"Who Still Talks about the Extermination of the Armenians?" German Talk and German Silences

Apr 07, 2011

2nd Gerald D. Feldman Memorial Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Margaret Anderson (University of California Berkeley)

After introductory remarks by Hartmut Berghoff (GHI Director) and David Blackbourn (President, Friends of the GHI), Margaret Anderson began her lecture with Hitler's famous reference to the Armenian genocide in his speech to his commanders on the eve of their attack on Poland ("Who still talks nowadays about the extermination of the Armenians?"), whose authenticity has been challenged in recent years by several historians, especially those espousing the Turkish government's position, which denies that an Armenian genocide took place. These historians have suggested that the emissary of the German resistance who turned the speech over to the Associated Press's Berlin bureau chief had interpolated the reference to the Armenians in order to make Hitler appear more bloodthirsty to western audiences. Although Anderson sees no reason to doubt that Hitler himself raised the issue, she argued that the most interesting thing about query - regardless of who posed it - is the assumption underlying it: that the extermination of the Armenians represented the apex of horrors conceivable in August 1939, and that "talk" about this extermination had once been considerable.

Anderson devoted the body of her lecture to demonstrating the prominence of talk about the fate of the Armenians, in the West generally and in Germany particularly, from the time of the massacres of the 1890s until at least as late as 1933. During World War I, Germans stationed in the Ottoman Empire - diplomatic, military, medical, and support personnel - sent horrified reports to Berlin of Ottoman efforts to "destroy the Armenian race." And although the German government censored any publication that might cast an unfavorable light on their Turkish ally, news of the genocide, Anderson demonstrated, very soon reached all sectors of the German elite: academia, parliament, church circles, banking and industry, and the press. Yet although talk among Germany's movers and shakers was both considerable and indignant, with very few exceptions they cooperated in keeping the genocide from the general public. Inviting the audience to consider whether wider dissemination of the news would actually have affected the fate of the victims, Anderson pointed to the enduring tension between national interests and the obligation to humanity.

The well-attended lecture concluded with a lively question-and-answer session. Professor Anderson's lecture will be published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute.