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.