Friendship Between the Rhine and the Arax


Cover of the German edition of the book

Cover of the German edition of the book

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

DRESDEN — Germans celebrated national unity on October 3, not only in Dresden but also in Yerevan. Most appropriately at the center of the festivities was the presentation of a new publication detailing the history of German-Armenian relations. Entitled Between the Rhine and the Arax: 900 Years of German-Armenian Relations, the volume published by TIGRAN METS in Yerevan, is the Armenian translation of a work issued in German in 1988, by Enno Meyer and Ara J. Berkian. Lisa Berkian-Abrahamian fulfilled her late husband’s desire by translating it into Armenian.

The aim of the authors was to provide new insights into the almost one thousand years of relations so as to deepen reciprocal understanding and remove prejudices. Especially in the second part of the book which deals with the modern era, significant source material from German archives appears for the first time in print.

The relations, though intense, have not always been easy, and the role of the Great Powers in determining the fate of the Armenians – that “betrayed people” as Fridjof Nansen put it — has been complex and problematic, especially in the course of the two world wars that scarred the 20th century.

Part one traces relations from ancient times to 1922 and part two covers the turbulent years thereafter up to 1988. The story begins in 1071, when Armenian Archbishop Gregor was given refuge in Passau, as he fled Seljuk persecution. The account references the fact that the wife of Otto I, Empress Theophanu (955-991) was Armenian, and that Armenian architecture left its mark in Germany and Europe more broadly. In the Crusades, relations reached a highpoint, and Armenians were rewarded for their service by Emperors Frederick I Barbarossa and Henry VI with the elevation of their barony in Cilicia to a kingdom. Levon received his crown as King of Armenia, “by the grace of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation” at the hands of Archbishop Conrad von Wittelsbach. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Armenians again served German interests, functioning as secret agents for the Austrian general staff during the siege of Vienna. There were plots to enlist German aid to liberate Armenia from Asiatic rulers that came to naught, but Armenians fleeing from the Turks did receive help from Emperor Leopold I and Empress Maria-Theresia to settle in Transylvania.

On the cultural level, it was largely German scientists and intellectuals who delved into study of Armenian language and culture, from Friedrich Parrot and Heinrich Hübschmann, to C. Lehmann-Haupt and Josef Strzygowski. By the same token, many leading Armenian intellectuals were graduates of German universities, among them Abovian, Komitas, Shant, Issahakian, Mahokian, Sureniantz and Kodjoyan.

The good relations entered a crisis in the First World War, as Imperial Germany allied with the Ottomans. The authors do not accuse the German government of involvement in the genocide and point to documented cases in which Germans protested the deportations and massacres, not only among humanitarians like Johannes Lepsius but also some military personnel.

In the post war period leading into the Nazi period and World War II, the relations became even more complex. Following the betrayal of Armenian national aspirations by the Great Powers, diaspora Armenians faced the rise of Nazism in Germany. They escaped racial discrimination because they were classified as “Aryans.” With the outbreak of conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union, the authors report that most diaspora Armenians in Europe sided with Germany and many joined the Armenian Legion in 1942 under Colonel Stauffenberg (who later attempted to assassinate Hitler). If there were, according to the authors, 30,000 Armenians in combat, there were another 800,000 former Red Army soldiers and 100,000 Scandinavians also working with Germany. If the calculation on the part of the Armenian military-political leaders was that such an alliance would protect their country, once freed from Stalin’s dictatorship, from Turkish threats, for the Germans a strong Armenia could be used to thwart pan-Turanic expansionist ambitions. That said, the authors report that the majority of Armenians, numbering 350,000, fought on the Soviet side, including in command positions. Significant new source material for this modern period comes from German and Armenian newspapers.

Finally, the post-war developments are of a happier nature. The German-Armenian Society was revived and with it a new chapter in relations between the two nations and peoples was opened in the economic, political and especially cultural realm.

At the festive event in Yerevan, translator Lisa Berkian-Abrahamian and editor Davit Mkr Sargsyan presented the book, excerpts of which were read by actress Gayane Samvelyan. The celebration gathered numerous scholars, historians, journalists, literary critics and linguists as well as many illustrious guests, from Minister of Culture Armen Amiryan, Deputy Minister Nerses Ter-Vardanyan, Head of the Department of Culture at the Yerevan Municipality Ruben Hovhanissyan and German Ambassador Matthias Kiesler. The director of the Avetik Isahakyan Central Library, where the event was held, and honored cultural figure Hasmik Karapetyan presided and congratulated the Minister of Culture on assuming office as well as the German diplomat on unification.

(Material for this article was provided by translator Lisa Berkian-Abrahamian and Armenian press releases.)