The following article is published in:
The Quest for a Culture of Remembrance
Armenians in Germany Commemorate Armenian GenocideBy Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BERLIN — Among the many nations where people gather on April 24th every year to commemorate the victims of the 1915 genocide, Germany holds a special place for three reasons: first, because it was here that the Holocaust occurred, a case of mass murder that was modeled on the Armenian genocide; secondly, because the post-war German political world faced up to what the Nazis had perpetrated. It was not only the fact that many of the criminals were brought to justice at the Nuremburg trials, and that Germany acknowledged it as genocide, but also that in the years and decades that followed, the reality of what had been committed was subjected to historical scrutiny, so that broader layers of the population and members of the successor generations became aware of this past. Germans refer to this process and what it has produced in civil society as “a culture of remembrance” (Erinnerungskultur). The third reason is that Germany’s Turkish population is the largest outside of Turkey, a fact which has a political, social and cultural impact in both countries.
This year memorials took place in several locations, at the historic Paulskirche in Frankfurt as well as in Berlin, and a number of smaller cities. In both Berlin and Frankfurt, the role of Germany then and now was a central theme. At St. Marienkirche in the capital, Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian celebrated the requiem mass and representatives of the German Catholic and Evangelical churches spoke. Musical offerings included liturgical church music from the Middle Ages and pieces by Komitas, played on saxophone, the duduk, counter bass clarinet. Vocal pieces were performed by Artak Kirakosyan, soloist from the Alexander Spendiaryan Opera and Ballet in Yerevan.
In his greeting, Armenian Ambassador Armen Martirosyan addressed issues of a fundamental character. Every year when commemorating the genocide, he said, we ask “Why”: “Why did it happen? Why did the world keep silent…? Why did the great powers close their eyes …to ethnic cleansing? Why did they not bring the criminals to justice? Have we Armenians drawn the lessons from this tragedy?” He went on to note the lamentable fact that “Ethnic cleansing was to become part of political culture, an acceptable way to solve interethnic problems…” in reference to the Holocaust, and the more recent mass murders in Rwanda, Cambodia and the Balkans. “The international community has drawn no lessons from the genocide against the Armenians,” he stated: “immunity from criminal prosecution, indifference and inactivity opened the way for the repetition of such horrible crimes against humanity.”
For those nations which have recognized the genocide, Ambassador Martirosyan expressed the gratitude of the Armenian people, and at the same time denounced others which, though campaigning for democracy and human rights worldwide, have sacrificed universal human values in pursuit of their own geopolitical interests.
Referencing the cultural heritage of Armenians going back thousands of years, he celebrated the rebirth of the nation, and said that its two pillars, the Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora, must both be equally strong. “Our unity is the course of our strength and our diversity is the source of our resilience.”
Sibylle Thelen, from the Baden-Württemberg Regional Center for Political Education, held the keynote on “The Power of the Many Voices: No Pluralism without the Freedom of Remembrance.” She characterized the 24th of April not only as a “day of mourning and remembrance,” but also “a day of clarification and belated reappraisal.” Thelen, who is the author of a book on “The Armenian Question in Turkey,” has documented the process through which citizens have gradually come to learn about, understand and face the historical facts of the genocide. “With every passing year,” she said, “the memory of 1915 comes closer and closer — also in Germany. And a bit also in Turkey.” In her speech she touched on these developments in civil society, among the Turkish immigrants in Germany and in Europe.
In Turkey, this process unfolds in various forms: there are citizens who research and relate their family histories, discovering and remembering their Turkified Armenian grandmothers; researchers link up with colleagues abroad and import new approaches and questions; artists explore the dark past, like Orhan Pamuk in his bestseller, Snow, and Elif Shafak in The Bastard from Istanbul. Thelen cited a new book, Serenade for Nadja by Zülfü Livaneli, which has continued this literary experience. The protagonist of the book, a 38-year-old Turkish woman working in a university, learns from a visiting American professor the tragic story of 700 Jewish passengers on a ship named Struma, who drowned in the Black Sea in 1941-1942 because no one in the international community offered them help in their attempt to escape persecution. Shocked by this story, she begins to research her own family history and discovers one grandmother was a Crimean Tatar, the other, an Armenian survivor who was forced to convert to Islam. Facing this past, the protagonist goes through a self-reflexive crisis which is painful, but liberating, as she gains inner freedom and self-conscious independence. The fact that this book has sold 250,000 copies speaks volumes. For Thelen, the heroine “symbolizes Turkish civil society” which, though small, has realized that taboos about history are inhibiting and enslaving. “It prevents the unfolding of Turkish democracy,” whereas “a Turkey that critically reappraises its past makes its own way to a free, pluralistic Europe.”
As for Germany, she recalled a resolution on the Armenian question which the Bundestag (Parliament) passed in 2005, on the 90th anniversary. Although the text avoided use of the term “genocide” it was an attempt, in the words of one of its sponsors, to bring the successor nation to the Ottoman Empire into the “European culture of remembrance” — the capacity Europeans have developed to face the tragedies of the 20th century, recognize responsibilities and open the way to reconciliation. The second part of the resolution explicitly identified it as a duty for Germany to provide Armenians and Turks support to work through the past to overcome it, for example, by encouraging classroom education in teaching youth about the genocide. Although Thelen could not announce great strides made in this direction, she could point to some progress in introducing the theme in history lessons.
In this context, she noted that with such a large immigrant population, Germany faces the challenge of exploring new ways to present its own history, including the history of immigration and the reasons behind it. Means must be devised to allow newcomers to participate in the collective memory of Germany, and to learn even from its negative aspects. The speaker called for “historical work which is intercultural” and which provides “a multiplicity of perspectives to approach the past and present.” As an example, she cited a project built around a concentration camp memorial in the city of Ulm. Eighty per cent of the students came from immigrant families, and the question posed in the project was: what does your history have to do with me? The students investigated their own family backgrounds, compared them, discussed them and sought to locate them in a historical perspective. “It is a matter of sharing memory,” Thelen said.
Looking to the immediate future, she noted that next year 2014 we will be commemorating the beginning of World War I, a watershed which has also undergone a shift in focus of research: from political-military accounts of the big battles, attention has moved to the cultural and social background, and the war has been recognized as the first great catastrophe of the century. The year thereafter 2015 marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide and with it the memory will inevitably prevail. “In the confrontation with history, suffering, guilt and responsibility find their place in collective memory,” she concluded. “And that is how it should be.”
The second guest speaker was Cem Oezdemir, the national chairman of the Green Party and member of the Bundestag. His speech was entitled, “In Memory of the Victims of the Genocide against the Armenians 1915.” Echoing Martirosyan’s sentiments, Oezdemir stressed how difficult it is to grasp the “why” behind the events: why the Young Turk leaders destroyed the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Ottoman state with their nationalist, racist ideology, and why the Armenians, known as the loyal people, were victimized. To put the apparently inconceivable crime in perspective, he reviewed the indispensable place Armenians had occupied in Ottoman society as professionals, manufacturers, intellectuals, artists. In Istanbul, for example, where they represented a tenth of the population, there were nearly as many newspapers in Armenian as in Turkish.
In his narration of the nationalist upheavals in the late 19th century which led to territorial losses in the Balkans and the expulsion also of Muslims, Oezdemir drew on examples from his own family history: uprooted Cherkessian ancestors on his father’s side who came under Russian occupation in the Caucasus and a maternal Greek grandmother who had to change her name and religion. It was in their desperate attempt to hold the crumbling empire together that the Young Turks propagated the creed of Turkish-Muslim superiority, and minorities were doomed.
Oezdemir delivered sharp criticism of the attempt to rationalize the systematic deportations and massacres of the Armenians as somehow undesired by-products of the war, and argued strongly in favor of an honest overhaul of history from the Turkish side. He said that formal measures, for example, legal codes and bans, may serve the purpose of denying the past, but they cannot heal the wounds of the past. Quoting Hrant Dink on the need for the two peoples to help the healing process, he called for a normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey, the opening of the border and accession of Turkey into the European Union – a move that he believes, as does Sibylle Thelen, would encourage the democratization process, thus contributing to restoring truth in official historiography.
Like Thelen, Oezdemir also struck a note of optimism at this prospect, pointing to current developments in Turkey as evidence; for one, he cited progress (albeit limited) in allowing some Christian schools and churches to restore their activities, and considered the recent Turkish government talks with PKK representatives as signs of a possible democratic solution to the Kurdish problem. In the context of a new democratic constitutional order, essentially all minorities could aspire to equal rights. Oezdemir implicitly challenged the authorities to take further steps in this direction, by asking rhetorically why those who dare deal with the Kurds or who have acknowledged the repression of Dersim in 1937/38 cannot take a similar approach to the Armenians – in time for 2015.
In the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, where the first freely elected parliament convened in 1848, the historical events took center stage. Prof. Dr. M.A. Niggli, Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Philosophy (Philosophy of Law?) at Freiburg University addressed the oft-raised question of whether or not the concept of genocide in reference to 1915 requires clarification, and answered with a resounding “No.” It was the jurist Raphael Lemkin, he recalled, who established the scientific conditions for a legal definition of genocide precisely on the basis of his study of the events in Turkey between 1915 and 1918. And it was this concept which prevailed at the enactment of the Genocide Convention at the United Nations. He also dealt with related questions as to the numbers of Armenians who perished, the way many survived, and the legitimacy of using the term genocide for events prior to its coinage.
Michael Hesemann, who is an author, documentary filmmaker and specialized journalist, has been working in Rome since 2008 researching documents in the secret archives of the Vatican for a book on the Armenian genocide and the Vatican, to appear in 2015. In his speech he reported on various interventions by Felix Cardinal von Hartmann and Pope Benedict XV in defense of the Armenian cause, which they launched immediately after April 24, 1915. Hesemann quoted from two letters, one by Cardinal von Hartmann (and the other by the Pope from March 12, 1918. Also participating in their efforts was the Catholic Nuntius in Munich Pacelli, Secretary of State Cardinal Gaspari and the Cardinal’s sister who had worked as a nun and witnessed the genocide. They addressed their efforts to the German government in Berlin directly, especially to Imperial Chancellor Count von Hertling who was a Catholic himself. Hesemann quoted from the answers of the Chancellor, who rejected the pleas for intervention in an utterly irresponsible, cynical fashion. He also mentioned the work of Johannes Lepsius, which was taken very seriously by Catholic leaders, as well as his contact to Mathias Erzberger, a leading (CUT: politician and) member of the Catholic Center Party in the Imperial Diet. Hesemann’s speech culminated in his statement that although Germany was not an accomplice it was in the know and therefore bears a special responsibility to ensure that the truth wins out. Concluding his remarks, he cited passages from the prayer which Pope John Paul II offered during his 2001 visit to Tsitsernakaberd.
Although differing in form and approach, the leading speakers at Germnay’s commemorative ceremonies shared the concept and the commitment, that Germany can and should engage in efforts to make 2015 the year of recognition, reappraisal and the triumph of truth.
The following article is published in:
Rediscovering Franz Werfel:By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Potsdam Conference Analyzes Life of Brave Humanitarian
POTSDAM, Germany — Among the required reading for most Armenians is the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, and the author is thus known among Armenians mainly — if not exclusively — for this monumental work. But, as a conference held on March 10-12 in Potsdam, Germany documented, Werfel’s literary accomplishments include a large number of other significant works which deal with a vast array of issues. The title of the three-day conference cosponsored by the Lepsius House and the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam already gives a sense of the scope of his activity which has been the subject of extensive research: “Genocide and Literature: Franz Werfel in an Armenian-Jewish-Turkish-German Perspective. In the course of the speeches and concluding round table discussion, speakers from Germany, France, Austria and the United States shed new light on the many facets of this extraordinarily complex figure.
Peter Stephan Jungk, who has written a Werfel biography, introduced the author with an overview of his life and works, and remarked that doing research for the book took him on a journey through the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Werfel had experienced World War I first-hand and suffered persecution under the Nazi regime prior to World War II. Although he was born in 1890 in Prague to Jewish parents, as a youth Franz did not receive formal religious instruction and became in fact enamored of Christian culture. This was due to a close relationship he had with governess Barbara Simunkova, a Catholic who took him to mass and taught him prayers. His early exposure to both religious cultures was the source of a theme that was to become a leitmotif in his thoughts and works. At 12, a passionate opera goer and Verdi fan (he wrote Verdi. Novel of the Opera, 1924), Franz started composing poetry at 16 and his first volume of verse published in 1911, Der Weltfreund (Friend of the World), was a bestseller. Other works in drama and fiction followed, many crowned with success. Musa Dagh, which appeared in 1933, was acclaimed and rightly seen as a foreboding to Jews in Germany. When, in May 1933, his book was publicly burned along with others by the Nazis, Werfel’s persecution began. He had to flee Vienna after the 1938 Nazi invasion, and, after the Nazis entered Paris, he fled Zurich via France for the US, where he settled in California.
Who was Franz Werfel really? As Prof. Hans Dieter Zimmermann of Berlin put it, there were three souls in the author — a German, a Czech and a Jewish soul. A member of the celebrated Prague circle along with Max Brod, Franz Kafka and others, Werfel was a German-speaking Jew like the majority of his intellectual companions, but they were a tiny minority in Czechoslovakia. Politically they stood apart from the other German-speakers, the Sudetendland Germans in Bohemia, who were pro-Nazis. Forced by political developments to move from place to place, Werfel often asked himself where his “homeland” really was.
Werfel also had a Christian soul, to be precise, as Viennese scholar Dr. Olga Koller put it, a Catholic soul. In his works, he “lived between two religions” and “felt at home in both.” Thus, Paul Among the Jews: A Tragedy (1926) and his novel, Jeremiah: Listen to the Voice (1937), which dealt with Jewish figures, came from the same pen that wrote Barbara oder die Frommigkeit (Barbara, or Piety, 1929), Der veruntreute Himmel (Embezzled Heaven, 1939) which relates the tale of a woman seeking assurances of entering heaven, as well as The Song of Bernadette (1941), featuring the young girl and her vision at Lourdes. If Martin Buber reacted to his Christian writings with accusations of “betrayal,” his wife, Alma Mahler, pressured him to renounce Judaism.
His commitment to the Armenian cause was unequivocal. It was during his second trip through the Middle East in 1930, which took him and his wife through Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, that he came face to face with the issue. In Damascus he saw groups of abandoned, dirty, hungry children, whose huge dark eyes haunted him. When he asked who they were, he learned that they were the survivors of the Armenians massacred by the Turks, and that no one was caring for them. As Prof. Andreas Meier from Wuppertal recalled, Werfel could not get their images out of his mind and the idea for the book “became virulent.”
The Werfels were not the only author couple travelling in the region at that time, Meier said. There was also Armin Wegner and his wife, and he too set out to write about the Armenian Genocide. The story of how the two men approached the subject and how a literary controversy ensued was treated by several speakers in Potsdam.
Dr. Rolf Hosfeld, director of the Lepsius House, focused on the historical facts behind Werfel’s novel, identifying the real-life figures who inspired the leading protagonists in the novel: priest Dikran Andreasian (Aram Tomasian) and Moses Der-Kaloustian (Gabriel Bagradian), the former military officer who led the resistance.
In his summary of the account, Hosfeld distinguished fact from fiction: in addition to the two historical personalities, the story of the flight up the mountain was true, as were the descriptions of the three Turkish attacks, the signs calling for help, the altar the resisters built, and the fire which alerted the French ship Guichon and led to their rescue. The dramatic encounter between the German humanitarian Dr. Johannes Lepsius and Young Turk War Minister Enver Pasha also corresponds to reality, as recorded by Lepsius himself in his report.
The rest, as Prof. Martin Tamke from Gottingen detailed, was fiction. Herein lies the main difference between the approaches taken by Wegner and Werfel. When Wegner read in a newspaper in 1933 that Werfel was touring to present his new book, he was shocked and accused the author of having taken his material. Wegner, who had witnessed the Genocide as a medic in the German army, had documented the atrocities in photographs, and later also interviewed survivors, visiting them in camps, could not believe that Werfel could have written such a book without having had this first-hand knowledge. In their correspondence on the controversy, Werfel expressed his respect for Wegner’s eyewitness experience, but could not acknowledge him as a source. He also specified that he had isolated a single episode for his novel, whereas Wegner, in his diary, had been compiling material for a historical account. For Werfel, Tamke said, the aim was not to write an eyewitness report but poetry, a work of art.
In addition to researching the saga of the resistance, Werfel also drew on his extensive knowledge about the Armenian church, or, better, churches. As Prof. Hacik Gazer from Erlangen explained, Werfel was familiar with the Armenian churches and cloisters in Venice and Vienna, and the documents in the Mkhitarist archives there which provided him with valuable source material.
Through his contact with art historian Josef Strzygowsky, he learned about Armenian church architecture. Significantly, his references in the novel are not limited to the Armenian Apostolic Church, but include several figures from the Protestant churches and missionaries, thus expressing an “ecumenical” approach. Gazer also noted that Lepsius, before his encounter with Enver, had met with the Patriarch Zaven, and that the fictional figure, Juliette (Bagradian’s wife) converts from Catholicism to the Apostolic Church.
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh made history, not only as a work of art, but as a political message. Prof. Rubina Peroomian, an expert on Genocide literature from Los Angeles, cited several ways it has been honored. There is the new English translation by David R. Godine which represents a complete and accurate rendition of the German original. Werfel, “a virtual Armenian saint” and a “national hero,” was honored with his wife in New York City in 1935 by the Armenian community. A plaque in Toulon plays tribute to the sailors who rescued the Armenians and carries Werfel’s name. The survivors of Musa Dagh and their descendants, though scattered through the world, have an association and members meet every year in September to celebrate their victory. Peroomian also reported on how an Armenian translation had been smuggled into Soviet Armenia in 1935, and later in the 1960s inspired dissidents and a nationalist revival. In 1988, as the political climate changed, it was republished. Now there is a memorial plaque dedicated to Werfel at the Armenian Genocide monument in Tsitsernakaberd alongside those commemorating Lepsius, Wegner and others.
But if the novel has brought Werfel recognition and praise, it has also been slandered, suppressed and officially banned. Dr. Werner Tress of Potsdam reported that, although Werfel’s earlier works had made him famous by 1933, after the Nazis took power he was persecuted, expelled from a writers’ association, and his novel publicly burned. With the aid of projections of actual documents from the Nazi era, Tress showed how one after the other, political and literary organizations issued black lists of publications considered “damaging” and “undesirable,” and therefore banned. Werfel’s name features prominently in all the documents, sometimes with several works listed by title, other times, with “complete works.” On one black list put out by the Bavarian Political Police, among the 15 books by Werfel, there is a “+” mark added to Musa Dagh. This sign meant that if that book were found in the possession of private persons, in house searches, it would be confiscated and the owners put under pressure. Publishers and distributors were ordered not to deliver the book and customs officials stopped any copies coming across the border into Germany.
Even long after the defeat of Nazi Germany and in faraway America, Werfel’s monumental work has continued to spark hefty political controversy. Most clamorous was the fight around a film version of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Planned by MGM in Hollywood in 1935, the original production never made it into movie theatres, due to insistent, heavy-handed intimidation by Turkish authorities. As Dr. Raffi Kantian from Hannover related, the Turkish government made known through diplomatic channels that it wanted to stop the project, which, if completed, would “harm” Armenians in Turkey. Other pressure consisted of threats to ban all MGM films in Turkey, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece, while rumors circulated that it was a “Jewish-Armenian plot,” etc.
The political impact of Werfel’s work is still felt today, in the form of the continuing strife around Turkish recognition of the past. In a concluding roundtable discussion addressing the issue in the context of European integration, Markus Merkel, a Social Democrat who introduced a resolution on the Armenian Genocide into the German Bundestag in 2005, called for an official exhibit to be organized in Berlin in 2015. He expressed his hope that the Armenian Diaspora would wield its influence to promote democratization in Armenia as well as in Turkey, lending support to the expanding debate in Turkish civil society around the Genocide.