The German Foreign Office Archives on the Armenian and Greek Genocides - George Shirinian

“…the Ottoman genocide against minority populations during and following the First World War is usually depicted as a genocide against Armenians alone, with little recognition of the qualitatively similar genocides against other Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire…it is the conviction of the International Association of Genocide Scholars that the Ottoman campaign against Christian minorities of the Empire between 1914 and 1923 constituted a genocide against Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontian and Anatolian Greeks…. The Association calls upon the government of Turkey to acknowledge the genocides against these populations, to issue a formal apology, and to take prompt and meaningful steps toward restitution.” These words were officially proclaimed in December 2007, and in so doing, the International Association of Genocide Scholars opened the door wide for a new and expanded understanding of this complex, politically sensitive, and critically important subject.

So, how do we do that? How do we go about expanding our understanding?

Well, first, we want to compare the details of the genocidal experiences of each of these three peoples. The events in question took place largely in the same geographic area, at roughly the same time, and involved the leaders of first the Ottoman State, and then its successor, the Turkish Republic. What do they have in common? How do they differ? How do they relate to one another? What lessons can we draw from the experience of each group individually, and from the entire set of events starting with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century to the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923, the “Megali Katastrophi” - “Great Catastrophe”.

In the case of the Armenian Genocide, we are still only beginning to piece together what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened, by whom it was done, when, where, and why. And we are still reeling from its after-effects. Western scholarship on the Armenian Genocide began to gain momentum in the mid-1980s and is now fairly substantial and growing. It started late because of the pervasive and aggressive Turkish state policy of denial of this whole period of history and is still hampered by it. But we are finally in the process of systematically collecting and publishing the primary documentary evidence that historians, sociologists and political scientists need to be able to analyze these events properly.

The objective of this paper is to describe the work some of the associates of the Zoryan Institute have done in this regard with one large project, the Diplomatic Correspondence of the German Foreign Office, 1913-1918. I will describe the nature of these archives, the challenges of working with them, their significance for our understanding of the Armenian Genocide, and give some examples of what they tell us about the Pontian and Anatolian Greek experience during this period.

Description of the German FO Archives and Their Significance for the Study of the Armenian Genocide

During World War I, Germany was the political and military ally of the Ottoman Empire. Only German diplomats and military officials were able to send uncensored reports out of the country. Apart from the Americans, who remained neutral in the war until April 6, 1917 (but never declared war on the Ottoman Empire), German diplomats and their informants from the missions or from among the employees of the Baghdad Railway were the most important non-Armenian eyewitnesses of the genocide. The German military was able to enter areas in which the genocide took place relatively unhindered.

These German officials wrote a large number of detailed letters, reports and analyses from the consulates in various cities to the embassy in Constantinople, and the embassy, in turn, forwarded them to the Foreign Office in Berlin. These reports, variably marked as “confidential,” “very confidential, or “secret” and “very secret,” were sent to the German Foreign Minister without being censored by Ottoman officials. They provide immense detail about the extent of the destruction of the Armenian people, its planning and intention by the central government, and the falsehood of the central government’s allegations of Armenian rebellion. This evidence is incontestable, as these documents were meant for “in-house” use and as such were never intended for public consumption. I will add, on a personal note, that many of these reports are horrifying and painful to read, as they also provide graphic details about the numerous atrocities perpetrated against men, women and children.

The Challenges of Working with the German FO Archives

Working with this kind of archival material is challenging. It requires someone who is skilled in reading the old Suderlin script, the antique Gothic handwriting used in those days. It took years of painstakingly comparing the published versions of the documents with the originals, which led to the discovery that many incriminating passages and even whole documents were suppressed by the German authorities immediately after the war. Then there was the verifying of place names, and identifying the individuals involved, and figuring out the unique abbreviations used in this diplomatic correspondence, which was written in a distinct, stilted language. Few individuals have the combination of interest, knowledge, skill, and patience to spend some eight years researching and editing this invaluable material.

The selection of documents that was published in Germany in 2005 focuses primarily on the Armenians during the period 1915-1916, but includes both earlier and later documents as necessary to round out the story. It is not, therefore, a complete collection, but provides a comprehensive selection. I have been editing the English edition for publication, on and off for the past 5 years. I expect the book to appear this year. The documents are all available online at, but the English introduction for the book will be slightly revised, as will be many of the translations. In addition, several important documents not available on the website have been translated from French into English for the book.

The Need for Further Research, Publication and Education about the Ottoman Genocides in English

There is need for further research, publication and education in English utilizing American, British, French, Greek, Italian, Russian, and Turkish sources. The case of the German archives shows that individual scholars need significant institutional support for such large projects, in terms of research, editorial and financial assistance. For organizational, economic and political reasons, it can be difficult to find the necessary support for such sensitive projects in universities. That is why it was necessary to establish the Zoryan Institute an independent entity. Today, it seems that there is need for a similar research institute specializing in the “Megali Katastrophi” - “Great Catastrophe”.

The potential Benefits of an academic research centre for the Greeks of Asia Minor and Pontus may be summarized as follows:

1. It can provide a secure, institutional structure that is necessary to make possible the research essential to establishing the incontestable facts of historical experience of the Greeks of Asia Minor and Pontus.

2. It can help identify and address the critical political, social and educational issues for the Greeks of Asia Minor and Pontus today.

3. A scholarly approach can eliminate anger and emotionalism when dealing with these highly sensitive issues, which often interfere with sound decision-making.

4. It can broaden our understanding of the issues by analyzing them in comparison with other cases and from the perspective of many disciplines.

5. It can establish a communications program, consisting of authoritative publications, academic conferences, public lectures, to disseminate its research and create awareness of the Pontian Greek experience.

6. It can assist with the education and development of younger scholars to enter the field.

7. It can develop educational publications and programs to teach the broader non-academic community, both Greek and non-Greek, about Pontian history and related issues.

8. It can study contemporary Pontian society in the US and other countries, and the impact of the Genocide on its development and identity.

9. It can prepare the compelling reasons and arguments for politicians in the US and other countries to address political issues of concern to the Pontian Greek community appropriately.

· The types of sources available: foreign office and consular archives, military archives, newspapers, Near East Relief archives, Red Cross archives, League of Nations High Commission on Refugees, diplomatic and political memoirs, missionary memoirs, oral histories, survivor memoirs.

· These sources need to be collected, translated, analyzed, published and new historical studies published based on them.

· To do this requires the work of many specialists in history, archives and languages. It is work for many people for generations to come.

· Especially for Greeks in the Diaspora, there are unresolved issues about history that impact greatly on identity, not only for the older generation, but also and especially for the youth.