Book Review: Justifying Genocide
Germany and the Armenians
from Bismarck to Hitler
by Stefan Ihrig
Harvard University Press, 2016
Stefan Ihrig follows up his fascinating 2014 book Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination with another category-defying historical inquiry, Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler, in which he traces the ideological DNA of the 20th century’s genocides back to the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from1915 to 1917, a prototypical genocide in which over a million people lost their lives.
It was only the beginning of the century’s bloodletting, as Ihrig notes with controlled incredulity:
To humans in future centuries learning about the twentieth century, the story of this century must seem unbelievable if not implausible. One devastating war after the other, hot and cold, and mostly global. And genocide, and lots of it. Millions of children, elderly people, women, and men killed for no apparent reason. The organized eradication of whole peoples solely on the pretext of their alleged otherness, again and again. These were humanity’s darkest hours, these were the times when we needed to invent and reinvent words to describe the unspeakable, the unimaginable: Holocaust, Shoah, genocide, and “ethnic cleansing.” … These genocides were something new in the known history of humanity, and certainly new in their time.
Using the same wide array of often-overlooked primary sources that made Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination so fascinating, Ihrig traces the ways knowledge of the Armenian genocide filtered into the consciousness of Germany, not just on the official level (“When we look at official, governmental Germany,” he writes with sharp finality, “the question of what Germany knew about the Armenian Genocide is easy to answer: it knew almost everything”) but on the popular level. One of the main vectors of that awareness was Franz Werfel’s bestselling 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and Ihrig’s book does an exceptional job of conveying the omnipresence of Werfel’s book when it comes to this subject – and its enormous impact on generations of readers:
The significance of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh goes far beyond the confines of the Armenian-Turkish conflict. Werfel’s book has touched many lives. Arthur Miller read it “way back, when it first came out.” It was on Frank Sinatra’s bookshelf in his Hollywood dressing room after World War II. Edward Said read it growing up. And Vaclav Havel, the future president of Czechoslovakia, read it while in prison as a dissident in 1979, and thought it “wonderful.” Ethnic Germans in Romania read it in their German schools in the Ceausescu years.
Naturally, any discussion of the Armenian Genocide that includes Germany must inevitably raise the question of the connection between the Ottoman event and the genocidal atrocities of the Nazis. Ihrig contends that in order to make those Nazi crimes conceivable, a mental space for them had to be opened up in the popular imagination – and that the Armenian Genocide served that purpose:
The Armenian Genocide and its presence in German discourse must have made the murder of a whole people more conceivable. The continuous dehumanization of one national or, in some minds, racial group, from the late nineteenth century until the 1920s in the center of German society and public discourse, of one of the oldest Christian peoples no less, to the point that their wholesale murder was deemed justified or justifiable by large segments of the nationalist press was an unfortunate test case and an unfortunate tradition for Germany.
Justifying Genocide is a powerful and unsettling study about how nations – and nationalities – learn to kill, and taken with its predecessor, it forms a refreshingly complicated picture of European intellectual connections, for good or ill, with Western Asia. This latest book also confirms that Ihrig is an author all serious readers of history should be buying.