Who is Max?

Destiny’s War has many historical characters, some well known, like TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, others are less known but equally important.

The first in a series of blog posts, reviewing historical characters in Destiny’s War series.


Baron Max von Oppenheim

the Kurtz of the Desert Sea
Baron Max von Oppenheim, was a notorious and intriguing person during the First World War. Born to a powerful banking family, the son of a Christian mother and Jewish father, he chose his own path to become an archaeologist and later active in Middle Eastern affairs. His archaeological claim to fame was the discoveries at Tell Halaf in north Syria.

T.E Lawrence was working at the archaeological site Carchemish, on the boarder between Syria and Turkey when he met Max in 1912 before the First World War. Both Max and Lawrence had both begun wearing Bedouin garb at the time. Lawrence did not much care for Max and found him to be “a horrible person”.

Max became more involved in Middle Eastern affairs, his wealth allowed him to live a lavish lifestyle and was often seen throughout the Middle East with his very young harem of concubine slaves. He became an irony, a German Jew supporting the Arab cause, but living a lifestyle that was inconsistent with Islam. The Arabs did not know what to make of him.

The situation in the Middle East became complex as two foreign powers, the Ottoman Empire along with Germany versus the British Empire, struggled for control. Meanwhile on the ground a faction led by European Jews were fighting for their own Jewish state and attempting to align themselves with the British Empire, knowing the Germans had backed the Ottoman Empire and Islam.

As war approached, Kaiser Wilhelm pre-war proclamations for the greatness of Islam and to protect the Sultan and defend the Ottoman Empire meant that Germany would position themselves in the Middle East. Oil had become a valuable commodity and begun its rise as civilization’s life blood.

On the eve of World War I, Germany established the German Intelligence Bureau for the East (Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient). The Great Game has begun.

Max was the perfect candidate for leading the operation; he spoke Arabic, knew the culture, demographics, terrain, and history. He had filed dozens of reports with the German Foreign office on the political situation and even provided some plans and suggestions. The Kaiser’s need out-weighted the proclivities and eccentricities of a German Jew from a powerful banking family, Max was needed and would become known as the Kaiser’s spy.

Max’s dedication to promoting subversive actions against the British Empire was best memorialized in his 1914 “Memorandum Concerning the Fomenting of Revolutions in Islamic Territories of Our Enemies”.  It laid the plans forth to; burn oil wells, raising tribal armies, and implied ruthless extermination of minorities not aligned with Germany. A mobilization of an Islam war against the British Empire and her allies. It was akin to a Holy War and painted the British Empire as the 19th century Crusaders.

Max’s knowledge in history and religion allowed him to play into deep-rooted misgivings, dating back to the Crusades. There was a cultural-religious clash between the Christian and Muslim world, Max only needed to fan the flames, which was not hard, there was war, and the British were the new Crusaders. He spread his propaganda, gave speeches to stir up religious passions, bribes, and recruited tribes to his cause.  In one of Max’s propaganda pamphlets he states, “The killing of infidels who rule over Islamic lands has become a sacred duty, whether it be secretly or openly, as the great Koran declared in its words: Take them and kill them whenever you come across them.”

By 1915 Max’s dedication to his mission of leading an Islamic uprising became an obsession; he disappeared for months, dressing like the an Arab and speaking only Arabic, he had raised an army in the desert; he was speaking at mosques encouraging uprisings. His followers began to call Max, Abu Jihad (“Father of Holy War”). Rumors spread that he led his army with religious fervor.

Max, much like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, became a leader of an army and was waging his holy war. German Intelligence replaced Max with Schabinger von Schowingen, and rumors spread; the Germans were looking for Max. Had they lost control of their man?

For the next two years of the war, Max’s whereabouts and his missions are of legend and mystery. There was a war on, and Max and his army, much like TE Lawrence, were the generals of the Desert Sea, raiding, attacking, and choosing their battles and sometimes their enemies.  Yet, Max neglected to address the Sunni-Shia tensions and excluded certain infidels from his plan, namely Germans and her allies, including the Turks, who had oppressed the Arabs.

As the tides of the war changed, so did Max’s supporters. Soon his Muslim allies turned against him and Germany, in some situations violently so. The situation became absurd, the Jewish man pretending to be Arab leading a Holy War against the infidels, unless they were Germans, Turks, Austrians, Hungarians, or anyone else that Max thought should be excluded.

Unlike Kurtz, Max returned to civilization. After the war in 1922, Max became a private scholar and founded the Orient-Forschungsinstitut in Germany, an institute for advanced study in Middle Eastern culture and history, now far away from the Arabs he had once supported.

Max got a second chance to return to the Middle East. The rise of the Nazi Party and the preludes to war meant the Middle East and her valuable oil fields were again a valuable prize, this time for the Third Reich.

Even though of Jewish descent, Max received support from the Nazi party. He gave speeches and continued to work on his research in Middle East history. Drawing from his experience, Max drafted memorandums on Middle Eastern strategic policies for the Third Reich. One can only imagine, if his First World War memorandums are any guide, the policies he suggested to the Third Reich.

A twisted path he wove, a German Jew, leading an Islamic uprising and became known as the Father of the Holy War during the First World War. Later, becoming a Middle East strategic policy planner for the Third Reich. Sometimes, as with Max, truth is stranger than fiction.

One can only ponder, how much of Max’s plans during the First World War have become a template for today’s unrest.

A notorious and controversial past, he was also an important contributor to archaeology with his discoveries at Tell Halaf.

Destiny’s War series tells us part of Max’s story during those fabled World War I years. In Part 1: Saladin’s Secret, we learn Max is giving the British Camel Corps a difficult time.

Further Reading

On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire
by Peter Hopkirk




The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power 
by Sean McMeekin

Pyram’s quotes


“Wisdom flows from the springs of knowledge and experience.”— Pyram King


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