Just before the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, well-known German historian Michael Hesemann announced the discovery of 2000 pages of hitherto unpublished documents on, what he calls “the greatest persecution of Christians in history” in the Vatican Secret Archives.
In this in-depth analysis with ZENIT, the historian discusses his findings, what’s often not realized about the Armenian genocide, and its victims, items which he discusses in his new book.
He also speaks about the Holy Father’s recent visit to Turkey, why he didn’t speak on the subject, and what people should realize about the tragedy which happened then, and what’s happening now.
ZENIT: What compelled you to start going through the documents? What did you feel you had uncovered?
Hesemann: Actually, I was fascinated by the Armenian genocide after reading a letter written by the Cologne Archbishop—and I am from the Archdiocese of Cologne–, Cardinal von Hartmann, who in 1913 wrote a letter to the German Chancellor of the Reich requesting German support to prevent a new Armenian Genocide after the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Northeastern Turkey. And his words were very impressive. He confirmed the Armenian genocide of 1915/1916 and compared it with the early persecutions of Christians like the Diocletian persecution of early 4th century.
He said because Germany was such a close ally to Turkey it would also cause shame on the German name for future generations if it wouldn’t do anything to stop it. I immediately realized how right he was and that he was a voice of justice in the middle of this horrible World War I. And then I asked myself: What did Germany do after World War I and even today to tell the world what it knew about these horrible events, just to prevent that history repeats itself – nothing indeed!
Then in 1939, Adolf Hitler met with his leading generals in his “Berghof” near Berchtesgaden, his headquarters in the mountains, and announced his plans for Poland: the completely recklessly slaughter of the Polish elite and all the other atrocities. He ordered to proceed with the utmost, merciless brutality, since “history is always written by the victors’ and, anyway, “Who is talking about the Armenian Genocide today?” So obviously the denial or the cover up of the Armenian Genocide made Hitler’s brutality in Poland and eventually the Holocaust possible? It seems so. If you do not tell the story, history will always repeat itself. So I thought it was my responsibility as a historian who has access to the Vatican Secret Archives since 2008 to look for more documents. I became curious and in some way fascinated by the subject. I wanted to know what really happened.
So I found documents and documents and documents, more than 2000 pages, most of them never before published, researched, or evaluated by any historian. Of course, I educated myself on any aspect of the Genocide, read the works of all the leading contemporary historians in this field like Kevorkian, Dadrian and others and just realized that I am entering a brand new territory, adding a new aspect to their important work. The sources we have on the Armenian Genocide are, of course, the German documents, both coming from the officers and diplomats stationed in the Ottoman Empire, which we find in the Archives of the German foreign office. Another important stock were the American diplomat’s reports and, of course, the brilliant report by the American Ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau. Of course we also have intelligence reports from both the British and the French and the reports of the Italian diplomats in Turkey. But the Vatican documents are an excellent, first class new source of information.
ZENIT: Why did these massacres happen?
Hesemann: Well, the massacres happened after the Turks searched the Armenian’s homes for weapons and used any weapon they found as an “evidence” for a conspiracy or planned revolt, which, of course, was nonsense – people on the countryside needed to have their guns for self-defense. Then all men were arrested, tortured, lead outside the towns or villages and were massacred. Well, how can you resettle the people if you kill all the men? This is the end of future generations. Without men, you can’t have families.
Then all the women, the elderly and the children were sent on foot to the new destination, hundreds of miles through the mountainous highlands of Anatolia, often enough with no food and water at all. Sometimes they were not even allowed to drink from the rivers they passed. They were raped and robbed, by mountain tribes, released prisoners and their own police guards, and of the few which survived those death marches – often enough only 5 percent – many were left completely nude, dirty and ashamed, under the hot Turkish sun and in the cold of the nights.
Still some 350,000 who arrived in the Syrian Desert were put into concentrations camps, with no food and very little water and deadly epidemics going around. And those who survived for another half a year were sent on new death marches deeper into the desert or were just massacred.So at the end, maybe a couple tens of thousands survived. Many of them orphans. Benedict XV later donated two orphanages to give at least some of them shelter.
If you read the eyewitness testimony, this is really heartbreaking. You read even of nuns who were raped and all their clothes were stolen. Many of them went mad afterward because they couldn’t handle all these terrible experiences. Mothers threw their children into gorges, into rivers, to kill them, so they wouldn’t have to suffer as much as they suffered. Suicides were in the daily order.
For a couple of months, the populations of Mosul and other cities were warned by the government, the Muslim population of course, not to drink any water from the river because it was polluted by the thousands of corpses which were drafting down the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. All of this is very well documented. But it is still officially denied by the Turkish government.
ZENIT: Can you elaborate on this?
Hesemann: For example, if you read a book by the department of Tourism of the Republic of Turkey “2,000 years of Turkish history”– a strange title since Turkey has more than 5000 years of documented history – you read the following quote: “The Ottoman government decided to immigrate the Armenians who were involved in the uprising to a safer place, namely Syria and Lebanon … The immigration process was carried out in a successful way as most of the Armenians were safely transferred to Syria”, you can only call this a cynical lie!
And as passionately, the Turkish government tries to do everything to suppress the treatment of the Armenian genocide in the schoolbooks of the free world, or to prevent recognition of the Armenian genocide as genocide.
Of course, the term genocide can be discussed, but according to the definition by the United Nations any mass killing of a group or population, also if it is a religious group, is termed “genocide”.
Because in the end, Armenians weren’t killed because they were Armenian, but because they were Christians. Armenian women were even offered to be spared if they convert to Islam. They were then married into Turkish households or sold on slave markets or taken as sex slaves into brothels for Turkish soldiers, but at least they survived. A whole group of Islamized Crypto-Armenians was created by this offer to embrace Islam. But at least it shows that the Armenians were not killed because they were Armenians, but because they were Christians, and for the same reason the Syrian Christians were killed too.
ZENIT: So based on the statistics, how should it be considered?
Hesemann: It was both: A genocide by definition of the United Nations and, at the same time, the greatest persecution of Christians in history, when altogether 2.5 million were killed – 1.5 million Armenians and about one million Syrian and Greek Christians.
ZENIT: What is your view on Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey and on how he addressed the Armenian subject?
Hesemann: He was not the first Pope in history to speak about the Armenian genocide because Benedict XV and John Paul II did so, too. But I am very grateful that Pope Francis even before he became Pope, in his book with Rabbi Skorka, for example, mentioned the Armenian genocide. Even in the first months of his pontificate, in May 2013, when he received one of the Armenian Patriarchs, he called the events of 1915-1916 a genocide, which caused a lot of unrest and a very unfriendly reaction from the Turkish side, as did John Paul II’s remarks on the Armenian genocide did. So I am very grateful that he continued the long row of Popes who openly spoke about the Armenian genocide.
I was a little bit disappointed that he didn’t bring it up when he met Erdogan because his visit took place on the eve of this year commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Then again, he was a guest and he didn’t want to provoke an even more hostile situation for the Christians, […] the still persecuted Christian minority in Turkey. So from a diplomatic point of view, he did the right thing.
ZENIT: Is the Holy Father doing anything in April to commemorate the anniversary?
Hesemann: Yes, indeed. Pope Francis announced that on April 12 he will celebrate Holy Mass in the Armenian rite in commemoration of what happened 100 years ago. I hope that he will find clear words in his homily on that occasion. And I hope that he will follow the invitation of the Armenian president and the Armenian Patriarch Catholikos Karekin II to come to Armenia. Even if he won’t come to Armenia on the 24th of April, he might come later this year. Sometimes, truth and solidarity with the martyrs are more important than diplomacy. Everyone who reads the Vatican documents on the events of 1915/6 gets a very clear idea about what happened. Even Pope Benedict XV, who was a very careful diplomat, stressing neutrality, wherever he could, could not remain silent and protested three times, two times in personal letters to the Sultan and one time in his speech during a consistory. Indeed, his attempt to stop the Armenian genocide by public protests is one of the most impressive examples in history how the Vatican’s diplomacy tried everything humanly possible to stand up for those persecuted brothers and sisters and save innocent victims of one of the biggest crimes in history. At the same time, it’s also a very frustrating example that Vatican diplomacy cannot change the minds of fanatic ideologists who just demonstrated that “conscience”and “compassion” are foreign words for them.
ZENIT: As we are now approaching the 100-year anniversary, is there anything you think people should realize or take away in a way they have not already?
Hesemann: One thing should be learned: Nobody should ever turn around and look away if he hears about atrocities in any part of the world. If you are ignorant today, you will bear the consequences tomorrow. So it’s better to act and react now.
Hitler believed he was on the safe side, but he wasn’t. So I hope that the atrocities of 100 years ago wake up Christians and responsible people from the world of politics, of art, science, and moral [realms], of all fields of life to look what is happening to Christians in the same area today.
When I saw reports and videos of what is going on the ISIS controlled areas, I had a déjà vu. I have to admit that when I studied these files, pictures, and everything from the Armenian genocide, I wondered sometimes if some of my sources were not just exaggerating. It sounded so unreal, all those atrocities, this violence, these reports about crucifixions and mountains of skulls of decapitated men and so on. And then all this happens in front of my eyes in the news. So history repeats itself: If you don’t learn from history, if you aren’t aware of what happened in the past, we allow people to commit the crimes again. That is why every crime has to be [prosecuted]. So that people learn that crimes don’t pay off. In 1915, the German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg knew everything about the Armenian genocide, since he received all those careful reports from his diplomats. But he was not willing to stop the slaughter, but, instead, declared: “We have to keep Turkey as an ally on our side until the war is over, even if the Armenians perish over it.” Because of this, Germany is guilty, too, of what it allowed to happen. Today, we shall not follow Germany’s example and ignore what is happening in order to not jeopardize diplomatic or trade relations. We should stop ISIS and end the slaughter of Christians right now!
And finally: As a Catholic, I believe that everyone can be forgiven if you confess your sins. But that is the first condition. I don’t want any revenge or punishment for Turkey. Not at all. I want reconciliation. Reconciliation between the Armenian and Turkish people, but the condition for this, for forgiveness, is the truth. If I go to confession and deny my sins, it is worthless and I won’t find forgiveness. Forgiveness I will only find if I honestly confess what truly happened. Only the truth can set us free!
The historical facts are so crystal clear. They are as clear as those of the Holocaust, or any other event that you’d find in any history book…so many documents, sources, clear statistics, clear evidence that 1.5 million Armenians and another 1 million Syrian and Greek Christians were murdered. You cannot deny it. You cannot excuse it. You can only, and that it’s overdue, admit it. This is the first step for reconciliation. Any historians looking at all the evidence would come to the same conclusion of what happened, unless they were being paid or put under pressure. But facing the evidence we have, there’s no other conclusion possible. It was genocide. It was the biggest persecution of Christians in history. If you still deny it, you protect the perpetrators, you side up with murderers. And you allow that it will happen again.