The Baghdad Railway

"It is by correctly assessing strengths and weaknesses that opportunities are built and threats are reduced."

The Baghdad Railway
Following Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 1899 visit to Sultan Abdul Hamid II - the ‘Caliph of the Faithful’, the Deutsche Bank supported by investors from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other nations founded the Imperial Ottoman Company of the Baghdad Railway. All supporting the venture saw the potential for a major trade route to support colonial growth1, crossing the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Armenia, Syria and Iraq (then in the Ottoman Empire).

In practical terms, the Germans hoped to access Iraq’s oilfields and connect to the port of Basra, ensuring better access to the eastern part of the German Colonial Empire without having to go through the Suez Canal. In addition, the Ottoman Empire wanted to maintain control over Arabia and extend its influence through the Red Sea into Egypt, which had come under British control.

Promoted as a means of bringing knowledge and the latest western developments in science and technology to the region, the project also threatened the British colonial status quo in the Middle East, and became a source of international tension in the years leading up to the First World War. Indeed, some historians believe it could have been one of the main catalysts for the war (when European operations extended into the Middle East it led to the rise and fall of new protagonists and territorial divisions which never healed in the aftermath of the conflict).

The establishment of communication routes transporting people and goods, some authors claim, began with the voyages of the Portuguese discoveries to the Far East and the New World. These may well have given rise to the present-day phenomenon of ‘globalisation’ – the process of furthering economic, social, cultural and political integration internationally. Its key aspects are defined as "trade and financial transactions, capital movement and investments, migration and movement of people and the dissemination of knowledge."2

At the time, the intention of the imperial powers in establishing new communication routes would have been to organise and perpetuate their colonial rule in a context of peace, replacing the inefficient older practices of organising their trade along ‘military and war-like lines, as an additional activity to that of pirates and privateers, armed caravans, hunters and sword-wielding merchants, armed city-dwelling bourgeois, adventurers and explorers, plantation owners and conquistadors, and slave capturers and traders’.

The Imperial Ottoman Company of the Baghdad Railway would be a more efficient exploitation of their domains through the pacification and submission of indigenous people and better access to their respective natural resources. While it may have been unintentional globalisation, it became an unstoppable consequence of this goal to improve efficiency.

However, notwithstanding the pernicious effects justifiably attributed to ‘globalisation’ (caused by the partial loss of national sovereignty due to the emergence of supra-governmental organisations beyond state and democratic control), weaker states now have facilitated access to knowledge through new information technologies and free circulation; access that, even if they so desired, ‘stronger states’ would be powerless to prevent through recourse to increasingly inefficient and frowned-upon new ‘walls’.

Generally speaking, human geography across the various regions and continents, and Europe in particular, is the result of cultural and ethnic miscegenation caused by a never-ending stream of invasions and migrations over the centuries. In the case of Europe, there is no need to go back as far as the barbarian invasions that gave rise to the new nations born of the ruins of the Roman Empire or, in more recent history, the diaspora caused by religious persecution, to see that the ancient imperial states not only promoted emigration beyond their boundaries but also absorbed waves of immigrants within their domains.

Whether as a result of invasion or persecution, new communities were formed creating opportunities for progress through the dissemination of shared knowledge and peacetime trading. Notwithstanding, "adjustments” that were more or less circumscribed and violent caused by ethnic or religious antagonism and disputes related to trade and territorial interests. 

Nowadays, as though reversing the flow of our recent colonial past, waves of migrants are arriving on Europe’s doorstep, generating tension that many see as a threat to peace and security. A hundred years on, and in an ironic twist of history, the migrants from the Middle East are now tracing the same route towards Berlin as that taken by the Baghdad Railway. At the time of its building, the unilateral aim was undoubtedly to provide the German Reich with access to its colonies and raw materials – troubling the status quo of the British Empire to the extent that it felt threatened and war ensued – but it was also seen idealistically as a means of bringing "western knowledge” to the "cradle of civilisation”.

However, unlike those who feel a threat to their status quo, the more enlightened, in Berlin and elsewhere, see this traffic along the "new Baghdad Railway” not as a means to expeditiously dispatch colonists and gain easy access to natural resources but, rather, as a process of circular migration facilitating new opportunities for multilateral interchange between peoples. 

The host nations could see opportunities from a demographic and productive contribution by this huge mass of humanity bearing hope and "western knowledge." Another opportunity, following the desirable return home of these immigrants, could be the prospective fostering of cultural relations and international trade in a possible future of peace and reconstruction of the war zones which gave rise to these migratory movements. Or, to put it another way, it is by correctly assessing strengths and weaknesses that opportunities are built and threats are reduced.

By Pedro Castro Caldas,  Risk Management Consultant

In a similar aim the British planned the Cape to Cairo Railway to achieve expeditious access to their colonial domains, unifying their African possessions, facilitate governability, and allow the army to move swiftly to critical areas, assisting with colonisation and fostering trade.
2In AL-RHODAN, Nayef R.F, STOUDMANN, Gérard – Definitions of Globalization: a comprehensive overview and a proposed definition.

. JASTROW, Morris – The War and the Bagdad Railway: the story of Asia Minor and its relation to the present conflict. [S.l.]: Lippincott, 1918. 
. MCMURRAY, Jonathan S. – Distant ties : Germany, the Ottoman empire, and the construction of the Baghdad railway. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001. ISBN 0275970639.
. POLANYI, Karl – A grande transformação : as origens políticas e económicas do nosso tempo. Lisboa: Ediçoes 70, 2012. ISBN 978-972-44-1660-1.
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