German Wartime Documents Now in English


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

HAMBURG — Who was responsible for the Armenian Genocide? The ready answer is the Young Turk leadership, and that is on the mark. But there is more to the story. The Genocide took place in the context of the First World War, whose centenary is being commemorated this year, a war which saw Ottoman Turkey allied with Imperial Germany. It stands to reason that documentary material from official German sources can provide special insight into the actual campaign of deportations and mass murder, because, as allies, the Germans were privy to information that others did not have.

The richest source of information is to be found in the German Foreign Ministry archives during the war. German researcher and historian Wolfgang Gust compiled a critical edition of key documents in German in 2005, and his groundbreaking research has been translated into several other languages. Now it is finally available in English. (See release.) I had the opportunity to talk to Gust about his new book and to learn more about the background and special relevance it has today. Wolfgang Gust was active for decades with the leading German weekly Der Spiegel, including seven years as head of the Paris office and later work as editor of Spiegel books. It was during his stay in Paris that he first read about the Armenian Genocide in a book by Jacques von Alexanian, Le ciel était noir sur l’Euphrat, and began research on the subject. Following a series in Spiegel in 1991 on Karabagh, he published his first book on the subject (1993), which drew largely on existing research in French, German and other sources. There was relatively little original work in German, so he was breaking new ground when he went to the official German government sources and in 2005 issued a selection of 240 of the most important documents. It is this volume which is now available in the US.

The fact that it is in English is “most important,” he told me, “because English is the international language” which most scholars can read. And, he quipped, although American and British historians have a very good reputation, they are not noted for their foreign language capabilities… As for the substance of the work, the significance lies in the documents themselves, “which are the most important non-Turkish documents because Germany was one of the Great Powers in the war.” Diplomatic personnel, both the Ambassador and various consuls in Turkey, as well as members of the numerous Christian missions, reported at length on what they could observe on the ground. Although, he noted, the Americans and British may have had more information about the Committee of Union and Progress, they did not have facts about the massacres. Or if they did — for instance Ambassador Morgenthau’s reports — they did not have the same access to safe, encoded channels of communication that the Germans, as allies, had.

What then did the Germans know? And what did they do? Were they co-responsible? Or were they even, as some Turkish and other researchers have suggested, the prime movers for genocide? Was “German militarism” the culprit? Gust has explored this aspect in great depth and has concluded that there were varying levels of knowledge and different modes of response. He pointed out, for example, that lower level officers on the ground had more access to knowledge about the deportations and killings than the higher level General Staff. There were those who knew about the massacres and supported them, Gust said: “like First Lieutenant Böttrich, who was the German officer responsible for the Ottoman railways, and therefore for the Armenians working on the Baghdad railway project. He personally signed deportation orders, which were death warrants.” Or there was Eberhard Graf Wolffskeel von Reichenberg, a German artillery and General Staff officer, who not only witnessed killings in Zeitun and Urfa, “but also shot them himself.” At the same time there were some German officers who protected Armenians, and due to German intervention they were not deported en masse from Smyrna and Constantinople. As for the diplomats, the consuls, they “were on the side of the Armenians, not the Turks,” Gust said, “but since they were officially German representatives they had to be careful about what they said.” Notwithstanding, “in their internal reports they spoke openly of massacres; deputy consul Hermann Hoffmann-Völkersamb from Alexandrette, for example, and Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter from Erzerum,” who gave detailed accounts.

There are many historians who have stressed the role of German militarism, among them Sean McMeekin. In his book, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, he highlights the role of Max Baron von Oppenheim and his nationalist propaganda. “But,” Gust explained, “Oppenheim was merely a propagandist, not a representative of German policy.” German militarism, in Gust’s view, “does play a role, in that it was the military that the Turks wanted as allies. And German policy was influenced by the military.” But this was not what motivated the Genocide. Gust also points out that, contrary to the idea current among some historians, it was not the Germans who forced the Young Turks into the alliance. Rather, as the archives show, “Turkey wanted Germany as an ally because they were convinced that Germany would win the war and they had plans for conquering the Caucasus.” They even insisted on guarantees that, in the event of victory, they would have a border with a Muslim state.

A frequent argument put forward in particular by those who deny the Genocide is that the Armenians constituted a military threat to Turkey and that they had to organize the deportations, during which Armenians perished. In further research conducted over the past two years, Gust has unearthed crucial evidence to refute this notion and has published it on www.armenocide.net. Here he has focused on surviving military documents from the Supreme Headquarters, documents by foreign ministry representatives who always reported what they heard from military. “I have found nothing — nothing,” he repeated, “referring to the Armenians as a ‘danger’ or as ‘preparing a rebellion.’ From 1,000 documents, stretching to the end of 1916, there is not one such reference.”

There may have been, he said, some German military in Constantinople who were influenced by Turkish allegations of such activity, but the absence of any reference in these documents “is important, because the military dominated in Germany: if the Armenian issue did not exist for the German military,” he reasoned, “then it was not part of German policy.” As the new research confirms, Germany’s military aims concerned the Suez Canal (which they tried to block but failed), but not the Middle East. For Germany, France and Belgium were important, and for economic reasons. Russia was important, “and therefore they hoped to use Turkey in a war against Russia, to open a second front.” The German military in Berlin were for the war, but were neither for nor against the Armenians.

In serious historical research, it is the primary sources which count, not ideological leanings or political opportunism. This first English edition of the German wartime documents will shed new light on the fate the Armenians suffered in that conflict. When I asked Gust who the likely readers would be, he said he thought that Armenians above all would be interested in the book, not only specialists but also students in Turcology and genocide studies. Most important for those involved in genocide studies are “the direct quotations from Young Turk leaders Enver and Talaat which show they planned the Genocide.”