The killings of millions of Greeks, Armenians and other Christians by the Ottoman Turks between 1910-1922 remains one of the bloodiest and most contentious events of the 20th century and has been called the first modern genocide.
Twenty years later the genocide against Jews and other “undesirables” in Nazi-occupied Europe raged on and captured the world’s attention.
Few people know that there was a direct link to the two events, linking the murderous actions of the Ottoman Turks to those of the Nazis in World War II a few decades later.
Several junior German officers training Ottoman forces in Turkey in the early 1900s witnessed the death marches and other atrocities that were committed.
Some of these Germans later turned up as senior Wehrmacht officers in the Jewish killing fields throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.
Similarities between actions in Nazi Germany and Ottoman Turkey are striking, including facilities that were built, methods used to transport victims– even methods used to murder masses of people.
Professor Lou Ureneck, author of the recently-released HarperCollins book “The Great Fire,” confirmed that “Imperial Germany cultivated a close relationship with Ottoman Turkey because of Turkey’s mineral and oil wealth and because it would be strategically important in a war with Great Britain, which many came to see as a certainty. The Berlin-to-Baghdad rail project was one pre-WWI example of the relationship. So was Germany’s organization and training of the Ottoman army.”
In all, 25 concentration camps were set up in a systematic slaughter aimed at eradicating the Christian people— classed as “vermin” by the Turks.
The Ottoman Turks also created concentration camps and transported unsuspecting victims to “labor camps” that were nonexistent. Their motives instead were to transport them to the interior, where tens of thousands were starved or shot along the way.
Like the Nazis, they also used railway wagons to transport Christian men, women and children to their deaths, while in the northern Syrian desert the Ottomans engineered the first primitive gas chambers by driving thousands of victims into rock caves and asphyxiating them by lighting bonfires at the entrances.
As recently as 2007, new photographs have shed light on the Turkish-German connection at the time. They come from the archives of the German Deutsche Bank, which was working in the region financing a railway network when the killings began. Unearthed by award-winning war correspondent Robert Fisk, they were taken by employees of the bank to document the terror unfolding before them.
One photograph was apparently taken in the summer of 1915. Human skulls are scattered over the earth. They are all that remain of a handful of Christians slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks. Behind the skulls, posing for the camera, are three Turkish officers in tall, soft hats and a man, on the far right, who is dressed in Kurdish clothes. But the two other men are Germans, both dressed in the military flat caps, belts and tunics of the Kaiserreichsheer, the Imperial German Army. It is an atrocity snapshot – just like those pictures the Nazis took of their soldiers posing before Jewish Holocaust victims a quarter of a century later.
They show young men, crammed into cattle trucks, waiting to travel to their deaths. The Turks crowded 90 starving and terrified Armenians, Greeks and other Christians into each wagon, the same number the Nazis averaged in their transports to the death camps of Eastern Europe during the Jewish Holocaust.
Young women were systematically raped according to Fisk, who conducted extensive research, while older women were beaten to death— they did not merit the expense of a bullet. Babies were left by the side of the road to die.
Often, attractive young Christian girls were sent to Turkish harems, where some lived in enforced prostitution until the mid-1920s.
Many other archive photographs testify to the sheer brutality suffered by the Christians in Turkey: children whose knee tendons were severed, a young woman who starved to death beside her two small children, and a Turkish official taunting starving Christian children with a loaf of bread.
So how exactly did the events of 1915-17 unfold? Just as Hitler wanted a Nazi-dominated world that would be Judenrein-– cleansed of its Jews– so in 1914 the Ottoman Empire wanted to construct a Muslim empire that would stretch from Istanbul to Manchuria. The Christians— millions of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians— stood in their way.
The Deutsche Bank photos were taken by employees in 1915 and sent to their head office in Berlin as proof of their claims that the Turks were massacring their Christian population. They can be found in the Deutsche Bank Historical Institute – Oriental Section. The banking officials were appalled that the Ottoman Turks were using – in effect – German money to send Christians to their death by rail. The new transportation system was supposed to be used for military purposes, not for genocide.
German soldiers sent to Turkey to reorganize the Ottoman army also witnessed these atrocities. Armin Wegner, an especially courageous German second lieutenant in the retinue of Field Marshal von der Goltz, took a series of photographs of dead and dying Christian women and children. Other German officers regarded the genocide with more sinister interest. Some of these men, as Armenian scholar Vahakn Dadrian discovered, turn up 26 years later as more senior officers conducting the mass killing of Jews in German-occupied Russia.
Taner Akcam, a prominent – and extremely brave – Turkish scholar who has visited the Yerevan museum, has used original Ottoman Turkish documents to authenticate the act of genocide. Now under fierce attack for doing so from his own government, he discovered in Turkish archives that individual Turkish officers often wrote “doubles” of their mass death-sentence orders, telegrams sent at precisely the same time that asked their subordinates to ensure there was sufficient protection and food for the Christians during their “resettlement”.
This weirdly parallels the bureaucracy of Nazi Germany, where officials were dispatching hundreds of thousands of Jews to the gas chambers while assuring International Red Cross officials in Geneva that they were being well cared for and well fed.
“After WWI, Germany, a defeated nation, was entranced by the Nationalist movement. Mustapha Kemal (later Ataturk) was able to do what Germany had failed to do — and that was to reject the treaty terms laid down by the victorious Allies at Paris. German newspapers in 1920 were filled with news of Turkey. Among Kemal’s admirer’s was Hitler, who was especially interested in his strong-man leadership and ultimately Turkey’s ability to move it population toward pure Tukishness. It was the sort of social engineering that appealed to the ruler of Nazi Germany,” according to Prof. Ureneck, who conducted extensive research for his book.
Winston Churchill described the Turkish massacres as an “administrative holocaust” and noted: “This crime was planned and executed for political reasons. The opportunity presented itself for clearing Turkish soil of a Christian race.”
One authority on extermination who did recognize the genocide of Christians was Adolf Hitler. In a 1939 speech, in which he ordered the killing, “mercilessly and without compassion”, of Polish men, women and children, he concluded: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”