In last year’s Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination, historian Stefan Ihrig demonstrated the extent to which the formation of modern Turkey inspired the Germany imagined by Adolf Hitler, for whom Atatürk was a “star in the darkness.” Now, in the forthcoming Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler, Ihrig turns specifically to the undeniably influential though historically neglected role of the Armenian Genocide in German discourse on “the total annihilation of a people.” That neglect persists even now, as much of the world marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Caught between acceptance and denialism, the Armenian Genocide remains “a piece of history that is not allowed to be history.”
As Ihrig explains in the introduction to Justifying Genocide—a portion of which is excerpted below—he considers it of the utmost importance that his book be part of an open, respectful, and continued dialogue with all interested readers. Even still, he concedes an inability to circumvent usage of the word “genocide,” a term even the American government still resists. The book is about German reactions to and discussions of what happened, and, as Ihrig shows, German actors left little doubt that they understood the Ottoman Empire’s actions to be aimed at the “murder of a nation.”
To humans in future centuries learning about the 20th century, the story of this century must seem unbelievable if not implausible. One devastating war after the other, hot and cold, and mostly global. And genocide, and lots of it. Millions of children, elderly people, women and men killed for no apparent reason. The organized eradication of whole peoples solely on the pretext of their alleged otherness, again and again. These were humanity’s darkest hours, these were the times when we needed to invent and reinvent words to describe the unspeakable, the unimaginable: Holocaust, Shoah, genocide, and “ethnic cleansing.” To the readers, history students, and historians in the future—and the further into our future, the more so—it must appear also incredible and implausible to assume that one major genocide was not in some way connected to the next. These genocides were something new in the known history of humanity, and certainly new in their own time. And indeed the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust were connected—particularly through actual people, individuals and bodies of people (nations, networks, intellectuals, politicians, readers, etc.).
Questions of guilt have long since distracted from the larger picture—either Germans wanting to deflect guilt or co-responsibility for the events of 1915/16 or, in this context more prevalent and at the time of writing still much more pressing, and pressing onto historical scholarship, that of Turkish guilt. Will the deflections of guilt regarding whether or not this really was genocide matter in the long run? Will there be sympathy in a hopefully more enlightened future for those who were denied the legitimacy of feeling as victims, of persecution, of injustice, of slaughter? Does it matter how many children’s heads were split by axes, how many women raped before they were killed, how many fathers and mothers had seen their sons, wives, daughters, parents and neighbours killed after being humiliated?
Justifying Genocide is a German story and a Jewish story. It is only on a secondary level a “Turkish” or an Armenian story. It is much less about what actually happened between Armenians and Turks (and other Muslim inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire) during World War I and before. It is about what all this meant for Germany, a society which in just under twenty years would give birth to a regime that would carry out the largest genocide in (known) human history.
Justifying Genocide is not a book that sets out to put Turkey on trial. It is a book about Germany and Germany’s road towards the Holocaust. The core argument of the book is simple: The Armenian Genocide was and is of towering importance for German history, even though its role there has so far been largely ignored. It was influential in Germany’s turn to immense “ethnic engineering” later. The deep connection to Turkey explored in the following pages, however, in no way should suggest that Germany “copied” Turkey or that this Turkish connection reduces German guilt; quite the contrary. If anything it increases German guilt as this book will show that Germany was in an extraordinary position to have been lengthily and thoroughly exposed to the details and “repercussions” of genocide. Like perhaps no other country in Europe and the world—before 1933, and before 1939—it could have learned something “positive” from this. But it did not.
I am painfully aware how offensive this book might be to some of my Turkish and Armenian readers—for the former the remainder of the book, for the latter perhaps the following lines. The Armenian Genocide, as an historical event, has been caught in a hostage situation between pro-Turkish and pro-Armenian sides for one hundred years now. This hostage situation has made it almost impossible to properly integrate whatever happened in the Ottoman Empire in 1915/16 into world and 20th century history. Yet, as Justifying Genocide will show, it had and has great meaning and relevance far beyond the confines of the Ottoman Empire. It needs to be freed from this hostage situation for the broader historical field, also because whatever happened in the Ottoman Empire during World War I was perceived and needed to be understood by contemporaries across the world. And regardless of whether one believes the events in question to have constituted a “genocide” or not, these events and how they were understood had a great impact on their contemporaries. The world around the Turks and the Armenians had to come to terms with whatever had happened, too, and this did not necessarily lead to the expected results.
The Armenian Genocide is not “owned” by Turks and Armenians; rather it is part of our world history and heritage, a dark part, indeed, but one that we as humans have to accept and integrate into our understanding of ourselves. And it is not just any part of our dark history, the Armenian Genocide is perhaps the original sin of the 20th century; indeed a double original sin: first, the killing and letting die of a state’s own citizens (their citizenship distinguishes it from previous colonial crimes), almost to the extinction of an ethnic group; second, the lack of punishment in the aftermath. It is thus not only the sin of the perpetrators but that of the bystanders, beginning with Germany and Austria-Hungary as the Ottomans’ allies, but also the Entente as those who did not punish the Ottomans for what they had done. One has to think about what Martin Rade wrote in the 1890s about how the German public had justified the deaths of Armenians and had stood by: “It is impossible to appreciate what kind of impression the way in which society and the press are discussing the Armenian Horrors will make on the generation of men growing up [today]. They are learning to worship an idol of opportunism and realpolitik which, if it becomes dominant, will cleanse away all noble dispositions.” What would it mean for the generations of the early 20th century learning that the world stood idly by genocide?
This is the story of humanity’s darkest hours. What happened is almost inconceivable and almost impossible to describe. Not having either murdered or been murdered it is almost impossible for us to understand what happened. Even people who were actually there as bystanders were not able to make much sense of it. Take, for example, the account of two German nurses working with the Red Cross in Anatolia, who described in a detailed report what they had witnessed in 1915 during the Armenian Genocide. After recounting how men were killed, women abused, and children’s skulls bashed in, they quoted an Armenian woman passing them by: “We want to become Muslims. We want to become Germans, whatever you want, just save us, now they are bringing us to Kemnagh and will cut our throats.” The nurses’ reaction to this plea for life was to characterize this woman as “clinically insane.” Yet, it was probably a very sane reaction of somebody destined for slaughter, but the circumstances, events, and reactions, in short the reality of it were apparently difficult to comprehend.
The Ottoman Empire and its Muslim populations, too, had their share of victimhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—subject to massacres, “ethnic cleansing,” pogroms, forced migration, abandonment by international politics and law. Yet, the continued attempts to use “Turkish” victims (in truth also Pomak, Bosnian, Kurdish, Circassian, Laz, Arab, Tatar, etc.) against “Armenian” or other Christian victims is only sacrilege against any and all of them. While there was suffering on both sides, which indeed needs to be acknowledged, what happened to the Ottoman Armenians was different and certainly exceptional. The Ottoman Armenians were citizens of the Ottoman Empire, which was, at the very least, responsible for their protection and their physical well-being, too. Exposing them, as a whole, to murder, rape, the elements, and to starvation had to amount to genocide and their lament against the Ottoman state which has terribly failed them has to be accepted. And, indeed, as contemporary Armenians in Turkey claim, the Turkish recognition of the genocide is a basic necessity also for the Turkish majority population; it, too, needs to heal and also to move on. It is because of this and its importance for German history and broader genocide studies, that Justifying Genocide will not be side-tracked by the still on-going and very heated debate about whether there had actually been a genocide in Anatolia during World War I or not.
This is an attempt to understand the events from within the times and for these times; it is less concerned with our debates about them today. I leave the battles about establishing the factuality of what happened in Turkey in 1915/16 to others. My battles here are with German history rather than Turkish historiography and politics. In order to bring the events across to my readers I will discuss them as they were portrayed in the German consular reports and in the press at the time. The book is more about the discourses and the realities these discourses created than about the realities on the ground. It is about trying to understand how a society—German society—could possibly engage in a multi-year debate about genocide and indeed the nature of genocide, full of details, horrors, and personal testimonies, only for that very society (or at least a part of it) to commit another, even more unimaginable genocide merely a few years later...