Armin T. Wegner

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Armin T. Wegner
Armintwegner.jpg
Born Elberfeld Wuppertal, Germany
Died Rome, Italy
Allegiance German Empire
Service/branch German Sanitary Corps
Years of service 1914-1916
Rank Second Lieutenant
Awards Iron Cross
Other work (German) Am Kreuzweg Der Welten (Berlin, 1982)

Armin Theophil Wegner (October 16, 1886 – May 17, 1978) was a German soldier and medic in World War I, a prolific author, and a human rights activist.[1] Stationed in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Wegner was a witness to the Armenian Genocide and the photographs he took documenting the plight of the Armenians today "comprises the core of witness images of the Genocide."[2]

In the years following the end of World War I, Wegner also voiced his opposition, at great risk to his own life, against the anti-semitic policies of the Nazis. In 1933, he authored an impassioned plea to Adolf Hitler on behalf of the Jews of Germany. He suggested that the persecution of the Jews was not just a question of "the fate of our Jewish brothers alone, [but also] the fate of Germany."[3] Noting that he was writing the letter as a proud German who could himself trace his Prussian familial roots back to the time of the Crusades, Wegner asked Hitler what would become of Germany if it continued its persecution of Jews. Answering his own question, Wegner declared, "There is no Fatherland without justice!"[4] He was persecuted by the Nazis and, for his efforts, is recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Life[edit]

Education[edit]

Wegner's birth house

Wegner was born in the town of Elberfeld, Rhineland (Wuppertal) in Germany. Educated at first in Striegau (modern Strzegom), he later pursued further study in Zurich, Breslau, and Berlin.[5] Upon completing his doctoral studies in law, he began to travel broadly throughout North Africa, Arabia, and Europe. He showed interest in becoming a travel author, and this led to his optimistically joining the armed forces in order to "hold the helm of my life in my own hands. I shall see Baghdad, the Tigris, Mossul, Babylon. I am fully aware of the choice I have made....I have become a soldier....I have put my life at stake for my soul's sake."

World War I[edit]

He enrolled as a medic at the outbreak of World War I during the winter of 1914-1915, and was awarded the Iron Cross for assisting wounded under fire. He rose to the rank of second lieutenant in the German Sanitary Corps, which was attached to the Ottoman Sixth Army. Wegner was part of a German detachment led by Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, which was stationed along the Baghdad Railway in Syria and Mesopotamia; here, Wegner witnessed the death marches of Armenians during the height of the Armenian Genocide.[6]

Disobeying orders intended to smother news of the massacres (as the Ottoman Empire and Germany were allies), he gathered information on the massacres, collected documents, annotations, notes, and letters and took hundreds of photographs in the Armenian deportation camps in Deir ez-Zor,[5] which later served to evidence the extent of the atrocities to which the Ottoman Armenians were subjected. At the Ottoman command's request, Wegner was eventually arrested by the Germans and recalled to Germany. While some of his photographs were confiscated and destroyed, he nonetheless succeeded in smuggling out many images of the Armenian persecution by hiding the negatives in his belt.[7]

Wegner protested against the atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman government against the Armenian people in an open letter, published in the Berliner Tageblatt, submitted to American President Woodrow Wilson at the peace conference of 1919.[8] The letter made a case for the creation of an independent Armenian state. Also in 1919, Wegner published Der Weg ohne Heimkehr (The Road of No Return), a collection of letters he had written during what he deemed the "martyrdom" (Martyrium) of the Anatolian Armenians.[9]

Weimar period[edit]

In Germany after the war, Wegner married author Lola Landau, and became an activist espousing pacifism.[5] He was involved in a German pacifist organization that was later incorporated into War Resisters International. During the Weimar period, Wegner became acquainted with Walter Rathenau, Helmut Gerlach, Johannes Lepsius, and other dissenters and journalists.[1]

In 1921 Wegner testified at the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Ottoman Armenian who had killed Talat Pasha in Berlin.[5] Wegner's role was only to confirm the scope and horror of the Armenian experience during the events that later became known as the Armenian Genocide. Talat Pasha, the former Minister of the Interior of the Ottoman Empire, had been sentenced to death in absentia for orchestrating the Armenian massacres; Tehlirian, though he killed the former Ottoman administrator in front of several eyewitnesses, was found not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity.

The documents of the sensational trial were collected into a book, Justicier du génocide armènien: le procès de Tehlirian, for which Wegner authored the preface. In his introduction, Wegner asserts that the Armenian massacres were governmental crimes committed by the Ottoman government, and that the Turkish people themselves "would never have stained themselves with a similar crime."[2] Wegner notes that he witnessed several instances of civil disobedience during the Armenian Genocide, in which Ottoman officials refused to carry out "the orders of extermination."[3]

In 1922 Wegner published Der Schrei von Ararat (The Scream from Ararat), an appeal for the rights of surviving Armenians. Toward the mid-1920s, Wegner reached the peak of his popularity as a writer and as a co-creator of German Expressionism. In 1927-8, he and his wife traveled to the Soviet Union and also visited the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, where he met with several Armenians he had befriended in Berlin in 1918-1920.[5] Based on his journey, Wegner authored Five Fingers Over You, the success of which made him a celebrity. The text described the underlying political violence of the Soviet Communist model, foretelling the advent of Stalinism.

Nazi era[edit]

In 1933, Wegner denounced the persecution of Jews in Germany in an open letter to Adolf Hitler. Shortly after authoring the letter, Wegner was apprehended by the Gestapo, who imprisoned and tortured him.[10] He was subsequently interned in the Nazi concentration camps at Oranienburg, Börgermoor and Lichtenburg, among others; upon his release, he fled to Rome, where he assumed the alias Percy Eckstein to conceal his identity.[5] In 1939, Wegner and his wife mutually agreed to divorce. He would later suggest, "Germany took every thing from me... even my wife."[4]

Legacy[edit]

Memorial plaque of Wegner's residence in Kaiserdamm 16, Berlin-Charlottenburg, Germany
My conscience calls me to bear witness. I am the voice of the exiled who scream in the desert.[11]

Wegner was awarded the Highest Order of Merit by the Federal German Government in 1956. His native city of Wuppertal awarded him the prestigious Eduard-Von-der-Heydt prize in 1962. In 1967 he was accorded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. A year later, he was invited to Armenia by the Catholicos of All Armenians and awarded the Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.[12]

He died at the age of 92 in Rome. Some of his ashes were later taken to Armenia to be honored at a posthumous state funeral near the Armenian Genocide Monument's perpetual flame.

A documentary film depicting Wegner's personal account of the Armenian Genocide through his own photographs called "Destination Nowhere: The Witness" and produced by Dr. J. Michael Hagopian premiered in Fresno on 25 April 2000. Prior to the release of the documentary he was honored at the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan for championing the plight of Armenians throughout his life.

Recalled by some as "the only writer in Nazi Germany ever to raise his voice in public against the persecution of the Jews", by the time of Wegner's death in Rome he had been "virtually forgotten" by the German people.[10] He had never felt at home again in Germany after fleeing in the 1930s, and had lived out the remainder of his days in Italy. The inscription on Wegner's gravestone echoes the dying words attributed to Pope Gregory VII in 1085.[10]

Amavi iustitiam odi iniquitatem

Propterea morior in exsilio

I loved justice and hated iniquity
Therefore I die in exile

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Charney, Israel W. (2006). Fascism and Democracy in the Human Mind: A Bridge Between Mind and Society. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 426. ISBN 0-8032-1796-X. 
  2. ^ Balakian, Peter (2003). The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 258–259. ISBN 0-06-055870-9. 
  3. ^ (German) "Brief an Hitler", p. 240
  4. ^ In the original German text, "Doch es gibt kein Vaterland ohne Gerechtigkeit!": "Brief an Hitler", p. 244.
  5. ^ a b c d e f (Armenian) Melik-Ohanjanyan, L. and S. Stepanyan. «Վեգնր, Արմին Թեոֆիլ» (Wegner, Armen Theophil). Armenian Soviet Encyclopedia. vol. xi. Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1985, p. 356.
  6. ^ Peterson, Merrill D. (2004). "Starving Armenians": America and the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1930 and After. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, p. 120.
  7. ^ Balakian. The Burning Tigris, p. 259.
  8. ^ Balakian. The Burning Tigris, p. 318.
  9. ^ (German) Armin T. Wegner. Accessed April 9, 2010.
  10. ^ a b c Armin T. Wegner, Germany. Yad Vashem. Accessed April 9, 2010.
  11. ^ "Armin T. Wegner, 1886-1978." Gariwo: Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide. Accessed April 9, 2010.
  12. ^ Milton, Sybil. "Wegner, Armen T." in Encyclopedia of genocide, vol. 1. Israel W. Charney (ed.) Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999, pp. 611-612.

Further reading[edit]

  • Armin T. Wegner and the Armenians in Anatolia, 1915. Milan: Guerini e Associati, 1996.
  • (German) Tamcke, Martin (ed.). Orientalische Christen und Europa: Kulturbegegnung zwischen Interferenz, Partizipation und Antizipation. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012.

External links[edit]