I’ve read several of Peter Hopkirk’s marvelous histories, and reviewed two of them on this blog: The Great Game tells the real-life story of Kipling’s Kim and the battle between Britain and Russia for the wealth of India; Foreign Devils on the Silk Road opens the mysteries of the ancient civilization that lies buried under the deserts of China; Trespassers on the Roof of the World gives the history of the breathless race to open Tibet to foreigners. All three of these books are brilliantly written, clear, and as exciting as spy novels. Feeling that I couldn’t put a foot wrong with Hopkirk, I looked forward with great anticipation to Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire. Unfortunately, this book was not up to the high standards Hopkirk set with his others.
The history involved is as strange and interesting as anything else Hopkirk has written about. Just before and during the first World War, Kaiser Wilhelm masterminded a plan to work with the Turks to create a Holy War in the East. According to this plan, Muslims everywhere would rise against their Christian oppressors — except against the Germans, who were helping them, naturally. Violent revolutionary uprisings were planned against the British in India and against the Russians in Central Asia. The Germans dreamed of taking India for themselves, of creating a vast Teutonic empire in the East — their Drang nach Osten, a push for Lebensraum long before the Nazis ever used that term. The Turkish leaders, at the same time, imagined a new Ottoman empire finally out from under Tsarist rule.
This is truly an extraordinary story. Even if it were only (only!) the history of a Turco-German jihad and the British and Russian efforts to counteract it with intelligence agents, diplomacy, adventure, hostages, escape, disguise, and desert warfare, it would still be a heart-racing read. But in fact, world events came to disrupt the Turkish and German efforts: the assassination of the archduke Ferdinand, the Western Front, and the Russian Revolution all made their indelible imprint on the battle in the East. The scope of the book becomes larger and larger as it goes on, and at the end it has to do with a very different set of people than it set out to concern itself with.
Part of my problem with Like Hidden Fire was its very scope. It seemed unfocused, for which in some ways I can hardly blame it; so many countries were involved, and literally dozens of individuals played such important roles in intelligence and on the battlefield, that it was hard to follow even a basic timeline. It felt like the book was trying to encompass too much. Once the first World War began, things got even worse. Hopkirk repeats some events to the point of tedium and glosses over others, and I couldn’t tell whether it was an issue of importance or whether he’d lost track and needed editing. The pace was very uneven. Certain parts of the narrative are smooth and exciting, readable, easy to keep track of — the story of the intelligence agent Captain Reginald Teague-Jones is a good example of this. In others, I found myself reading and re-reading the same page, trying to understand how it related to the rest of the story. And a minor point: Hopkirk uses the place-names that were familiar at the time, such as Mesopotamia instead of Iraq and Transcaspia instead of Turkmenistan. While I understand his point — boundaries and place-names are and continue to be in flux — I found this confusing.
The final objection I had to this book was that Hopkirk couldn’t seem to make up his mind which side he was on. Oh, wait! Historians aren’t on a side, are they? They never have agendas, right? They’re objective! Oh, sure they are. When discussing the leader of some of the violent revolutionary uprisings in India:
The evil genius behind these nefarious activities was a 27-year-old Hindu intellectual named Vinayak Savarkar, who was officially the hostel’s director.
Evil genius? Is he serious? Nefarious? We’re talking about armed sedition against occupiers. If we were talking about a resistance unit in occupied France, would we get the same vocabulary? This kind of thing happens throughout the book. Hopkirk doesn’t like the Germans, either. He talks about their bad manners, their lack of humor. Really? All of them? I just couldn’t take much of this kind of rhetoric. The odd thing is that he doesn’t do this in any of his other books. The Tibetans, for instance, are represented as real people, even when they’re fighting against the British. I’m not sure what happened to his filter here.
Over all, I finished Like Hidden Fire because I wanted to know the history. It’s a period I’m interested in, and this is part of it I knew absolutely nothing about. But this is a flawed book. Read it with your eyes open, and pick up a few rubies from the road along the way.