in this issue
In this Issue
where to buy us
wingate literary prize
contact us

Alefs in Wonderland
UK Jewish Film Festival
Jewish Book Council
Nextbook: A gateway to Jewish culture, literature and ideas
Institute for Jewish Policy Research
Jewish Community Centre for London
All About Jewish Theatre
Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and culture
European Association for Jewish Culture


The forgotten genocide

Margaret Brearley uncovers the little-explored links between the Armenian massacres, antisemitism and the Holocaust

Margaret Brearley  |  Summer 2006  -  Number 202


The Armenian genocide is the ‘forgotten genocide’, writes Leo Kuper. ‘Contemporary indifference is in sharp contrast to the deep international concern at the time’ (Genocide [London: Penguin Books, 1981]). Yet the genocide was not only terrible in itself but an important precursor of the Holocaust, of later Holocaust denial - and even, I want to argue, of Palestinian intransigence and violence. This essay sets out the basic events and then explores some of these wider links.

Massacres of Armenians began in 1894, and ended in 1923. Over 1,500,000 were killed, most during the genocide of 1915-16. Virtually all the survivors were driven from Turkey. Between half and three-quarters of all Ottoman Armenians died.

Already in 1894-6, 250,000-300,000 unarmed Armenian civilians were brutally murdered at the instigation of the Turkish authorities, slaughtered by soldiers, irregulars and locals. Innumerable women were raped. Such wholesale slaughter of civilians seemed unprecedented and horrifying. Gladstone believed that the Ottoman government had determined ‘to exterminate the Christians’ within the Empire. Western eyewitnesses noted a religious dimension to the slaughter. Crying ‘Allahu Akhbar!’ Muslim clerics rallied mobs - especially in mosques at Friday prayers - to kill Armenians. There was public outcry in Europe and America, where large sums were raised to support survivors, many starving and mutilated. Sultan Abdul Hamid was pressured to stop the slaughter. But one British ethnographer noted prophetically in 1897 that most Armenians would probably be exterminated, except the remnant which escaped to other lands.

In 1908 the Young Turks’ seizure of power initially offered hope to Armenians and their newly created political parties, which had been agitating, sometimes through revolutionary means, for better treatment. (Western nations had exerted pressure on the Ottomans through international treaties of 1856 and 1878, in Paris and Berlin, to ameliorate conditions for their non-Muslims minorities, particularly the Armenians.) The future War Minister, Enver Pasha, declared:

arbitrary government [has] disappeared . . . We are all brothers . . . There are no longer Bulgars, Greeks . . . Jews, Mussulmans: under the same blue sky we are all equal, we glory in being Ottomans (quoted in Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response [London: HarperCollins, 2003]).

An apparently liberal Constitution was granted, but was short-lived.

Young Turk (Ittihadist) military leaders proved fiercely nationalistic, dedicated to the pan-Turkic ideal of a revitalized Ottoman Empire expanded eastwards to Turkmenistan, and determined to eradicate non-Turkish minorities. They abandoned the Constitution and planned, through a policy of repressing minorities, to create a homogeneous Turkey. An ethnically - and religiously - pure Turkish state would counter-weigh traumatic nineteenth-century losses of Ottoman territories and Muslim domination, and Russia’s threat on Turkey’s eastern flank. Armenians again became victims of Muslim fanaticism and the Turkish army; around Adana in 1909 20,000-30,000 were slaughtered. The Central Conference of American Rabbis urged European powers to protect Armenians from Turkish barbarism. They did not. Warships of seven western countries stood by during the massacres; none intervened. The vicious Balkan War (1912-13), which saw brutal ethnic cleansing by both Christians and Muslims and caused the influx of one million Muslim refugees into Anatolia, put the nail in the coffin of Ittihadist pluralism. From summer 1914 until late 1916, 1.15 million Greek Christians were violently deported from Thrace and western Anatolia, resulting in 500,000-550,000 deaths.

Then, during the First World War, came full systematic genocide of Armenian Christians, deliberately planned before the war and executed by the Young Turk government in political crisis following early military defeats. Armenians, labelled (like Greeks and Jews) by Young Turk spokesmen ‘a foreign body’ in the national state and stigmatized as ‘dogs’, ‘pigs’, even ‘food for the dogs’, were a convenient scapegoat, as Balakian notes in The Burning Tigris. Ziya Gokalp, the Committee of Union and Progress’s (CUP) chief propagandist and an admirer of Genghis Khan, had argued that Turkey must rid itself of non-Muslim elements to revitalize itself, encouraging people to ‘Turkicize’, ‘Islamize’ and modernize themselves. Following its virtual coup d’etat in January 1913, the CUP had launched a programme of nationalistic indoctrination and paramilitary training for Turkish youth. Its Ministry of the Interior orchestrated the programme of genocide. Early in the war its propaganda portrayed Armenians as internal foes, in league with the enemy, who were about to rebel. The Armenian genocide became a central aim of government policy.

On Christmas Day 1914 War Minister Enver Pasha invaded Russia at Germany’s suggestion. His army, unprepared for the harsh winter conditions, was disastrously defeated. Of 90,000 Turkish soldiers, only 12,000 survived. As if to avenge this defeat, in early 1915 nearly all able-bodied Armenian men aged between from 18 and 60 who had been conscripted into the Turkish army in 1914 were disarmed, reduced to forced labourers and massacred or worked to death. (Some Armenian conscripts had already been disarmed in October 1914, several weeks before Turkey entered the war.) In April 1915 most Armenian leaders, senior clergy and intellectuals were seized, tortured and killed. In systematic deportation programmes organized by the Interior Ministry and designed to facilitate mass slaughter, nearly all other Armenians were forcibly evicted from their homes and towns. The men were generally immediately tortured and killed, the women and children either brutally slaughtered, enslaved or sent walking eastwards into the desert without food or water, where most were murdered or died of starvation, multiple rape, disease or abuse. At least 85 per cent of those sent into the desert perished. Virtually all were stripped naked before their death, since Islam considers clothes stolen from a corpse unclean. Henry Morgenthau, American Ambassador to Constantinople, estimated in 1920 that 250,000 Armenian Christian women had been enslaved in harems, with another 250,000 children orphaned and starving. Massacres continued until 1923, including 100,000 slaughtered and starved by Turkish troops in 1918, and another 200,000 killed in 1920. Estimated Armenian deaths from 1915-16 alone are as many as 1,000,000 or more.

International responses

The genocide was regarded as unprecedented. Lord Bryce, noting in October 1915 that 800,000 Armenians had been killed since April, argued that never in history had there been so hideous and large-scale a crime. Others called it ‘a massacre to end all massacres’. It was unparalleled in gruesomeness. Most deaths were slow and excruciatingly painful - often to save money on ammunition. Torture was deliberate and practised as official policy. Hundreds of thousands were brutally killed in or near their towns, the majority by drowning, being burnt alive or killed with daggers or blunt instruments. Some were crucified, others impaled. Vast numbers were sexually mutilated, either after or commonly before death. Morgenthau wrote:

Whatever crimes the most perverted instincts of the human mind can devise, and whatever refinements of persecution the most debased imagination can conceive, became the daily misfortunes of this devoted people . . . I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915 (

On leaving his post in 1916, Morgenthau wrote: ‘My failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians had made Turkey for me a place of horror’ (quoted in Balakian, The Burning Tigris).

Contemporary Western diplomats, receiving secret reports from consuls in Ottoman territories, believed that the genocide was ‘a war of extermination’ (US State Department), planned and organized by the core leadership within the Turkish government.

Lord Bryce, whose 677-page The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-1916, edited by Arnold Toynbee, was printed by HMSO in 1916 (new edition, edited by Ara Sarafian [London: Gomidas Institute, 2005]), described the massacres as ‘an absolutely premeditated policy elaborately pursued by the gang now in control of Turkey’ (The Times, 7 October 1915); he argued that orders for the massacres came in every case direct from Constantinople. Secret cipher telegrams indicated to Turkish officials that the term ‘deportation’ actually meant ‘annihilation’; Armenians were not intended to survive deportation into the deserts.

Turkish troops carried out some killings, Kurdish irregulars also slaughtered and helped distribute the booty of Armenian property. Buildings and institutions became state property, valuables were seized by local notables, moveable goods generally given to the local population. Special killing squads were organized by a secret arm of government, the Special Organization, which included high-ranking CUP officials (Ziya Gokalp, Talaat Pasha and others), and was used to deflect responsibility for the massacres away from state government. It directed groups of killing squads, formed of 30-33,000 criminals released from prison specifically for the purpose of killing, and organized an entire hierarchy of bureaucrats dedicated to carrying out the genocide.

The foreign press highlighted the massacres from April 1915; from March until December 1915 TheNew York Times alone carried 145 articles on the Armenian massacres. The major powers received hundreds of detailed reports on the atrocities from consuls, diplomats, missionaries and, in Germany’s case, senior military officers stationed in Turkey. Yet although America protested strongly, Germany - which might have halted the genocide - did not.

The German connection

It is well known and documented that on 22 August 1939, at a meeting of SS units in Obersalzberg, Hitler praised Genghis Khan and urged the SS ‘to be brutal and merciless . . . To kill, without pity, men, women and children’ in their march against Poland. He predicted the imminent annihilation of the Jewish people, adding that there would be no long-term repercussions: ‘Who after all is today speaking of the Armenians? . . . The world believes only in success.’ Less well known is probable German complicity in the Armenian genocide, argued for strongly by Wolfgang Gust, Christoph Dinkel, Artem Ohandjanian, Vahakn Dadrian and others:

a central feature of German complicity [was] . . . the willingness of a number of German officials, civilian and military, to aid and abet the Turks in their drive to liquidate the Armenians (Vahakn Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide ([Oxford: Berghahn Books, revised edition, 1997]).

After Turkey’s disastrous war with Russia in 1877, Sultan Abdul Hamid II turned from Britain, Turkey’s traditional ally, to Germany. He placed responsibility for Turkey’s precarious finances in Germany’s hands in return for rich concessions, including building the Baghdad Railway. German banks, companies and specialists became deeply involved with the Ottoman government; by the 1890s Germany was the leading economic power in Turkey.

Military involvement was even greater. The Turkish army, already organized by Helmuth von Moltke in the 1830s as a ‘total war’ army, was trained and led by German officers. (In the early 1880s Bismarck had sent a Military Mission to Constantinople in order to achieve increased influence on Turkey. From then until 1918, German officers lectured at the Military Academy and advised the Turkish General Staff.) In December 1913 the high-powered German Military Mission, including 70 marshals, admirals, generals and other officers, took responsibility for operative command of the Turkish Army. (They later numbered 7-800, with 32,000 German troops – see Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany [London: Cornell University Press, 2005]). This was highly significant. For not only had Germany tacitly supported the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in the 1890s, but German soldiers had recently practised genocide.

Ruthlessness as German military strategy

In 1904, German troops had destroyed virtually entire African tribes, the Christian Hereros and the Nama, during their rebellion in the German colony of South-West Africa (SWA). To quell poorly armed blacks, Berlin sent massive armaments, troops and General Lothar von Trotha, a known racist. Kaiser Wilhelm II told von Trotha to crush the revolt by fair means or foul. Von Trotha determined on a plan explicitly ‘to annihilate these masses’. He encircled them, and attacked them with artillery pieces and machine guns. His troops deliberately drove the survivors into the waterless Omaheke desert, fenced them in and sealed the wells bordering the desert. Von Trotha ordered the extermination of all Hereros within the colony: ‘Within the German boundaries, every Herero, whether found armed or unarmed . . . will be shot.’ Thus those who managed to flee starvation in the desert were automatically shot or killed through imprisonment, ‘a continuation of annihilation by other means’ (to cite Isabel V. Hull’s Absolute Destruction again). The death rate among Hereros was probably 66-75 per cent, among the Nama some 50 per cent. (Such brutality was not unprecedented: in German East Africa in 1891-4, total destruction of dwellings, food stores, crops and domestic animals had led to an estimated 250,000-300,000 African deaths, one third of the population, when Germans crushed a revolt which cost only fifteen European lives (Hull, Absolute Destruction). Despite protests in the German press and parliament at von Trotha’s inhumanity, Kaiser Wilhelm awarded him the Order of Merit. Many German commentators praised Von Trotha’s actions, expressing racist contempt for blacks and greater concern for dying cattle than for human victims.

Significantly, the German ethos, already tainted in the 1890s with colonialist racism, had been recently injected with a heavy dose of Nietzsche’s elitism, contempt for the weak and ideological fervour for war. In 1908 a writer on the cult of Nietzsche noted that ‘a whole row of German colonial officials in Africa’ had adopted Nietzsche’s Herrenmoral ideal as perfectly suited to colonial rule - it sanctioned the ruthless domination by the elite Ubermenschen and ruthless treatment of non-members of the elite. The German state disseminated among schools and army officers copies of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. This rabidly hate-filled book popularized Richard Wagner’s Aryanism, racism and antisemitism, demanding that those not of the Germanic race be ‘mercilessly struck down’. Not surprisingly, one German marine who had taken part in the extermination of the Hereros commented: ‘Our password was and remained: “No mercy!”’ Some scholars have argued that in this German genocide of vulnerable black Africans lay some of the seeds of the future Holocaust - and it almost certainly contributed to the 1915 genocide of Armenians.

Moreover, Isabel Hull’s Absolute Destruction has shown that, from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 onwards, Germany’s military culture was predicated on ‘military necessity’ overriding all normal law and humanity: ‘war is in its essence violence, [and] the violent force of the conqueror in the conquered land is completely unlimited’ (to cite Philipp Zorn, a German military historian of the time). Hull demonstrates that German military strategy, focused exclusively on delivering crushing offensives, inevitably led to mass rape and sexual coercion of women (eg in SWA and in the China Boxer Uprising), violent mass deportations of civilians (Belgium from 1914 onwards) and huge death rates. At the Military Academy in Constantinople, precisely this strategy of absolute, unlimited aggression would have been taught as total war doctrine, an ideology conducive to genocide.

German complicity in the Armenian genocide

During the Great War, Germany deliberately gained hegemony within Turkey to promote its policy of Drang nach Osten, expansion eastwards. General Limen von Sanders had been granted full powers by Kaiser Wilhelm, and German generals and advisers exerted strong pressure on the Turkish authorities.

Western eyewitnesses, including Morgenthau, suggested at the time that there was German involvement in some of the massacres. The German government, Turkey’s wartime ally and the supreme influence in Constantinople, did nothing to stop the massacres, of which they were fully aware. The German ambassador refused to intervene, on the spurious grounds that Armenians were enemies of Turks: ‘It is quite apparent that the two peoples can never live together in the same country’ (Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, 5). In May 1915, Ambassador von Wangenheim telegraphed Berlin: ‘I think we ought to mitigate the form the hardships take, but not to attempt to prevent them on principle’. He stated elsewhere:

I think the Turks are entirely justified. The weaker nation must succumb . . . I do not blame the Turks for what they are doing to the Armenians . . . They are entirely justified’ (quoted in Saul Friedman, A History of the Holocaust, London: Valentine Mitchell, 2004).

Hans von Humann, the German naval attaché in Constantinople, personal emissary of the Kaiser, rabid antisemite and pan-German expansionist, echoed this view. A close friend of Enver Pasha, a key architect of the genocide, he absolved Turks of all blame for the massacres:

One of these races has got to go . . . I think the Turks are entirely justified. The weaker nation must succumb. The Armenians desire to dismember Turkey; they are against the Turks and the Germans in this war, and they therefore have no right to exist here (Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, 27.6).

Many deportation orders, which resulted in almost certain death, were signed by German officers. Lieutenant Colonel Sievert directed Department II, in charge of the Special Organization’s brigand units, while another officer was in charge of a Special Organization squad. Berlin refused to allow western missionaries to protest or to protect Armenian victims. Wilhelm Souchon, German head of the Ottoman navy, ruthlessly crushed Armenian resistance in Van. TheTimes described the Germans as ‘masters of the Central Ottoman Administration’ and accused the Germans of having ‘to their everlasting shame not only permitted, but rather encouraged these horrors’ (6 August 1915).

Admiral Usedom, inspector general of fortifications in Turkey, later suggested that Germany itself had proposed forcible deportation - a measure brutally used against the Hereros - as a way of dealing with the Armenian problem. Talaat Pasha also asserted that the Germans had urged anti-Armenian measures. Ambassador Morgenthau was convinced that the entire concept of forcible mass deportation was German in origin. He cited the pan-Germanist journalist Paul Rohrbach, who had argued, well before the First World War, that Anatolia should be evacuated of the Armenians and their places taken by Turks. Usedom himself told Morgenthau that the Armenians had been in the way, an obstacle to German success, and that it had therefore been necessary to remove them, like so much useless lumber (Dadrian, History).

While all this may partly be explained by Germany’s fear of Russia and alliance with Turkey, there was an ideological component. For the bellicose Kaiser Wilhelm II, convinced of his own divine right to rule, saw the Turkish Sultan as ‘a ruler whose power emanated from and was preordained by God’ (Dadrian, History). Wilhelm idealized Islam as a unifying force, seeing Turkey as the Prussia of the Orient and Islamic self-denial as equivalent to Prussian puritanism. Kaiser Wilhelm had visited Sultan Abdul Hamid II twice, in 1889 and 1898, although the latter visit was highly criticized by Western powers shocked at the recent butchery of Armenians in 1894-6 instigated by Abdul Hamid, now called ‘the Red Sultan’ on account of the bloodshed.

Friedrich Naumann, a theologian accompanying Wilhelm in 1898 to Turkey, justified Turkish mass murder. He ‘presented the Armenian massacres as an act of understandable imperial self-defense’ (Hilmar Kaiser, Imperialism, Racism, and Development Theories: The Construction of a Dominant Paradigm on Ottoman Armenians [Ann Arbor, Michigan: Gomidas Institute, 1998]). Turkey was aiming, he believed, to save itself from extinction by bloodshed:

In spite of the displeasure which the German Christian feels at these accomplished facts, he has nothing to do except . . . to let matters take their course. The Nationalist position meant following Bismarck’s path, even if it is merciless in its sentiments . . . National policy: that is the profound moral reason why we . . . must show ourselves indifferent to the sufferings of the Christian peoples of Turkey, however painful that may be to our moral feelings (quoted in Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, 27.2-3).

Naumann claimed ‘deep moral grounds’ for his influential views.

In 1898, visiting Damascus, Kaiser Wilhelm II declared himself to be the protector of the cause of 300 million Muslims worldwide. Wilhelm was passionately convinced by the teachings of Baron Max von Oppenheim, who championed Islam as an ideology and a socio-political system experiencing a renaissance of power and vitality. In Wilhelmine Germany with its cult of Nietzsche, Christianity was widely perceived as soft, needing to be liberated from effeminate Judaism with its weak values of compassion. Germany had a commitment ‘to arouse the fanaticism of Islam’ and ‘panislamic sentiment against England’. Some thinkers, including von Oppenheim, looked east to Islam as a more masculine model of power. This pro-Muslim bias reinforced ‘a tradition of German anti-Armenian propaganda that emerged in response to German foreign-policy needs after the 1880s’ and which endured until after World War I (quoted in Hilmar Kaiser’s Imperialism, Racism, and Development Theories). Unsurprisingly, von Oppenheim supported the liquidation of the Christian Armenians. Moreover, General Bronsart von Schellendorff, Chief of the Turkish General Staff, forbade German consuls from helping Armenian refugees during the massacres and in 1921 blamed Armenians themselves for the genocide which he had failed to prevent:

The Armenian is like the Jew, a parasite outside his homeland, who sponges off the wealth of another country . . . Hence, the hate that discharges itself in mediaeval style through the murder of disagreeable Armenians (quoted in Peter Stine, ‘German Complicity in the Armenian Genocide’, Witness VI, 1992).

In 1915 Morgenthau told the German Ambassador:

You are a Christian people and the time will come when Germans realize that you have let a Mohammedan people destroy another Christian nation . . . The world will always hold Germany responsible; the guilt of these crimes will be your inheritance forever (Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, 28.8).

International amnesia and immunity

The world soon forgot Germany’s complicity, and neither the Turkish instigators nor the perpetrators of genocide were punished. On the contrary, those Turks primarily responsible were given asylum and military honours in Berlin in 1918, although senior German military were fully aware of Turkey’s continuing intention to annihilate all remaining Armenians. America’s threats to punish Turkey and promises to create an Armenian homeland went unfulfilled following the post-war discovery of oil in Mesopotamia and realization of Turkey’s strategic position. Mark Bristol, America’s Ambassador to Turkey from 1920, was committed to promoting America’s oil interests and contemptuous of Armenians, ‘a race like the Jews; they have little or no national spirit and have poor moral character’ (quoted in Balakian, The Burning Tigris).

The Armenian genocide as precursor of the Shoah

The Armenian genocide did not directly involve Jewish deaths, despite occasional humiliation (in some cities Jews were forced to gather up the Armenian bodies) and threats. Morgenthau warned that ‘Jews also are marked out for slaughter or expulsion’ (TheNew York Times, 14 September 1915). At the outbreak of war, fearing violence against Jews in Ottoman Palestine, Morgenthau had arranged for $50,000 in gold to be sent to Jaffa, and for David Ben-Gurion and others to be evacuated to Egypt. Jews in the Yishuv, including Avshalom Feinberg and Aaron Aaronson, both of the Nili spy group, knew in 1915 of the genocide and lobbied British intelligence and the War Office on behalf of the Armenians. In 1917, as British troops approached Jerusalem, the Turkish governor of Syria-Palestine ordered the immediate deportation of three hundred Jerusalem Jews, threatening them with the same fate as the Armenians.

Although the link has hardly been explored, the successful Armenian genocide must have influenced the killings of Jews by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The Grand Mufti used his supreme authority in Palestine and vast unsupervised funds to oppose Jewish settlement and to foment mass violence against Jews from 1920, culminating in the Great Revolt of 1936-9. He also used ruthless terror against his Palestinian opponents. In 1938 alone, 69 British, 292 Jews and at least 1,600 Arabs were killed, often with extreme brutality.

Hajj Amin was close to the Armenian genocide and clearly knew of the deportations and mass murders both in Constantinople and within the army itself. He was already a radical Islamist when in Constantinople from late 1914 to mid-1915, training in the Ottoman Military Academy. He served at least until November 1916 as a junior officer in the Ottoman army, including on the Black Sea coast, the scene of major atrocities against Armenians. In 1919 he spent several months in Damascus, where hundreds of thousands of deported Armenians had died in the previous three years. So Hajj Amin was aware that a hated dhimmi people can be eradicated and that violence can be rewarded politically.

Robert Wistrich, Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University, today talks of ‘Islamo-fascism’, the current ‘remarkable degree of ideological rapprochement between Islamic antisemitism and National Socialism’. Hajj Amin was a rabid antisemite and Nazi sympathizer, receiving Nazi weapons and funds and meeting Eichmann in 1937. He was in Berlin from 1941 to 1945, supervising Nazi propaganda broadcasts to the Middle East. He met Hitler on 28 November 1941 and created an Arab legion which became an SS unit. As an ally of Himmler, he fully endorsed the genocide of Jews, declaring in March 1944: ‘Kill the Jews wherever you find them - this pleases God, history and religion.’ He was close to Eichmann, probably visiting Auschwitz in his company. He recruited Bosnian Muslims in 1943 into a Waffen SS company which killed 90 per cent of Bosnia’s Jews, and lobbied Hitler to prevent Jews escaping from Hungary. Moreover, Hajj Amin’s unwavering opposition to Zionism and Jewish settlement exerted enduring influence on later Palestinian policy. His negationism influenced both the Muslim Brotherhood and his younger kinsman, Yassir Arafat.

Vahakn Dadrian is among those scholars who also see the Armenian genocide as a ‘precedent and a precursor of the Holocaust’ (‘From Impunity to Retributive Justice’, Yale Journal of International Law, Vol. 25.2, 1998). He argues that, just as international failure to punish Turkey for the massacres of Armenians in the 1890s (termed at the time 'crimes against humanity') lent immunity to the Armenian genocide in 1915, so Turkey's impunity following the 1915 genocide may well have encouraged Hitler.

Hitler was familiar with the Armenian genocide and probably knew about it in detail by 1920, when he was already making speeches about annihilating the Jews. One of his closest friends and collaborators from 1920 was Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter. Arm in arm with Hitler during the 1923 Munich Putsch, he was shot by his side. Scheubner-Richter, extreme antisemite, anti-Bolshevik and follower of Friedrich Naumann, was well-connected, acting as Hitler’s liaison to Ludendorff and providing Hitler with an entrée into aristocratic White Russian circles. He had immense influence on Hitler, who described his loss as ‘irreplaceable’. Significantly, he had been German Vice-Consul in Erzerum in Turkish Armenia during the genocide. He filed to Berlin 15 major reports of the atrocities, some of which he personally witnessed. In his final report, in November 1915, he stated that ‘except for a few hundred thousand survivors, the Armenians of Turkey for all practical purposes have been exterminated ausgerottet]’ (quoted in Dadrian, ‘From Impunity to Retributive Justice’). He also referred to the Armenians as ‘these Jews of the orient, these wily businessmen’. Yet Scheubner-Richter himself in 1923 urged ‘the ruthless cleansing of Germany’ in a relentless campaign. He wrote of ‘the necessity . . . to eradicate ruthlessly all elements foreign to the body national of the Germans’ (quoted in Peter Stine, ‘German Complicity’). It seems highly likely that he told Hitler about the practicalities of genocide. Moreover, leading early supporters of Nazism had served in Turkey during the genocide - notably Franz von Papen and Konstantin von Neurath. Many high-ranking officers first served in Turkey and then in the Wehrmacht or SS, including General von Seeckt and Admiral von Doenitz. The SS military governor of Budapest, the military governor of Belgium and Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, had served in Turkey during the genocide, together with other key Nazis (Dadrian, History).

There exist, despite significant differences, plentiful parallels between the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. They include: wholesale state expropriation of victims; annihilatory use of deportation, famine, disease, forced labour, torture and harsh climate; concentration camps and death marches. Lethal medical experiments were carried out on hundreds of Armenian children and military cadets. Armenians, like Jews, were described in propaganda as a cancer and bacillus. As in the Holocaust, many male victims had to dig their graves themselves, and were marched to die in groups of four. Tens of thousands of Armenians were transported to their deaths packed in cattle trucks without water or sanitation. They were charged first-class rail fares. Many suffocated, many were murdered en route, the rest mostly perished in their desert destinations. As in the Holocaust, techniques of deception were used to lull the victims in the early stages and to deflect responsibility for the genocide away from the key instigators. Most orders for killings were given orally (commonly by Dr Behaeddin Shakir, head of the Special Organization)or in cipher.

Many eyewitnesses noted that the general Turkish population witnessed and participated in the torture and massacres of Armenians, and plundered their corpses and property, paralleling the behaviour of Poles, Ukrainians and other non-German populations during the Holocaust.

Religion was used to justify both the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. Just as some Christians believed that Hitler was doing God’s will in eradicating Jews, so too some Kurdish and Turkish Muslims participated in brutal killings out of contempt for non-Muslim gavours (infidels). Nazism co-opted religion as a tool of antisemitism and genocide. Hitler famously argued that Martin Luther would have approved of his actions towards the Jews. Although a self-confessed pagan at heart, Hitler skilfully used Christian vocabulary to seduce his listeners and readers, arguing that in defending himself against the Jew, he was doing the work of the Almighty himself.

Similarly, Turkish ideologues argued that Islam ‘mandates dominion’ and that those who were not Muslim were destined to be ‘servile peoples’. Even the genocide was undertaken in the name of Islam: jihad had been officially declared by the Sheikh-ul-Islam in Constantinople on 14 November 1914. This jihad resulted in all Ottoman Christians being identified as belonging to the dar al-harb, the abode of war, ‘the sphere of the enemy’, and thus becoming justified targets for murder. One contemporary Turkish pamphlet read: ‘He who kills even one unbeliever . . . whether he does it openly or secretly, shall be rewarded by Allah’ (quoted in Balakian, The Burning Tigris). Within five days of the jihad declaration there were mass public executions of Armenian soldiers in the Turkish army and orders sent from Constantinople ousting all Armenian functionaries in the Ottoman government.

One other parallel between the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide is striking. The key ideologue of genocide, Ziya Gokalp, was profoundly inspired by Richard Wagner’s German nationalism, which was also a key influence on Nazi Aryan ideology. Wagner’s ideology of awakening Germany to its greatness by destroying the Jews may have inspired both Hitler and the Turkish leaders; both claimed that their nation’s salvation lay in destroying a hated minority. Gokalp was also influenced by Nietzsche; he wrote in 1911 in the Yeni Hayat journal:

the ‘super’ men imagined by the German philosopher Nietzsche are the Turks. They are the new men [who appear] every century. Therefore, new life will spring forth from Turkishness, which is the source of all their youthfulness’ (quoted in Taner Akcam, From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide, London/New York: Zed Books, 2004).

Similarly, Talaat Pasha wrote that ‘the salvation of the country requires the elimination of the Armenians’.

Genocide denial

Finally, there are parallels between subsequent denial of the Armenian genocide and Holocaust denial (see Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide, edited by Richard G. Hovannisian, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999).Germany engaged in denial of the Armenian genocide even while it was happening. Count von Bernstorff, German Ambassador to the US, stated in September 1915 that atrocities against Armenians were ‘pure inventions’, then dismissed them as ‘the Armenians’ own fault’. Early in the First World War, Turkey fabricated claims of rebellion and treason against the Armenians, and has since dedicated millions of dollars to promoting international denial of the Armenian genocide. (‘Their Holocaust is now to be airbrushed from history,’ Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent on 17 November 2000.) Turkey’s archives, emptied of many incriminating documents by Lieutenant-General Hans von Seeckt, Chief of the Ottoman General Staff (1917-18) and other German military officers after the First World War, have remained closed to independent scholars. Turkey has funded many Turkish scholars who have written the genocide out of history or blamed any violence on the Armenians themselves. Yair Auron is among scholars who argue that several of the Turkish-funded Chairs of Ottoman Studies in America have been used for promoting strongly pro-Turkish accounts of events or outright genocide denial; even the director of the Turkish archive himself recently described the genocide as ‘Armenian fantasy’ (see The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian genocide (London: Transaction, 2003).

The final stage of any genocide is for perpetrators to deny the genocide and to portray victims as guilty. (For example, 55,000 Armenian corpses were described by Turkish authorities at the time as 55,000 Muslims killed by Christians.) Many lies have since been fabricated, claiming large-scale massacres of Turks by Armenians. With notable exceptions, such as the maverick Taner Akcam, who uses Ottoman sources to document the reality of the Armenian genocide, most Turkish historians deny that it happened, arguing at most that a mass ‘relocation’ occurred with regrettable, unforeseen consequences. Some have even claimed, without evidence, that Ottoman Armenians killed 1.1 million Muslims and 100,000 Jews (Auron). Denial and obfuscation continue; most recently, in The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), Günter Lewy has minimized Armenian suffering by highlighting, for example, the huge death toll among Turkish soldiers (1.1 million) from neglect and starvation. Far-right websites linked to the Schiller Institute repeat bizarre Turkish claims that core genocidaires - Talaat, Enver, Jemal and Shakir - were actually displaced Balkan Jews masquerading as Muslims.

Israel and the Armenian genocide

Early on, Jews played a disproportionate role in drawing attention to the genocide. Ambassador Morgenthau proudly declared to a German agent threatening to have him recalled:

I can think of no greater honour than to be recalled because I, a Jew, have been exerting all my powers to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians (Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, 27.7).

The Jewish author, Franz Werfel, wrote in 1933 a highly influential novel on the genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

But Israel, for pragmatic reasons of Realpolitik, has kept understandably silent. Since 1948, Turkey has been one of few Muslim countries to recognize Israel, and memories persist of the relatively benign Ottoman treatment of Jews. Yair Auron has shown how successive Israeli governments remained silent about the Armenian genocide until 1994, when Yossi Beilin, then Deputy Foreign Minister, informally recognized that the Armenian tragedy was ‘not war . . . but certainly massacre and genocide, something the world must remember’. In November 2005 Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi declared in Russian Armenia that ‘Nobody can feel the pain of the Armenians more deeply than the Jews’, and announced that he would use the term ‘genocide’. Yet officially Israel does not use the word ‘genocide’. Shimon Peres said:

We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide (Turkish Daily News, 10 April 2001).

This remains Israeli government policy. One consequence is that historians who deny the Armenian genocide, such as Sedat Laciner and Ibrahim Kaya, claim that Israel has ‘clearly rejected all Armenian attempts to present the Relocation as “genocide”’ (The Armenian Issue and the Jews, [Ankara/New York: Institute for Armenian Research, 2002). Moreover, although in 1994 the European and Russian Parliaments both officially recognized the Armenian genocide, the British Home Office continued to remain silent. The Armenian genocide was excluded from the official commemorative events for Holocaust Memorial Day from 2001 onwards, due to pressure from Turkey. In contrast to twenty other countries, the USA has never recognized the Armenian genocide, despite lobbying from Armenians and American Jews, and pleas from over 125 Holocaust scholars, including Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt and Yehuda Bauer.

The genocides of Christian Hereros and Armenians and of Europe’s Jews were a kind of reverse Exodus. Hereros, Armenians and Jews were stripped of all valuables before and during deportation. They were sent east not to encounter God but to encounter violent death. I believe that at the deepest level all three genocides have their root in Nietzsche’s self-proclaimed ‘murder of God’ in 1881. To replace the Judaeo-Christian God, Nietzsche - and Wagner - resurrected the pagan god Dionysus, god of ecstasy, terror, cruelty and death, as ‘the spirit of Germany’ (Margaret Brearley, ‘The “Tempter-God”, Evil, and the Shoah’ in Fire in the Ashes: God, Evil and the Holocaust, edited by David Patterson and John Roth [Seattle; University of Washington Press, 2005]). Tragically, that Dionysian spirit of frenzy, of delight in annihilation, unleashes and feeds genocide. I believe it to be no coincidence that, in the sixty-five years after 1881, Germany was complicit, directly or indirectly, in the murder of some two million African and Armenian Christians and six million Jews, all of whom represented that God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob whom Nietzsche had sought to destroy.

Margaret Brearley has been a Lecturer in Mediaeval and Renaissance German Literature at Birmingham University and Honorary Holocaust Adviser to the Archbishops’ Council, and held academic posts at Selly Oak Colleges and the Institute of Jewish Affairs, London. She is currently on the National Executive of WIZO.

  © 2006 Jewish Quarterly | All rights reserved