The Foundation Is Already Laid
Germany is no newcomer to the Middle East, though its involvement there has grown dramatically in recent years. Especially with Sunni Muslim countries not aligned with Iran, Germany is stepping up its arms sales and industrial projects, strengthening its relations with governments.
But Germany has a history with some of these nations—a history that provides a foundation for the relationships currently developing. This history traces back before World War I, when Germany forged an alliance with the Ottoman Empire.
In the early 1900s, war was brewing in Europe, and the Ottoman Empire had to decide which side to stand with. Seeking stability across their vast expanse of territory, the Ottomans attempted three times to ally with Britain: in 1908, 1911 and 1913. All three times, the alliance was rejected. The Ottoman Empire was also at odds with Russia, which was allied with Britain at the time.
So, in an attempt to hold their empire together, the Ottomans turned to Germany. The Germans were quick to accept an alliance, seeing the advantage of an ally that held sway over much of the Arabic population in the Middle East. On Aug. 2, 1914, only 11 days after Ottoman diplomats made the offer—and three days after mobilizing the German imperial army for World War I—the Germans became allies with the Ottomans.
The Germans had already been investing in the Ottoman Empire. In 1913, Berlin sent German troops and officers to help restructure the Turkish military. Turkish troops started using German methods, tactics and equipment, accelerating their growth into a powerful military force. Had the Germans not been so involved, the Ottomans wouldn’t have been an effective ally once the fighting started. Building up the Ottoman Empire in the lead-up to the Great War was an example of German forethought at its best.
Germany stood to gain little militarily from an empire that was facing collapse. What the Ottomans did have, however, was territory. The empire still controlled the Gulf of Aden, the east side of the Red Sea, Trans-Jordan, the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers up to what is Turkey today, and the entire southern shore of the Black Sea, with choke points at Istanbul and the Dardanelles. That area had a direct effect on trade and the distribution of raw materials throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean.
Germany also saw that the alliance gave it access to more resources, the most critical being the oil flowing out of the fields in the Gulf region. In an effort to secure its hold on the area, Germany gave two warships to the Turks to protect the Black Sea. Controlled by German officers, these ships bombarded Russian harbors on the Black Sea in October 1914, effectively bombing the Ottoman Empire into the war and simultaneously giving Germany dominance in the Black Sea and much of the Mediterranean’s eastern coastline.
The Ottoman Empire was an important part of the German Empire’s attempted conquest during World War I. Many of the modern nations that once composed that empire are still involved with Germany in some way, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria and Lebanon.
In World War II, Germany retained a strong connection with the Turks, the driving force behind the ancient Ottoman Empire. While Turkey remained neutral right up until the final months of the war, it still worked to supply Germany with much-needed resources to build its military. In 1941, Germany and Turkey signed the Clodius Agreement, by which Turkey exported over 100,000 tons of chromite ore to Germany during the war. Germany provided the entire infrastructure for the transfer of materials, including over 100 railway locomotives and over 1,000 freight cars to transport the ore. The chromite was critical for German steel and manufacturing. Nazi Germany wouldn’t have been able to maintain its military force without Turkish neutrality and economic compliance.
It is interesting to look at Germany’s current actions in the historical context. Over the past few years, Germany has deployed small but highly skilled groups of soldiers across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans to establish diplomatic relations and train local forces. Many of these nations were, at some stage, part of the vast Ottoman Empire.
Part of Berlin’s intent in arming its Arab allies is to defend its oil supplies. When Germany was about to go to war in 1914, it made sure to secure its path to oil in the Middle East, as well as safe passageways to North Africa. Once World War I began, Germany’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire was critical in fueling its war machine. Look at what is happening now. Iran threatens to dominate Middle Eastern oil. The Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, stand in its way. Germany will do what it has to in order to stop Iran from monopolizing this crucial resource.
In the lead-up to 1914, the Ottoman Empire attempted to establish a connection with the Allied forces but was denied. Then it looked to Germany. Today the “allies” in the Middle East are pulling out and leaving the moderate Arab states under Iran’s shadow with few options. Once again, Germany is stepping in to offer the alliance they seek.