Why did the genocide of the Armenians happen

Aghet - genocide of the Armenians

Jürgen Gottschlich

To person

Jürgen Gottschlich, foreign correspondent in Istanbul and author of the book "Aid to Murder. Germany's Role in the Extermination of the Armenians".

Ottoman-German alliances

The Armenians were potential collaborators with the enemy not only for the Turks, but also for the decisive German military, writes Jürgen Gottschlich. That is why, for example, naval attaché Hans Humann, like his friend Enver Pascha, believed that the Armenians would weaken Turkey in the long term. And considered the mass murder "harsh but useful". After all, the imperial government did not want any trouble with the Turkish leadership.

The postcard from the First World War shows the leaders of the Central Powers (from left): Kaiser Wilhelm II (German Empire), Kaiser Franz Joseph I (Austria-Hungary), Sultan Mehmed V (Ottoman Empire), Tsar Ferdinand I (Bulgaria ). (& copy public domain)

"It doesn't matter whether the Armenians perish because of this"

The German diplomat Baron Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim (1859-1915). (& copy public domain)
On July 7, 1915, the then German ambassador to Constantinople, Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim, sent a report to Berlin. From this report it is clear: the German diplomats and military in the Ottoman Empire knew that genocide was taking place against the Armenian minority.

"The circumstances and the way in which the resettlement is carried out", Wangenheim wrote to Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, showed that "the government is actually pursuing the purpose of destroying the Armenian race in the Turkish Empire". [1]

This report by the Ambassador was remarkable for three reasons: firstly, because he admitted that the leadership of the Ottoman Empire, one of the most important German allies in World War I, had just carried out a genocide of the Christian Armenian minority; Second, that Ambassador Freiherr von Wangenheim of all people named the genocide as such - until then he had always defended the measures taken by the Turkish leaders against the Armenians - and third, because of the consequences that Wangenheim drew from his knowledge, because he made suggestions as to how prevented it could be that the image of Germany could be damaged by the genocide. He made no proposals to save the Armenians.

July 1915 is therefore the decisive point in time from which the German Empire made itself complicit in the genocide of the Armenians. Until July 1915, it could be assumed that the German representatives in Constantinople (today's Istanbul) did not know what was really happening to the Armenians. Officially, there was only talk of deporting the Armenian civilian population from regions important to the war effort, for example along the front line to Russia, or from the coastal areas on the Mediterranean, where the German and Turkish war planners feared a landing by the English and / or French fleets.

The Turkish leadership and high German officers, who played a decisive role in the planning of the war in the general staff of the Ottoman army, assumed that the Armenian minority sympathized with the enemy, as did the other Christian minorities of the Greeks and Arameans. Therefore, they should be taken to areas where they would not cause "harm". The so-called resettlement actions of the Armenian civilian population, i.e. the expulsion from their homes, villages and from the land on which they had lived for generations, began in April 1915.
Transport of Armenians in the so-called mutton wagons of the Anatolian Railway, around 1915. (& copy Deutsche Bank AG, Historical Institute)

As early as May, the ambassador received reports from various consulates in the east and south of the country that little consideration was given to the people, mostly women, children and older men, during these deportations. The Vice-Consul from Erzerum, Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, reported on catastrophic conditions on the march of the displaced to the south. Starving women and children would have thrown themselves in front of his wagon and begged for bread. The displaced were mostly only able to take little with them and, in addition, were often robbed. Reports from consulates in the south said that the bodies of Armenians were washed ashore down the Euphrates and Tigris, and that massacres of the Armenians took place during the deportation trains. In June 1915 these reports condensed to such an extent that even Ambassador Wangenheim could no longer avoid discovering that the Turkish rulers apparently wanted to destroy "the Armenian race".

By today's standards, Wangenheim should have massively protested against this genocide in the name of the German Reich and, if necessary, threatened consequences if the killing is not stopped. But nothing of the sort happened.

Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorf with Enver and Jamal Pascha (from left)., Around 1915. (& copy Public Domain)
Except for two protest notes, which, as Wangenheim himself admitted, were primarily intended to enable him to later say that one had protested, nothing happened. On the contrary, high German military officials such as Chief of Staff Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorf, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon and Naval Attaché Hans Humann expressly supported the Turkish rulers in the annihilation of the Armenians. Bronsart von Schellendorf called the Armenians "bloodsuckers on the Turkish people's body" [2], who were worse than the Jews; Admiral Souchon noted in his diary, "It would be a salvation for Turkey if she killed the last Armenian" [3]; and naval attaché Hans Humann, who was close friends with one of the main people responsible for the genocide, War Minister Enver Pascha, wrote on a report by the German consul in Mosul, who complained about the massacre of the Armenians, that it was "hard but useful" ]

When a top German diplomat wanted to stand up for the Armenians, he was forbidden by the highest authorities. After Ambassador Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim died unexpectedly of a stroke in October 1915, a new ambassador, Count Paul Wolff Metternich, came to Constantinople in November, who was not indifferent to the fate of the Armenians. In December 1915, Metternich demanded in a report to Berlin that the German public must finally find out what was happening to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and that the German government must finally seriously threaten sanctions in order to stop the killing. In order to be successful, "he wrote to Berlin," we must instill fear in the Turkish government of the consequences. If this does not happen, there would be no choice but to "watch our ally continue to massacre".

But Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg wanted nothing to do with it. He categorically decided: "Our only goal is to keep Turkey by our side until the end of the war, regardless of whether the Armenians perish or not. If the war lasts for a long time, we will still need the Turks very much." [5] Man has to take a brief look at the prehistory of the First World War to understand why the German Empire allowed the genocide of the Armenians to happen, and why some German soldiers even took an active part in it.

It is no coincidence that the Ottoman Empire was an important ally of Germany in the First World War. The ailing empire on the Bosporus had already been built up by the German side as a strategic partner decades before the outbreak of war. While England and France had colonies and Russia expanded increasingly aggressively into Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia in the 19th century, Germany, a nation that had come too late, was left empty-handed after the unification of the empire in 1871. This soon led to the fact that Germany, which was growing rapidly in economic terms, was also looking for a "place in the sun", as Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow put it in 1897. In order to catch up with the other colonial powers, Germany also tried to expand its sphere of influence in the Orient, albeit not necessarily as a colonial power. The vast area of ​​the Ottoman Empire, which at the end of the 19th century still stretched from the Balkans via Anatolia and Mesopotamia to Palestine and Egypt, could no longer be held by the Sultan on his own. In order to stop the decline of his empire, Germany offered to give him a helping hand and to get preferential economic and military conditions in return.

The expression of this policy was a steadily growing number of German military advisors, who also took up active posts in the Ottoman army a year before the beginning of the First World War, and the construction of the Baghdad Railway, with which Germany wanted to create a continuous railway line from Berlin to the Persian Gulf To be able to transport goods and troops quickly to the Orient and to bring raw materials to Germany.

When the war began, Turkey was important to Germany for several reasons: they wanted to attack England from the Ottoman Empire in Egypt and Persia and block the Russians from crossing the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and thus cut ties with the western allies. The Ottoman Empire was the geographical basis for the German dream of a great power, which ultimately aimed at Germany becoming a world power on an equal footing with Great Britain.

This dream of a great power was the real reason for the German assistance in the genocide of the Armenians. The Armenian elite in the Ottoman Empire had attended French, English or American mission schools for decades and was therefore very much oriented towards these powers. England, France and Russia had repeatedly - albeit ultimately without success - committed themselves to improving the living conditions of the Armenians, but not the German emperor.

The Armenians were therefore potential collaborators with the enemy not only for the Turks, but also for the decisive German military. Even the head of the German military mission, Otto Liman von Sanders, who in his area of ​​command on the Aegean coast had spoken out on behalf of the Armenian population there and is therefore not suspected of having been an Armenian hater, later wrote in his book "Five Years of Turkey": " The handling of the expulsions (deportations) offered itself in many places, since the Armenians had often made common cause with the invading Russians and they had to prove some atrocities against the Mohammedan population. "[6] Without own experience of the situation of the Eastern Front, he reflects the view prevalent among German commanders. The English, French and Russians were considered to be the protective powers of the Armenians, and when these protective powers had to withdraw their diplomats from Constantinople at the outbreak of war, the German ambassador Wangenheim refused to give the Armenian patriarch as the "only Christian power remaining on the Bosporus" a special protective function for the Armenians take. "Otherwise we would run the risk of jeopardizing more important interests that are closer to us," he cabled in a report to Berlin in April 1915. [7]

At the beginning of the war, the Ottoman Empire was a constitutional monarchy in which the power of Sultan Mehmet V was largely limited. The real power lay in the hands of a triumvirate consisting of War Minister Enver Pascha, Interior Minister Talaat Pascha and Navy Minister Djemal Pascha. Above all, it was Talaat and Enver Pascha who wanted to use the war to finally solve the "Armenian question" - that is, to systematically kill the Armenians or drive them out of the empire.

The German Chief of Staff of the Turkish Army, the Prussian Lieutenant General Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorf, had no problem with the mass murder of the Armenians because he hated the English and saw the Armenians as the Englishmen's protection. He participated in the planning of the deportations and probably also arranged the deportations himself. Naval attaché Hans Humann, like his friend Enver Pascha, believed that the Armenians would weaken Turkey in the long term, which is why he considered the mass murder "hard but useful".

Finally, the imperial government did not want any trouble with the Turkish leadership because of a minority that allegedly preferred England and France rather than Germany. In return, they did not want to risk a break with Turkey, a break that would have meant the end of the dream of the German Orient and German world power.


  • Dadrian, Vahakan N. German Responsibility in the Armenien Genocid. A Review of the Historical Evidenc of German Complicity, Watertown 1995.
  • Dinkel, Christoph, German Officers and the Armenien Genocid, in: Aremien Review 44 (1991) No. 1 173, pp. 77-133.
  • Gust, Wolfgang: The genocide of the Armenians. The tragedy of the oldest Christian people in the world, Munich 1993.
  • Ders .: The Armenian Genocide in 1915/16, documents from the Political Archives of the Foreign Office, Springe 2005.
  • Hosfeld Rolf, Death in the Desert, The Armenian Genocide C.H. Beck, 2015.
  • Kaiser, Hilmar: The Extermination of Armenia in the Diyarbakir Region, Istanbul 2014.
  • Kieser, Hans Lukas, Schaller, Dominik (eds), The Armenian Genocide and the Shoah, Zurich 2002.
  • Werfel, Franz: The forty days of Musa Dagh, Vienna 1933.