Wolfgang Gust, the foreign news chief of Der Spiegel and the editor of Spiegel-Buch, and his wife, Sigrid Gust, have worked on the German Foreign Ministry’s political archives concerning the disaster and massacre Armenians suffered in 1915 and 1916.
Their book, “Alman Belgeleri: Ermeni Soykırımı 1915-1916” (German Documents: Armenian Genocide 1915-1916), published by Belge Yayınları in Turkey, is 992 pages long, of which 179 pages are allocated to the evaluation and interpretation of the documents and some additional resources, while the remaining 813 pages present the archived documents. These documents testify to the sheer magnitude of the forced relocation of Armenians for eventual destruction, and its portrayal of the German administration in this tragedy makes this book important.
German policies concerning Turkey and Armenians were being shaped by the German army’s top-down management style. Clearly, Germany had an authoritarian regime in which Prussian militarism played a dominant role. When the bourgeois revolution that sought to implement the ideals of the French revolution in Germany in 1848 failed, 2.8 million Germans left their country, and most of them went to the US. The notion of human rights did not exist in the German language. The German academic world argued that German culture would disintegrate without German militarism.
German culture had sprung from militarism thanks to the protection it provided. Therefore, this mentality was opposed to Western civilization. In response, Western-minded Armenian elites didn’t like Germans. And Germans didn’t like Western-minded Armenians. In a report he sent from Damascus to the chancellor of the German Empire, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, German propagandist and Intelligence Bureau for the East head Max Freiherr von Oppenheim described American and British missionary and consulate activities as provocative and malicious. For this reason, Germans started to regard Armenians as their seventh ally (i.e., after Oppenheim started sowing discord between the Germans and the Americans and the British, the Germans began to warm to the Armenians).
Germans sought to extend the Baghdad railway not just to Baghdad but also to Basra on the Persian Gulf and perceived the region as an area of interest as a German colony and to ensure German economic dominance in the region and eventually to annex the region to the German Empire. The center of this area of interest was the Çukurova/Adana region (Cilicia).
In a letter he wrote in July 1913 to German Ambassador Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Gottlieb von Jagow summed this up as follows, “Turkey will maintain its presence in Asia until we reinforce our limits of work and complete the annexation.” The German plan to reach through the depths of Anatolia to Palestine started swiftly in 1912. Their goal was to reach the Suez Canal. This policy pitted the Germans against the British, who had investments and enterprises in Ottoman territories and pursued similar policies.
In addition to Britain, Russia and France were uneasy about cooperation between Germany and the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Germans made progress in their projects in the fields of economy, commerce, agriculture, navigation and education in the Ottoman territories. Parallel to these developments, Enver Paşa made a secret agreement with the Germans for the reforming of the army, and General Otto Liman von Sanders and 50 German military officers from Berlin were invited to the Ottoman Empire. In practice, these military officers also meddled with the political affairs of the CUP. Non-Muslim groups living in the Ottoman Empire posed an obstacle to Germany’s economic and ideological aspirations in the East. Thus began the connivance of German militarism with the CUP for inhumane practices against non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey allies with Germany
As Turkey allied with Germany in World War I, a savage and ruthless practice against Greeks and Armenians commenced. In 1914, an oppressive campaign was launched against Greeks, and the destruction of Greek settlements started. In early 1915, Deutsche Palastine Bank (German-Palestine Bank) distributed flyers in Turkish that provoked Muslims in the East and incited hatred against Christians and that told Muslims to cut their commercial ties with them. Forced relocation of Greeks in Ayvalık was conducted upon official demand from Gen. Liman von Sanders (see Mihail Rodas: “Almanya Türkiye’deki Rumları Nasıl Mahvetti?” [How did Germany Destroy Greeks in Turkey?]).
With the start of the war, the military recruitment system had been altered so that non-Muslims who wanted to serve in the army would have to pay a specified tax or become military deserters. Moreover, labor battalions were formed from the Christians sent from Anatolia for road construction and other forced labor work. Thousands of Christians who were forced to work in these battalions were not paid and were not provided with adequate nutrition, and they would lose their lives under hard climatic conditions. This compulsory military service model destroyed the most efficient groups of ethnic and non-Muslim minorities, and this model was further assisted by confiscations and compulsory taxes. Thus, the wealth of these minorities was confiscated, and their shops were looted.
As wealth and commerce were Turkified and Islamified, Germany took its share through its banks and companies. Muslims were prohibited from developing commercial ties with Greeks, who were banned from exporting goods. The government decided to confiscate all properties of those who were forced to migrate. Another method was to force Christians to become Muslims. Gen. Liman von Sanders collected taxes from Christians to establish an orphanage in Bandırma. Here, boys would be assimilated, and girls would be forced to marry Turkish boys. Christian families would be sent to predominantly Turkish villages, and they would not be allowed to leave the village. In addition to general massacres, there were also individually committed murders. The two-phased policy -- implemented mainly against Greeks in 1914 but later expanded to include Armenians -- had a single aim: to destroy the Christian components so that the Ottoman Empire could be converted into a purely Turkish/Muslim state. Kurds were excluded from this policy as they were Muslims and therefore could be Turkified. Kurdish and Circassian gangs played a role in this massacre.
Germany’s policies regarding their interests in the East had overlapped with the CUP’s policy of homogenizing the country. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that German Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Count Wolff-Metternich, who criticized the developments, was removed from office by the Kaiser on the grounds that he “undermined the dignity of Turks and failed to act according to German interests by interfering in favor of Christians.” Armenians, who were the first tribe to accept Christianity, were being crushed between the Russian hammer and the Turkish-German anvil.
There were 800 German military officers in the Ottoman territories under the service agreement signed by the Ottoman Empire and the German Military Aid Delegation in 1913. They not only trained Turkish military officers, but also formed part of the Turkish army. German military officers assumed critical positions everywhere in the Turkish army. The number of German military officers who openly voiced objection to the forced relocation and massacre was very few. Three German military officers who opposed forced relocation in Erzurum paid dearly for their opposition.
A brutal report
In a report attached to a letter he sent to Chancellor of the German Empire Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Rudolf von Valentini from the Privy Council of the German emperor said the following based on observations that Martin Niepage, a teacher at the German school in Aleppo, made in September 1915: “The men are slaughtered on the way; the women and girls, with the exception of the old, the ugly and those who are still children, have been abused by Turkish soldiers and officers and then carried away to Turkish and Kurdish villages, where they have to accept Islam. They try to destroy the remnant of the convoys by hunger and thirst. Most of them are suffering from typhoid and dysentery. If one brings them food, one notices that they have forgotten how to eat. They just lie there quietly, waiting for death. … Under such circumstances our educational work flies in the face of all true morality and becomes a mockery of human sympathy. Mohammedans, too, of more sensitive feelings -- Turks and Arabs alike -- shake their heads in disapproval and do not conceal their tears when they see a convoy of exiles marching through the city, and Turkish soldiers using cudgels upon women in advanced pregnancy and upon dying people who can no longer drag themselves along. They cannot believe that their government has ordered these atrocities, and they hold the Germans responsible for all such outrages, Germany being considered during the war as Turkey’s schoolmaster in everything. Moslem intellectuals believe that even if the German nation condemns this massacre, the German government will not be inclined to prevent it for the sake of its friendship with the Turkish government.”
Yunus Nadi wrote the following at the end of his article titled “Bankruptcy and cleaning” that appeared in Tasvir-i Efkar on Oct. 7, 1916: “Under pressure from realities, we have to turn toward a new target. We have to realize that the policy of ensuring a union among the said ethnic groups has gone bankrupt and the era of ‘cleaning’ for the sake of the homeland has started.” A German missionary defined this strategy of murder as follows: “Exile, execution and bullets until the last member.” A German military officer narrated his observations as follows, “Amid the endless serenity of the desert, wheezing sounds of those who are in the throes of death and the cries of those who lost their minds were filling the skies.”
In the early 1900s, a similar tragedy occurred in the desert of Omaheke in South-West Africa -- currently Namibia. The victims were not Armenians, but the Herero, who were massacred by the German Imperial Forces led by Gen. Lothar von Trotha (who had violently suppressed the Boxer rebellion in China). As he drove the Herero into the desert of Omaheke, where they would die, Gen. Trotha justified the massacre by saying, “I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated.” Perhaps, Gen. Trotha had advised the CUP leaders that they should implement the recipe of destruction he had applied in Africa.
The conclusion confirmed by the documents published by Gust is that German military officers as agents of German militarism endorsed the forced relocation, and they found military justifications for it. They thought that Germany’s interests in the region preached this. And the CUP leaders violently implemented its Turkification and Islamification policies with support and connivance from Germany. When the scope of forced relocation was expanded to the entire country, the Germans did not raise objections to it. Reading the details of the documents Gust has managed to retrieve from the German Foreign Ministry’s Political Archives -- although the Germans had destroyed a significant portion of these documents -- has left me in utter shame and gripped my soul.
Germany has a tradition of offering official apologies about such periods of shame in their history. If German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan together condemn the atrocities and massacres their ancestors performed, the souls of the victims, squeezed somewhere, will turn into doves. Does conscience tell us to spare our words from the oppressed?
*Ümit Kardaş is a retired military judge.