Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946)

Photo: Max von Oppenheim
Max von Oppenheim, photo, 1930
Federal Archive, signature: picture 183-2009-0113-500

Max von Op­pen­heim (1860-1946)

God is immeasurably large! […] The Caliph of the messenger of God summons all those of you spread across the countries of the world to Jihad!]

From an Ottoman flyer in Arabic, after 1915

At the beginning of the war the diplomat and archaeologist, Max von Oppenheim, took up the long-discussed idea of mobilising Muslims in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa in the war against the Allies. Oppenheim’s suggestion: as the Caliph for all Muslims (although he was not recognised as such), Mehmed V, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire – which was allied with the Central Powers – should invoke a “holy war” against the nonbelievers of the Entente. 

As early as November 1914, just after the Ottoman Empire entered the war, the Caliph fulfilled his promise to the German Kaiser and announced a "holy war" by the Muslim world against the Allied states. 

With the propaganda of the Jihad, Oppenheim and the intelligence service for the Orient, which he founded, aimed to persuade the colonial soldiers to leave the ranks of the Entente and to join the German side. However, it was more important to the propagandists to ignite a revolutionary mood and provoke upheaval in the Islamic colonies of the Western Allies in North Africa and parts of India. The submission of such rebellions, it was thought, would necessitate the redeployment of troops, thus shifting the balance at the European front to the benefit of the Central Powers. 

Thus propaganda in the form of flyers was intended to persuade Muslim soldiers at the front to defect. Muslim prisoners of the German Reich received preferential treatment. A separate prison camp was established for them, the so-called Crescent Moon Camp in Zossen, in which they could live and eat in accordance with their tradition. A mosque was even erected. 

News rooms containing newspapers, pamphlets, brochures and army reports were intended to improve the reputation of the German Reich among the Ottoman population and in the neutral Arab countries. Flyers were smuggled in order to reach the Muslims in the enemies’ colonies. And the magazine "The New Orient", conveying contemporary knowledge about the Islamic world, was set up for those Germans who were sceptical of the idea of a holy war. 

But Oppenheim’s plan did not work. The invocation of a Jihad did not generate any revolutionary spirit against the Allies, either in the Ottoman Empire or in the Arab World, nor was there any sign of an alliance of all Muslims under the Turkish flag. Instead, many Arab leaders took the side of Great Britain, as they hoped by these means to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire.