There are few people in the world today better informed about the politics and culture of the modern Middle East than Wolfgang G. Schwanitz. In this, he is a worthy associate of his friend and mentor Bernard Lewis, to whom, on his ninety-seventh birthday, the present volume[*] is dedicated and to whom generous tribute is paid in the form of a thirty-page intellectual biography appended to the end of the book and based on both Lewis's written work and conversations with him.
Working on my own recent study (2013) of Max von Oppenheim, the German archeologist, ethnologist and would-be diplomat of part-Jewish background, I constantly had recourse to Schwanitz's many probing articles on German policies and activities in the Middle East both during the Wilheminian period (notably in the years leading up to and including the First World War) and under the National Socialists. In addition, Schwanitz had published two documents that were of vital importance to my work. The first was Oppenheim's notorious 1914 "Memorandum on the fomenting of rebellions among the Muslim subjects of our enemies" – a report to the Kaiser recommending that, as part of Germany's war strategy, the Sultan, the Kaiser's ally in the War, be persuaded to declare a jihad, in which all Muslims would be required to participate, against the infidel colonial rulers of Muslim peoples in North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and India (i.e. the Entente powers Britain, France and Russia).
It is Schwanitz's view – a view adopted by other Middle East experts — that by exploiting Muslim religious fervor for secular ends, Wilhelminian Germany contributed to the development of modern Islamism, that is, a political ideology that Schwanitz is careful to distinguish throughout his book from Islam as a religion and culture. The second was a memorandum submitted to the Nazi Foreign Ministry in July 1940 containing revised proposals for undermining British and French power in the Middle East, cutting off supplies of oil to the Germany's enemies from the Persian Gulf, and threatening British dominion in India. Schwanitz, who is a visiting professor at the Gloria Center in Herzliya and an associate fellow of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, PA, is also the author, in the online German journal Explizit.net, of regular up-to-date reports on the upheavals in the Middle East today. These reports are based on close observation of the rapidly changing situation and a deep understanding of the historical and the contemporary politics and culture of the Islamic world.
The present volume, a massive tome of almost 800 pages, – truly several books in one, – deals with virtually every aspect of a problematic situation brought about by the Western presence in the Middle East, revolution in the Arab countries themselves, and tensions in the West in the wake of massive and unforeseen immigration from Muslim lands and the radicalization of segments of that immigrant population, notably the young. The complex history of Germany's connections with political movements in the Middle East and influence in the Islamic lands (and during the post-WWII period, the competition for influence between East and West Germany) is explored with special thoroughness, – "exposed" might be a better term, for the judgment of this German-born scholar is fearless and severe. The response of the German political leadership to the massacres of Armenian Christians before and during World I and to attempted pogroms against Jews is scrutinized unsparingly. Likewise, the role of the National Socialists in promoting anti-Jewish fanaticism among Muslims rising up against British and French dominance of the Middle East is thoroughly investigated, as are, the links between the politics and ideology of Amin al-Husseini, the so-called "grand" Mufti of Jerusalem, and those of the ruling National Socialists, and between Husseini and Hitler himself.
Brought up in Cairo as the son of an East German diplomat before studying Arabic and Economics at the University of Leipzig and then heading the Near and Middle East Research Team at the Akademie der Wissenschaften in the former German Democratic Republic, Schwanitz (who now lives with his family in New Jersey) follows this line of inquiry right into the time of the Cold War. The range of his book is astounding. It covers the entire period from the beginning of the Twentieth Century to the ongoing Syrian uprising. As it does so topically, rather than chronologically, the reader has the option of informing him-or-herself about different sepecific problems separately. As suggested above, it would not be an exaggeration to describe this volume as consisting of several books in one, even though all the sections are bound together and unified by the author's overarching view and deep knowledge of the Middle East.
Not least of the attractions of this monumental work are the copious visual illustrations the author has provided: not only photographs of individuals and groups, important meetings of leading statesmen and activists, political posters, and cartoons, but documents and archival materials, all of which receive detailed explanation and commentary. The range and abundance of the materials provided have in fact made the book a physical as well as an intellectual heavyweight. Still, if not in one's hands, it belongs on the desk of everyone interested in the current Middle East.
[*] The volume reviewed here is vol. 2 of a set devoted to Europe-Middle East-America relations. It was preceded by the author's Gold, Bankiers und Diplomaten: Zur Geschichte der Deutschen Orientbank, 1906-1946 (Berlin: trafo Verlag, 2002).