The Nazi Conspiracy Theory That Wasn’t: France Built The Suez Canal To Break The British Empire

In the 1942 book Geopolitics by Jewish-American investment banker Robert Strausz-Hupe appears this extensive footnote that takes up almost an entire page:

Much is made in the writings of Haushofer and of other Geopolitikers of Lord Palmerston’s opposition to the construction of the Suez Canal. The historic evidence is meager for showing that Palmerston’s hostility to the canal was based on geopolitical considerations.

He did say in a speech on July 7, 1856, that the project submitted by Ferdinand de Lesseps “is an undertaking which, I believe, may be deemed to rank among the many bubbles schemes that from time to time have been palmed upon gullible capitalists.” And in a later speech he stated the he opposed the plan because he felt the Canal would imperil the integrity of the Ottoman Empire which was then the nominal suzerain of Egypt.

But — the Geopolitikers argued — that was just British hypocrisy, It was not the question of protecting some gullible capitalists or the integrity of the Ottoman Empire but the safeguarding of Britain’s life lines that troubled Palmerston. What he really feared was that the Canal would be a possible threat to the British Empire. The route to India around the Cape of Good Hope was undoubtedly long, but the British Navy could control it. However, while the passage through Suez was several thousands of miles shorter, the Canal would permit any power that might control Egypt, the “passage state,” to threaten Great Britain in India.

It is true that, long after the Canal had been built and passed into England’s control, certain Englishmen, deplored the military burden of policing Egypt and expressed their regret that the Canal had ever been built. But there exists no record of Lord Palmerston’s having voiced these objections. The alleged strategical motives of his opposition are pure invention.

Interestingly enough, this historical fiction of the Geopolitikers was used in Nazi-manufactured anti-British propaganda for French consumption shortly ebfore the outbreak of the Second World War. De Lesseps and many of his backers had been French, and Palmerston, in this Nazi version, had for imperial reasons wanted to cheat Frenchmen of the accomplishment of building the Canal. See also Andre Siegfried Suez and Panama, New York, 1939.

To recap: a prominent American Jew, who is a geopolitical thinker and will later go on to become an important U.S. diplomat and found the Foreign Policy Research Institute (producing Henry Kissinger and others), hears that Hitler-era Germans think the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1850s was a French ploy to break the British Empire, and summarily rejects it as a Nazi conspiracy theory.

His evidence? Lord Palmerston — Britain’s de facto foreign minister for most of the 19th century — made two speeches publicly opposing the Suez Canal, first on behalf of gullible capitalists and then the Ottoman Turks. Oh, really?

The mighty British Empire, which has just finished conquering half the planet, is deeply concerned that some wealthy Frenchmen will make a bad investment? Or, going by the other story, is deeply concerned about the territorial integrity of an Afro-Asian despot’s empire?

Note that at this time, France and Britain have found that they must yet again set aside their thousand-year-old rivalry to defeat Germany, which has just overrun France and begun inflaming negative sentiments of the British.

After reading the extensive footnote, I investigated this matter of the origin of the Suez Canal myself.

The first French attempt to open up the Suez Canal was by Napoleon:

The first efforts to build a modern canal came from the Egypt expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte, who hoped the project would create a devastating trade problem for the English. Though this project was begun in 1799 by Charles Le Pere, a miscalculation estimated that the levels between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea were too great (estimating that the Red Sea was some ten meters higher than that of the Mediterranean Sea) and work was quickly suspended.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Napoleon failed, however. His French successor, almost 60 years later, did not:

The next attempt to build a canal in the area occurred in the mid-1800s when a French diplomat and engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, convinced the Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to support the building of a canal. In 1858, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company was formed and given the right to begin construction of the canal and operate it for 99 years, after which time, the Egyptian government would take over control of the canal.

Ferdinand de Lesseps’ successful attempt followed a few decades of surveys and studies of the isthmus by Frenchmen, which was then part of the Khedive of Egypt, a semi-autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire. The French Suez Canal company’s stock was owned almost entirely by “French and Egyptian interests”, with a French majority.

And what did the British think of this?

…many British statesmen considered its construction a political scheme designed to undermine their dominance of global shipping. The British ambassador to France argued that supporting the canal would be a “suicidal act,” and when Lesseps tried to sell shares in the canal company, British papers labeled the project “a flagrant robbery gotten up to despoil the simple people.” Lesseps went on to engage in a public war of words with British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, and even challenged railway engineer Robert Stephenson to a duel after he condemned the project in Parliament. The British Empire continued to criticize the canal during its construction, but it later bought a 44 percent stake in the waterway after the cash-strapped Egyptian government auctioned off its shares in 1875.

Again, pretty clear. A throwaway line on Wikipedia credited to a German historian’s documentary at a 404ed French link even adds detail:

As one of the diplomatic moves against the canal, it disapproved of the use of “slave labour” of forced workers. The British Empire was the major global naval force and officially condemned the forced work and sent armed Bedouins to start a revolt among workers. Involuntary labour on the project ceased, and the viceroy condemned the corvée, halting the project.

Angered by the British opportunism, de Lesseps sent a letter to the British government remarking on the British lack of remorse a few years earlier when forced workers died in similar conditions building the British railway in Egypt.

In other words, a naval Anglophone superpower tried to prevent a rival empire (France) from undercutting its global naval dominance by covertly funding armed rebellions in foreign countries and providing moral cover by loudly condemning abuses of human rights, which they committed themselves but piously ignored. The strategy remains much the same today.

So, was this Nazi German conspiracy theory in fact a conspiracy? In short, no. Robert Strausz-Hupe doth protest too much, methinks.

Prior to the construction of the Suez Canal, Britain was more-or-less the world’s naval superpower, and this status made it a trade superpower, as well. Much, if not all, of that trade depended on the route east to the Indian Ocean, which the British had safe control over thanks to their foothold at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

The Mediterranean Sea was then a relatively inconsequential lake. A French endeavor to turn the Mediterranean Sea into a route to the Indian Ocean would have looked like a masterstroke of geopolitical policy, simultaneously gutting the Brits’ biggest naval and trade advantage while bestowing it upon France — and also far more than halving its maintenance costs, as the new route was about one quarter as long.

Both the British and French in the 19th century, as well as the National Socialist German Workers Party, recognized this obvious fact of statecraft and geostrategy. It looks like it almost would have worked for the French too, were it not for the negligible financial and military aptitude of the Egyptian Khedivate, which was soon bought out by the British government and then overrun by the British Army.

Control of the canal soon passed de facto from the French to the British, who did in fact lose their previous advantage and were forced by geopolitical necessity to occupy and defend the new route imposed on them by Ferdinand de Lesseps and the French.

In a classic maneuver of statecraft, the French forced the British Empire into a weaker position, though not weak enough to be surpassed. The Nazis weren’t hallucinating about this one: on this, at least, Hitler was right, Mr. Strausz-Hupe.


Mark Yuray is verified on Gab. Follow him there and on Twitter.

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