HISTORY LESSON

How the Armenian Genocide Shaped the Holocaust

Nowhere was the debate over what was going on in Turkey to the Armenians more heated than Germany—and the conclusions drawn would change history.

01.24.16 5:15 AM ET

One day in the winter of 1941, as he “walked through the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto,” Hermann Wygoda, “Ghetto smuggler,” tried to make sense of what was happening to him and the people around him: “I wondered whether God knew what was going on beneath Him on this troubled earth. The only analogy I could find in history was perhaps the pogrom of the Jews in Alexandria at the time of the Roman governor Flaccus ... or the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks during World War I.”

Wygoda was not the only one seeing this parallel. The German Social Democrats in exile reported continuously on the situation in Germany in their “Germany reports”. In February 1939 they warned, “At this moment in Germany the unstoppable extermination of a minority is taking place by way of the brutal means of murder, of torment to the degree of absurdity, of plunder, of assault, and of starvation. What happened to the Armenians during the [world war] in Turkey is now being committed against the Jews, [but] slower and more systemically.” 

We could also mention the famous German-Jewish writer Franz Werfel who in 1932/1933 wrote his most well-known novel about the Armenian Genocide, his Forty Days of Musa Dagh, mainly to warn Germany about Hitler. The book was later extremely popular in the Nazi-imposed ghettos of Eastern Europe.

There seems to be something obvious connecting both great genocides of the 20th century. Yet, in its hundredth year, the Armenian Genocide is still a peripheral object in the violent history of the 20th century. Most of the new grand histories of World War I marginalize the topic, if they mention it at all. It seems as if the topic is an exclusively partisan affair of the Armenian diaspora and a few confused others (like me). But the Armenian Genocide is an integral part of the history of humanity’s darkest century. There can be no doubt that it is an important part of the prehistory of the Holocaust, even if history books suggest that the two genocides were separated by a great distance in time and space.

Mainstream history writing has not only been reluctant to discuss the Armenian Genocide at all, but even more so to even think about the possible connections. The alleged and imagined controversy over the factuality of the Armenian Genocide—or more correctly the denialist campaign sponsored by Turkey—have contributed to this impression of a great distance separating this genocide from the Holocaust.

Many problems surround the topic and Turkish denialism is but one of them. Claims to the uniqueness of the Holocaust and a lack of Nazi sources referring directly to the Armenians are others.

In fact the sentence attributed to Hitler, and the most famous Nazi quote on the matter, apparently epitomizes just that: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” But this is something of a dead end, if not a distraction from the deeper connections between the two genocides. For one, it is not entirely clear whether he said it or not. Some sources of the meeting have it, others don’t (which, however, does not have to signify that he did not say it). Also, it means something different than some understand it. It is more about the fact that nations at war can commit horrible atrocities and get away with it.

The relationship between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust is apparent in two periods of history. The first is the debate that raged in Germany regarding the slaughter of Armenians by its ally the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s. The debate came down in favor of genocide, and by the time the Nazis came to power, violence against the Armenians had been understood and even outright justified, already for decades. The second period is when the Nazis were in power and looked to the post-ethnic cleansing Turkey as a role model.

Strangely enough, not only does Germany connect the two genocides in its own history very closely, it is also Germany that offers some historical clarity on the debate of whether it was a genocide or not.

It has been claimed that interwar Germany did not “come to terms” with the Armenian Genocide and that this somehow made the Holocaust possible. However, the opposite is true: Germany not only came to terms with it, but probably had the greatest genocide debate up to that point in human history. It was rather that the outcome of this genocide debate was particularly problematic: it had ended in justifications of genocide and even with calls for the expulsion of Jews from Germany. And despite a drawn-out debate there had been a marked failure to produce a deeper religious, humanist, or philosophical analysis, appreciation, and condemnation of what genocide meant. While most of the political spectrum had found solace in the fact that this had been an “Asian thing,” only the political extremes on both ends of the spectrum, radical Socialists, and Nazis realized that this was potentially also a “European thing.”

To understand all this one has to take a look at Germany’s very own Armenian history. Germany was not only an ally of the Ottoman Empire during World War I—at the time the genocide was committed—but had been a quasi-ally as early as the 1890s. And already since Bismarck’s times it had often acted as the Ottomans’ European shield when it came to the Armenians. In the 1890s when tens of thousands of Armenians were killed in the Hamidian massacres (1894-1896), this was also a “problem” for Germany, but also an opportunity to further ingratiate itself with the Ottomans (economic concessions were the immediate results). But it was problematic mainly vis-à-vis its own public at home. Pro-Armenian activists and papers were raising awareness of what had happened in the Ottoman Empire and the pro-Ottoman elites were disquieted; the result was a propaganda war between both sides waged in the German newspapers. The pro-Ottoman (and anti-Armenian) side seemed to be winning, but the massacres simply did not come to an end. During the last massacres (in 1896) a series of essays reporting on the atrocities of the last years was published in Germany and for a moment pro-Armenian sentiment seemed to have carried the day.

But then, merely two years later, the German Emperor Wilhelm II travelled to Istanbul. This obvious show of friendship with the “bloody” sultan necessitated a revisiting of the Armenian massacres in Germany and produced discourses that not only justified the violence against the Armenians but also the German government’s silence and continued support for the Ottomans. The preeminent German liberal thinker, imperialist, and Protestant pastor Friedrich Naumann even went one step further and argued for an ethic-free German foreign policy, devoted solely to national self-interest. This was a dynamic that would play out two more times in German history, during the genocide as well as after World War I in a great German genocide debate (1919-1923).

During World War I Germany, now officially an ally of the Ottomans, again acted as a shield for violent Ottoman policies vis-à-vis the Armenians. However, now this violence reached unprecedented, genocidal heights. While official Germany continued to back their Ottoman ally and even continued to spew violent anti-Armenian propaganda and justifications for whatever was actually happening to the Armenians, behind closed doors Germany started to become anxious. Official Germany now feared that what was happening in Anatolia and Mesopotamia would be used against Germany after the war. And so already in the summer of 1919 the German Foreign Office published a collection of documents from its internal correspondence on the Armenian Genocide. It was meant to show the world that Germany was innocent of the charge of co-conspiracy in the murder of the Armenians, but it inadvertently kick-started a genocide debate in Germany that would continue for almost four years.

The publication of this documental record of the Armenian Genocide, with all its gory details, provoked an outcry and condemnations in the liberal and left press in Germany, including attacks on Germany’s wartime leaders. At this point large sections of the press already acknowledged what we, today, would term “genocide” and what they called “annihilation of a nation” or “murder of the Armenian people.” But then followed a long year of backlash in which nationalist and formerly pro-Ottoman papers minimized what had happened, focused on the alleged Armenian wartime stab in the back, and justified what the Young Turk leadership had done as “military necessities.”

The debate could have ended here, but then, in March 1921, Talât Pasha, former Ottoman Grand Vizier and Minister of the Interior as well as the widely perceived author of the genocide, was assassinated in a crowded Berlin shopping street. Three months later the assassin stood trial in Berlin and was acquitted by a jury – the trial had been completely turned around and focused rather on the Armenian Genocide and Talât Pasha’s role in it than on the actual assassination.

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Not only shocked by the outcome of the trial but also by all the evidence and testimony produced in the Berlin court, the German press again focused on the Armenian Genocide in depth. Discussing the trial, the German papers reproduced a horrifying liturgy of genocidal suffering. Now the whole German press landscape, including the formerly denialist papers, came to accept the charge of “genocide” against the Young Turk leadership. Again, the debate did not come to an end here, another backlash followed. Nationalist papers again offered justifications, but now for what even they understood as genocide. And this after the German genocide debate had already gone on since 1919 and after it had included all the ingredients needed for a true genocide debate: detailed elaborations on the scope, intent for, and ramifications of this “murder of a people.” And it was on this note that the debate simmered for another two years until the Treaty of Lausanne was signed (establishing modern Turkey).

All this would perhaps not be that important, had Germany not been merely ten years before Hitler’s rise to power: A genocide debate had not only taken place, but had ended in justifications for genocide. Even then, the true saliency of the topic lay in the racial and national view of the Armenians held by many of the German commentators: they were seen as the (true) “Jews of the Orient,” either as equivalent to the Jews of Europe or even “worse.” This German anti-Armenianism was as old as Germany’s tradition of excusing violence against the Armenians (especially since the 1890s) and was a carbon copy of modern, racial Anti-Semitism. In this logic, it had been no surprise that in 1922, when another two Young Turks were assassinated in Berlin, the nationalist press connected the Armenian assassins to the German Jewish question. Consciously confusing the two categories, the (hyper-)nationalist press called for an “ethnic surgeon” to cut out what was eating away at Germany’s flesh.

So, who was still talking about the Armenians in the Third Reich? Surprisingly, almost nobody. The Nazis were remarkably silent on the topic, but were very vocal on what had followed the Armenian Genocide. The rise of the New Turkey and all the accomplishments of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk were important ingredients in the Nazi political imagination. In the German interwar and Nazi discourses on the New Turkey, one finds a chilling propagation of what a post-genocidal country, one cleansed of its minorities, could achieve: To the Nazis, the New Turkey was something of a post-genocidal wonderland, something that Germany would have to emulate. The Nazis were discussing the Turkish model already in the early 1920s. A German-Jewish newspaper reader and critic of Anti-Semitism, Siegfried Lichtenstaedter, understood the “Turkish lessons” formulated in Nazi articles (in 1923 and 1924) to mean that the Jews of Germany and Austria should be, and had to be, killed and their property given to “Aryans.” He wrote this in his 1926 book Anti-Semitica.

In the end it does not matter how important we find the possible influences exerted from the Armenian Genocide on the Nazis—they surely did not need to learn their murderous business from others. What they did learn was that there were many people, even in an open pluralistic society who would ignore, rationalize, or even outright justify genocidal violence. Even the Churches did not significantly intervene for fellow Christians. To paraphrase the impression of a Jewish reader of Werfel’s book in the ghettos during World War II: If nobody would save Christians, who would intervene for the Jews? And if German nationalists could find it in themselves to justify the genocide of Christians and were not met with much opposition in the German public, who would speak out for the Jews?

There are no easy and automatic casual connections from one genocide to the next, but the Armenian Genocide and its close proximity to the Holocaust illustrate the importance and the pitfalls of how we come to terms with the past. They also illustrate that we are far from done with struggling to understand the tragic 20th century. This is why the Armenian Genocide finally needs to take its place, and be allowed to take its place, in the bloody history of the 20th century, not only generally in world history, but specifically in European and German history.