a line through a whole series of separate incidents, intrigues and revolts that the British believed had to be the work of a single and small group of conspirators. And then argues that that’s not wholly wrong.
“In fact there was there was an outside force linked to every one of the outbreaks of violence in the Middle East, but it was the one force whose presence remained invisible to British officialdom. It was Britain herself. In a region of the world whose inhabitants were known especially to dislike foreigners, and in a predominantly Moslem world which could abide being ruled by almost anybody except non-Moslems, a foreign Christian country ought to have expected to encounter hostility when it attempted to impose its own rule. The shadows that accompanied the British rulers wherever they went in the Middle East were in fact their own.”
The book explains how the Middle East we know today came into being. And I can’t help wondering if those same shadows accompany the British and Americans even now, only under a different name.