Works of German theologian Lepsius, who sent reports to German politicians for warning them during the Armenian Genocide, revealed the fact that German officials had known the massacres but they hadn't done anything for preventing them. Director of Lepsius House Rolf Hosfeld talked about the influence of Lepsius' works on German society's current recognition and Germany's responsibility in the Armenian Genocide.
ones who read Bundestag's Armenian Genocide resolution carefully saw
a name in the text: Johannes Lepsius.
Works of German theologian Lepsius, who sent reports for warning
German politicians and media about the Armenian Genocide, were cited
in the resolution, since his works revealed the fact that German
officials had known the massacres but they hadn't done anything for
“The German Empire, as principal military ally of the Ottoman Empire, was also involved in these operations. From the start, both the political and the military leadership of the German Empire was informed about the persecution and killing of Armenians. When the Protestant theologian Dr. Johannes Lepsius presented the results of the research he had carried out in Constantinople during July/August 1915 to the German Reichstag on October 5, 1915, the entire topic was placed under censorship by the German Imperial Government. His "Report on the Situation of the Armenian People in Turkey", which he had directly sent to the members of the Reichstag in 1916, was also banned and confiscated by the German military censorship and handed over to the members of the parliament only after the end of World War I in 1919.”
Today, Lepsius' works are carried on in Lepsius House in Potsdam. He also carried out his works in this house, where he lived until his death in 1926. We talked to the Director of Lepsius House Rolf Hosfeld about the influence of Lepsius' works on German society's current recognition and Germany's responsibility in the Armenian Genocide.
The resolution of the Bundestag mentions Johannes Lepsius. Who is Johannes Lepsius and what is his relation to the Armenian Genocide?
He was a well-known European figure since he had published his book “Armenia and Europe” in 1896 which was translated into several languages and can – das historian Davide Rodogno recently wrote – be regarded as one of the most influential works on the Hamidian massacres. He founded an Armenian relief work in the same year and became Germany’s outstanding expert in the Armenian question. His diplomatic intervention in the Armenian reform negotiations 1913 between Russia, Germany, the Porte and Armenian representatives is well known. 1915, when he heard about the beginning of the Armenian persections, he travelled to Istanbul and had a meeting there with Enver Pasha, which was supported by the German Foreign Office and is reported in Franz Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh”. The background of this unusual meeting, during which Enver said “We can handle our interior enemies, you in Germany cannot. In this we are stronger than you”, is still not in all details clear. Probably there was a faction in the Foreign Office that supported Lepsius, others did not. And the latter became dominant when he returned to Berlin.
The problem is not the knowledge about the facts and the intention of the perpetrators, but a century long silence and during World War I a campaign of disinformation about this. Lepsius believed already in 1915 that silencing would cause a moral disaster, in the long run also for the Germans.
In the resolution text, a letter that was sent to German politicians by Lepsius and a comprehensive report that he wrote are mentioned. These facts are used as examples reveal,ng that Germans had known about the massacres. We will talk about these researches of Lepsius in a moment, but before that, can you tell to what extent had German officials known about this issue?
They knew almost everything. There were enough Germans in the Ottoman Empire already in spring/summer 1915, who reported to the Istanbul embassy and the Berlin government everything they witnessed. The archives of the German Foreign Office are full of detailed reports. They were so overwhelming, that the German ambassador wrote to his Berlin superiors on July 7, 1915, that he had no doubt, that it is the intention of the Ottoman government, literally: “to exterminate the Armenian race in the Turkish Empire”. These are clear words, and they mean exactly the same, what the Bundestag has now acknowledged 101 years later. The problem is not the knowledge about the facts and the intention of the perpetrators, but a century long silence and during World War I a campaign of disinformation about this. Lepsius believed already in 1915 that silencing would cause a moral disaster, in the long run also for the Germans.
Can you talk about Lepsius' letter and report? Why and in what context did Lepsius conduct these works?
Lepsius did not want his country to go to these extremes, and so he raised his voice. On October 1915 he informed the German press, but the Foreign Office gave them order to keep silent or to publish official Ottoman communiques. Social Democrat deputy Karl Liebknecht referred to him in the German parliament in January 1916 by denouncing the Ottoman politics of extermination. In spring 1916 Lepsius secretly published his 300 pages “Report on the Situation of the Armenian People in Turkey”, 20.500 copies of which could be distributed in the German Reich despite military censorship. This was a strong and outstanding example of civil courage. After this he left the country to stay for the rest of the war in the neutral Netherlands where he published a Dutch translation of this “Report”. After the war the “New York Tribune” labeled his “Report” as the most “powerful indictment of Turkey’s crimes in Armenia” that appeared during the war, and Canadian historian Ulrich Trumpener still decades later still saw in his book the best synthesis about the Armenian persecutions. By the way, it was written in what is today the Potsdam Lepsius House, where he lived until his death in 1926.
Was there a German complicity in the Armenian Genocide?
Some scholars have answered this with a clear “yes”, mostly 20 years ago. Historians today look more on the contradictions. The young Istanbul based friend of Enver, Captain Hans Humann, labeled the extermination of the Armenians as “hard, but useful”. He was a pan-German racist anyway. On the other side, the national-conservative chief of the German general staff, Paul von Hindenburg, spoke of the “awaking of the beast in man”, of “one of the darkest chapters in the history of all nations and times”. But nevertheless he tolerated these crimes, because his main aim was to win the war under any condition. As the American historian Isabel Hull put it: “The standards of existential military struggle that Germany applied to itself, its troops, civilians, and those in the occupied zones, it also applied to Turkey, where going to extremes took the form of genocide”.
What does the Bundestag resolution mean to you? What kind of a contribution have Lepsius' works done to the recognition of Bundestag?
First, we have worked for this and supported this effort since years. Our friend Hermann Goltz, who unfortunately died some years ago, initiated the 2005 Bundestag debate about the Armenian Genocide. We have organized international conferences, meetings, debates, published articles and books. We teach at Potsdam University and at High Schools. Last year we have organized a Worldwide Reading in Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in cooperation with the Berlin International Literature Festival which took place on more than hundred places around the globe. So we are glad about this outcome in the Bundestag, even if it took time. We don’t see this as an accusation against Turkey but as a strong contribution to historical truth. The 20thcentury was a century of state violence. The outstanding crime was of course the Shoa, the extermination of the European Jews. Reconciliation needs truth. On the other side, denial of violence, as our friend Fatma Müge Göcek has put it, can easily lead to a continuation of violence. This is one of the main reasons why the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is so important. And of course the recognition of all other cases of state sponsored violence. If we want to look forward to a more peaceful and democratic future, we must have a trusted picture of our past. As to the Armenian Genocide we must learn to see it as part of the dark sides of a shared European history.