THE ROLE OF GERMANY IN THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE Overt alliance, covert responsibility

Teaser Image Caption
The general staff of the German army: Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Eric Ludendorff, the deputy chief of staff of the Second Army.

In the centenary of the Armenian genocide, the debate has naturally extended to the role of Germany which was in an alliance with the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Aside from the question of how the German state will define the genocide officially, the responsibility of German officers serving in the Ottoman army was brought to the table -at least to some extent. Jürgen Gottschlich, a journalist living in Turkey for many years, has penned the book “Völkermord: Deutschlands Rolle bei der Vernichtung der Armenier” (Genocide: Germany’s Role in the Extermination of Armenians), which has sparked heated debates after its release this year.

First let’s take a look at the relations prior to 1915. At that point, the Armenian Question had already been discussed for at least 50 years,in connection with the Oriental Question widely debated during the 19th century. In the 1890s, the mass killings under the reign of sultan Abdülhamid II had provoked public outrage across the world. How did the German state and public react to these events back then?

Jürgen Gottschlich: The public did not know much about it. However, Kaiser Wilhelm was a close friend of Abdülhamid’s and did not show very much interest in what was being done to the Armenians. The two states were in an official alliance and planning on jointly constructing the Baghdad Railway. Germany was sending weapons to the Ottoman army. The first German military mission to the Ottoman Empire arrived in 1881, under the command of von der Goltz. They knew that the Ottoman Empire was growing weak and needed help. They knew of Abdülhamid’s and later of Young Turks’ fears that the Ottoman Empire would be divided up among the British, French and Russians. The Germans told the Ottomans, “We are your friends, are committed to your territorial integrity, do not want a piece of your land, and would like to collaborate.” They did not view the Ottoman Empire as a colony, yet they were planning on dominating the country in order to fight more effectively against the British in the Middle East, and even in India. Thus, they had found a strategic ally here. During the reign of Abdülhamid and later of the Young Turks, only a handful of Germans—most of them clergymen—had campaigned in favor of the Armenians. They were led by Johannes Lepsius, who had penned a book on the Armenian massacres of 1895-96. His writings did gain some popularity among German intellectuals, but did not really reach the wider masses. This did not change much in the following decades: The debate in Germany prior to World War I was whether the Ottomans would make a good ally in the wake of their defeat in the Balkans. It was thought that the Ottoman army was in very bad shape and that Germany would have to send large amounts of money and weapons.

So if the Germans had ignored the Ottomans, just like the Allied Powers had done, would the empire have stayed out of the war?

I doubt it. Under the rule of the Young Turks, some Ottomans debated remaining neutral or joining forces with France; however, there were close ties between the German and Ottoman armies. Enver and other officers argued that Ottomans had to side with the Germans. The Germans changed their minds after their defeat on the French front. They had first invaded Belgium and were planning on swiftly conquering France, especially Paris; later they would pile up all their weapons and ammunition on the Russian front. Yet when they failed to occupy Paris and were defeated for the first time, they realized that they would need the Turks. Germans started to put immense pressure on Turks to convince them to join the war on their side.

Until 1915, the Armenian struggle was centered not on independence, but rather living together with equal rights. Wasn’t there an agreement prior to the war, which included the Germans among its signatories?

Yes, the last agreement was signed with the Armenians in 1913. It was Ambassador Wangenheim’s first contact with the Armenian question. They thought that Armenians, if left to themselves, would become closer to the Russians. So they decided that a proposal had to be made to the Armenians, and as a result of the agreement, two Christian governors from abroad were appointed to two provinces.

That is, they accepted that the path to territorial integrity passed through partial autonomy and equality…

The idea of equal citizenship had previously started to gain acceptance in the Ottoman Empire. However, this idea became a thing of the past after the Balkan Wars. The wars of independence in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia were waged under the banner of Christianity, with the support of Russia. From that point onwards, Young Turks grew concerned about the Christian populations within the empire.

However the Armenian politicians were not only Christians but also revolutionaries, and had collaborated with the Young Turks during the declaration of the Second Constitutional Era in 1908. They rejected the Committee of Union and Progress’ (CUP) proposal to fight the Russians together; not because they sided with the Russians, but because they were against the war.

There were some in favor of siding with the Russians to gain independence, yet the majority wanted to remain within the Ottoman state—with more rights of course. Even the Dashnaks did not feel close to the reactionary regime in Russia. That was the general feeling at the Armenian congress which convened in 1914 in Erzurum, where the Young Turks proposed to fight with the Armenians against the Russians.

So there were some who wanted to join forces with the Russians, but their activities were very exaggerated by the Ottoman state, is that right?

Certainly, especially after the tragic end of the Sarıkamış campaign. Enver Pasha and Bronsart von Schellendorf, who had planned the campaign, needed a scapegoat to lay blame on. They claimed “The Armenians stabbed us in the back.” The propaganda that Armenians were supporting the Russians was escalated as a result.

Germans gained influence especially under the reign of Abdülhamid. Didn’t they have a hard time in relating to the CUP government?

Upon the declaration of the Second Constitutional Era, Germans became frustrated since they were very close to Abdülhamid. In the beginning, they did not like the CUP at all; however, improved relations within six months. Enver was sent to Berlin as military attaché, and remained there for three years, building close ties with military officers, politicians and even the Kaiser himself. The Kaiser was very pleased to see him get married to a woman from the Ottoman dynasty. Upon his return to Istanbul, Enver saw that the majority of the top brass was pro-German, had been educated in the academy set up by von der Goltz, had received lessons from German officers, and had gone on trips to Germany. Among the Young Turks, maybe not the Paris group, but the army group was very close to the Germans. When fighting against the counterrevolution of 1909, the troops arriving from the Balkans to Istanbul were significantly supported by the Germans.

What was the position of German officers within the Ottoman army at the beginning of the war?

German officers occupied some of the highest ranks in the Ottoman top brass. Liman von Sanders, Bronsart von Schellendorf, Humann, von der Goltz and others were either field commanders or at the headquarters. The army commander would be Ottoman but would report to a German officer at the headquarters. That was the case in all six Ottoman armies. Germans held posts with huge authority and responsibility. Even Enver shared his decisions and authority with a German general. As you know, the Ottomans entered the war in late October after the German warships Goben and Breslau bombarded Russia’s Black Sea coastline. At the time, the German army was in dire straits in France and the Austrian army in Galicia. The German officers had started to put pressure on Ottomans, urging them to take action. They wanted the Ottoman army to invade Egypt and the Suez Canal; however, it was not possible as the army did not have enough soldiers and logistic supplies to cross the desert. The Austrians told them to occupy Odessa then; however, the navy wasn’t ready, either. It was finally decided that the Ottomans would march directly on Russia via Sarıkamış. It was of course stupid to start such a campaign in December, at minus 30 degrees Celsius, and the Turkish soldiers were not well-prepared. The Germans may have insisted a lot, but Enver was very keen, too. In fact, they ought to have waited three to four months, but were forced to start the operation in winter.

Some were opposed to the operation, it seems.

Yes, Liman von Sanders for instance. He hated Enver Pasha, whom he considered to be ignorant. So Enver sent him to the Aegean. (laughs) The second top German commander in the Ottoman army, Bronsart von Schellendorf, laid out the campaign plans for Enver.

Von Schellendorf was in charge during the genocide, right?

Bronsart led the German officers who claimed that Armenians posed a real threat. He demanded the deportation of Armenians, and even when he learned that the deportation turned into massacre, he said “It is better this way; do not interfere.” Bronsart and other influential German officers thought that “If the Turks have decided on this method, all the better for us.” Bronsart was also a true racist who likened Ottoman Armenians to German Jews. Later he would become a prominent fascist. In letters written in the 1930s, he suggested that Armenians were even worse than the Jews. The military attaché Hans Humann was like minded. Souchon, at the head of the navy, had said, “For Turks, it is best to exterminate the Armenians”.

So, already at that point, senior German officers had a clear-cut perspective on the Armenian society.

They viewed them as traitors collaborating with Russia. In social terms, they likened Armenians to Jews, and talked of them as hoarders and usurers detrimental to the Turkish society.

Were there any German officers who opposed this idea and its corollaries, deportation and genocide?

Such a polarization seemed to appear later on, upon the arrival of Metternich. Before that there were those who said, “We agree with the Turks” and those who said, “We don’t agree, but can’t do anything about it.” The initial plan was deportation. This was a well-accepted method previously tried in other countries. For instance, Russians had deported Jews, and the British had applied it in South America. At first, the German officers had not understood that the Armenian people faced genocide. When deportations started in April and May 1915, it took them a couple of weeks to understand what was happening in the East, that people were forced to march to the mountains and killed in Erzurum and Erzincan. The consuls of Erzurum, Aleppo and Mosul had understood, though. Dead bodies were carried downstream by the Euphrates. They wrote letters to Ambassador Wangenheim and the Berlin government explaining what was happening. Wangenheim sent an official writing to Berlin in the first week of July, and stated that the Armenians of Anatolia were being exterminated. So, the German government knew about it. The diplomats were only trying to evade responsibility. They said “We will officially condemn Enver and Talât, so that we can later document our criticism.” However, that’s not what they really wanted to do either, because the Battle of Gallipoli was at a critical point and everyone feared defeat. Before the war broke off, Wangenheim had told Enver that the Germans would deliver heavy weapons and ammunition; but this had failed to materialize once Serbia cut off access to the roads. Since they were worried about the situation in Gallipoli, they could not tell Enver to stop the massacres. In October 1915, after the first big wave of deportation, Wangenheim died. The ambassador who replaced him, Metternich, had served in London before and genuinely wanted to stop the massacre. He knew how the Anglo-American side saw the matter. He thought that this support would be terrible for Germany’s prestige, but the top brass sided with Enver and Talât. He wrote a letter to the Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and asked him to write Enver a letter saying, “We will cut military assistance if you do not stop the massacre.” The chancellor refused, saying that they needed the Turks. This was the response of the highest political authority, and Metternich’s hands were tied. Consequently Metternich was dismissed, called back to Berlin, and retired soon thereafter.

And so, the war effort continued as a full alliance, with a consensus about the solution of the Armenian question.

In 1917, after the Armenian question was off the table, German troops started to arrive in Ottoman lands at the Palestinian front. Before that the assistance had consisted mainly of officers; from late 1916 onwards, however, German troops arrived at the Ottoman fronts. At the end of the war, there were around 60-70,000 German soldiers on Ottoman land. That is, the support to the Ottoman Empire was much bigger than before the genocide. Germans did not criticize the Ottomans or discuss the genocide; they turned a blind eye to it.

Did the German civilians in the Ottoman Empire such as merchants and clergymen react? In fact, the German society was better placed to receive information about the genocide, than say the British or French…

Certain influential civilians raised their voice against the genocide, but it was not enough of course. Take for example Franz J. Günther, the Deutsche Bank official in charge of railroad construction. The railroad was not complete when the war broke off; on the way from Konya to Aleppo it had run into the mountains. Many Cilician Armenians were working in its construction. The government wanted to deport them, too. Günther opposed this, and stated that they needed these workers, as well as other Armenians occupying administrative positions. He wanted to protect them. “If they don’t work, the job will not finish, we cannot transport supplies to the front, and even Gallipoli will be affected.” In the first months, Armenian workers in the Baghdad railway construction were not deported; however, their families were. So the workers started to desert one by one to find them. The officer in charge of Ottoman army’s logistics and the military aspects of the Baghdad railway, Lieutenant Colonel Böttrich, was in favor of deportation and declared “I received orders from Enver himself and will deport them.” Deutsche Bank officials contacted Berlin to stop Böttrich, yet to no avail. This example shows that there was civilian resistance to deportation. It is certain that the German army was in favor of deportation.

How about the German population? Did they react?

Lepsius and other clergymen communicated some information, although limited, to Germany and contacted left-wing members of parliament. However, their attempts to raise the issue in parliament were hindered by the government. The problem with Lepsius and the like was that they were not against the war. They, too, were German nationalists and did not oppose war. They thought that it would be better to use rather than kill Armenians for victory. Due to this, the resistance in Germany was very weak. On the one hand there was the church, which was in favor of the war, and on the other hand, a few socialists, who were eventually imprisoned. Lepsius wanted to write articles for prominent German newspapers; however, he could not express himself freely and was censored. So he went to the Netherlands and published his book there on the plight of the Armenians. He stayed there until the end of the war and after his return he was asked by the German Foreign Office to pen a report on Armenians. As such, he became the first civilian to enter the huge archive of the Foreign Office. He wrote his report, but did not mention Germany’s responsibility in a single sentence. The government tried to make use of this report during the Versailles Peace Treaty talks, claiming “We were in alliance with the Ottomans, but not in a position to avoid the mass killing of Armenians.”

Was the responsibility of German officers ever mentioned at the court set up in Istanbul to investigate the genocide?

No, never. The British had imprisoned some officers of the Ottoman army in Malta. There was only a single German among them: Liman von Sanders! (laughs) They wanted to lay the entire blame on him, but he was actually opposed to deportation from the start. He was the only person who tried to save the Armenians of Izmir. The Ottoman officers were soon let go any way in exchange for the liberation of British soldiers captured by Kuvayı Milliye forces. So there never was a proper trial. The Versailles Treaty had terrible results for Germany, but the Armenian question was never brought to the table. When the peace talks started in 1919, the Armenians insisted on a country of their own, but since the independence movement was gaining ground in Turkey they could not achieve anything. The Armenians were not even mentioned at the Lausanne talks. There was a brief debate around the issue after Talât was shot dead, since the court let the assassin Soghomon Tehlirian walk away for being mentally unstable. Germany did not want to get involved in the issue. Although they knew that the connection was horrible for Germany’s reputation, they did not feel the least bit responsible for it.

Hitler is claimed to have said “Who talks about the Armenians any more?”

Yes, but it is not certain. He purportedly said that in a meeting with his top generals right before the assault on Soviet Russia. That was of course a secret meeting. It could be made up, but I would not be surprised to learn that he actually said it.

Did anyone from the German army bring up the matter later on?

For instance Felix Guse, the commander of the Caucasian Army, wrote a series of articles on the Armenian question which was later published in book format by the army’s publishing house. He argued how the extermination of the Armenians was necessary, but without linking it to the Jewish question which was then on the agenda.

Are there any officers who, after serving in the Ottoman army, joined the Nazis?

Hans Humann had not really joined the Nazis, but became a prominent figure of the German right. Ludendorff can be said to have joined the Nazis. There is an ironic story: A handful of German officers, for example, the consul of Erzurum Max von Scheubner-Richter, protested against the order of deportation from Istanbul, saying “There are only the elderly, women and children here; deportation is not necessary on military grounds.” Scheubner-Richter showed much interest in the issue and provided food to the Armenians. Indeed Bronsart became angry with him, saying “Give the bread to Turkish soldiers instead.” Scheubner-Richter would later join the Nazis and became very close with Hitler. In 1923, he was shot dead during Hitler’s beer hall putsch and collapsed on Hitler’s shoulder. He was definitely a German nationalist, but did not view Armenians’ deportation as a military necessity.

Germany managed to come to terms with the Holocaust, but Turkey has not assumed the slightest responsibility for the Armenian genocide. What is the reason in your view?

I think there are significant differences. Germany lost the war and when the USA laid out the principles of the new republic, accepting the Holocaust was part of the picture. Turkey lost World War I, but won the war of independence; Turks considered themselves as victors. No one forced them to discuss the Armenian genocide. Today it is still unknown what Mustafa Kemal though about the matter. Some of his statements suggest that he disapproved, but we cannot be sure.

The fact that he did not play a role in the Armenian genocide may have helped him in leading the struggle for independence.

Maybe. He said that he disapproved deportation, but did not act on it and do what was necessary. He knew that Armenian property was confiscated, but did not do anything about it.

After coming to terms with the Holocaust over the decades, how did Germans’ perspective on the Armenian genocide change?

Many Germans say “All right, we are responsible for the Holocaust, but how can we be blamed for the Armenian genocide, or the massacre of Hereros in Namibia? One is fine, but three is too much!” (laughs)

In the last hundred years, did the Armenian diaspora make efforts to emphasize the role of the German state in the genocide?

Very few Armenians live in Germany, especially when compared to France or the USA. However, the Armenians living there refrain from underscoring the responsibility of the Germans because this might benefit the Turks. In the mid-1990s, Vahakn Dadrian wrote a book on the Germans’ role in the genocide, and I met him in Armenia. The book was fine, but it was not translated to German and few people knew about it. It did not spark a debate in the USA, either. Later on, a journalist working with Der Spiegel, Wolfgang Gust, published a very important book on the matter (The Armenian Genocide: Evidence from the German Foreign Office Archives) based on German Foreign Office documents between 1914 and 1918. As these were political documents, the book laid the groundwork for debate. Gust did a great job, but could not access the documents of the German army—that’s where I came in. A large part of the military archive was bombed and burnt during World War II. The archive of the land army was entirely destroyed, yet some of the navy archive remained. In my book, I focused on those documents and focused on German officers who had served in the Ottoman army. It is possible to track what they did and where they were in these documents. Gust’s book on diplomats and my book on the soldiers complement each other for understanding the German side.

What was the reaction of the German public to your book?

It sparked one of the largest debates ever on the issue. Since it was issued on April 24, it played an important role on debates about what the German state should say on the centenary.

What is your view of the German state’s reaction in the centenary of the genocide?

The matter was discussed in 2005 at the parliament. They had said that the events were tragic and that the Germans did not help the Armenians, but refrained from defining it as genocide. In the following decade, it was not really discussed at length. This last time, members of the opposition and indeed some social democrats, who are part of the governing coalition, sparked a new discussion at the parliament and demanded that the genocide be recognized as such. The government, especially the Foreign Office, did not want to come at loggerheads with Turkey, and said “The matter should be left to historians.” (laughs) However the German president Gauck took the initiative and organized a large mass at Berlin’s second biggest cathedral, together with Armenians and Orthodox Greeks. In his speech there, Gauck said that Germans were not spectators but indeed active perpetrators of this crime, and described the events as genocide. The debate continued in the parliament the next day, with speakers of all parties recognizing the genocide. However, we are still waiting for the parliament’s final say on the matter. The text will be finalized in autumn. I was optimistic at first, but too much time has passed and the decision has been delayed a number of times. Well, we shall see, but they cannot avoid Gauck’s position.

The Turkish Republic now wages a similar struggle against the Kurds, who demand equality and citizenship rights just like the Armenians once did. What does the average German think about the issue? What do you think of this continuity?

You know that Erdoğan thinks that Germans support the PKK, right? (laughs) Throughout the years, the German people have reached a certain awareness about minority rights. The problem in Turkey is, as always, whether groups with different ethnic backgrounds can enjoy equal rights. There still are many people who claim that this is not acceptable. I have lived in Turkey since 1998, and had frequently visited the country before that. After all these years, I am not so pessimistic. There has been some progress on the matter. Before Erdoğan’s latest war, there were constructive and positive talks and the Kurdish movement had also shown significant progress. What Kurds said back in the 1990s or even early 2000s was much different than what HDP says today. In my opinion, what Turkey is going through today is the last struggle of those who are unwilling to compromise; a solution will definitely happen.