Book Review: Like Hidden Fire

Like Hidden Fire:  The Plot To Bring Down The British Empire, by Peter Hopkirk

Although this is the first time I have read one of the author’s books, I should note that he is a well-regarded historian with expertise in writing about the “Great Game” between Russia and the United Kingdom over control of Central Asia, the subject of one of his previous books.  Although my interest in World War I history is perhaps broader than most [1], there was a lot in this book that I was not aware of and I found this book to be very helpful in looking at the reasons why the twentieth century (and so far the twenty-first century) have seen such a scourge of political Islam.  While British diplomacy (see the Balfour Declaration) has traditionally been blamed for this, the author manages to show that the Germans bear some heavy responsibility as well in attempting to inflame the people of the Middle East and Central Asia against European and American powers.  This book is like finding missing pieces of a puzzle one might have been only half aware of, and that makes for pretty remarkable reading.

As a volume, this book is a sizable one at 400 pages, and is certainly no read to simply race through.  The prose is gripping, but the author focuses on a few stories rather than attempting to give the same level of detail for the whole period of World War I.  The book opens with a discussion of how it was that the Ottoman Empire, under the rule of some particularly wicked Sultans and the Young Turks, dropped their historic alliance with Great Britain and chose to ally itself somewhat tepidly with Germany.  The book spends a lot of time talking about the importance of various secret agents and their missions in diplomacy, views Afghanistan as an important power broker in the Middle East, and also has a lot to say about the rise of communism and the efforts to contain it.  The author shows himself to be clear-eyed about the historical sins of the people of the Middle East and the Caucasus and does not dwell on the Armenian genocide as much as one would expect given the focus of the book.  Overall, though, this book reads like source material for spy novels aplenty, and readers who have an interest in diplomatic and military history as well as espionage will find a lot of material here of great interest and perhaps even literary inspiration.

The subtitle of this book is at least a little bit misleading.  The first part of the book, to be sure, focuses on the attempts of Germany and the Turks to bring down the British Empire, and also spends a lot of time discussing skulduggery with various Indian nationalists, but the rest of the book focuses on the efforts of able and daring British agents to try to salvage something out of the destruction of Tsarist Russia and the temporary, if dramatic, gains of Germany and Turkey in the region.  Ultimately, the fate of Central Asia and the Middle East during the latter part of World War I depended on a few people who sought to preserve the British position under extreme duress as well as the events that went on outside of the region that brought the United States into war alongside the Entente Powers–Zimmerman comes of particularly poorly here–and brought the Central Powers to their knees after four years of titanic struggle.  This book shines a light on a small part of that struggle, in an area of the world where World War I proved to be immensely significant but not well understood.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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