Ambassador Morgenthau's Story

By Henry Morgenthau
Ninth Article

[The World's Work, January 1919]

[Note: In the period 1918-1919, The World's Work serialized the memoirs of Henry Morgenthau, formerly the U. S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The book appeared in nine consecutive issues of the magazine. From the seventh, eighth, and ninth articles, the following excerpts constitute the ambassador's commentary on the Armenian Question and the genocide perpetrated by the government in Constantinople.—JFM]

Callous as Wangenheim showed himself to be, he was not quite so implacable toward the Armenians as the German Naval Attaché in Constantinople, Humann. This person was generally regarded as a man of great influence; his position in Constantinople corresponded to that of Boy-Ed in the United States. A German diplomat once told me that Humann was more of a Turk than Enver or Talaat. Despite this reputation I attempted to enlist his influence. I appealed to him particularly because he was a friend of Enver, and was generally looked upon as an important connecting link between the German Embassy and the Turkish Military authorities. Humann was a personal emissary of the Kaiser, in constant communication with Berlin and undoubtedly he reflected the attitude of the ruling powers in Germany. He discussed the Armenian problem with the utmost frankness and brutality.

"I have lived in Turkey the larger part of my life," he told me, "and I know the Armenians. I also know that both Armenians and Turks cannot live together in this country. One of these races has got to go. And I don't blame the Turks for what they are doing to the Armenians. I think that they are entirely justified. The weaker nation must succumb. The Armenians desire to dismember Turkey; they are against the Turks and the Germans in this war, and they, therefore, have no right to exist here. I also think that Wangenheim went altogether too far in making a protest; at least I would not have done this.

I expressed my horror at such sentiments, but Humann went on abusing the Armenian people and absolving the Turks from all blame. "It is a matter of safety," he replied; "the Turks have got to protect themselves, and, from this point of view, they are entirely justified in what they are doing. Why, we found 7,000 guns at Kadikeui which "belonged to the Armenians. At first Enver wanted to treat the Armenians with the utmost moderation, and four months ago he insisted that they be given another opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty. But after what they did at Van, he had to yield to the army, which had been insisting all along that it should protect its rear. The Committee decided upon the deportations and Enver reluctantly agreed. All Armenians are working for the destruction of Turkey's power—and the only thing to do is to deport them. Enver is really a very kind-hearted man; he is incapable personally of hurting a fly! But when it comes to defending an idea in which he believes, he will do it fearlessly and recklessly. Moreover, the Young Turks have to get rid of the Armenians merely as a matter of self-protection. The Committee is strong only in Constantinople and a few other large cities. Everywhere else the people are strongly 'Old Turk.' And these Old Turks are all fanatics. These Old Turks are not in favor of the present government, and so the Committee has to do everything in its power to protect themselves. But don't think that any harm will come to other Christians. Any Turk can easily pick out three Armenians among a thousand Turks!"


Humann was not the only important German who expressed this latter sentiment. Intimations began to reach me from many sources that my "meddling" in behalf of the Armenians was making me more and more unpopular in German officialdom. One day in October, Neurath, the German Counseiller, called and showed me a telegram which he had just received from the German Foreign Office. This contained the information that Earl Crewe and Earl Cromer had spoken on the Armenians in the House of Lords, had laid the responsibility for the massacres upon the Germans, and had declared that they had received their information from an American witness. The telegram also, referred to an article in the Westminster Gazette, which said that the German consuls at certain places had instigated and even led the attacks, and particularly mentioned Resler of Aleppo. Neurath said that his government had directed him to obtain a denial of these charges from the American Ambassador at Constantinople. I refused to make such a denial, saying that I did not feel called upon to decide officially whether Turkey or Germany was to blame for these crimes.

Yet everywhere in diplomatic circles there seemed to be a conviction that the American Ambassador was responsible for the wide publicity which the Armenian massacres were receiving in Europe and the United States. I have no hesitation in saying that they were right about this. In December, my son, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., paid a visit to the Gallipoli peninsula, where he was entertained by General Liman von Sanders and other German officers. He had hardly stepped into German headquarters when an officer came up to him and said:

"Those are very interesting articles on the Armenian question which your father is writing in the American newspapers."

"My father has been writing no articles," my son replied.

"Oh," said this officer, "just because his name isn't signed to them doesn't mean that he is not writing them!"

Von Sanders also spoke on this subject.

"Your father is making a great mistake," he said, "giving out the facts about what the Turks are doing to the Armenians. That really is not his business."

As hints of this kind made no impression on me, the Germans evidently decided to resort to threats. In the early autumn, a Dr. Nossig arrived in Constantinople from Berlin. Dr. Nossig was a German Jew, and came to Turkey evidently to work against the Zionists. After he had talked with me for a few minutes, describing his Jewish activities, I soon discovered that he was a German political agent. He came to see me twice; the first time his talk was somewhat indefinite, the purpose of the call apparently being to make my acquaintance and insinuate himself into my good graces. The second time, after discoursing vaguely on several topics, he came directly to the point. He drew his chair close up to me and began to talk in the most friendly and confidential manner.

"Mr. Ambassador," he said, "we are both Jews and I want to speak to you as one Jew to another. I hope you will not be offended if I presume upon this to give you a little advice. You are very active in the interest of the Armenians and I do not think you realize how very unpopular you are becoming, for this reason, with the authorities here. In fact, I think that I ought to tell you that the Turkish Government is contemplating asking for your recall. Your protests for the Armenians will be useless. The Germans will not interfere for them and you are just spoiling your opportunity for usefulness and running the risk that your career will end ignominously."

"Are you giving me this advice," I asked, ''because you have a real interest in my personal welfare?"

"Certainly," he answered; "all of us Jews are proud of what you have done and we would hate to see your career end disastrously."

"Then you go back to the German Embassy," I said, "and tell Wangenheim what I say—to go ahead and have me recalled. If I am to suffer martyrdom, I can think of no better cause in which to be sacrificed. In fact, I would welcome it, for I can think of no greater honor than to be recalled because I, a Jew, have been exerting all my powers to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians."

Dr. Nossig hurriedly left my office and I have never seen him since. When next I met Enver I told him that there were rumors that the Ottoman Government was about to ask for my recall. He was very emphatic in denouncing the whole story as a falsehood. "We would not be guilty of making such a ridiculous mistake," he said. So there was not the slightest doubt that this attempt to intimidate me had been hatched at the German Embassy.


Wangenheim returned to Constantinople in early October. I was shocked at the changes that had taken place in the man. As I wrote in my diary, "he looked the perfect picture of Wotan." His face was almost constantly twitching; he wore a black cover over his right eye, and he seemed unusually nervous and depressed. He told me that he had obtained little rest; that he had been obliged to spend most of his time in Berlin attending to business. A few days after his return I met him on my way to Haskeui; he said that he was going to the American Embassy and together we walked back to it. I had been recently told by Talaat that he intended to deport all the Armenians who were left in Turkey and this statement had induced me to make a final plea to the one man in Constantinople who had the power to end the horrors. I took Wangenheim up to the second floor of the Embassy, where we could be entirely alone and uninterrupted, and there, for more than an hour, sitting together over the tea table, we had our last conversation on this subject.

"Berlin telegraphs me," he said, "that your Secretary of State tells them that you say that more Armenians than ever have been massacred since Bulgaria has come in on our side.''

"No, I did riot cable that," I replied. "I admit that I have sent a large amount of information to Washington. I have sent copies of every report and every statement to the State Department. They are safely lodged there and whatever happens to me, the evidence is complete, and the American people are not dependent on my oral report for their information. But this particular statement you make is not quite accurate. I merely informed Mr. Lansing that any influence Bulgaria might exert to stop the massacres has been lost, now that she has become Turkey's ally."

We again discussed the deportations.

"Germany is not responsible for this," Wangenheim said.

"You can assert that to the end of time," I replied, "but nobody will believe it. The world will always hold Germany responsible; the guilt of these crimes will be your inheritance forever. I know that you have filed a paper protest. But what does that amount to? You know better than I do that such a protest will have no effect. I do not claim that Germany is responsible for these massacres in the sense that she instigated them. But she is responsible in the sense that she had power to stop them and did not use it. And it is not only America and your present enemies that will hold you responsible. The German people will some day call your government to account. You are a Christian people and the time will come when Germans will realize that you have let a Mohammedan people destroy another Christian nation. How foolish is your protest that I am sending information to my State Department. Do you suppose that you can keep secret such hellish atrocities as these? Don't get such a silly, ostrich-like thought as that—don't think that by ignoring them yourselves, you can get the rest of the world to do so. Crimes like these cry to heaven. Do you think I could know about things like this and not report them to my Government? And don't forget that German missionaries, as well as American, are sending me information about the Armenians."


"All that you say may be true," replied the German Ambassador, "but the big problem that confronts us is to win this war. Turkey has settled with her foreign enemies; she has done that at the Dardanelles and at Gallipoli. She is now trying to settle her internal affairs. They still greatly fear that the Capitulations will again be forced upon them. Before they are again put under this restraint, they intend to have their internal problems in such shape that there will be little chance of any interference from foreign nations. Talaat has told me that he is determined to complete this task before peace is declared. In the future they don't intend that the Russians shall be in a position to say that "they have a right to intervene about Armenian matters because there are a large number of Armenians in Russia who are affected by the troubles of their coreligionists in Turkey. Giers used to be doing this all the time and the Turks do not intend that any ambassador from Russia or from any other country shall have such an opportunity in the future. The Armenians anyway are a very poor lot. You come in contact in Constantinople with Armenians of the educated classes, and you get your impressions about them from these men, but all the Armenians are not of that type. Yet I admit that they have been treated terribly. I sent a man to make investigations and he reported that the worst outrages have not been committed by Turkish officials but by brigands."

Wangenheim again suggested that the Armenians be taken to the United States, and once more I gave him the reasons why this would be impracticable.

"Never mind all these considerations," I said. "Let us disregard everything—military necessity, state policy, and all else—and let us look upon this simply as a human problem. Remember that most of the people who are being treated in this way are old men, old women, and helpless children. Why can't you, as a human being, see that these people are permitted to live?"

"At the present stage of internal affairs in Turkey," Wangenheim replied, "I shall not intervene."


I saw that it was useless to discuss the matter further. He was a man who was devoid of sympathy and human pity, and I turned from him in disgust. Wangenheim rose to leave. As he did so he gave a gasp, and his legs suddenly shot from under him. I jumped and caught the man just as he was falling. For a minute he seemed utterly dazed; he looked at me in a bewildered way, then suddenly collected himself and regained his poise. I took the Ambassador by the arm, piloted him downstairs, and put him into his automobile. By this time he had apparently recovered from his dizzy spell and he reached home safely. Two days afterward, while sitting at his dinner table, he had a stroke of apoplexy; he was carried upstairs to his bed, but he never regained consciousness. On October 24th, I was officially informed that Wangenheim was dead. And thus my last recollection of Wangenheim is that of the Ambassador as he sat in my office in the American Embassy, absolutely refusing to exert any influence to prevent the massacre of a nation. He was the one man, and his government was the one government, that could have stopped these crimes, but, as Wangenheim told me many times, "our one aim is to win this war."

A few days afterward official Turkey and the diplomatic force paid their last tribute to this perfect embodiment of the Prussian system….

Part II

My failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians had made Turkey for me a place of horror, and I found intolerable my further daily association with men who, however gracious and accommodating and good-natured they might have been to the American Ambassador, were still reeking with the blood of nearly a million human beings. Could I have done anything more, either for Americans, enemy aliens, or the persecuted peoples of the empire, I would willingly have stayed. The position of Americans and Europeans, however, had now become secure and, so far as the subject peoples were concerned, I had reached the end of my resources. Moreover, an event was approaching in the United States which, I believed, would inevitably have the greatest influence upon the future of the world and of democracy—the Presidential campaign. I felt that there was nothing so important in international politics as the reelection of President Wilson. I could imagine no greater calamity, for the United States and the world, than that the American nation should fail to indorse heartily this great statesman. If I could substantially assist in Mr. Wilson's reelection, I concluded that I could better serve my country at home at this juncture.

I had another practical reason for returning home, and that was to give the President and the State Department, by word of mouth, such firsthand information as I possessed on the European situation. It was especially important to give them the latest sidelights on the subject of peace. In the latter part of 1915 and the early part of 1916 this was the uppermost topic in Constantinople. Enver Pasha was constantly asking me to intercede with the President to end the war. Several times he intimated that Turkey was war-weary and that her salvation depended on getting an early peace. I have already described the conditions that prevailed a few months after the outbreak of the war, but, by the end of 1915, they were infinitely worse. When Turkey decided on the deportation and massacre of her subject peoples, especially the Armenians and Greeks, she had signed her own economic death warrant. These were the people, as I have already said, who controlled her industries and her finance and developed her agriculture, and the material consequences of this great national crime now began to be everywhere apparent. The farms were lying uncultivated and daily thousands of peasants were dying of starvation. As the Armenians and Greeks were the largest taxpayers, their annihilation greatly reduced the state revenues, and the fact that practically all Turkish ports were blockaded had shut off customs collections. The mere statement that Turkey was barely taking in money enough to pay the interest on her debt, to say nothing of ordinary expenses and war expenses, gives a fair idea of her advanced degree of exhaustion. In these facts Turkey had abundant reasons for desiring a speedy peace. Besides this, Enver and the ruling party feared a revolution, unless the war quickly came to an end. As I wrote the State Department about this time, "These men are willing to do almost anything to retain their power."…

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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