On a sunny Sunday afternoon recently, I sat in Taney church, Dundrum, as Ireland’s small Armenian community commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Like many Armenians around the world, they had come together with family and friends to remember the million and a half Armenians killed in Turkey between 1915 and 1923. Eight other religious communities attended the service, which included a Greek Orthodox priest, a representative of the Chief Rabbi, an Anglican bishop, a Methodist minister and a Roman Catholic archbishop. Several of these clerics took to the pulpit and gave well-researched and sometimes moving accounts of what had happened to Armenian men, women and children in 1915.
My interest in the Armenian Genocide began in the late 1980s when I lived in Al-Ain, an oasis town in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Two Lebanese-Armenian colleagues told me about the Armenian Genocide, and I remember that I offered my sympathies and quickly forgot about it. Writing about the Middle East some 16 years later, the conversation came back to me and I decided to find out more online. The first website I looked at had an eye-catching photograph of a young soldier in the uniform of the German army, and wearing an Arabic ghutra and egal on his head.
Lawrence of Arabia instantly came to mind, or more likely Peter O’Toole’s version of him in the eponymous film, but this soldier’s name was Armin Wegner and he came from Wuppertal in Westphalia. In the winter of 1914 he enlisted as a medic in the German Army, and by the time he came to Turkey the following year he had already been decorated with the Iron Cross for assisting the wounded under fire. Wegner was a keen photographer and brought his camera to the Ottoman Empire, along with a determination to disobey orders prohibiting him from photographing the death marches and torture of Turkey’s Armenians. Over the course of a year he took hundreds of photographs and smuggled the plates out of the country with soldiers returning to Germany or with diplomats travelling to mainland Europe. In December 1916 he was arrested and recalled to Germany.
What fascinated me about Wegner was not that he was witness to the attempted destruction of an entire race, or that he wanted to photograph such unspeakable horror, but that he had the bravery to do so. I wondered how many of us would have risked our lives to speak out as he had. Wegner continued to advocate for Armenians after the war, and at the Paris Peace Conference he lobbied Woodrow Wilson to create a sovereign Armenian state. The Independent Republic of Armenia was formed by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1918 but lasted only two years before being conquered by the Soviet Red Army. It would be another 71 years before it gained independence again. Wegner also testified at the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian accused of killing Talat Pasha, one of the instigators of the genocide. Partly due to Wegner’s evidence, Tehlirian was found not guilty on grounds of temporary insanity.
That day in Taney Church, what came as a surprise was the familiarity the non-Armenians had with the circumstances of the genocide. It is hardly surprising that the invited guests would have thoroughly researched the topic, but it was a new experience for me. Last year I published Anyush, a novel set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide, and of all the readers’ comments I received, by far the most common was: “I never knew about this”.
Most people of my generation will remember the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. More recently we’ve watched the Syrian tragedy unfold. Thanks to Armin Wegner, people of his generation knew about the Armenian Genocide. Because of his photographs and the accounts written by American ambassador Henry Morgenthau, news of the Medz Yeghern or Great Crime spread without the help of mobile phones, communication satellites or the internet. Donations flooded in to help Armenian refugees in the camps at Deir al Zor in the Syrian desert, but to little effect. Of the 45,000 Armenians who made it to Deir al Zor, only 40 remained alive at the end of the war.
Wegner never forgot the suffering of the Armenian people. Although it seems likely that he was a human rights activist by nature rather than by choice, the atrocities he witnessed during the Armenian Genocide became the catalyst for his subsequent humanitarian activities. In 1933 as the Nazis extended their grip across Germany, Wegner wrote an open letter to Hitler protesting the state-organised boycott of German Jews. He was arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned and tortured. For the duration of the war Wegner was incarcerated in various concentration camps before his eventual release and flight to Italy.
A poignant note in Wegner’s story is that he believed people had forgotten him by the end of his life. He never returned to Germany and lived the remainder of his days in Italy. His epitaph reads:
“I loved justice and hated iniquity
Therefore I die in exile.”
In the documentary, The Forgotten Genocide, Wegner looks directly into the camera, a white-haired, clear-eyed, 82-year-old man with a pronounced German accent. A citizen of Italy who speaks as if he left Prussia days before. The same man who once said: “Germany took everything from me. Even my wife.”
In 1968 Armin Wegner was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Veshem in Israel, and the Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator by the Catholicos of All Armenians. After his death in Rome at the age of 92, some of his ashes were taken to Yerevan where a posthumous state funeral took place near the perpetual flame of the Armenian Genocide monument.
Towards the end of the service at Taney Church, 100 candles were lit by two Armenian children. They were laid out in the shape of a cross and a single tall candle was placed in the middle. All electric lights were extinguished and the candles burned like a flaming crucifix in the darkness. As I watched, the words Hitler addressed to his troops in 1939 came back to me:
“Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The choir began to sing an Armenian lullaby and the congregation joined in. I didn’t understand the words but hummed along anyway. Everybody sang. Everyone lent their voices. Afterwards the Armenians in Taney Church bowed their heads in silence to honour their dead. When the lights came up and people began to leave, I stayed a moment to remember one of them. The man who bore witness. A German soldier by the name of Armin Wegner.