The Heart of the War

By Frederic C. Howe
(Commissioner of Immigration, New York)

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, April 1918]

The control of the Mediterranean is the crux of the war. About this great territory, extending from Gibraltar to Persia, and from Austro-Hungary to the Indian Ocean, the settlement of terms of peace will ultimately turn.

None of the warring powers have been willing to discuss the Mediterranean question. Possibly none of them dare discuss their ambitions and their fears. The question is too complicated. Its discussion is too hazardous to existing alliances. The whole Near-Eastern question is kept in the dark because of the dangers of a frank declaration of policy to the relations of the several powers.

In this territory the war had its beginning. Upon this area the thoughts of the chancelleries of England, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, France and the Balkan States have long been centered. The conflict involves the Balkans, Turkey, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, the north coast of Africa, and the control of the water routes through Gibraltar to India, as well as the railroad routes from Hamburg to the Persian Gulf. The political and industrial life of all these peoples is involved in this struggle. For the greater part of a century they have been sacrificed to the controversies of the greater powers. If the titanic conflicts over this part of the globe can be settled, the Belgian, French, and Russian questions are probably open to solution.

Civilization after civilization rose and fell about the Mediterranean. For centuries it was the center of the world. It might again become one of the world's centers if freed from the struggle for its control.

Moreover, the issues at stake are so complicated, the rights of so many nations and millions of innocent people are so involved, that the issues cannot be left to the arbitrament of force. They must be adjusted by negotiation. Not the negotiations of victors and vanquished, but the negotiations of an unselfish tribunal or nation thinking in terms of ultimate justice, of permanent security, and of far-flung freedom.

The war will only come to a permanent end when the Mediterranean basin ceases to be the object of exclusive possession. And the United States is the only power involved in the war that can visualize the issues involved, or represent the rights of the weaker states and the neutral world.

A generation ago Great Britain was supreme in the Mediterranean. She was the protector of the "sick man of Europe," and she remains supreme in the Mediterranean to-day. She controls both ends of the sea, at Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, and—far more important—the only routes of trade and commerce from Europe to the Orient. Germany has challenged this control. Her Drang nach Osten is a drive at the heart of the British Empire. This is the impasse between the two nations.

The imperialistic ambitions of Germany are susceptible of two interpretations. They may be military, or they may be only economic and industrial. In all probability they are both. In any event they threaten the status quo and the balance of power of Europe; for economic imperialism usually ripens into political conquest.

Thirty years ago, in 1888, German statecraft, in co-operation with German finance and German industry, entered upon a program of penetration into Turkey, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and western Asia. But little attention was paid to German activities until 1898, when the Kaiser made his dramatic visit to Constantinople and declared himself to be the eternal friend of the Sublime Porte. But from that day to this the mind of the ruling classes in Germany and the diplomacy of Europe have been more concentrated on this great adventure" or " drive to the East" than on any other imperialistic subject. The activities of Germany in South Africa, in the Pacific and Kiao-chau have been of relatively little importance in comparison with the colossal project for the creation of a Teutonic Empire which came to be known as Mittel Europa. The "Morocco incident" was part of it, as was the "Cretan episode."

The first steps in this pan-German project were taken in 1888, when concessions were secured for the building of railways in Asia Minor. Subsequent concessions of the most far-reaching kind were obtained in 1898 on the occasion of the visit of the Kaiser to Constantinople. These later concessions covered the Bagdad railway project, "the bridge from Hamburg to the Orient," which was to be the entering wedge and the agency for the ultimate control of the Balkans, Turkey and Asia Minor. For financial penetration is the prelude to political penetration. It is the first step in conquest.

The railway was promoted by the Deutsche Bank, which derived immense profits, estimated at seventy million dollars, from its financing and building. It was to be built by the Krupps and Mannesmanns, and would provide an outlet for the great industries of western Germany. When completed the railway was to be in effect a continuous European-Asiatic system beginning at Hamburg and extending through Berlin, Vienna, Constantinople, Asia Minor, Anatolia, the Tigris River Valley, and on down to the Persian Gulf. It was to be one of the greatest railway systems in the world.

The railway concessions were not unlike the grants made by the Federal Government to the Pacific railways just after the Civil War. By their terms Germany was to finance, build, and operate the railways, but Turkey was to guarantee the interest on the securities. And if the railways was not profitable, or Turkey failed to meet her financial obligations, then, under the implied conditions of such concessions and obligations, Germany would step in and assume substantial control of the Government of Turkey. And as the railway was constructed primarily for military considerations and as the profits taken by the concessionaires were very exorbitant, it was quite likely that such a political receivership would follow.

The road began on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus. The main line was seventeen hundred miles in length. There were branch lines to important Mediterranean ports. It connected with other lines running south through Palestine which ended on the outskirts of the desert perilously close to the Suez Canal and Egypt. Branch lines ran eastward to Persia, which is under British and Russian control. And finally, and most menacing of all, the main artery ran on from Bagdad to the Persian Gulf, where a German naval base connected with a German railway beginning at Hamburg, and Berlin would menace India, Australia, East Africa, British interests in China and the Pacific Ocean. The railway was to have been open for traffic in 1917.

The Bagdad Railway, "the bridge to the Orient," was:

(1) A drive at the very heart of Great Britain; it menaced Egypt, the keystone of her empire. It threatened the Suez Canal and British control of the Mediterranean. It was the gravest danger the British Empire had had to face since Napoleon. It was like the Spanish Armada in its significance. It threatened two centuries of empire building.

(2) It meant the ultimate control of Turkey with her twenty million people, western Asia and the Balkan States as well.

(3) Immense opportunities for overseas financing, for trade, commerce and industry were involved in the control of this vast territory. It was the richest unexploited portion of the earth. Its potentiality to Germany was colossal. It meant an economic empire like that of Great Britain. And even without preferential tariffs or the closed door, Germany would be able to control the industrial life of the country.

Other concessions only less valuable than the railway were included in the Grant. There were land grants on either side of the railway amounting to twelve thousand six hundred square miles. Upward of one hundred thousand acres were transferred to the concessionaires for the raising of cotton. Wheat products to free Germany from the outside world, and raw cotton which would relieve her from dependence on the United States and England, could be raised on the lands in Asia Minor. There were other concessions for mines, for oil, for the building of docks, harbors, warehouses, and exclusive privileges of other kinds. Asia Minor is rich in minerals, and only irrigation is needed to bring back a civilization similar to that which prevailed in ancient times, when twelve million people subsisted from the products of the Euphrates-Tigris delta. Already the control of banking and finance was in the hands of the Deutsche Bank, which was slowly devitalizing Turkish institutions, just as similar activities had devitalized Rumania.

This is the economic bond between Germany and Turkey. This explains the commanding importance of Turkey and Asia Minor to the financial and commercial classes. They offer a market for the surplus wealth of Germany. It is potentially one of the greatest markets in the world, as it is the only one left unappropriated by the other powers.

Almost every class in Germany was vitally interested in this project, and its terms and possibilities were widely known and discussed.

The intellectuals and the pan-German historical group visualized a Germanic Empire beginning at the Baltic and the North Sea and extending through Austro-Hungary, the Balkans, Turkey, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia down to the Persian Gulf. It was a vision of empire similar to that of Rome in the days of Hadrian. It was an empire of one hundred arid sixty million people under the hegemony of Germany. And the intellectuals and romanticists dramatized this vision just as they dramatized the Kaiser as the lineal successor of the Caesars; just as they identified modern Germany with the old Holy Roman Empire.

The Junkers, the feudal aristocracy, which is probably the most reactionary caste in Europe, saw in the territorial expansion of Germany the logical development of the plans laid by Frederick the Great and continued by Bismarck. To the ruling caste it meant an empire like that of Louis XIV or Napoleon, an empire ruled by Prussia, and Prussia in turn ruled by themselves. During the last twenty-five years the industrial classes have become very powerful in Germany. Our text-book portrayals contain very little reference to this group which has come into power since the constitution of 1871 was written. It has arisen in Germany just as it did in Great Britain and the United States. And to-day, with the agrarians, or Junkers, it forms the ruling class in Germany. It is quite possible that these big industrials;—-the Krupps, the Mannesmanns, the great banking and financial institutions-—exercise more real power than do the Junkers, despite the constitutional privileges which the latter enjoy.

The great industrials are identified with this vision of empire as an opportunity for German trade, industry, and commerce. And these industrials in turn are closely identified with the great exploiting banks, the Deutsche Bank, the Dresdener Bank, the Darmstadter Bank, and several others. Probably no class in Germany is more insistent upon the validation of German claims in Turkey and Asia Minor, in the dream of a Mittel Europa, linked together by a Zollverein, than are the powerful industrial classes of the Rhenish Westphalian districts of western Germany.

Finally the German people are interested in this project because of the outlet it offers for the surplusage of educated men, for immigration into lands where the German would not lose his connection with his mother country, while the working classes saw in it means of employment not only at home, but in the development of these new territories.

The Drang nach Osten commanded the adherence and support of a great part of the German Empire. It is linked up with the national claims of the German people to the right of expansion. It looked to the only unappropriated part of the globe. It was an opportunity like that which England enjoys in South Africa, Egypt, India and her colonies; which France enjoys in Morocco, Tunis, and Algiers.

Germany and the German people are probably more interested in the validation of claims in Mittel Europa, Turkey, and western Asia than in all of the other colonies of the empire or for any annexation in France, Belgium, or Russia.

For years England, France, and Russia have been endeavoring to block the building of the Bagdad Railway and the drive of Germany toward the southeast by diplomacy, by financial boycotts, and by other means. This has been the hidden war in Europe for twenty years. It has been so recognized by diplomats and foreign secretaries. It is the suppressed cause of more international ill-feeling than any other single incident, Morocco included. For, as international affairs are viewed by the chancelleries of Europe, the Drang nach Osten was a drive at the balance of power, the Franco-Russian alliance, and the whole British Empire. It involved the control of an empire of one hundred and sixty million people.

The real impasse was between Germany and England. It was an impasse like that of negro slavery; like the impasse between Rome and Carthage. It remains so to this day, and will continue to so remain unless it is settled by a recognition of the rights of all the countries. If it cannot be settled by negotiations, it can only be temporarily settled by a decisive military defeat; and such a defeat will leave the issue just as undetermined as it is to-day. At some time or other the disinterested mind of the world must solve the Middle Europe question if we are to have permanent peace, and if this vast territory—for centuries the center of the civilized world—is to enjoy the advantages and blessings of peace.

To the Foreign Office and the ruling classes of England the life of the British Empire is menaced by the German drive to the east. It is a military menace. The existence of the empire is threatened, for the Bagdad Railway would make it possible to place German and Turkish soldiers alongside of the Suez Canal and Egypt in a third of the time that English soldiers could be brought by sea. Moreover, the German terminus on the Persian Gulf would be a naval base from which the German fleet could strike quickly at British possessions in the Far East, in close communication with Berlin. Thus the Bagdad Railway under exclusive German control threatens the integrity and the existence of the British Empire.

The Bagdad Railway is also a standing menace to British control of the Mediterranean. It threatens the empire which she has so laboriously built up from Gibraltar to Persia, and with it the power to dominate the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and Port Said.

The life of the British Empire is threatened in another way. The food-supply of England comes from Australia, from India and other dependencies. In addition the whole industrial and financial fabric of Great Britain would be in peril if German ambitions, as interpreted in Great Britain, were carried out. For the Bagdad Railway is a continuous railway from Hamburg to the Persian Gulf. It is an industrial as well as an imperial menace.

England's investments in Egypt, eastern Africa, Australia, India, and the Far East amount to at least six billion dollars. This represents loans, railways, mines, plantations, privileges of all kinds. England is the great creditor nation of the world. Her overseas loans alone amount to twenty billion dollars. And the financial and investing classes are the ruling classes. They are the old landed aristocracy, enriched by ground rents, mines, tenements, and railways. This class controls the House of Lords. It controls the conservative party. It has great influence with the foreign and diplomatic service as well. And all these interests were potentially menaced by the German drive to the east.

British shipping supremacy was threatened by railway competition. England's shipping tonnage amounted to about twenty-one million gross tons (1915), or about 40 per cent, of the world. A great part of this is engaged in Oriental trade. Two-thirds of the ships passing through the Suez Canal are of British registry. The Bagdad Railway threatened maritime profits. It threatened possibly two billion dollars invested in shipping. It would substitute carriage by land for carriage by water. It was a maritime as well as an imperial drive at the heart of Great Britain.

England is also the world's clearinghouse. Lombard Street is the financial center of the world. The commerce of every clime enters the ports of England for storage and trans-shipment. And the financial supremacy of England is largely dependent upon financial operations incident to the carriage of the world's commerce. A railroad from Central Europe to the Indian Ocean threatened Lombard Street. It threatened the century-long control by England of the distribution of the products of the world. British exports and imports passing through the Mediterranean amounted (1916) to one billion, six hundred and fifty million dollars. This is carried almost wholly in British ships. It is cleared through British banks. It is traded in by British merchants.

British industry was menaced by the German trade peril, for the Bagdad Railway would permit industrial Germany to place the products of her mills and factories in the Far East as well as in the Near East in much less time and possibly at less cost than they could be carried by sea.

In addition, the English colonial service, the opportunities for younger sons in India, Egypt and elsewhere, the opportunities for employment, were placed in jeopardy by the possible supremacy of Germany in this part of the world, and with it the menace to English colonial possessions.

Just as the Junker and the business classes in Germany—and with them the foreign office and the press—are united in their dreams of German conquest or expansion, so the same interests in Great Britain are awake to the fear that the structure of the British Empire will be undermined by the success of this undertaking. This is why the Bagdad Railway is so portentous. This is why the drive to the east is so critical. The control of the Mediterranean, and with it Turkey and western Asia, is the keystone to one empire and the dream of another.

The interests of France and Russia, while not so vital as those of England, were likewise menaced by German ambitions in the Near East. It was a wedge driven in between Russia and France. It ended the centuries-long ambition of Russia for the Dardanelles. It placed the billions of dollars loaned by France to Russia, Turkey, and the Balkans in jeopardy. For France has always been the favored creditor nation in these countries. Her loans to Turkey alone aggregate four hundred million dollars, or four times those of Germany. And the French bankers and railroad builders and concession-seekers were ambitious for Syria, just as Russia was ambitious that her Cossacks should penetrate into northern Asia Minor and secure a Russian port upon the Mediterranean. In addition, the alliance of France and Russia was in peril, as was the possibility o£ Russian access to the sea.

German control of Turkey and the Dardanelles was a menace to the economic development of Russia as well. Russia can only finance her industries and pay the interest on heir loans by the export of wheat and oil. She can only reach the sea through waterways under the control of other powers. Should Germany control the Dardanelles and the Baltic, Russia would be in economic vassalage. Germany could dictate trade and customs treaties as she has done with weaker nations. She could dictate the internal development of Russia. The future of Russia is dependent upon an outlet to the seas and the free and unimpeded right to buy and sell where she wills. The possible control of the economic life of this great empire, the right to exclusive privileges and concessions is a stake of the greatest importance. And Germany has developed the art of economic penetration as has no other power. She has undermined the economic autonomy of Rumania and Bulgaria, and exercised great influence in the banking and financial circles of Italy, Greece and Turkey.

And Russia and France have consistently co-operated with England in preventing the completion of the Bagdad Railway.

As a result of this conflict which has continued for twenty years, the Near East has been sacrificed. The conflict is of much longer duration, for England and Russia were the traditional contestants for the Near East in the middle of the last century. This part of the world has not been permitted to develop. It has suffered from the great powers only less than it has suffered at the hands of the Turk. Even more important, the eastern Mediterranean—long the center of the world, and in many ways the natural center of the world—has been denied any chance. Its civilization has been set back. All of the 'states of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Egypt, Tunis and Morocco have been pawns in the diplomatic game. They have been kept in an almost constant state of unrest or war as a result of the intrigues of Russia, Germany, England, and France.

The claims, of these, countries are of as high an order as those of the greater powers. They, too, have a right to be freed from the devastating influences and struggles of imperialistic ambitions.

Here is the big problem of the war. No military decision, no matter how conclusive it may be, can permanently solve this problem. A military decision leaves the Balkans, Asiatic Turkey, and the countries bordering upon the Mediterranean just where they were before. Moreover, it merely postpones the ultimate decision as between the greater powers. For it is impossible to believe that either Germany or England will be content with any settlement of this question by force of arms. At some time or other the dispassionate and thoroughly neutral mind of the world, thinking in terms of democracy, freedom, and world peace, must work out the problems of humanity, of civilization, and of conflicting interests, not only in the interest of permanent peace, but in the interest of the potential civilization of this part of the world.

And the United States is the only nation outside of Switzerland, Holland, and Denmark, that can think of these problems in world terms. We alone can visualize the possibilities and fights of weaker peoples, and the tremendous gains to trade, commerce and civilization if the conflict for political; financial and industrial interests were at an end. At some stage of the war America must grapple with this situation, either on its own initiative, in co-operation with the warring powers, or through discussions with the neutral nations of Europe.

Obviously, the first condition of permanent peace is to end the military menace in this part of the world. England must be freed from the fear of German military designs toward Egypt, the Suez Canal, or the Orient. The British Empire must be protected. Her people have a right to unity of government. Her possessions and investments must be secure. England has a right to insist that a pistol shall not be held at her heart by a hostile power.

Russia must secure access to the sea through the Dardanelles. Quite as important, she must be assured free access to the Atlantic and Pacific. For even if Russia secured the Dardanelles, her fleets and her shipping would still be open to the danger of imprisonment in the Mediterranean by England.

The same is true of the Balkan States, of Italy and Greece. It is true of Austro-Hungary and the lesser nations about the Mediterranean. They, too, have a right of access to the seas protected by the guarantees of the world.

Finally, Germany must be given the same economic assurance. Her railroad routes from Constantinople to Bagdad must be free from military menace by other nations. Her concessions, privileges, and rights in Turkey and Asia Minor, as well as her water communications through the Mediterranean, must be free from any fear of military interruption. For the rights of Germany in Turkey have the same sanction as the rights of England in Egypt and Persia, or of France in Tunis and Morocco: they are concessions sanctioned by treaty and acquiesced in by the other powers. The world has a right to be free from German military ambitions. Germany, on the other hand, has a right to the enjoyment of her economic and industrial concessions. Military aspirations must be divorced from economic opportunities.

If the military menace of the powers can be removed from the Mediterranean the financial and economic conflicts are easier of solution. If the military menace cannot be removed, the conflict remains.

Freedom from military control involves the neutralization of this whole territory from Gibraltar to Persia, and from Austro-Hungary to the Indian Ocean. It involves the conversion of the Mediterranean basin into a neutralized zone protected from aggressions by international agreement. Such a neutralization would involve agreements between all the powers similar to the convention between the United States and Canada which reduced the military and naval armaments upon the Great Lakes to a minimum. Germany would agree to abandon any military occupation or military penetration into Turkey or Asia Minor. Her troops would remain to the north of the Balkan States. Turkey, too, would be neutralized and her army reduced to an agency for police. Germany would be guaranteed the right to commercial, industrial, and financial predominance in the territory which has already been opened to her by treaties with Turkey, which treaties have been acquiesced in by the other powers.

Great Britain, France, and Russia would enter into the same stipulations. They, too, would abandon any military activities in this territory. There would be no native troops except such as were necessary to maintain order. There would be no naval bases in the Mediterranean.

Italy and Greece, the Balkan States, Egypt, Tunis and Morocco would relinquish whatever navies they possess, and the territory of the dependent countries would be free from foreign soldiery. Such military or naval armaments as were required to enforce the neutralization of this territory would be under the command of an international tribunal endowed by the powers with the enforcement of the terms of the pact of the nations.

In other words, the generation-long struggle for the control of the Mediterranean and the Balkans and western Asia would be ended by the abolition of privileges of any kind. It would cease to be an area of conflict; cease to be controlled by any single nation, or menaced by any forces except those of the neutral world. Freedom would be substituted for monopoly, and free competition would take the place of the closed door.

Exclusive control of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia is intolerable if this part of the world is to be given an opportunity to develop. For exclusive control means that this rich territory will continue to be the pawn of one or the other of the powers. Its civilization is at a standstill. Its people are exploited, not by the Turk alone, but by the citizens of the other powers. Mesopotamia should be the center of a civilization of its own, as it was for centuries, while the Armenians the Syrians the Persians and the Jews should be protected in their religion, their industry and their political life. Were this vast territory free to develop under the protection of an international tribunal, and were the economic opportunities of the eastern Mediterranean open to the world, a civilization might ultimately arise like that of ancient times. But this is only possible under the guardianship of the neutral world.

There are difficulties in the way of such an adjustment. Ambitions for empire, for exclusive financial and trade opportunities will have to be given up. To the imperialistic classes the neutralization of this territory involves the abandonment of the purposes of the war. And the trading and commercial classes are covetous for the commercial and financial privileges which this territory offers.

Political and economic freedom for the one hundred and twenty million people about the Mediterranean demands a democracy to which only the Junkers and Tories of politics and trade can offer any objection.

"Peace" as the President says, "should rest on the rights of peoples, great or small, weak or powerful—their equal right to freedom and security and self-government and to a participation upon fair terms in the economic opportunities of the world."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury