By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Berlin – It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. But once it had ended, there was “no peace to end all violence.” On the contrary, even with the establishment of the League of Nations, which was to usher in the new era of peace, the world witnessed new forms of nationalism and imperialism, new conflicts, and continuing human suffering on a mass level. At the same time, new concepts of humanitarian intervention and international law developed. It is this dialectical tension that occupied the attention of scholars during the last weekend of August in Potsdam Germany, joined via internet by colleagues worldwide. “Genocide, Mass Violence and International Justice after 1919” was the title of the conference that opened on August 27, 2021 at the European Academy.

Welcoming remarks came from Céline Gulekjian of the AGBU and Atanas Stoyanov of the Roma organization of Phiren Amenca, two of the groups that had joined with the Lepsiushaus Potsdam and the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) to sponsor the event. The keynote was read by Roy Knocke of the Lepsiushaus. It had been prepared by Dr. Rolf Hosfeld, who passed away on July 23. Hosfeld, a historian, author and academic director of the Lepsiushaus for a decade, had developed such transnational networks of scholars and was the driving force behind this conference. It was dedicated in his honor.

The keynote set the theme: “No peace to end all violence — Nationalism, Imperialism and Internationalism,” reviewing key events following the October 1918 armistice, from the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the escape from Constantinople of the leading Young Turk perpetrators and the signing of the Versailles Treaty. Aggressive anti-Semitism had spread, along with the “fascist aesthetic of violence,” massacres destroyed Armenian lives in 1894-96 and 1907, the Boer war raged in 1902, masses of Herero and Nama peoples succumbed to starvation, and step by step such imperialist violence led to total war. The Armenian genocide, the “worst single act of violence in World War I,” launched the process of ethnic cleansing and deportation which would engulf Jews and other subject minorities in Russia, Roma people and Muslims in central Asia. In the Ottoman Empire the eradication policy would eliminate a multi-ethnic society to usher in a Muslim-Turkish order. It was the “final solution” in its first form, and the Young Turks, whom Hitler admired, became a model for totalitarian rule.

Post-Versailles Europe

Stefan Ihrig of Haifa University picked up this concept in his talk on “Learning from the Turks. Interwar Germany, the Nazis and the Quest for Violent Solutions.” Already before the war, German media had devoted great attention to events in the Ottoman Empire, and this increased in the early Weimar period. The question being pondered was: how did the Turks manage to resist Versailles? Why didn’t Germany do the same? Can one learn from Turkey? In the 1920s, some Germans considered themselves similar to the Turks. Ihrig, author of Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination, cited a remark made by Hitler to the Turkish ambassador, prior to the attack on Poland, to the effect that the Germans were copying the Turks. Hitler would also call Atatürk a “guiding light.”

The German press covered Turkey’s transformation into a monoethnic country, as if that constituted a model. Turkey was considered a most modern country, thanks to its having rid itself of ethnic minorities. Before Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, there was open discussion of the Armenian Genocide in Germany, and the Nazi standpoint viewed it in a positive light. Implications for a Nazi extermination policy against the Jews were obvious and open. Himmler had been well aware of the developments and showed great interest in Turkey. German public opinion could read about it in the press and could draw the obvious parallels to a Nazi party propagating similar “solutions.” If they knew this and then voted for such a party, Ihrig said, it was criminal. This raised the question, why has this topic has been ignored? And he suggested it might derive from Eurocentrism in historical studies. That said, it is also true that Ihrig’s books have sparked more interest in the Armenian Genocide, including in Israel.

Momme Schwarz, from the Saxonian Academy of Sciences in Leipzig, followed with a discussion of “Jewish Minority Protection during the Interwar period – The Comité des délégations juives and the Schwarzbard Trial.” For the millions of Jews who survived the collapse of three empires, the Comité sought protection at the Paris peace conference, but its calls for parliamentary representation and self-government received limited support. The Comité continued its campaign through publications and protested against the pogroms in Ukraine. A rallying point in their campaign appeared in the trial of Jewish watchmaker Sholom Schwarzbard, who had killed the head of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic, Symon Petliura, for being responsible for the pogroms. Committees emerged in his defense and in October 1927 he was acquitted. Schwarz concluded that although the acquittal did not solve the problem of stateless Jews, it did illustrate the development of collective action and solidarity and the need for a sovereign state. The obvious parallels to the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Talat Pasha in Berlin in 1921, were noted. The response to the Schwarzbard trial generally in the Jewish community was split: some said the case showed that they should rely on self-defense, not government action, while others stressed the importance of abiding by the law.

Another minority group that suffered statelessness, persecution and mass murder was the Roma, whose case was presented by Chalak Kaveh of Volda University College. In remarks on “The Apex of European Traditional ‘Gypsy Policy’ in the Interwar Period – A History of Policy Radicalizations,” he focused on Norway and its extremely restrictive policy. In 1924 Roma people, called Gypsies, were turned back at the border, even if in possession of a passport. In the 1930s many of those denied entry would become victims of the Nazi concentration camps. German policies were viewed as models in Norway, whereas Sweden was more moderate, and Denmark the least radical.

Remembrance, Trauma and Denialism

The policy of denying the genocide has been a constant in Turkey, but it has not been undifferentiated, as Fatma Müge Göçek, from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, explained. In the immediate post-war period, the two rival governments followed different approaches. The one in Istanbul acknowledged the massacres in trials held under occupation and the other in Ankara observed total silence on the matter.

The triumvirs had escaped to Germany, leaving Mustafa Kemal to lead the 1919-1922 independence campaign. Everything that had occurred prior to the establishment of the republic was labelled “pre-history,” and therefore had nothing to do with the new Turkey. Atatürk was the center of this new history and his government had no room for Greeks, Armenians and Jews. In a second phase, from 1923 to 1933, the Ankara government promised the Kurds some autonomy, but reneged on that pledge. After Lausanne, the new national history assumed more distinct contours, with the creation of the national language and alphabet, “independence tribunals” to eliminate opposition to reforms, mandatory Turkish names and western apparel; the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum. Following Atatürk’s death and the takeover by Inönü in 1938, Göçek concluded, the systematic denial of the genocide continued.

If the Turkish response has been denial, in the Arab world the approach carries different nuances. Michael B. Elm, from Tel Aviv University and the Free University of Berlin, illustrated this with reference to English-language documentaries prepared by Aljazeera, and the “construction of cultural trauma.” On the centenary in 2015, while several films (“The Cut,” for example) dealt with the genocide, Aljazeera avoided the word and the issue, focusing on such themes as the heritage of Sykes-Picot in the division of the Arab world, the Balfour Declaration leading to the establishment of Israel, civilian suffering in Syria, the elimination of the Caliphate and its impact on Arab-Turkish relations, etc.

Why should there be such indifference among Arab intellectuals in the Armenian genocide? This question was at the center of remarks by Vicken Cheterian, from the University of Geneva and Webster University in Switzerland. The geographical links to the genocide are obvious in names like Der Zor and its concentration camps, the last station for an estimated 870,000 deportees, women and children. Cheterian explained the absence of these facts from Syrian historiography in terms that echo Atatürk’s method: Arab nationalism considered what occurred before their nations came into being as outside history, or at best, as part of Ottoman or Turkish history. Arab history, in contrast, unfolds as a narrative about a break with the Ottoman past. Cheterian stressed the role of post-colonial studies, which did not help overcome this denialism, as they located the genocide outside of, or prior to Arab history. The implications of this for understanding problems in the region today were discussed, from the failure of secularization to the concepts of religion, state, citizenship and identity.

International Justice and Human Rights

In sharp contrast to the tradition of denialism — whether deliberate or by omission — in the interwar period new, advanced concepts in international law come into being. Introducing this subject, Hülya Adak, from Sabancı University and the Free University of Berlin, spoke about Andrei N. Mandelstam and his legacy. A graduate in law from St. Petersburg university, he served as dragoman at the Russian embassy in Constantinople until the outbreak of war and was engaged in discussion of Armenian reform. Following the Russian revolution he was in Paris, and dedicated his efforts to human rights issues, particularly pertaining to minorities from the former Ottoman empire. He was a critic of the Treaty of Lausanne, because it brought “neither peace nor justice,” and ignored Armenian interests. In his 1929 Declaration  of the International Rights of Man, he articulated demands for rights of minorities to life, liberty, property, language and religion, and asserted there should be no legal distinctions on basis of race, sex, language or religion. Adak regretted that these advanced ideas are very little known in Turkey and proposed that Mandelstam’s works be made available in translation.

The urgent need for such internationally acknowledged rights could not be more obvious in the case of women and children. Edita Gzoyan, from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan, presented an overview of violence committed against women and children, seen in the context of the development of international law. Refugee Armenian women and girls were particularly vulnerable, and often forced into slavery; their plight attracted public attention, but was scarcely alleviated by charitable interventions of single individuals and organizations. Despite its commitment to providing security and cooperation, the League of Nations was reluctant to act on behalf of women’s rights, even though it formally asserted the equality of the sexes. But this changed. Its covenant contained articles condemning female slave markets in the region, and in 1920 and 1921 a permanent body came into being, a Committee for the Protection of Women and Children. Ultimately the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of Children appeared in 1924.

New states had come into being after the war, but masses of refugees had no access to citizenship and therefore the protection of a state. Roy Knocke of the Lepsiushaus examined this issue in a speech on “Fridtjof Nansen: the Plight of Statelessness as an International Challenge.” By 1926, he said, of 9.5 million refugees, one third were stateless. Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and scientist, had been an observer at the Paris peace conference, regarding the rights of small states, and became President of the League of Nations Society in Norway, which became a member in 1920. The following year Nansen was League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees. He is best remembered for his development of the “Nansen passport,” a travel document devised for stateless refugees. It was not a universal document, nor a passport in fact, but was recognized and provided the means to acquire aid, housing and employment. Nansen also negotiated terms in the Greek/Turkish population transfer; this forced exchange, which was a form of ethnic cleansing, was accepted by Nansen and the League as a pragmatic solution to a pressing problem, and a form of protection for minorities. Nansen was involved in the Armenian case, but a 1924 approach to resettle them in the Caucasus failed in light of Russian and Turkish opposition. Some 10,000 found resettlement in Yerevan and Lebanon. In his book, “Armenia and the Near East,” Nansen expressed his dismay with the European and American powers who had reneged on their pledges to the Armenians: had they possessed oil or gold or other precious raw materials, perhaps they would have found aid in their time of greatest suffering.

Atrocities against Civilians and the Rise of Humanitarian Movements

Aid did come to the persecuted Armenians, largely in the form of independent initiatives. Melanie Telanian, from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, spoke on “Violence, Aid and Non-State Actors: Humanitarian Interventions in Nineteenth Century Anatolia.” At the center of her presentation was the Kaiserswerth Deaconate, a humanitarian social, educational and health institution founded in 1836. Following the Adana massacres in 1919, the Deaconate organized housing for Armenian children in orphanages. To finance their work, they appealed to the German public to fund child sponsorships. They often would appeal to a reading public fed on Gothic novels, playing up images of “the terrible Turk” and the virtues of Christian charity. Due to imperial Germany’s geopolitical interests in the Ottoman empire, the government and military, as well as press, were reluctant to issue condemnations, and private initiatives had taken responsibility for aid.

Geopolitical factors played a role also in those cases where great powers did intervene with humanitarian aid, for example the United Kingdom and America. In a talk on “The Anglo-Americans Struggle to Save the Armenians and Remake Global Order,” Charlie Laderman of Kings College, London posed the question: why should such a struggle for the survival of a small state like Armenia be so important for two great powers? Already in the 1890s, at the time of the Hamidian massacres, debate was raging in the USA, public outrage led to petitions urging government action. In 1896, when Congress sent a resolution to President Cleveland to intervene, appeals were made to the UK to cooperate. Though no government action ensued, in 1901 Theodore Roosevelt denounced the “crimes against civilization” and three years later gave a speech on humanitarian intervention.

In 1915 as the deportations were underway, Roosevelt (out of office) became the leading proponent of US entry into the conflict and when America declared war on Germany, Roosevelt was outraged that Turkey remained untouched. Wilson’s aim was to defeat Germany, not to save the Armenians. Following the war, geopolitical interests continued to prevail when the British supported a US mandate for Armenia as what Milner called “a bond of union,” i.e., an Anglo-American colonial alliance. In Wilson’s thinking, a US mandate would secure a role for the US against Europe. The failure of the mandate, the early end of the Armenian Republic and the pressures of Russia and nationalist Turkey were the outcome. Laderman concluded his remarks by showing a portrait of a young Armenian woman holding a white flower, symbolizing hope. The painting, entitled “L’Esperance,” was a gift from an Armenian delegation to President Wilson in the White House in 1917, an expression of gratitude for the American people’s humanitarian aid to Armenians.

Indeed, the mobilization of Americans to provide humanitarian aid was unprecedented, and the work of groups like Near East Relief became a model. Hilmar Kaiser from Yerevan State University shed new light on this, by examining “The Armenian Origin of Near East Relief.” In September 1915, Near East Relief representatives succeeded in organizing British support for their cause, and the influential Toynbee/Bryce “Blue Book” documenting the atrocities had an impact on public awareness. Armenians reportedly attended NER meetings, to campaign for more relief.

In July 1915, Kaiser said, no Armenian networks were functioning on the ground, the AGBU were considered “terrorists” and faced grave security threats. The Armenian missionaries were thus the only actors left, Catholics, Apostolics and Protestants. A central figure organizing humanitarian resistance networks was Reverend Hovhannes Eskijian, who worked with all church groups, in Aleppo, for example, as well as with German and American diplomats, Walter Rössler and Jesse Jackson. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation was also involved, until 1916. Eskijian was the key person distributing funds, contributions from NER, as well as information. Kaiser concluded that NER never would have functioned had it not been for the Armenians. The missionaries continued their work, the Protestants in the Armenian Missionary Association of America launched educational and social projects. The Eskijian family, among others, have maintained the commitment for generations, active today in America and in Artsakh.