2011 Yerevan Conference Paper. Matthias Bjørnlund

The First World War and the Armenian Genocide

Af Matthias Bjørnlund  

I’ll get right to the point: When the First World War broke out in 1914, most Danish missionaries and relief workers stayed in Anatolia. Like the Danish diplomats in Constantinople, they were allowed to remain as citizens of a neutral country, and they worked under the protection of the larger, more influential German and American missions.


They were in ideal positions as witnesses. You’ve heard of Karen Jeppe, Danish relief worker in Urfa during the genocide – not a missionary. The perhaps best-known Scandinavian account of the events is the diaries of missionary nurse Maria Jacobsen - of KMA. Helle will speak about Jeppe and Jacobsen, I’ll only mention a couple of recent discoveries I’ve made in the archives. There are, for instance, lots of survivor testimonies in the archives of the Danish Friends of Armenians, Jeppe’s Danish organization. After WWI she worked as you know as a commissioner for the League of Nations like Nansen.


Regarding Maria Jacobsen I just discovered in the archives a couple of interesting letters in a rather obscure file. January 1918, when Jacobsen was pretty much running the American operation in Harput alone, protecting thousands – and I mean thousands – of Armenian survivors, she was submitted for a medal of bravery by a doctor in the Ottoman Second Army stationed there. The request that Jacobsen should be awarded a medal was sent via the Danish legation in Constantinople to the director of the Red Crescent who reacted positively. Here the paper trail ends. What we should note here is that Jacobsen was of course not to be awarded for risking her life saving Armenians. No, she was to be awarded for risking her life as a nurse saving soldiers in the Ottoman army – these soldiers were of course, from 1915 onward, by and large Muslims. Risking her life: for instance, she exposed herself to all kinds of often lethal diseases, like spotted typhus.


This is interesting information, not least when we consider how Western missionaries were and are looked upon in Turkey – as people who were treacherous and subversive then, before and during WWI, and still dangerous today. One might even say there’s an ongoing and widespread anti-missionary paranoia in Turkey – they have been used deliberately as scapegoats, and some have even been killed recently. The big irony here is of course that what Jacobsen and other missionaries did when working at Ottoman field hospitals, etc., was saving more Muslim than Christian lives during this period. She should actually be commemorated in Turkey, not only here in Armenia. I doubt that she will be any time soon.


Moving on. There were others from the same organization that Maria Jacobsen belonged to who witnessed the Armenian genocide. I’ll briefly mention those from Danish KMA:


Hansine Marcher worked directly for the German Deutsche Hülfsbund (DH) as leader of a girl school in Mezreh, and was used as a source for the Bryce-Toynbee report. She wrote a book in 1919 that includes, e.g., survivor testimonies and an account of the period from March 1916 when she left the Empire with German missionary Klara Pfeiffer via Diyarbekir, Urfa, Aleppo, and Constantinople. Marcher describes among other things how they passed through the area around the large massacre site Lake Göljuk, seeing countless skeletons, bones, skulls, and pieces of clothing from Armenian deportees.


A third Danish KMA missionary, Karen Marie Petersen, ran the orphanage Emaus in Mezreh. She collected survivor testimonies, and witnessed systematic, organized persecution, death marches and, like the other missionaries, an area littered with the remains of Armenians. In the KMA archives I’ve found a good handful of rather detailed survivor testimonies that Petersen wrote down by hand; I’ve started publishing them online with introductions and notes, etc. The fourth Danish KMA missionary, Jenny Jensen, was leader of Elim, a German orphanage in Mezreh, until she was forced out. She writes about, for instance, how the 200 children under her protection were ‘removed.’


Back home in Copenhagen, the Armenia Committee of the Danish KMA met during the war with Scandinavian, German, and US missionaries returning from the Ottoman Empire. The minutes from these meetings thus give some rather detailed information on the genocide. This was the case when Norwegian KMA missionary Thora von Wedel-Jarlsberg, 16 October 1915, described how Armenians from Erzinjan or further to the north were massacred in the nearby Euphrates Valley – they were shot or thrown from the mountains into the river. Six orphan boys that Wedel-Jarlsberg and her German colleague Eva Elvers tried to protect were taken by Turkish soldiers and shot. After the missionaries had been forced out of Erzinjan by the authorities and where on their way to Constantinople, they witnessed daily what Jarlsberg describes as ”new horrors” and ”one group after the other led from the villages to be killed.”


Similarly, 7 December 1915, Swedish KMA missionary Alma Johansson told the Committee about what she and Norwegian KMA colleague Bodil Biørn had experienced. Her story was published in a confidential 7-page booklet that was distributed among Danish KMA members in 1916. It is the story of mass killings of Armenians in Mush and the Harput where they stayed with the Danish missionaries after having been expelled from Mush. It was the ”complete extermination” of the Armenians. The fear of endangering missionaries, surviving Armenians, and what was envisioned as the continued work after the war was so great that even in a confidential booklet only the initials of the missionaries’ first names were used.


Overall: All Danish witnesses to the destruction of the Armenians agree that it was a deliberate, systematic project. The Armenian genocide was the Young Turk solution to the Armenian Question. But the Danish witnesses naturally had different perspectives depending on their geographical and occupational position.


In Constantinople the Danish envoy, Carl Ellis Wandel, began receiving detailed reports in the spring and summer of 1914 from his consul in Smyrna about a worrying development: the ethnic cleansing of Greeks in the region. These reports basically describe this as part of a process or project of increasing radicalization, xenophobia, and persecution by the CUP. Because what Wandel describes in his reports beginning in 1914 are phases of a Young Turk project aimed at homogenizing and Turkifying the population. This project – and it was a project, not a series of incidents or accidents – culminated in the Armenian genocide, what Wandel explicitly describes as the intentional extermination of the Armenian population. I’ve written about these reports, they provide good, solid documentation of a variety of aspects of the Armenian genocide and related subjects. You can find 80 of them online on in Danish, English, and now also German.

But the story of Danish documentation of the Armenian genocide doesn’t end here, in the archives (not that I’m finished there…). I keep finding new material elsewhere. Newspapers and books from the time period are good sources if you have the time and energy to look through thousands of them as I have. I could mention the Danish reporter who interviews Ömer Naci Bey in Constantinople in the spring of 1915, not on the Armenian Question, but there’s good, detailed information about how the Ottoman police state worked. We shouldn’t forget that it’s important to also research what kind of society that the Armenian genocide took place in, the context: it was a dictatorship, a police state. Naci was director of the intelligence section of the Teshkilat-I Mehsusa, the Special Organization that played such an important role in the execution of the Armenian genocide. In 1914, he was one of the prominent Young Turks who went to the Tashnak conference in Erzerum to present an offer the Armenians couldn’t refuse: join us, or else…


But one detailed example from the books will have to do: In 1916, a Danish politician was what can perhaps best be described as a fly on the wall when the Armenian genocide was discussed in the Reichstag, the German Parliament. The politician was H. P. Hanssen, elected representative of the Danish minority in Germany, some 200,000. At the outbreak of WWI he was arrested with other Danish public figures in Germany as a ‘safety measure’ – the most often irrational or exaggerated fear of a ‘fifth column’ was to various degrees and with highly varying consequences present in many countries during the war. He was relatively quickly released and spent the rest of the war lobbying for ethnic Danes in Germany who were often being discriminated against.


Hanssen also happened to be a member of the German Parliament’s Finance Committee throughout the war. It was at the meetings of the Committee that some of the most important and confidential aspects of German warfare, war economy, and foreign policy were discussed, and since there was no official protocol and only occasional notes were taken (none of which mention any discussion of the Ottoman Armenians), Hanssen’s detailed published notes are unique. According to the notes, at the 29 March 1916 meeting Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow stated the following:

“In Turkey there is much despondency. It cannot be denied. But we can absolutely trust the government. The successor to the throne [Prince Sehzade Yussuf Izzeddin Effendi] has, according to the available intelligence, been stabbed (erstocken)” – the Secretary of State [Statssekretæren] pauses rhetorically, a small nod and a very knowing smile are received with understanding nods from the Conservatives. “In the army,” he then continued, “regrettable episodes have taken place. We must, however, maintain that the Armenians have been agitating behind the frontline. But what has happened goes beyond self-defense.”


At a 29 September 1916 meeting Dr. Heckscher, MP and director of the Hamburg-Amerika-Linie, was clearly not satisfied with the information he received, complaining that,

We do not only want information about Russia, but to an equal degree about England, then about Turkey. The massacres [Myrderierne] in Armenia reached appalling proportions. They are used against us, especially in America. Could we not have stopped them?

What is Dr. Hekscher saying here? Genocide is bad press, bad for business – he was of course doing business with the Americans at this point, before they joined the war. To the outside world, genocide then and now is mainly politics and economy. It’s not about who did what to whom, facts and research don’t really matter. It’s more about, for instance, avoiding what is perceived as negative consequences. In Denmark, the government refuses to recognize the Armenian genocide – ‘leave history to the historians,’ they say with the Turkish government. But they claim that when Denmark recently joined the coalition fighting in Libya it was to prevent genocide. So: They will not recognize an actual, well-documented genocide, but they will claim that they can see into the future. The common denominator here is politics, not facts.

Similarly, according to Hanssen, German Undersecretary of State Arthur Zimmermann would not directly answer that question – ‘Could we not have stopped the Armenian massacres?,’ but instead tried to “erase the bad impressions of the Armenian horrors [Rædsler]” before turning to other matters.

We don’t have much time, so I’ll stop here. I’ve only given you a very brief, selective, and condensed version of my research; for instance, I’ve totally neglected the very important Danish relief efforts after the genocide. I’ve neglected a lot of the archival material, not least the hundreds of survivor testimonies and files on hundreds of Armenians expelled from Turkey during the early Kemalist era, and so on. But for those who are interested, I’ll be happy to share pdf’s of some of my papers and articles.