An Interview with Stefan Ihrig
Special for the Armenian Weekly
The following interview with Stefan Ihrig, author of Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler (due out in December 2015), was conducted by Edward Kanterian, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. Ihrig is the Polonsky Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
Edward Kanterian—Mr. Ihrig, we know that Mussolini was a major role model for Hitler. But it is much less known that Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, was another major source of inspiration for Hitler. You have recently published a book exploring this. Why was Hitler interested in Atatürk?
Stefan Ihrig—It all goes back to the early 1920’s. Germany was still in shock about losing the war and afraid of a punitive peace treaty imposed by the Entente. In a mood of nationalist depression, events began to unfold in Anatolia that stirred the passion and dreams of German nationalists. Under Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] the Turks were resisting their own “Turkish Versailles”—the Treaty of Sèvres. They took on all of the Entente as well as the Greek Army and even defied their own government in Constantinople. What was happening in Anatolia was like a nationalist dream-come-true for many in Germany. German nationalists, and the Nazis especially, thought that Germany should copy what the Kemalists were doing. Hitler was very much inspired by Atatürk and the idea of the “Ankara government” in his attempt to set up an alternative government in Munich in his Beerhall Putsch of 1923. Retrospectively, in 1933, he called Atatürk and the Kemalists his “shining star” in the darkness of the 1920’s. The Nazis and Hitler, in a political sense, had grown up with Turkey and Atatürk. It was a fascination that would not go away and transformed into something of a cult in the Third Reich.
E.K. —So the main attraction was the fact that Atatürk had resisted the Entente?
S.I. —Yes, resisting the Entente and revising a Paris peace treaty fascinated the Nazis. But this was not all. There was also the fact that Turkey had “rid itself” of most of its minorities, first of the Armenians during World War I, and second of most of the Greeks in the Treaty of Lausanne population exchange. And finally, for the Nazis, what was happening in Turkey in the 1920’s and 1930’s was a successful restructuring and reconstruction of the country along nationalist/racial lines. For them it was an example of what a purely national state could achieve under a strong leader.
E.K. —The Turkey which had “rid itself” of the Armenians was of course the Turkey of the Young Turks, whose regime ended in 1918 and in which Atatürk played only a minor role. So the Nazis’ fascination also extended to the Young Turks? Presumably they were attracted by both the Young Turks’ and Atatürk’s Turkocentric conception of the Turkish state, which excluded the multiethnic society that had existed hitherto in the Ottoman Empire? Is there any direct link between the demographic and exclusionary policies of Atatürk and that of the Nazis?
S.I. —The Young Turks were not very important for the Nazis. But “ethnic cleansing” and the Armenian Genocide before the War of Independence was, for the Nazis, a major precondition for the success of Ataturk in that war. And the expulsion of the Greeks was a second precondition, in the Nazi view, for the further success of rebuilding Turkey along national lines. Both were for the Nazis something of a “package deal.” What was important for them was that the ethnic minorities—which they and other German nationalists perceived to be like “the Jews”—were gone. In the Nazis’ view of the New Turkey, all this would not have been possible had Turkey not “rid itself” of the minorities. In this fashion, the Nazis and other German nationalists were able to portray Atatürk’s New Turkey as something of a test case of large-scale ethnic-racial reconstruction—a test case that for them signalled the power of such a new national state purged of minorities; a test case that not only re-affirmed their own beliefs in the power of ethnically cleansed states but showed various ways of how to achieve this.
E.K. —To what extent was the Kemalist state ideology an inspiration to the Nazis? Presumably they ignored the fact that Atatürk aimed to build a republic in which the parliament, representing the people, was the main source of power?
S.I. —The Nazi vision of Atatürk’s New Turkey was a highly selective one. Almost everything that conflicted with Nazi ideals and goals was either downplayed or ignored. The emancipation of women was one such topic; it was mentioned in passing but not deemed more noteworthy. Atatürk’s rather peaceful foreign policy was purposefully misunderstood. When it comes to the state of government under Atatürk, the Nazis saw a powerful leader governing through a one-party system, which for them was the only viable alternative to what they perceived as decadent Western democracy.
E.K. —What was the Nazis’ attitude towards the “Armenian Question” in Turkey?
S.I. —In the Nazi discussion of the Turkish War of Independence the Armenians did not play a major role. Again, the Nazis had their own vision of Atatürk’s rule and times. What was paramount for them was post-1923 Turkey, which they portrayed as something of a mono-ethnic paradise. They simply refused to see any remaining minorities, such as the Kurds, for example, and the conflicts that still existed within the Turkish state. What made the Armenians, on the other hand, so important for the Nazi discourse on Atatürk’s New Turkey was the specific German tradition of seeing them as “the Jews of the Orient.”
E.K. —Can you give some examples how Armenians were seen as “the Jews of the Orient” in the German discourse? Was this something that happened only after the First World War or even before?
S.I. —This German tradition has its beginnings in the late 19th century. Around the same time as modern racial anti-Semitism gained ground, a perception of the Armenians as racially similar or equivalent to the Jews of Central Europe as portrayed in anti-Semitic discourse was put forward. The Armenians were typically described as exploitative merchants praying upon the kind and hard-working Turkish population. This perception mainly focused upon the perceived parasitic, treacherous, and non-productive behavior of the Armenians. That Armenians carried out all kinds of crafts and labor—that many were, for example, farmers—was simply ignored in these discourses. In the growing racial and racialist literature from the late-19th century up until the 1930’s, the Armenians were portrayed as a parent or sister race of the Jews. Often they were even described as “worse than the Jews.” This of course provides for a special German background to the perception of the events of 1915/16 that is particularly chilling in light of the further trajectory of German history.
E.K. —This brings us to your new book, which you have just completed, Justifying Genocide, which will be published by Harvard University Press later this year. How did you come to write this book?
S.I. —When carrying out my research on the Nazis and Turkey, I came across a large debate about the Armenian Genocide. This debate took place in the early 1920’s and is totally forgotten today. Yet, it was one of the largest genocide debates of the 20th century. It truly was a “genocide” debate, even before Raphael Lemkin coined the term, because it was all about intent and extent of the “annihilation of a nation.” I tried to reconstruct this debate and to find out why it lasted so long. You have to envisage a four-and-a-half years long debate including the first post-war discussions about what had happened, the heated reception of the publication of Foreign Office documents on the Armenian Genocide in 1919 already, a strong back and forth between those condemning what happened as a “murder of a nation” and others denying this. Furthermore there were assassinations, first of Talat Pasha in 1921 and then of another two prominent Young Turks in 1922, all of which took place in Berlin and were much discussed in the press of the time.
I wanted to see where all the discursive building blocks employed in these discussions came from, and thus I explored the German relationship with the Ottoman Armenians since the late 1870’s. As it turns out, since Bismarck’s time already the Armenians were assigned a very cynical role in German foreign policy: They were regularly sold out in order for Germany to gain political advantages and a more favorable position in the Ottoman Empire. This continuous selling out of another Christian people led to German discourses justifying mass murder already in the 1890’s, culminating in the propaganda during World War I as well as with shocking justificationalist essays during the debate of the early 1920’s.
E.K. —Hitler’s rhetorical question “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” made in August 1939, apropos the war of annihilation which he was about to start in the east, is well known. This suggests that Hitler was at least inspired by the Armenian Genocide. In your new book, you aim to demonstrate that the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide were indeed much more connected than previously thought. How exactly?
S.I. —The ongoing debate about recognition and denial has held the Armenian Genocide in a hostage situation for almost a century and has also led to it being often only a marginal footnote of broader European and world history in our accounts and analyses of the time. Yet, it was immensely important at the time, also and perhaps especially so in Germany. Not only was Germany closely connected to it as a state and an ally of the Ottomans, but so were many of its people as diplomats, officers, and soldiers. The fact that the Ottoman Empire had garnered so much attention in the German public and political sphere already before 1915 also connected Germany to the Armenian Genocide more closely. And finally, the great German genocide debate of the early 1920’s brings the whole matter within a mere decade of Hitler’s ascension to power. The Armenian Genocide was both chronologically and geographically speaking much closer to Germany and the Third Reich than is usually alleged; my book illustrates this in many facets.
‘As it turns out, since Bismarck’s time already the Armenians were assigned a very cynical role in German foreign policy: They were regularly sold out in order for Germany to gain political advantages and a more favorable position in the Ottoman Empire. This continuous selling out of another Christian people led to German discourses justifying mass murder already in the 1890’s, culminating in the propaganda during World War I as well as with shocking justificationalist essays during the debate of the early 1920’s.’
E.K. —There are not many German historians who have researched the Armenian Genocide. What might be the reasons for this?
S.I. —The topic continues to be one riddled with difficulties and potential dangers. If you are a historian working on Turkish and Ottoman history, you did not want to offend the very people you needed in order to get access to your sources. Another reason was that many of the German sources from the military archives were lost during World War II. Then there was the suspicion that broader discussions of the Armenian Genocide and its relation to Germany could be used to relativize the Shoah. And finally, the official Turkish denialist campaign has conveyed the lasting impression or rather has sown the confusion suggesting that the topic is just too difficult and unapproachable. However, in recent years many have worked on the German side, providing new studies on particular aspects and also providing new narratives. I am sure we will reach a critical mass in the field soon which will lead to a broader re-evaluation of the Armenian Genocide within German, European, and world history.