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Holy War Made in Germany: New Light on the Holocaust Against the Christian Assyrians during World War I
by Dr. Gabriele Yonan, Assyrians After Assyria Conference

Holy War Made in Germany: New Light on the Holocaust Against the Christian Assyrians during World War I

Dr. Gabriele Yonan
Institute of the Max Planck Society for Promoting Science and Education,

Berlin, Germany
July 2, 2000

The Assyrians used to hold the British responsible for the destruction of their homelands in Turkey and Persia during WW I. This responsibility was always misplaced, however.

As a consequence of post-war negotiations in the years 1919 to 1925, beginning with the Conference of Paris (1919) and the unratified treaty of Sèvres (1920) and ending with the Conference of Lausanne (1925) which confirmed the Curzon Line, except for the areas of former Assyrian settlements the Assyrians were never able to reclaim their homeland in Turkey but instead were scattered all over the world. It is useless to speculate about what would have happened to the Assyrians had they been successful in garnering enough political support for resettlement and for achieving political autonomy. The area was (and still is) populated by a majority of their old enemies, the Muslim Kurds, and it is not far fetched to compare the situation of that time with today’s ethnic conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.

Undoubtedly the post-war negotiations finally led to new atrocities against the Assyrians, due to the fact that from the 1920s they settled in the North of Iraq (on the other side of the Curzon Line) among Arabs and Kurds, where on August 7, 1933, a year after Iraq became independent from the British mandate, they were massacred in Semile by Arab forces. The British still maintained a presence in the area but were neither able nor willing to protect their former "smallest ally" from the murderous Arab troops under the command of a Kurdish general. The disaster of Semile resulted in the deaths of about 1000 people, mainly women, and old men (according to the statistics given by the Patriarch Mar Shimon to the League of Nations).

Though for the Assyrians Semile became a national tragedy, today Assyrian organizations all over the world still observe August 7 as the Day of Assyrian Martyrs. It remains uncertain why the Assyrians did not, like the Armenians, declare a special day (April 24, 1915, the beginning of the siege against the Assyrians in Turkey) to commemorate the great massacres that took place between 1914 and 1918 in which approximately 100,000 Christian Assyrians perished by the "sword" of Islamic aggressors. Undoubtedly the Assyrians are conscious of being victims of this genocidal treatment--not for political reasons but due solely to their Christian beliefs. In many publications written by Assyrians these events are referred to as the Great Massacres, or ”The Year of the (Islamic) Sword.” But it was the massacre of Semile in the context of British post-war policy in the Middle East that became a key factor in shaping an Assyrian national movement. The Assyrian writer Yusef Malik, who was a former assistant of the British Mandatory administration service in Iraq (and who therefore had access to confidential documents), published a well documented book in 1935 under the title, "The British Betrayal of the Assyrians," which is still used as a textbook for modern Assyrian history. It might be a matter of opinion whether it was a "betrayal" or a tribute to the shift of power and changes in international policies that finally prevented the Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds from reclaiming any of their previous territory.

But is there any justification for blaming the British for the destruction of roughly two-thirds of the Christian Assyrians during WW I?

When one is interviewing Assyrians of the older generation about responsibility for the massacres, the answer usually is: it was done by the Muslims. The more accurate answer would be: it was done by the Kurds, Turks and Persians. But the British are typically exenorated entirely. American, English and French archives now report that the Turkish army attacked the Assyrian villages and, using Kurdish auxiliary troops from the Assyrian neighbourhood, who supplied the Turkish forces with arms and equipment, destroyed the Assyrians by seizing their land, livestock and possessions. In Northwest Persia the Persian and Azeri Muslim population joined the Turkish army to loot and slaughter the Assyrian Christians.

The genocide carried out by the Muslim forces against Assyrians and Armenians would never have been possible without the declaration of Holy War (jihad), by which the Muslims sought to destroy all Christian peoples in the name of the prophet Mohammed. It is well known that Islam is a religio-political concept; thus the political and religious elements were equally at work, especially in the case of the onslaught against the Armenians, who were seeking independence. By contrast, the Christian Assyrians were an ethno-religious group under the leadership of their Patriarch. They lived living as a tribal and clan society, with absolutely no secular political aims. On 12 November 1914, the sultan-caliph unveiled a decree of war, signed by the Turkish ministers, and shortly thereafter he addressed an imperial declaration to the army and navy, demanding their participation in the jihad. Nevertheless, the very idea of “Holy War,” it should be noted, at least in the WW I setting, originated not with the Turks but with the Germans, who encouraged the Turks to slaughter the Assyrians as well as many other people groups. Thus the responsibility for destruction of the Assyrians and their homeland during WW I rests not with the British, nor even primarlily with the Turks, but ultimately with the Germans.

This paper is a summary of the activities of the “Intelligence Service for the Orient" of the German Foreign Office in Berlin, which, with the assistance of German scholars and the German Propaganda Machine, and under the able leadership of the German Ambassador in Constantinople, put forth the “Holy War” idea and pressed it upon the Turks, which of course was to result in the destruction of millions of human lives across the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere during WW I .


It remains a difficult task to link an event in world history like the First World War with the little-known historical facts about the genocide of a people largely unknown in the West, the Assyrians. While the genocide was perpetrated at the same time as the war occurred, it hardly left any traces in historical writings. The backdrop to this drama includes the World War , 1914-1918 the emergence of the German-Turkish alliance on the basis of 19th-century policy-making in the Orient, and the course of the war in the Middle East. It is in the context of these events we must seek out Assyrian strands of evidence in what the West has inadequately termed the “genocide of the Armenians“.

Vast documentation exists on the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Young Turks, headed by the murderous triumvirate of Enver, Talaat and Jamal. But the numerous volumes provide few clues about the annihilation and expulsion of the Christian Assyrians in the same area at the same time. Numerically much smaller than the Armenians, two-thirds of the Assyrians were killed. Research and analysis are rendered more difficult by the fact that the word “Assyrian“ is rarely found in the title of the various reports and documents treating the question.

This fact can be illustrated on the basis of two important works of documentation. The first one was edited by James Bryce: The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (London 1916, 684 pp.). This documentation was published during the war by the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, James Bryce. It consists of eye-witness reports to the genocide, and includes 21 documents substantiating the crimes committed against the Assyrians in Turkey and in Persia. The material was assembled for the Foreign Office by Bryce’s assistant, Arnold Toynbee, later a distinguished historian. The original title of the Toynbee papers was “The Treatment of the Armenians and the Assyrian Christians in the Ottoman Empire“. Bryce was co-founder of the English-Armenian Society, and when he published this collection in late 1916, he changed the title to mention only the Armenians, although the work still contained more than one hundred pages of detailed reports on the Assyrians. The French translation presented at the Paris Peace Conference (1920) omitted the documents on the Assyrians altogether. A new and complete English edition of the documentation was only published in 1972 (in Beirut). There have been no translations into other languages, but the collection of materials has been used by many historians researching the Armenian genocide.

The second work was edited by Johannes Lepsius: Report on the condition of the Armenian People (Potsdam 1916 and Germany and Armenia 1914-1918; Collection of Diplomatic Files; Potsdam 1919). The German theologian, missionary and founder of the German Mission to the Orient (Deutsche Orient-Mission), Johannes Lepsius, produced two publications containing unique documentary material about the political links between imperial Germany and the extermination policy of the Young Turks. A considerable number of the reports and documents concern the Assyrians. (I published a selection of these in 1980, in pogrom, No. 72/73). Because the focal point of his efforts and his life-long mission was to rescue the Armenians, it is not out of the question that, hitherto unpublished documents exist in German material archives, though ignored by Lepsius. In any case, his documentation and reporting are representative enough to support the thesis that the Armenians and the Assyrians suffered the same fate.

In addition to these two works of documentation, added evidence of the forgotten genocide can be seen in the founding of the American Committee of Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR). The committee was created in the wake of the terrible news from American missionaries who worked among the Assyrians in Northwest Persia. Under siege at their mission for four months beginning in January 1915, they experienced inhuman conditions alongside 18,000 Assyrians, while 25,000 to 30,000 Assyrians fled towards Russia to escape from the Turkish army. It was not until the summer of 1915 that the American missionaries were able to send extensive reports to their mission committee in Boston. Their letters, reports and diary entries would later be included in the Toynbee papers.

Persecution of the Assyrians on Turkish territory began as early as December 1914, reaching its first high point between January and April 1915. It would be several months before the start of actual deportations from the Armenian provinces, where parishes of Syrian Christians also resided. The Armenian uprising in Van (May 1915) occurred at the same time as the Assyrian tragedy in the Hakkari highlands, barely 100 kilometers south. Only half of the 160,000 people in question managed to escape to Persia.

In 1916, and again in 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appealed to his countrymen to donate to both of these needy Christian people.

The American relief organization ACASR, for which two Assyrians also worked (Paul Shimmon and Abraham Yohannan), published several works on the annihilation and expulsion of the Assyrians in Turkey and Persia.

In his extensive report on refugees (The Refugee Problem: A Report of a Survey, London 1939, John H. Simpson, High Commissioner of Refugees for the League of Nations, would devote Chapter IV to the Assyrian refugees. His predecessor, Fridjof Nansen, fails to even mention the Assyrian tragedy in his well-known book A People Deceived - a Study Trip through Georgia and Armenia as High Commissioner of the League of Nations, Leipzig 1928, which was translated into several languages.

A number of shorter texts and articles on the fate of the Christian Assyrians was published during and following the First World War. The Archbishop of Canterbury's Assyrian mission was committed to awakening a sense of political responsibility in the consciousness of the English public. Influential politicians such as Lord Curzon presented the Assyrian question to Parliament and to the press. Lord Curzon made every effort to ensure that Assyrian representatives would be admitted to the Paris Peace Conference.

At the same time, books by Assyrians were also published in English and French; personal experiences were described and collections of eye-witness reports were published (see, inter alia, Bibliography: J. Naayem, Paris 1920; Y. H. Shabaz, Philadelphia 1918; P. Shimmon, London 1916; Surma d-Bet Mar Shimun, London 1920; A. Yohannan, London 1916). Politicians and important personages in England, France and America encouraged Assyrian authors to write and sponsored the publication of such works. These acts were motivated by political interests, linked with upcoming decisions on how territory would be divided and who would influence regions of strategic and economic interest in the Near and Middle East, including areas of settlement from which the Assyrians had been expelled. After these decisions were made in the years that followed, Assyrian publications were completely forgotten; they can now be found in only a few of the world's libraries.

Writings by the German Lutheran mission from Hermannsburg and other small German aid societies which had contact with the Assyrians between the turn of the century and the First World War had disappeared. During a research visit in 1983, I discovered the complete collection of these materials as well as unpublished correspondence in the archives of the Hermannsburg mission. A portion of this has been included in the present documentation.

On the other hand, a source which would otherwise have been very difficult to get hold of, an Assyrian war diary containing detailed reports on the regional events in the First World War's most out-of-the-way sites, the Hakkari Highlands and the border area between Turkey and Persia, was available in German. Rudolf Macuch published a translation of this diary in summary form in his History of Late and Modern Syriac Literature (Berlin, 1976). It forms the basis of the excerpt included here, along with the original Assyrian text which appeared in Teheran in 1964.

Unfortunately, that valuable documentary material in the state archives of the former Soviet Union was inaccessible until recent years.

The documentary material in Turkey is still not accessible for historical evaluation. The Turkish government announced in 1989 that it was ready to open up and grant access to the Ottoman archives for international science and historical research. Turkey has not yet come to terms with its past with reference to the annihilation and expulsion of the Christian population during the First World War.

The Question of German Culpability

To date, neither German nor Turkish historians have reappraised the question of shared guilt or responsibility for the catastrophe of the annihilation and expulsion of two million Christians (Armenians and Assyrians) in Turkey during the First World War. Memoirs by German diplomats and military officers, as well as contemporary political writings by German pacifists, are no substitute for careful and precise historical research on this period.

Ulrich Trumpener researched this issue using U.S. archival material. In his book Germany and the Ottoman Empire 1914-1918 (Princeton, 1968), he exonerates the German political and military leadership from shared responsibility in the formulation or implementation of the extermination policy pursued by the Young Turks. In Germany's attitude to these events, Trumpener perceives only moral indifference and an inability by German officials to make a balanced judgement about the reports provided by responsible diplomats and personages.

In fact, even Johannes Lepsius, the most important observer, had come to the same conclusion. In his own overwhelming collection of evidence collected on behalf of the Foreign Office shortly after the war, he would discern only “inadvertent German shared guilt.“ He was reproached by many for his ambivalent approach: it was said he used the collection of diplomatic files only to morally exonerate the imperial German government.

It is indeed true that there is no evidence which incontrovertibly implicates the German government. No German soldier participated personally in the annihilation campaigns executed by Turks and Kurds. No German general issued any field orders, nor received any orders from the Turkish Minister of War. The German army headquarters, which had reorganized the Turkish Army, had no political say in decision making and no influence on decisions made in Berlin and Constantinople. They were - like all armies - an amoral institution used as an instrument of power.

But none of this can exonerate the imperial German government, where the emperor pursued autocratic colonial policies against the judgement of many. Nor can one overlook the significance of the fact that Germany's Oriental Propaganda Department in Berlin counselled and urged the government of the Young Turks to declare a “Holy War.“ Certainly the attitude of the German government and its Foreign Office, once the extent of the Turkish annihilation of the Christians became known, hardly argues acquittal or exoneration from shared responsibility. This attitude consisted of maintaining silence, rationalizing the events, and denying them altogether. German public opinion was manipulated according to government instructions, while a standard of “blind obedience“ was expected of German diplomats and generals in Turkey. Those who spoke up for the victims were recalled or publicly defamed as “traitors to their own country.“ Whether the Young Turk government could have been deterred from their annihilation plans if the German allies had exerted pressure is mere speculation, and not the task of historical analysis.

We judge the events of that time based on our knowledge of ensuing German history. Thus, the fact that Adolf Hitler mentioned in passing in 1939 the Young Turks’ policy of extermination while seeking to legitimize his own plans can be related to Germany’s refusal to pass moral judgement on the first genocide of the 20th century. By now, of course, the annihilation and expulsion of the Armenians and Assyrians between 1915 and 1918 has been overshadowed by Hitler Germany’s genocide of the Second World War.

Today, tens of thousands of Christian Assyrians live in the four corners of the globe, having fled in recent decades from the various parts of the former Ottoman Empire. They are descendants of the survivors of a genocide that still is not part of our historical consciousness. This documentation is offered in honor of these unknown victims. It is also intended to serve as a link in the history of repression, persecution and expulsion of the Assyrians in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Persia, a process which continues to date.

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