Einar af Wirsen was a Swedish Military attache in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. He was an eye-witness of the Armenian genocide and had personal conversation with the main Turkish perpetrators and foreign diplomats accredited in Constantinople. The Chapter “The Murder of a Nation” is taken from his memories titled “Memories of Peace and War” published by Albert Bonnier Foriag, Stockholm, 1942.
Einar af Wirsen. Memories of Peace and War Stockholm, ALBERT BONNIERS FORLAG, 1942.
Chapter “The Murder of a Nation” (pp. 220-227)
In the first year of my stay in Turkey, an unbelievable tragedy happened there. It was one of the most monstrous events in world history. I mean the extermination of the Armenians.
Armenians used to live on both sides of the Russian-Turkish border and in Northern Persia. On the Russian side, Armenians populated the areas alongside the south-western slopes of the Caucasus all the way to the Turkish border which at that time was not as far east as it is now. The Kars Fortress and the Ardahan District, located in the Armenian provinces, were part of Russia since 1878 but were recovered by Turkey after World War I. According to the Commission that was active there after Turkey’s defeat, the Armenian provinces on the Turkish side were limited on the east by a straight line starting from Direbolu on the Black Sea coast and going southward to a location south-west of Malatya. From there, the south border of the Armenian provinces went eastward and southward from Lake Van until the Persian border. Armenians also lived on the southern coast of Anatolia in the Cilicia province with Adana as its center. The Armenians were not the sole population of those provinces, they were not even the majority, and this contributed to their misfortune. In the southern parts of those areas there were many Kurds whose national qualities did not help the peaceful cohabitation of the nations living there.
As I mentioned earlier, Armenians in Turkey enjoyed more freedom than other Christians. The spiritual authority of the Armenian nation was the Catholicos based in Erivan in Russian Armenia. In Turkey the supreme authority of the Gregorian Armenians, i.e. of the overwhelming majority of this nation, was the Armenian Patriarch in Constantinople. Apart from him, there was, on one hand, a religious congregation which performed religious functions, and on the other hand, a secular association which was in charge of economic affairs.
The National Assembly was composed of 140 religious and secular representatives and served as a kind of parliament on Armenian affairs. I emphasized above that Armenians in the rural areas observed customs and traditions very similar to those of the Turks. In the cities they were active craftsmen and partly even enterprising businessmen, sometimes of a slightly dubious moral standard. However, an Anti-Armenian movement arose under Abdul Hamid although he himself was born to an Armenian mother, and by the mid-1890s this led to a massive massacre, primarily in the vicinity of Adana but also in Constantinople. In the latter, there was an attack, probably provoked, by Armenians on an Ottoman bank, which led to even more bloodshed. In rural areas mostly Kurdish cavalry was used for implementing the massacres. The massacres were made easier by the fact that Armenians are easily recognizable by the flat backs of their heads. The pretext for the atrocities was that allegedly the competing great powers, especially Russia, were trying to use the Armenian population of Turkey to undermine the Ottoman state. The bloodsheds which lead to the deaths of over 20,000 people had naturally increased the Armenians’ animosity towards the Turks.
When the Young Turks came to power, there was a short spell of sentimental fraternization between all the nations of Turkey, so that by the start of the World War there was even an Armenian in the government. However, a new wave of hostility against Armenians was gradually gathering force, encouraged by the new government’s ideas: first pan-Islamic and later pan-Turanic. The hatred was further enhanced by a grudge against the economic situation of the Christians, resulting from their great energy in the economic sphere. For a few years, negotiations went on around the Armenian situation, aimed at providing international control over their safety. Despite Turkish resistance and German indifference, in early 1914 an agreement was made to divide Turkish Armenia into two sectors supervised by Christian Inspector Generals. However, the Inspectors’ official status was not established by the start of the war, and they never actually took office. As far as I remember, one of the Inspectors was supposed to be Norwegian and the other Dutch.
At the beginning of the World War, Talat and Enver, the heads of the Young Turk Committee, warned the Armenian leaders against taking sides with the enemy and threatened Armenians with heavy repressions should they take any steps which would be perceived as disloyal to the Turks. At that time many Armenians were already fleeing across the Russian border, and the wave of mistrust and fear was spreading to the Black Sea Coast Greeks who were openly supportive of the Russians. One day, at least a thousand Greeks were drowned for voicing their support too openly.
They said that Armenian volunteers were helping Russian troops based in the border areas and that major disturbances were caused by an Armenian uprising in spring 1915 near Lake Van. It is hard to say how much truth there is in this. It seems probable that Armenians were arming themselves against possible attacks by Turkish and Kurdish soldiers. It appears true that Armenian soldiers deserted the Turkish army in large numbers and there were some attacks on Turkish communication lines and military transport. It is however possible that these acts of violence were mere consequences of the Turks’ illegal abuse of the Armenians’ rights.
In early 1915 the Turkish authorities were still cautious to some extent but when Turkey repulsed the attack of French and British navy on the Dardanelles, more active measures were undertaken. Officially the measures were aimed at relocating the entire Armenian population to the plains of Northern Mesopotamia and to Syria, but in reality they were planning to exterminate the Armenians so that Turkish elements could dominate in Asia Minor. From a Turkish standpoint, it would have been natural to disarm any possibly existing Armenian armed bands but the situation was not such as to require the extermination of the entire Armenian nation.
The Turkish government acted with great guile. The deportation orders were as a rule oral and kept strictly secret; this gave the authorities more leeway in carrying out the planned massacres. The methods used in the murders were unheard-of since the Middle Ages. The deportees were often sorted out into groups, the men kept separate from the women and children. Men were murdered in mass quantities, young women were sent to Turkish harems. The children were left to die of hunger unless, as it was done in several provinces, they were tied together by the hundreds, put on rafts and drowned in the Euphrates. It also happened that children had their arms cut off and then left to die in the desert. Most of the deportees had to walk naked in the desert in the scorching heat but this was not one of the worst atrocities. Cruel torture was used; the Head of the Constantinople Police was confessed to the American Ambassador that the Turks had been studying the methods used by the Spanish Inquisition and modeled their activities from it. Even the Armenians who avoided deportation were subjected to mass killings. I learnt from various Consults that on several occasions policemen knocked on the doors of foreign officials and, without so much as a word, shot all the Armenian servants, after it honored and left. Those who were mot murdered died of starvation which was purposefully organized in the most outrageous circumstances. I saw with my own eyes a mound of earth near the Euphrates which, as they told me, contained the remains of several thousand Armenians who were murdered or dead. My Armenian driver could barely control himself in front of the Turkish general who accompanied me, and it was only due to the friendly personality and human qualities of the general that the Armenian was able to hold back his feelings.
The extermination of the Armenians was carried out without haste, mostly in summer 1915, in an atmosphere of great secrecy. Foreign diplomats in Constantinople only learnt the details in late summer by the time most of the activities were over. The American Ambassador Mr. Morgenthau interfered very energetically several times in an effort to somehow change the course of events, but to no avail. The Austrian Ambassador and the German charge d’affaires addressed a letter to the Turkish government asking for explanations but they were told that those were transportations for military reasons. Even if that were true, one had to note that technical preparations for the military transportations had been surprisingly neglected. The only person who could have prevented the bloodshed was the German Ambassador Baron von Wangenheim. But, being naturally cruel, he approved of the Turkish actions. Even Emperor Wilhelm, who was not, of course, informed of the brutal methods used in the deportations, remained rather indifferent to the events. It would be probably going too far to say, as Mr. Morgenthau did, that the idea of the deportations had originated with the Germans but one cannot clear the Germans of a huge responsibility for what had happened, as they had not interfered to prevent the murders.
Meanwhile the German government received many warnings from German officers, and even such an outstanding person as Otto Liman von Sanders had exerted regular insistent pressure both on the German Ambassador and directly on the Turkish government. Many Germans were totally outraged by this. One of them, at that time the German Counsel, Germany’s future Minister for Foreign Affairs Baron von Neurath could barely force himself to observe formal manners during meetings with Turkish officials. Another, the journalist Paul Weitz, believed that the Genocide of the Armenians would harm both the Turkish cause and the Germans’ reputation. I was acquainted with several German officers who witnessed massacres in various localities, and as soon as they got back to Constantinople, they returned their Turkish awards in protest against what they had seen. The German Naval Attache Humann, a man of Oriental mentality and a close friend of Enver Pasha, to the contrary, expressed his full satisfaction on the account of the deportations and was very susceptible to the ideas of the Turkish government. The latter remained completely deaf to all humanitarian appeals throughout the events. There was talk that they feared the creation of a Big Armenia under Russian protectorate, and that in order to prevent this, the Armenian population had to be relocated and neutralized. By the way, what they did had strongly harmed the country because it was suddenly deprived of large numbers of craftsmen, tradesmen and farmers. The massacres also led to epidemics, the worst of which was one of typhus which reached as far as Constantinople and killed at least 100,000 Turkish soldiers.
The bloodshed did not spread to Constantinople or its suburbs. The reason was probably that local Armenians were considered innocuous because they did not live on the Russian border. Besides, it would have been unseemly to carry out massacres right under the eyes of many Europeans. The Turks would then have been unable to conceal this even for a short while. I talked to several Armenian families there and they were not in any way disturbed.
By late 1915 the deportations were almost over. Diplomats who tried to conduct demarches in favor of the Armenians received replies from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the effect that there was no need for help. He failed to mention that most Armenians were dead by that time. The measures implemented by the authorities supposedly lead to the extermination or death of about a million people.
We must not blame the entire Turkish nation for what had happened. In itself, it is a friendly and tolerant nation, by no means crueler than other Oriental nations. There were cases when the Turkish population showed extreme self-denial in trying to alleviate the terrible suffering of the deportees. Even the Governors of some provinces, including the Governor of Smyrna Rahmi Bey, being men of integrity and moral principle, refused to fulfill government orders to deport Armenians. The entire blame lies with the Young Turks government and its officials. The military and the gendarmes were fulfilling orders unthinkingly. However, a huge share of the blame for the horrible methods used to implement the deportations lies with the uncivilized Kurdish population which was happy to live mostly by mugging and robbery.
The extermination of the Armenian nation in Asia Minor must arouse sympathy worldwide. This was doubtless one of the most brutal crimes committed in the last few centuries. The method by which the Armenian issue was resolved was inhuman. I can still see the cynical expression on Talaat’s face when he said that the Armenian issue had been solved.
I fully subscribe under what the German military representative in Constantinople General von Lossow, who nevertheless defended the Turkish course of action to some extent, told me eye-to-eye: “The massacre of the Armenians is the most terrible bestiality of world history.”
© Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute
Translated from Swedish into Russian Laura Daun Minasyan
English translation by Nina Iskandarian