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Remembrance of a Genocide

Armenia: Why Germany Shares Responsibility for the Genocide

By Paul Starzmann

Germans were also involved in the Armenian Genocide. A new book is now providing an eyewitness account of the vicious crimes committed 100 years ago. And even the Deutsche Bank played an important role in it.

“These are awful days, full of bitterness towards this cursed Turkey.” These words are over 100 years old, and still sound as relevant as ever, especially these days, when human rights in Turkey are in great danger. However, this sentence was written in the year 1915 by the Swiss nurse Clara Hilty, who in those days was living in the Ottoman Empire and became witness to one of the biggest crimes in modern history: the Armenian Genocide.

“About 130 people die here every day”

In her new book, They Drive Them into the Desert, Dora Sakayan has meticulously examined the diaries of Clara and Fritz Sigrist-Hilty. The Swiss couple lived for a few years in Fevzipaşa, in the eastern Turkish province of Gaziantep. Fritz worked as a civil engineer on the Baghdad railway, and shortly after their wedding ceremony in Switzerland his wife Clara followed him to Turkey. Soon after they arrived, they had to watch from their windows how thousands of Armenians—women, children and men—were rounded up and deported by Turkish soldiers. On October 4, 1915, Clara notes: “About 130 people die here every day.”

“Clara’s journal is an invaluable contribution to the history of the Armenian Genocide,” stresses writer Dora Sakayan, retired professor at the renowned McGill University in Canada. “The author of the diary was a complete outsider, hence a neutral observer.” In her notes Clara predominantly relates aspects of her everyday life in a foreign land. It was rather by chance that she became an eyewitness of this major crime: From her veranda she observed the deportation of thousands of human beings. During her outings she came across half-starved orphan children, and she found many dead bodies on the roadside. At night she heard the gunshots of the Turkish execution squads, and faced with all this ongoing suffering, Clara writes: “How good for them who can die this way.”

The Deutsche Bank: The main funder of the Baghdad railway

In the book’s preface, Wolfgang Gust emphasizes that Germans were also participants in the crimes perpetrated by Turkish soldiers. In those days, the Baghdad railway was “Germany’s biggest investment abroad,” he writes. “For Armenians, however, especially those from the Western regions of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, that railway became the fastest way towards death.” “The main funder of that prestigious project” was the Deutsche Bank. Until today—according to Gust—this institution makes its archives accessible only to a selective number of people. The Sigrist-Hilty couple had to deal with one of the German perpetrators, namely Sylvester Böttrich, lieutenant colonel with the German mission who was also the officer in charge of the Ottoman railways. On October 16, 1915, he signed “a decree, authorizing the dismissal and subsequent deportation of thousands of Armenian workers employed at the Baghdad railway construction sites.” As recent participants in the construction of the railways themselves, many Armenian workers shortly thereafter ended up in packed livestock train cars—to be dispatched directly towards their deaths.

The Turkish government wants to suppress the truth

Until today the Turkish government has worked hard to keep Turkish youth, as well as students of Turkish descent in Germany, away from the truth. Finally, in May 2016 the “Armenia-Resolution” of the Bundestag officially acknowledged German complicity in the Genocide. Thus, “members of the German Parliament gave federal states and German universities the signal to tolerate the taboo of concealment no longer,” says Gust. In that matter, Dora Sakayan’s book makes an important contribution.

Translated from German
Paul Starzmann
21 November 2016

Recent Updates

Book Review 2016:
Review of [«They drive them into the desert»: Clara and Fritz Sigrist-Hilty as eyewitnesses of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1918 from -----.

Press Release 2012:
Book launch of Western Armenian for the English-speaking World, A Contrastive Approach in Yerevan State University, Armenia.

Press Release 2012:
Dora Sakayan awarded Honorary Doctorate Degree at Yerevan State University, Armenia.