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Germany and the 1890s Armenian massacres: Questions of Morality in Foreign Policy

L’Allemagne face aux massacres des Arméniens dans les années 1890 : questions de morale et politique étrangère
Stefan Ihrig
p. 75-92


Les massacres perpétrés contre les Arméniens de l’Empire ottoman sous le règne du sultan Abdülhamid II, dans les années 1890, ont provoqué des réactions nombreuses à l’étranger. Dans certains pays particulièrement liés à l’Empire ottoman, comme l’Allemagne, les massacres ont engendré des débats relatifs à la morale et à la conduite de la politique étrangère, qui eurent des échos plusieurs années après, comme lors du voyage de l’empereur Guillaume II dans l’Empire ottoman, en 1898. Dans ces débats, le pasteur et penseur politique Friedrich Naumann a eu une place importante, que cet article examine. Il s’agit de montrer quel rôle les massacres des Arméniens jouèrent dans les débats politiques internes en Allemagne et comment l’indifférence prônée au nom de la défense des intérêts allemands créa alors un précédent.

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1Large-scale violence poses many problems, on many levels and also for the bystander. At the very least, it forces upon those who are not participating directly in the violence the need to understand and to react in some fashion. This remark could also lead us to interrogate the behavior of German politicians and intellectuals during the mass violence committed against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, namely the 1915 genocide and the 1890s massacres. Of course, the psychology of individuals is not the same as that of societies. Moreover, the experience of witnessing mass violence as an individual “bystander” is not the same as that of a country’s reading public learning about mass violence from afar and trying to understand and assimilate the news that is reaching them through newspapers and related sources. To be more precise, talking about Imperial Germany as a “bystander” here would need to be justified, since the concept has been largely overturned in Holocaust historiography and usually refers to individuals. Nevertheless, for heuristic purposes, Germany is being considered here as a bystander and not just any bystander, but one that had been forging especially close relations with Abdul Hamid II and the Ottoman Empire. It was even an “active” bystander, if such an oxymoron can be sustained, who blocked Great Power efforts for intervention for the Armenians.

  • 1 Saurma to Hohenlohe, 11 November 1895, in J. Lepsius et al., 1923, p. 102.

2The violence against the Armenians over a long period of time was something that not only German politics but also public discourse in Germany had to justify. Besides the violence itself, the second thing to defend publicly was the fact that Germany stood by the Ottomans throughout the period of massacres. Behind closed doors, however, things looked different. The Emperor Wilhelm II was outraged – as probably many German newspaper readers were – about the unspeakable atrocities. When his ambassador in Constantinople wrote to him about the possibility that there was a plan behind the massacres, going so far as to imply the intent to exterminate, Wilhelm scribbled in a note next to the report: “This means that all Christians are to be beaten to death!” He exclaimed, “Shame on all of us,” if the Christian powers were to stay silent or even help the Ottomans. And yet, this was exactly what the Emperor’s Germany did.1

  • 2 As cited in W. van Kampen, 1968, p. 121.

3In the public sphere, in any case, things played out differently. Germany firmly stood by the Ottoman government and its propaganda. News of the massacres produced an intricate dynamic of denial, information, and justification. But this process and this period was to be only the first act of this 1890s drama. Two years after the massacres had ended, Emperor Wilhelm II travelled to Constantinople, Damascus, and Jerusalem. The moral and political implications of the trip, and especially Wilhelm’s meeting with Abdul Hamid II created yet another crisis in public opinion. Even for the Germans accompanying Wilhelm for his meeting with the Sultan, it proved challenging. Ernst von Dryander, the court chaplain of the Emperor, found it hard to face and greet the Sultan, much less to pray for him as was requested. He found all that difficult “because still the whole city was smelling of the freshly spilled blood of the murdered Armenians.”2

  • 3 See S. Ihrig, 2016.

4We can understand these two events as a double trauma – first that of the bystander to violence, second that of the official condoner if not, at least on a moral level, enabler of violence. This double trauma needed some sort of a resolution. And it is this resolution to Germany’s first “Armenian trauma” that this article will examine – the second trauma was to be the Armenian Genocide during World War I and the debates in its aftermath in Germany. In the 1890s, the “resolution” of the first Armenian trauma came in the aftermath of the Emperor’s trip and significantly changed Germany’s self-perception as a major power in world politics. The Armenian massacres affected how Germany defined not only its relationship to the Ottoman Empire but also to the other Great Powers as well as its role in the world in general. I have already shown elsewhere the prominence of these debates in contemporary sources, especially the German press.3 In the frame of this short essay, therefore, I will limit myself to the existing scholarship and will pay specific attention to the writings of influential intellectuals of the time, most of all Friedrich Naumann.


  • 4 As quoted in N. Saupp, 1990, p. 32.
  • 5 Alfons Freiherr Mumm von Schwarzenstein, as quoted in H.-W. Schmuhl, 2002, p. 506.

5Germany had repeatedly rebuffed attempts to be pressured into intervening for the Armenians in the past. That was not to change under Wilhelm II, as the German ambassador Joseph Maria von Radowitz unequivocally expressed in his reassurance to the Sultan after Wilhelm’s ascension to the throne in 1888: “[W]ith us there is not the least interest in the Armenian circumstances [and] that we view this question as one concerning the domestic relationship between the Sultan and his subjects and do not share the urge to cause the Sultan any problems by emphasizing article 61 of the Berlin Treaty.”4 An official with the German Foreign Office commented in 1896 that it could not be “the purpose of German politics to look after the Christians of all the world and to organize a European Crusade against the Crescent.”5

  • 6 See S. Ihrig, 2016; also U. Feigel, 1989; A. Meissner, 2010.
  • 7 Colmar von der Goltz, “Die Ereignisse von Talory,” Kölnische Zeitung, 24 February 1895, as quoted i (...)

6And indeed, Germany would be far from rallying for a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. When the first news of the massacres reached Germany via Britain in 1894, initially not much space and attention was given to the Armenians in the German press. Things only started to heat up in the press in 1895, and a real debate only began in 1896. Beginning in 1895, a dynamic was set in motion that was to play out repeatedly in the future in Germany: First denial, then more dissemination of information, then justification of violence – mostly on racial grounds – and finally some sort of overarching conclusions. Without going into the details of the debates in Germany from 1894 to 1896, it must be noted that especially starting in 1895 the topic gained quite some prominence in the daily press coverage in Germany.6 Some papers printed accounts of German eyewitnesses, others discussed the rebuttal by Colmar von der Goltz, while yet others even printed spreadsheets detailing the timeline of the massacres.7 Yet, the overall tone was pro-Ottoman and anti-Armenian. Basically, it was often claimed that the Armenians had provoked retaliation and that it had been the fault of the Great Powers anyway who were stirring up trouble for the Ottomans. And, more generally, it was alleged time and again that reports of massacres were wildly exaggerated.

  • 8 W. van Kampen, 1968, p. 117.

7The only pro-Armenian paper of note was the Frankfurter Zeitung; eventually it was even banned in the Ottoman Empire because of its pro-Armenian reporting.8 But it was an exception to the harsh anti-Armenian rule of the overall German press discourse in these years.

8A new feature of the press discourse in this period was the reprinting of excessively graphic descriptions of the massacres and the violence. I have elsewhere termed this “atrocities pornography” simply for the fact that these accounts almost seemed to lose themselves at times in the horrific details of violence. In whatever fashion we may want to classify such accounts, they were new in this quality, they were difficult to stomach and, for many, also difficult to believe.

9In any case, at the point when such reports were being reprinted more often and seemed to paint a clear picture, a kind of backlash began, hardening and expanding the anti-Armenian discourse in the press. This was now mostly focused on the racial character of the Armenians. The alleged racial characteristics of the Armenians served at least two purposes. First, as it exactly mirrored contemporary German racialist anti-Semitic discourses, it connected the topic to what was “known” in Germany. Secondly, by insisting on race as the prime reason and cause for the massacres, it diverted attention away from the fact that the Armenians were Christians after all, deserving at least some sort of compassion from their German co-religionists. Following this tactic, Armenians were seen as a nation or race apart, not as fellow Christians. More often than not, they were perceived as “the Jews of the Orient.”

  • 9 A. Meissner, 2010, p. 62.
  • 10 On Lepsius, see R. Hosfeld, 2013.
  • 11 J. Lepsius, 1897.
  • 12 As quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 107.
  • 13 R. Hosfeld, 2005, p. 33.

10The power of denialism and the discourse of race as well as German official acquiescence galvanized pro-Armenian activists. Especially so a group of Protestant activists around the publication Christliche Welt whose editor was Martin Rade. This Protestant publication dedicated at least ten percent of its pages to the Armenian topic at that time and attacked the mainstream German press discourse relentlessly.9 But beyond this, one pro-Armenian activist in particular sprang into action: Johannes Lepsius. He would become the most prominent pro-Armenian activist of these decades, not only in Germany but worldwide.10 In April 1896, he embarked on a trip to the Ottoman Empire, a fact-finding mission. During this trip Lepsius was able to consult documents in the German and American embassies. Upon his return, he published his report on the Armenian massacres in book form with the title: Armenia and Europe: A Bill of Indictment.11 And, as a colleague of his related: “In autumn 1896 one could see the yellow Lepsius book with its flaming red title in all German bookstores on display.”12 It was quite successful, reaching the seventh edition the following year and selling about 13,000 copies in all. It was also translated into English and French as well as partially into Russian.13

  • 14 Quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 112.

11With his book, Lepsius seemed to turn the tide of German sentiment and discourse. But the next backlash was just around the corner. Upon its publication, Lepsius was met with instant hostility. A newspaper from Hamburg, for example, lashed out against those pastors supporting “Armenian terrorist murder gangs.”14

  • 15 Walter Siehe, “Aus dem Lande der armenischen Unruhen,” Die Post, part 1, 16 January 1897; part 2, 2 (...)

12A botanist, Walter Siehe, published a reply to Lepsius in a military paper, the Soldatenhort. He repeated all the then-current anti-Armenian arguments and blamed the Armenians for everything that had happened to them. Siehe underlined all this with what he thought was a trump claim to credibility: He, too – or so he asserted – had travelled the region and had seen only two dead Armenians, as he told his readers. He even argued that it had been the Armenians’ “moral unworthiness” that had made the Turks, otherwise such a tolerant people, resort to harsher measures. Siehe’s reply to Lepsius created its own debate, widely reprinted in national papers – a debate that proved to be ongoing. In 1897, Siehe authored a two-part article in Die Post in which he stressed that it had been the Armenians’ racial character, not their religion, which had pushed the Turks to massacre. And, as so often with such justificationalist discourses, it also included the catch-all denial that all the reports of the massacres were just fairy tales anyway. Then Siehe finished off his argument by arguing that they were just the same as the European Jews, using the typically racial anti-Semitic building blocks. Apparently, for Siehe, this alone sufficed to justify mass murder.15

Wilhelm’s trip

13Aside from the ongoing smaller debate between Lepsius and Siehe, things quieted down in the aftermath of the massacres, at least in the public discourse in Germany. Pro-Armenian activists continued to raise awareness and money for the Armenians, but the public had moved on. And then, in 1898, two years after the massacres had ended, and when survivors were still struggling as their livelihoods had been devastated, Emperor Wilhelm II set out on a trip to Constantinople. The timing was widely regarded as unfortunate. His trip also took him to Jerusalem and then to Damascus. But it was his meeting with Abdul Hamid II that caused a stir. It was a de facto rehabilitation of the “bloody Sultan.” In the eyes of international opinion, it was too soon. It appears also to have been too soon for German political opinion – otherwise, why the need to start a frank debate of the Armenian topic (again)?

14Today the Emperor’s trip is remembered especially for his famous sentence in a speech at a dinner in Damascus. There Wilhelm II had proclaimed himself and Germany protectors of all the Muslims in the world. At the time, however, it was mostly the Armenian topic that stirred sentiments at home and abroad. Even the Damascus speech was seen mostly in connection to the Armenian topic and as a blunt affirmation of Germany’s pro-Ottoman and pro-Hamidian stance.

Turk Defend Yourself

15The Emperor’s trip sparked a new debate on the Armenian topic. The obvious and immediate condemnation of Germany’s pro-Ottoman stance motivated staunch defences and justifications. One such piece of justificationalist literature was a book entitled Turk Defend Yourself by Hans Barth, a foreign correspondent for a major paper, the Berliner Tageblatt. Interestingly, he was stationed in Rome (and not in Constantinople).

16Barth was writing in defence of Germany’s stance and also especially against Lepsius and his “Lepsiad.” He called Lepsius’ report “part missionary tractate, part pulp fiction.” In the same manner as other such justificationalist texts, Barth’s text was mainly making a racial anti-Armenian argument, littered with anti-Semitic and racist, also anti-African, images and tropes. And similar to other texts published in this debate, he approvingly quoted racial stereotypes of the Armenians from earlier travel books. Barth fully identified with these ascriptions even if we may assume that he never met a real, breathing Armenian in his life.

  • 16 H. Barth, 1898; p. 67.

17Indeed in Barth’s book, one could read about how the Armenians were exploiting the “poor, honest, and diligent Turkish farmer.” They were as “parasites in the fur of the pashas.” And since they were all usurers and traders, they could never run or uphold a country. He went as far as to claim that an Armenian state was just as absurd as the idea of “Israel wanting to raise the walls of Zion again.”16 For Barth, what the Turks had done was nothing but healthy national self-defence.

Naumann defend yourself

18A much more important response to Wilhelm’s trip than Barth’s vulgar, populist, and racist pamphlet was that provided by Friedrich Naumann. In essence it was not much different from it, but for two reasons, it had much wider repercussions. First, because of its author’s standing and second, because of its far-reaching conclusions.

  • 17 For example, Gotz Aly, “Die Leiche im Keller der FDP,” Frankfurter Rundschau, 24 January 2011.

19Today, Friedrich Naumann is remembered as the father of German liberalism and a thinker of Central Europe (Mitteleuropa). The German Liberal Party (the FDP), honours him by still having their political foundation, the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, named after him. But Naumann has become a somewhat controversial figure. In 2011, for example, the historian Götz Aly attacked Naumann and the FDP in an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau. Aly sees Naumann as a thinker who paved the way for Hitler and the NSDAP, especially insofar as Hitler “copied large passages of his foreign policy program” from Naumann.17

  • 18 For example: W. Conze, 1950; P. Menke-Glückert, 1975; W.J. Mommsen, 1975.

20Aly did not mention the Armenian debate, but his criticism conforms with what the Armenian debate shows us. Naumann’s positions in the 1890s and 1910s on Armenians adds fodder to the controversy surrounding his positions. Yet, almost nobody discussing Naumann in Germany today is aware of his role in this context. Most texts on him either ignore his views on this subject or mention it only in passing.18 This despite the fact that in this context Naumann produced a bestselling book and despite the fact that it was in this context that Naumann developed much of the political philosophy that he was to elaborate in later books.

21Naumann had also travelled to the Ottoman Empire in 1898, specifically to Palestine in order to be in Jerusalem when the Emperor inaugurated the newly-built German Protestant church in the Old City, the Church of the Redeemer, for which the Emperor had supplied his own architectural designs. The opening of the German church in Jerusalem was a very German event, even if it was geographically far removed from Germany.

  • 19 “Auf der Reise nach Palästina,Kladderadatsch (October 1898), 1st supplement, p. 1.

22Naumann was part of a whole group of German pastors travelling there. The pastors’ trip was already controversial by itself. Another illustration of how attention to these topics was heightened in Germany is evident in a cartoon in the satirical magazine Kladderadatsch from the time of the trip. It shows a personified Kladderadatsch addressing the German pastors on the deck of the ship en route to Palestine.19 The Kladderadatsch points to Ottoman Crete, which they are just passing by, and where the revolt of the local Greek Christians was being brutally quelled by the Ottomans. One can see a cross floating up in the smoke over the battlefield. Implicit is, of course, the question of how the pastors, the Emperor, and Germany could continue to stand by their Ottoman friends while the murder of Christians continued.

  • 20 See Uwe Feigel’s discussion of this delegates’ congress. U. Feigel, 1989, p. 89.

23But it was not only the popular cartoon magazine Kladderadatsch that took issue with the trip. Before embarking on the trip, Naumann faced criticism from his own party, the National Social Party (not to be confused with the Nazi Party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party of Germany). At their third delegates’ meeting in Darmstadt in September 1898, he was told that it was in bad taste that Naumann’s weekly Die Hilfe called for participating in the trip.20 Here it was the publicist, Hellmuth von Gerlach, who defended the overall stance of Die Hilfe and Naumann. He defended German policies by pointing out the Armenians’ allegiance to England and by stressing that Germany had to help Germans first. Gerlach wanted to draw a distinction between “sentimental” and “practical” politics. He very much foreshadowed Naumann’s later talking points on the subject.

24After the trip, Naumann came back to the topic, or rather felt he was forced to do so. It began with his article series on the trip for his paper Die Hilfe. If this was an attempt to justify Ottoman violence against the Armenians, it partially backfired. What provoked outrage in Germany (and even to some extent abroad, for example in France) was the blatant attempt to justify killing the Armenians as some form of racial self-defence – not much different from what Barth had done. This was expressed by Naumann in what became the famous “potter’s quote.”

25Naumann, in one of his articles on the trip, related, or so he claimed to be doing, what a German potter working at the Sultan’s court in Constantinople had told him:

  • 21 F. Naumann, 1900, p. 31-32.

I am a Christian and hold “Love thy neighbor” as the first commandment, and I say that the Turks did the right thing when they beat the Armenians to death. There is no other way for the Turk to protect himself from the Armenian. […] The Armenian is the worst type in the world. He sells his wife, his still under-aged daughter, he steals from his brother. The whole of Constantinople is being morally poisoned by the Armenians. It is not the Turks who have attacked, but the Armenians. […] An orderly means of protecting oneself against the Armenians does not exist. The Turk is acting in self-defense.21

  • 22 Ibid., p. 135.

26This quote came to overshadow Naumann’s own position and his activities for some time. The potter, Naumann wrote, “perhaps does not even know how many newspapers dealt with him. Almost all of the German press printed his assessment of the Armenians, and many French papers took note of it.”22 In the aftermath of the publication of this quote, Naumann spent considerable energy defending his having used this quote. In the end, the potter’s quote controversy became a vehicle for Naumann to develop his views on what Germany’s role in the world ought to be.

27Naumann decided to address his critics in a travel book on the trip to the Holy Land titled Asia, referring to the ship they had travelled on. Naumann began his book with disparaging views of the Greeks and other “Orientals.” Naumann commented on them, their development, their history, and their racial character as he re-narrated his trip and worked his way towards the central topic: the Turks, their history and their racial character, as well as the imperial rulers. All but the Turks Naumann viewed in the most negative terms. While other German discourse dating from these years included more immediately positive views of the Turks than his, still Naumann’s were positive enough to identify the Turks with the German nation. And here, his vision of Turkish history was central. For Naumann, the Turks were in a situation and a point of history comparable to that of the Germans centuries earlier.

  • 23 Ibid., p. 137.

28His commentary on the potter’s quote shows that Naumann’s book is to some degree quite conflicted. He tries to diminish the role of the quote by saying that perhaps the potter was right about the Armenians of Constantinople, but what about the masses of Armenians in the provinces? How could they be of such quality when such honourable people like Lepsius were speaking for them? Then Naumann jumped to Lepsius’ report: “What Lepsius has gathered together regarding martyrdom goes beyond anything we otherwise know.” Naumann continued, “What hinders us then to stop the Turk and to say, ‘Down, you scoundrel’? We are hindered by the Turk answering, ‘Me, too, I am fighting for my life!’ – and by the fact that we believe him.”23

  • 24 Ibid., p. 123.

29While for Naumann, or so he stressed, what had happened was deplorable, it was also understandable and even somewhat necessary. One needed to adopt a historical prism to understand these events, he argued. It was not so much an episode that was foreign and “Asian,” but rather seemingly historically removed. “Most of what we see today in Turkey, we had a long time ago as well.” He continued, “Is not our soil soaked with the blood of the religious wars? Was not our Roman Empire of the German nation not a bit more similar as over there the Roman Empire of Ottoman rule? We were in the provinces of the Slavs a master race [Herrenvolk] as the Turks in the provinces of the conquered peoples […]” He further claimed that one could still see the results of similar processes in various parts of Germany, also and especially in the nationality problems of Austria-Hungary. “Our Polish Question still today has kinship with the turmoil in Turkey.” He went as far as to remind his readers that “Eastern Prussia was not made German according to a system much different to how Syria became Muslim.”24

  • 25 Ibid., p. 139.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 123.

30Naumann stresses that what happened was not the persecution of Christians, but the attempt to stop Armenian separatism: “There was the danger that Turkey would perish over the Armenian question.” What happened, then, Naumann calls a “piece of political history in the Asian fashion,” “a horrible deed, a deed of political desperation.” Turkey “decimated the Armenians to such an extent that they could not act politically in the coming times.”25 In Naumann’s mind, the Turkish present and the German past were very much the same. “Now, that we have forgotten our past it is easy to be indignant about the Turks […]”26

31But, according to Naumann, Germany’s indignation over the Armenian massacres was misplaced for another reason, and an even more important one: support for the Armenians meant supporting England. In the end, all of Naumann’s argument comes down to his view of England and the essential conflict with England that Germany was and would be engaged in. In Naumann’s view, Britain was the great threat to Germany. This threat left Germany no choice but to find its way to a more self-aware form of national policy: “No fraternization with England! National politics!” He continued,

  • 27 Ibid., p. 145.

From this our position in the Oriental Question is determined. Here lies the moral reason why we have to be indifferent to the suffering of the Christian peoples in the Turkish Empire, however difficult this might be for our conscience. England knows that it will win under any condition in the break-up of Turkey.27

  • 28 Ibid., p. 149.

32Following Naumann’s logic, Germany had nothing to gain from a break-up of the Ottoman Empire at that point in time. It had to wait. And until then it had to stand against England. Thus, to be with or against the Ottomans over the Armenians was for Naumann a moral choice too, a national-moral one, that carried implications for Germany’s future: “Wilhelm II has made his choice. He is the friend of the Padishah [i.e. the Sultan], because he believes in an independent greater Germany.”28

  • 29 Ibid., p. 147.

33In his book, Naumann tried to build a truly holistic justification and so he also addressed other aspects of the topic. One was the question as to why some of the political imperatives of his that he wished to see applied to Germany, could not possibly be applied to the Ottoman Empire – liberalism, for example, he argued, would, if applied to the Ottoman Empire, destroy the little social cohesion that was left there.29

  • 30 Ibid., p. 139-140.

34Remarkably, Naumann put the blame for the death of the Armenians not only on the shoulders of the Armenians themselves as well as on the Great Powers, especially Russia and Britain, but he also claimed that it had been the “expressions of sympathy for the Armenians,” especially in Germany, which had been the “direct cause of death.”30

A Dangerous Political Precedent?

  • 31 A. Meissner, 2010, p. 143.

35Understanding the evolution of German politicians and intellectuals’ attitudes towards mass crimes committed abroad, and of German foreign policy at the time of the 1894-1897 Armenian massacres, could hardly be made only through an analysis of Friedrich Naumann’s thought. We remain, in this essay, at the stage of hypothesis. However, as Naumann’s example suggests, the solution of Germany’s double trauma as a “bystander” and an enabler/condoner of large-scale violence might have been a turning point in German-Ottoman relations as well as for German political thought. But this was not an easy, linear development; it was conflicted. In its official stance, Germany used the chance to ingratiate itself with the Ottomans and thus defended the Ottoman position in its papers and public discourse. And yet, behind closed doors, as mentioned, the Emperor had been outraged over the massacres. His wife, Empress Auguste Viktoria visited a German-run orphanage in Bethlehem for Armenian orphans. Apparently, she was very warm and attentive towards the orphans and listened to their stories; they were orphans of the massacres of the previous years. The Emperor had been supposed to visit too, but the group had taken a wrong turn; the Empress turned her carriage around and went back to Bethlehem expressly to see the Armenian orphans.31

  • 32 Ibid., p. 149.

36After the Emperor’s trip, German pilgrimage travel to the Holy Land increased many times over. Naumann’s book was important to pilgrims, too.32 In this context as well, then, the Armenian topic became very important. But what is more, German officials and intellectuals used the Armenian massacres to solidify their country’s position with the Ottoman Empire both abstractly, politically, and concretely, with commercial concessions for the Bagdad Railway, for example. This debate was also used in Germany to put cynical moral foundations under its drive for a space in the sun.

  • 33 H.-W. Schmuhl, 2002, p. 509.

37Among all the reactions to the violence and Germany’s role, it was probably Naumann’s texts and activities that stood out the most and had effects that went beyond German-Ottoman relations. Hans-Walter Schmuhl argues that until his Orient trip, Naumann had wanted to find biblical norms for political action in his times. But the trip had changed Naumann. Schmuhl ascribes Naumann’s transformation to his having been in the localities of the Bible, although it might have been meeting the peoples that had been the subject of much Christian compassion (Greeks and Armenians) as well as a deeper engagement with their political troubles.33

  • 34 Ibid., p. 509.
  • 35 Uwe Feigel, 1989, p. 90.
  • 36 M. Aschke, 2010.
  • 37 H.-W. Schmuhl, 2002, p. 509.

38As Schmuhl also notes, however, already in 1899, Naumann had spoken at the meeting of the National Social organisation and had made similar points. He had tried to bridge the apparent opposition between morality and power politics regarding the recent Armenian massacres. In Naumann’s view, Germany was the most important carrier of occidental-Christian culture, ergo German foreign politics followed a higher kind of morality (per se).34 In the meantime, once more Naumann stressed that an Armenian-friendly position was support of England, thus should be avoided by Germany.35 The next year, in June 1900, Naumann was again confronted with the topic, now at the 11th Protestant Social Congress in Karlsruhe. Here a debate ensued between him and Lepsius about the role of religion and morality in foreign politics.36 At the 11th yearly meeting of the Protestant Social Congress Naumann’s transformation from “theologian to pure politician of might” was complete and apparent for everybody to see. Especially so in his discussion with Johannes Lepsius.37 But, in fact, it was all there already in Naumann’s Asia, two years earlier. Lepsius was speaking at the congress and took as his theme “German world politics,” about the necessity of a Christian foundation for German world politics. This in itself has to be seen as a reply to Naumann’s Asia.

  • 38 Ibid., p. 506.

39Schmuhl argued that Naumann had exactly followed the German government’s line on the Armenian Question. In such a manner then, Naumann had shown his colours as a “liberal imperialist,” following the example of Max Weber.38 However, Schmuhl’s analysis perhaps does not go far enough. After all, Naumann had a clear theological, religious, and moral standing that the government did not have, and arguably, Max Weber also did not have. Furthermore, Naumann came from the exact same circles as German pro-Armenian activists, such as his brother-in-law, Martin Rade.

  • 39 A. Kedar, 2013.

40By putting Germany’s goals and empowerment on the world stage above and beyond immediate moral concerns, Naumann established a dangerous political precedent. It probably goes too far to see Naumann and his National Socialism as the direct precursor of Nazi thought and doctrine, as, for example, Asaf Kedar does.39 But by replacing traditional morality and ethics with a form of national morality, selfish and devoid of sentiment for the losers of international politics, dangerous precedents were set.

  • 40 Hans Delbrück, “Politische Korrespondenz,” Preussische Jahrbücher 86 (1896): 
211-223, as cited in (...)

41The effects of Germany’s role and the debates in Germany, especially the justificationalist discourse, all the way to Naumann, were clear for contemporaries. The influential historian Hans Delbrück felt compelled to write about the Armenians and to comment on the debates in Germany. In the Preussische Jahrbücher, he wrote in 1896 that “the whole of Armenia was for Germany not worth the bones of one Pomeranian musketeer.” Germany had sold itself out, he worried. “The worship of Mammon” had triumphed over morality.40

  • 41 As quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 80.

42Lepsius’ collaborator and Naumann’s brother-in-law, Martin Rade commented on the 1890s debates: “It is impossible to appreciate what kind of impression the fashion in which society and the press are discussing the Armenian Horrors will make on the generation of men growing up [today]. They are learning to worship an idol of opportunism and realpolitik which, if it becomes dominant, will cleanse away all noble dispositions.”41

43In the interwar period, after Germany had been exposed to a second debate about mass violence against Armenians, people again came back to the by-then deceased Naumann. This debate in the early 1920s that lasted for almost four years, was about the events that would later come to be known as the Armenian Genocide. German pacifist Heinrich Vierbücher, who had served in the Ottoman Empire during World War I and who had been a witness to genocide himself, also held Naumann and his reactions in the 1890s responsible for the subsequent genocide. People knew that Naumann had travelled to Constantinople again, during the World War and the Armenian Genocide, to give a speech praising the Young Turks. In his pamphlet published in 1930 Vierbücher wrote on the Armenian Genocide and Germany’s role in it:

To fulfil the will of God, that means according to this man of God [Naumann] to think as follows: Hundreds of thousands are being slaughtered – about this you have to be dutifully outraged […] after all, one is also an upright Christian – but it is according to the special wish of God that the Deutsche Bank finances the Bagdad Railway […]. The only conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that Turkey cannot be allowed to break apart today, but has to fall to the Germans tomorrow. And if until then a few hundred thousand humans [more] will be murdered, what a shame, but after all it must be God’s will.

  • 42 H. Vierbücher, 2004 [1930], p. 36.

44Vierbücher concluded: “Metaphysics, you have become the whore of violence.”42


45It does not matter how we view and classify the 1890s massacres, but the justifications advanced in these debates and texts were about potentially genocidal violence. Barth and Naumann had justified the racially motivated blanket killing of Armenians, not just of some “guilty” Armenians, but the killing of a potentially huge number of that group. At the very least, the killing was enough to have rendered Armenians politically “harmless” for the foreseeable future. This was to become the blunt justification of genocide as we understand the term today. This was the dangerous legacy of these debates.

46The effects of violence committed far away on a society with political and economic interests in the region in question seem to be larger and more immediate as is often thought. Already in the 1890s violence in Anatolia had its impact on the debates about German foreign policy. We can only speculate about the full extent of such effects, but from the prominence of these debates, their lead actors, and the sales figures of relevant books it becomes clear that these effects were significant.

47This essay is a plea to re-examine Friedrich Naumann’s early political evolution and thought and thus to further follow the groundwork laid by researchers such as Schmuhl and Aly. It is also a plea to re-examine the effects of the 1890s massacres on European and global political thought. Large-scale violence in the modern age is always and always has been a problem for mass-media societies whose political, economic, and social spheres are entangled with many states, societies, and regions around the world. How seemingly distant societies have grappled with large-scale violence reveals much about political and moral developments in such societies at a given time. Our research should take the opportunity these distant but entangled instances of large-scale violence afford the historian to paint a fuller picture of violence in the modern world.

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Aschke Manfred, “Das christliche Deutschland und die Weltmachtpolitik – Zur Kontroverse zwischen Johannes Lepsius und Friedrich Naumann,” Lecture held at the Lepsius House, 26/27 November 2010,

Barth Hans, Türke, wehre Dich!, Leipzig: Rengersche Buchhandlung, 1898, 2nd ed.

Conze Werner, “Friedrich Naumann – Grundlagen und Ansatz seiner Politik in der nationalsozialen Zeit (1895-1903),” in Walther Hubatsch (ed.), Schicksalswege deutscher Vergangenheit – Beiträge zur geschichtlichen Deutung der letzten hundertfünfzig Jahre, Düsseldorf: Droste, 1950, p. 355-386.

Feigel Uwe, Das evangelische Deutschland und Armenien: Die Armenierhilfe deutscher evangelischer Christen seit dem Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts im Kontext der deutsch-türkischen Beziehungen, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1989.

Hosfeld Rolf (ed.), Johannes Lepsius: Eine deutsche Ausnahme, Göttingen, Wallstein, 2013.

Hosfeld Rolf, Operation Nemesis: Die Türkei, Deutschland und der Völkermord an den Armeniern, Cologne: Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 2005.

Ihrig Stefan, Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Kampen Wilhelm van, Studien zur deutschen Türkeipolitik in der Zeit Wilhelms II, PhD dissertation, University of Kiel, 1968.

Kedar Asaf, “National Socialism before Nazism – From Friedrich Naumann to the ‘ideas of 1914,’” History of Political Thought, vol. 2, 2013, p. 324-349.

Lepsius Johannes et al. (eds.), Die große Politik der Europäischen Kabinette, 1871-1914, vol. 10, Das türkische Problem, 1895, Berlin: Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte, 1923.

Lepsius Johannes, Armenien und Europa: Eine Anklageschrift, Berlin: Faber & Co., 1897.

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Menke-Glückert Peter, “Wilhelminischer Liberalismus aus aktueller Sicht,” in Karl Holl and Günther List (eds.), Liberalismus und imperialistischer Staat Der Imperialismus als Problem liberaler Parteien in Deutschland 1890-1914, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975, p. 35-39.

Mommsen Wolfgang J., “Wandlungen der liberalen Idee im Zeitalter des Imperialismus,” in Karl Holl and Günther List (eds.), Liberalismus und imperialistischer Staat Der Imperialismus als Problem liberaler Parteien in Deutschland 1890-1914, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975, p. 109-147.

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1 Saurma to Hohenlohe, 11 November 1895, in J. Lepsius et al., 1923, p. 102.

2 As cited in W. van Kampen, 1968, p. 121.

3 See S. Ihrig, 2016.

4 As quoted in N. Saupp, 1990, p. 32.

5 Alfons Freiherr Mumm von Schwarzenstein, as quoted in H.-W. Schmuhl, 2002, p. 506.

6 See S. Ihrig, 2016; also U. Feigel, 1989; A. Meissner, 2010.

7 Colmar von der Goltz, “Die Ereignisse von Talory,” Kölnische Zeitung, 24 February 1895, as quoted in N. Saupp, 1990, p. 51; “Das Gemetzel von Trapezunt,” Kölnische Zeitung, 26 October 1895, as quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 43.

8 W. van Kampen, 1968, p. 117.

9 A. Meissner, 2010, p. 62.

10 On Lepsius, see R. Hosfeld, 2013.

11 J. Lepsius, 1897.

12 As quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 107.

13 R. Hosfeld, 2005, p. 33.

14 Quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 112.

15 Walter Siehe, “Aus dem Lande der armenischen Unruhen,” Die Post, part 1, 16 January 1897; part 2, 20 January 1897; as quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 116.

16 H. Barth, 1898; p. 67.

17 For example, Gotz Aly, “Die Leiche im Keller der FDP,” Frankfurter Rundschau, 24 January 2011.

18 For example: W. Conze, 1950; P. Menke-Glückert, 1975; W.J. Mommsen, 1975.

19 “Auf der Reise nach Palästina,Kladderadatsch (October 1898), 1st supplement, p. 1.

20 See Uwe Feigel’s discussion of this delegates’ congress. U. Feigel, 1989, p. 89.

21 F. Naumann, 1900, p. 31-32.

22 Ibid., p. 135.

23 Ibid., p. 137.

24 Ibid., p. 123.

25 Ibid., p. 139.

26 Ibid., p. 123.

27 Ibid., p. 145.

28 Ibid., p. 149.

29 Ibid., p. 147.

30 Ibid., p. 139-140.

31 A. Meissner, 2010, p. 143.

32 Ibid., p. 149.

33 H.-W. Schmuhl, 2002, p. 509.

34 Ibid., p. 509.

35 Uwe Feigel, 1989, p. 90.

36 M. Aschke, 2010.

37 H.-W. Schmuhl, 2002, p. 509.

38 Ibid., p. 506.

39 A. Kedar, 2013.

40 Hans Delbrück, “Politische Korrespondenz,” Preussische Jahrbücher 86 (1896): 
211-223, as cited in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 99, also in W. van Kampen, 1968, p. 118-119. 

41 As quoted in A. Meissner, 2010, p. 80.

42 H. Vierbücher, 2004 [1930], p. 36.

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Stefan Ihrig, « Germany and the 1890s Armenian massacres: Questions of Morality in Foreign Policy », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 11 | 2018, 75-92.

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Stefan Ihrig, « Germany and the 1890s Armenian massacres: Questions of Morality in Foreign Policy », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 11 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2018, consulté le 10 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Stefan Ihrig

University of Haifa

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