Max von Oppenheim

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Max (Freiherr) von Oppenheim (July 15, 1860 in Cologne – November 17, 1946 in Landshut) was a German ancient historian, and archaeologist, "the last of the great amateur archaeological explorers of the Near East.".[1]

Max von Oppenheim in Arab-style headdress

He was a son of Albert von Oppenheim (de), of the Oppenheim banking dynasty and from a Jewish background, though his mother Paula was Catholic. Abandoning his career in diplomacy, he financed his own excavations at Tell Halaf in 1911-13 and 1929.

Early life[edit]

Having been given as a child an illustrated edition of The Thousand and One Nights he had developed an interest in the East, which never left him. As a young man he served in the 15th Ulan Guards regiment, though he was apparently ill-suited to the discipline of the military.[2] He was a fervent admirer of Wilhelm II, whom he had first been introduced to in 1879 following a regimental parade in Strasbourg that Wilhelm had come to observe. To please his father he studied law in Berlin after leaving the Guards, reaching the rank of Referendar (junior barrister), and entered the civil service. At the age of 23, in the winter of 1883-84, he set out on his first oriental visits and travelled to Athens, Smyrna and Constantinople. In 1886 he travelled to the Maghreb and picked up his first concubine at a slave market, an Arab-Berber woman.[3] He resigned from the civil service in 1892. Having assembled a small team of archaeologists he went to Cairo and leased a house in an old Arab neighbourhood. Financially independent and secure, Cairo would be his base until 1909, the place from which he set forth on his explorations of the Middle East.[4] He was particularly fascinated by the Bedouins of the Shammar tribe, based in central Arabia, led by the Rashid clan. His reports on the Shammar were sent to the German government, and later expanded into a political travelogue From the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf which helped establish his reputation as a regional expert. T.E Lawrence later called Oppenheims work 'the best book on the area I know.'[5] There is little evidence that he undertook any serious reading of Arab literature or Islamic history however, and his scholarly contributions in 'the golden era of European Orientalism' do not appear to have rivaled those of Ignaz Goldziher, Snouck Hurgronje, Theodor Noldeke or Carl Heinrich Becker. If his work and investigations did not secure him a place among academic Orientalists however, they did help him achieve political influence. Since his Jewish background was an obstacle to advancement within the German Foreign Office he renounced his ancestral Jewish faith and claimed to have taken up his mother's Catholicism. He was sponsored by Paul Graf von Hatzfeldt who proposed him as a regional analyst and secured him a paid post in the Cairo consulate in 1896.[6]

Oppenheim came to be regarded by the Kaiser as a person who could be relied upon to promote German interests in the Near East, though the amount of influence he was able to exert upon German foreign policy is not clear. The Kaiser undoubtedly met Oppenheim in Potsdam in summer 1900, and asked him questions about Islam. The Kaiser promoted him to the rank of Chief Legal Counsel (Legationsrat). Each summer after this Oppenheim went to Berlin to speak with the Kaiser about oriental life. Between 1896 and 1909 he filed no fewer than 467 reports on Arab politics for the German Foreign Office on subjects that included pan-Islam, Christian minorities, possible routes for the Baghdad railway, Egyptian dynastic politics, the Sharifate of Mecca, the nature of the Caliphate, and the Sunni-Shia divide. Oppenheim emphasised the need for Germany to defend the Ottoman Empire against the British and reflected the chauvinistic, anti-British, pan-Germanic thinking that was fed by the Kaisers Weltpolitik. Examples of this were his belief that most Armenians in Cairo were in the pay of Lord Cromer, the Consul-General, and that Syria's Christians were being incited to secede from the Ottoman Empire and so were hostile to Germans because they knew that the Germans were 'friends of the Sultan and opponents of the separation of any part of the Ottoman Empire'.[7] In general he regarded Sunni Muslims as reliable but was suspicious of the Sherif of Mecca and Ibn Sauds tribe of Wahhabi Muslims believing that both were in the pay of British agents - correctly in this case.[8] He thought Egyptian Nationalists useful, because they were hostile to British occupation, and he befriended the Khedive Abbas Himli, and Mustafa Kamil founder of the Egyptian National Party and editor of al Liwa.

Oppenheim lived something of a double life. Residing in the old Arab quarter of Bab el Louk he welcomed European visitors and consular colleagues, or visiting German politicians, such as future Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in his Selamlik (dining room), and concealed the women's harem within. Every autumn his head servant would supply Oppenheim with a new slave girl who would become mistress of the harem until the following year. An affair with a married woman named Zenab ended when her husband discovered the liaison and drowned the woman in the Nile.[9] His home, located near al-Azhar University, and the headquarters of the radical paper al liwa, became a meeting place for discontents. When tensions were heightened by the Aqaba border crisis, 1906, British and French papers accused Oppenheim of acting in ways to incite pan-Islamic jihadi massacres of European colonists and of intriguing with anti-French Algerian, and anti-Italian Tripolitan, rebels.[10] Oppenheim continued to send the German Foreign Office even more anti-British reports. He regarded the Aqaba border question as a struggle for prestige between England and Turkey. He predicted that "the embers of rebellion would burst into flames in all of [Britain's] Muslim colonies" and that Germany would benefit from a wave of anti-British pan-Islamism. In 1909, in the wake of his reported takeover of a radical newspaper, Masr el Fatat, and his denunciation by the new British-appointed Egyptian Minister-president Boutros Ghali, he was given a years paid vacation by his sponsors in the Wilhelmstrasse, and then formally sacked from the Foreign Office in November 1910. He was given the title of a Minister Resident at large. In 1911 he began excavating the Neolithic settlement at Tell Halaf in north-eastern Syria. In autumn 1913 he returned to Germany, to live in Berlin.[11]

First World War[edit]

During World War I, Oppenheim led the Intelligence Bureau for the East and was closely associated with German plans to initiate and support a rebellion in India and in Egypt. In 1915 Henry McMahon reported that Oppenheim had been making speeches in mosques encouraging the massacre of Armenians.[12]

Oppenheim had been called to the Wilhelmstrasse from his Kurfurstendamm flat on 2 August 1914 and given the rank of Minister of Residence. He began establishing Berlin as a centre for pan-Islamic propaganda publishing anti-Entente texts. On August 18, 1914 he wrote to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg to tell him that Germany must arm the Muslim Brotherhoods of Libya, Sudan and Yemen and fund Arab exile pretenders like the deposed Egyptian Khedive, Abbas Hilmi. He believed Germany must incite anti-colonial rebellion in French North Africa and Russian Central Asia and incite Habibullah Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan, to invade British India at the head of an Islamic army.[13] Oppenheim's Exposé Concerning the Revolutionizing of the Islamic territories of our enemies contained holy war propaganda and 'sketched out a blueprint for a global jihad engulfing hundreds of millions of people'. Armenians and Maronite Christians were dismissed as Entente sympathizers, quite useless to Germany nicht viel nutzen können.[14]

Oppenheim asked the German government for 100 million marks to finance jihadi propaganda. Five jihad fetvas preceded a ceremony at Fatih Mosque (above) on 14 November 1914 to inaugurate the first ever global jihad, and by the end of November 1914 the jihad fetvas had been translated into French, Arabic, Persian and Urdu

Because Germany was not an Islamic power the war on the Entente powers needed to be 'endorsed with the seal of the Sultan-Caliph' and on 14 November 1914 in a ceremony at Fatih Mosque the first ever global jihad had been inaugurated. The impetus for this move came from the German government, which subsidized distribution of the Ottoman holy war fetvas, and most of the accompanying commentaries from Muslim jurists, and Oppenheim's jihad bureau played a significant role. By the end of November 1914 the jihad fetvas had been translated into French, Arabic, Persian and Urdu.[15] Thousands of pamphlets emerged under Oppenheim's direction in Berlin at this period and his Exposé declared that, "the blood of infidels in the Islamic lands may be shed with impunity", the "killing of the infidels who rule over the Islamic lands", meaning British, French, Russian, and possibly Dutch and Italian nationals, had become " a sacred duty". And Oppenheim's instructions, distinct from traditional 'jihad by campaign' led by the Caliph, urged the use of 'individual Jihad', assassinations of Entente officials with 'cutting, killing instruments' and 'Jihad by bands',- secret formations in Egypt, India and Central Asia.[16]

"During the First World War, he worked in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, where he founded the so-called "message Centre for the Middle East", as well as at the German Embassy in Istanbul. He sought to mobilize the Islamic population of the Middle East against England during the war and can be seen thus almost as a German counterpart to Lawrence of Arabia. The AA pursued a strategy of Islamic revolts in the colonial hinterland of the German enemy. The spiritual father of this double approach, the war first, by troops on the front line and secondly by people's rebellion "in depth" was by Oppenheim."[citation needed]

The German adventurer met with very little success in World War I. To this day, the British see him as a "master spy" because he founded the magazine El Jihad in 1914 in an effort to incite the Arabs to wage a holy war against the British and French occupiers in the Middle East. But his adversary Lawrence of Arabia, whom he knew personally, was far more successful at fomenting revolts.[17]

Subsequent career[edit]

From his works in archaeology, he personally owned a large portion of the finds, as was then the custom, and he hoped that the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, would acquire the material which included some of the most important Neo-Hittite sculptural reliefs. Disappointed in his negotiations, he opened his own museum in an abandoned factory in Berlin in 1930; consequently, when measures were taken to protect the national collections during World War II, his Halafian material was not included: it was obliterated in a bombing raid in November 1943. Some fragments preserved in East German museum basements were reassembled after the reunification of Germany.

Apparently, despite being a half-Jew, or "Mischlinge," as the German national socialists would have him racially classified, he enjoyed some degree of official protection from the regime. "Despite these problems, Oppenheim still enjoyed good connections, and friends in the Foreign Ministry and the financial world protected his legacy... Indeed, Oppenheim did everything he could to defend his legacy. In a speech before Nazi dignitaries, he went so far as to flatly ascribe his statues to the "Aryan" culture, and he even received support from the Nazi government."[18]

In March 1939, a 78-year-old Oppenheim made his last trip to the Orient. Little is known of the trip, though the purpose was reportedly to resume his dig in Syria before his permit expired. Still, there are some questions about whether there was more to it than that. The trip was paid for by a special fund administered by Hermann Göring, the head of Germany's air force and leading Nazi, who collected stolen paintings and antiques from all over Europe. Once back in Germany, Oppenheim lived in Munich, where he witnessed the demise of the Third Reich in person. His finds had been bombed to bits in Berlin, and he had few treasures left to his name. Soon thereafter, in 1946, he died of old age. Some of the destroyed statues were recently restored in a nine-year project and are now on display in Berlin.[19]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Gary Beckman, reviewing Nadia Cholidis and Lutz Martin, Der Tell Halaf und sein Ausgräber Max Freiherr von Guy Oppenheim: Kopf hoch! Mut hoch! und Humor hoch! (Mainz) 2002, in Journal of the American Oriental Society 123.1 (January 2003), p. 253.
  2. ^ The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power. Sean McMeekin, Belknap Press 2010, p.17
  3. ^ McMeekin, p.18
  4. ^ McMeekin, p.19
  5. ^ Sean McMeekin, p.20
  6. ^ McMeekin p.21
  7. ^ McMeekin, p.24
  8. ^ McMeekin, p.25
  9. ^ McMeekin, pp.25-26
  10. ^ Roger Owen, Lord Cromer,pp.333-341; Sean McMeekin, p.26
  11. ^ McMeekin, p.81
  12. ^ McMahon, Henry (1915). The War: German attempts to fan Islamic feeling. London: British Library. 
  13. ^ McMeekin, pp.90-91
  14. ^ Mcmeekin, p.98
  15. ^ McMeekin, p124, 135
  16. ^ McMeekin, p.136
  17. ^
  18. ^ [3]
  19. ^ Ghossoun (February 5, 2011). "Aramean Gods of Tell Halaf in Syria Rises from Rubble in Berlin". Syrian Arab News Agency. Retrieved February 6, 2011.  through Internet Archive


  • Vom Mittelmeer zum persischen Golf durch den Haurän, die syrsche Wüste und Mesopotamien, 2 vols., 1899
  • Rabeh und Tschadseegebiet, 1902
  • Max von Oppenheim: Der Tell Halaf und die verschleierte Göttin. Leipzig: Hinrichs 1908.
  • Max von Oppenheim: Die Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde. 1914.
  • Max von Oppenheim: Der Tell Halaf: Eine neue Kultur im ältesten Mesopotamien. F.A. Brockhaus, Leipzig 1931.
  • Tell Halaf I, 1943 (with Hubert Schmidt)
  • Tell Halaf II, 1950 (with R. Naumann)

External links[edit]