Comment from Aegis CEO, Dr James Smith
Causing something of a stir in Istanbul, a growing number of governments and figures, including Pope Francis this week, have recognised that the catastrophe 100 years ago in which up to 1.5million Armenians perished, was genocide. Not so the United Nations, many other governments and media organisations who prefer to use the phrase ‘mass killing’ in relation to the Armenian tragedy.
It is worth taking note why the German acknowledgment yesterday of the Armenian genocide is so significant and can inform our understanding of a bigger historical and political picture. First, Germany has as much to lose in its relationship with Turkey as any other nation, both economically and from the security arrangements that Europe collectively seeks from the emerging powerhouse. Secondly, Germany knows more than most about the details of atrocities that occurred during the First World War in the Ottoman Empire. Thirdly, soul searching and political integrity are required in abundance for a head of state to be as honest as Joachim Gauck.
In speaking about Germany bearing some complicity in the Armenian genocide, the German President identified threads that run from atrocities against the Herero in colonial German South West Africa in 1904, through the Armenian genocide a decade later, to the Holocaust in Europe.
While the bold statement of Gauck was specific to Germany and the Ottoman Empire, the competing legacies from this era are the concern for all governments: International law developed as a response, to prevent and punish such crimes. Yet an equally strong pattern of impunity has persisted that provides encouragement to political leaders inclined to kill civilians.
Who Remembers the Armenians? 100 Years of Impunity
Speech by Dr James Smith
at Amnesty International’s London HQ, 22 April 2015
It’s a beautiful day in Munich in the late spring of 1921. Two friends in their mid 30s, a newspaper owner and an aspiring politician, are discussing recent events and their plans for the next few days. Both are about to make the long train journey to Berlin.
The newspaper owner is former diplomat Max von Scheubner-Richter. As Germany’s Vice-Consul in Erzerum, Turkey, in 1915 he witnessed the deportation of the Armenians, repeatedly using his position to try to alleviate their suffering. Late that year, in the last of 15 lengthy reports on the crisis to his superiors, he stated that “except for a few hundred thousand survivors, the Armenians of Turkey, for all practical purposes, have been exterminated.”
It is precisely because of these experiences that Scheubner-Richter is about to catch the Berlin train. He has been called as a defence witness in the trial of Armenian survivor, Soghomon Tehlirian.
Tehlirian, who lost 85 members of his family, is on trial for the murder of Talaat Pasha, one of the architects of the Armenian genocide – though the crime does not yet have that name. Capturing wide media attention, the trial is making waves in Berlin, where the Government has little desire to see an extensive airing of Germany’s complicity in Ottoman mass murder of Armenians and other, mostly Christian groups.
Under the terms of the 1914 military alliance between Germany and Turkey, German officers had operational command of the Ottoman army. 7 or 800 German officers and around 12,000 German troops were embedded with their Turkish allies – among them, troops from units such as the 21st Regiment of Dragoons, which a decade earlier had been involved in wiping out the Hereros in German Southwest Africa, now Namibia – a genocide which involved driving large numbers of people into the desert to die of thirst and starvation.
Among the German troops were men who would later go on to achieve notoriety in the Holocaust. These included a teenage Rudolf Hoess, son of a 21st Dragoon veteran. 25 years later Hoess would be appointed commandant of the death camp Auschwitz. Wilhelm Hintersatz, advisor to Enver Pasha, another leader of the genocide. Hintersatz would convert to Islam, work with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and command Muslim troops in the Waffen SS.
German officers signed deportation orders of Armenians and German engineers used Armenians as slave labourers to construct part of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. While the destruction of the Armenians could not take place without the acquiescence of Germany’s leadership, a number of German diplomats were outspoken in their opposition. “We should stop with our loathsome praises of the Turks,” Ambassador Metternich wrote to his superiors in Berlin. “Whatever they are accomplishing is due … to our officers, our cannons, our money.” Metternich, like Scheubner-Richter, was ignored.
Scheubner-Richter’s friend is heading to the train station for a very different reason; to cultivate the financial backing in Berlin that will one day help him to emulate Talaat Pasha on an even larger scale. His name: Adolf Hitler.
Around the same time, a thousand kilometres to their east, Raphael Lemkin, a 20-year-old linguistics student at the University of Lvov, is also reading the papers and discussing the Tehlirian murder trial with his professor. Why could the Armenians not have had Talaat Pasha arrested for the massacres, he wanted to know. As Samantha Power describes in her book ‘A Problem from Hell’ the professor explained that there was no law under which Talaat could be prosecuted:
“Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens,” he said. “He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”
“It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men?”, Lemkin asked. “This is most inconsistent … Sovereignty cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people.”
And so it was that both Raphael Lemkin and Adolf Hitler learned about the impunity of people who commit mass murder. How they were to use that knowledge was vastly different.
Here in London, the persecution of the Armenians was denounced at high levels in the summer of 1915. The Earl of Crewe, Leader of the House of Lords, noted “wholesale massacre” had been “carried out under the guise of enforced evacuation.” The presence and influence of the Germans, Lord Crewe stated, had been “an absolute and unmitigated curse both to the Christian and Moslem population.” He regretted it was impossible to take immediate steps for the suppression of such atrocities, but said that those responsible would ultimately receive just punishment.
However, attempts to hold perpetrators to account proved limited and unsuccessful – failing in part for lack of any international legal framework for the prosecution of such crimes.
In 1919, Turkish courts sentenced several Young Turk leaders to death in absentia, but dragged their heels on the cases of suspects actually in custody. In August 1920, the Treaty of Sevres forced the hand-over of dozens of suspects to the British. However, lacking commitment to an investigation still hampered by Turkish bureaucracy, on 16 March 1921 – just one day after Soghomon Tehlirian took justice into his own hands by shooting Talaat Pasha – the British signed a prisoner exchange agreement with Turkey, handing back 64 suspects in return for 22 Britons. Thereafter, there were no further trials.
This ultimate instance of impunity for Turkish perpetrators may have contributed to a sense within Germany that there would be little or no international response should similar violent measures be adopted in Central Europe against Jews, Roma and Slavs.
Impunity, however, did not begin in 1915. Massacres of Armenians had gone unpunished time and time again through the previous quarter-century. Up to 300,000 were killed in the mid 1890s, in a pattern of mass atrocities that bear some remarkable similarities to those currently ongoing in Darfur.
Countering Armenian agitation for promised reforms, in 1890-91, Abdul Hamid II armed Kurdish militias as proxies, encouraging them to attack Armenians and take their food stores and livestock. When some Armenians organised armed resistance, Hamid responded with a large-scale campaign of mass murder which earned him the nickname ‘the Red Sultan’. The atrocities petered out around 1897 under pressure from the international community, though no attempts were made to ensure accountability for these crimes. At the time Kaiser Wilhelm II proudly noted, “I am the only one who still sticks by the Sultan.”
There may be a number of reasons why one risk factor for genocide, as identified by political scientist Barbara Harff, is the occurrence of previous massacres of the group at risk. It is clear that a state of impunity for initial offences will not reduce the risk of further atrocities allowing perpetrators time to consider how they might execute more radical solutions for what they view as their troublesome ethnic or religious problem, should the opportunity or need arise.
While during the war and immediately after, Scheubner-Richter was outspoken against the killings of Armenians, by 1923, he was using the kind of language about Jews in his paper the ‘Aufbau-Korrespondenz’ that had previously been used by Turkish nationalists about Armenians in organs like the wartime weekly ‘Harb Mecmuasi’, where they were consistently accused of being ‘in league with the enemy.’
Claiming that “the international-Jewish plot of World domination” lurked behind the threat of communism, he wrote about ‘cleansing’ Germany saying, “We have to wage a merciless fight against all that is alien to the corporate entity of the German people – for the sake of the German nation and the Great German Reich.”
We may not know whether Hitler and Scheubner-Richter shared the same train journey that day between Munich and Berlin. However, we do know they were close during the birth of the Nazi movement and it is almost inconceivable that Scheubner-Richter did not convey his personal knowledge of the Armenian genocide to Hitler. During the Munich Putsch, on the 9th of November 1923, the bullet which narrowly missed Hitler killed Scheubner-Richter. Of the 16 Nazis killed, he was the only one, stated Hitler, who was irreplaceable.
What might Hitler have drawn from events in the Ottoman Empire? At his trial following the Putsch, he compared his actions with those of other revolutionaries, among them the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide. “Enver Pasha marched on Constantinople and established a new state there, and a new spirit poured over the totally infested capital city,” he stated.
We also know that Hitler intended to emulate the Young Turks. In 1931, now at the head of a party growing faster than UKIP, he gave a confidential interview to newspaper editor Richard Breiting about his future plans for Germany.
“Everywhere people are awaiting a new world order,” Hitler told Breiting. “We intend to introduce a great resettlement policy … Think of the biblical deportations and the massacres of the Middle Ages … and remember the extermination of the Armenians.”
Concerned that this 1931 interview could be too revealing about Nazi plans, in 1937 the Gestapo questioned Breiting – who lied that he had destroyed his interview notes. Soon after, he died in suspicious circumstances.
Clearly, Hitler had not forgotten about the Armenians. Neither had Lemkin. By the time Hitler gave his Breiting interview in 1931, the brilliant young linguist had become Deputy Public Prosecutor for the district court of Warsaw, and was using his legal training to work towards an international framework for responding to such mass atrocities.
Two years later, in August 1933, Lemkin was horrified to see atrocities occurring again, this time in northern Iraq. On a pretext of counter-insurgency, the Iraqi army – under the command of general Bakr Sidqi – slaughtered up to 3,000 Assyrian Christians in Simele and dozens of surrounding villages.