"Good Germans" in the Armenian Genocide

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Submitted to Session P5015 (Negotiating Memories and Legacies of Communal Violence in WWI Anatolia, 2017 Annual Meeting
Armenian Studies;
“Good Germans” in the Armenian genocide
With the centenary of the Armenian genocide 2015 and the German parliament’s recognition in June 2016, scholarly research expanded inquiry into the German role: as wartime allies of the Ottoman Empire, what did Imperial Germany’s military and diplomatic representatives know about the deportation policy and implementation? Were they informed onlookers, willing accomplices or leading perpetrators? New studies by German and Swiss researchers (e.g. Jürgen Gottschlich) have shed light on figures like Lt. Gen. Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorf and Hans Humann, who supported the anti-Armenian policy, in theory and practice. Continuing publication of official documents from the German Foreign Ministry wartime archives by Wolfgang Gust and others has filled out the picture of diplomats who tried, but failed, to stop the extermination policy.
Virtually ignored is the role of leading Germans who actively opposed the genocide policy and intervened, often successfully, to save thousands of lives of Armenians as well as Greeks. The central figure here is General Otto Liman von Sanders (1855-1929), officially remembered as the hero of Gallipoli for having led Turkish forces in the Dardanelles. As one of the very few high-ranking Germans of Jewish origin, he suffered under the widespread anti-Semitic sentiments in the officer corps. He was in open conflict with Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha and his German colleagues, especially von Schellendorf, and their Armenian deportation policy.
Newly evaluated source material (e.g. Foreign Ministry archives, Otto von Liman’s reports and memoirs) documents the extraordinary efforts made by Liman von Sanders to prevent mass deportations, and therefore deaths of Armenians. In 1916 he travelled to Smyrna (today’s Izmir) and, apprised of planned deportations, threatened the Vali (governor) that he Liman would deploy weapons to prevent them. An estimated 6-7000 Armenians were thus saved. When informed of plans for massive deportations of Greeks from Urla, Liman von Sanders again demanded a stop to the order, and with success.
After the war Liman von Sanders was accused by the British and French of complicity in the genocide and put on trial in Malta. Unable to substantiate their charges, and faced with official Greek testimony of his defense of Christian minorities, they had to let him free, but the stigma remained.
Rehabilitating Liman von Sanders is not only an important contribution to Germans’ working through their past, but is a necessary correction in scholarly research into the complex relations between Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire.