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The Armenian Genocide & The Holocaust: One Man Takes A Stand

Armin T. Wegner & The Armenians In Anatolia, 1915-1916 Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre
Teacher’s Guide
© 2009 Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre

The Armenian Genocide
Armin T. Wegner
Thinking About Photographs
Writing As Resistance
Appendix: Genocide
Recommended Resources . .


Armin T. Wegner (1886-1978) witnessed and documented the Armenian genocide while serving in the German army during WWI, and later became exiled from Nazi Germany. This exhibition features a remarkable collection of Wegner’s photographs of Armenian deportation camps, and speaks to the possibilities of photography as a form of resistance. A prolific writer and activist, Wegner campaigned for Armenian and Jewish human rights between the wars, writing an open letter to Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. In April 1933 he authored an impassioned plea to Adolf Hitler on behalf of the Jews of Germany. His act of protest and subsequent imprisonment in several Nazi concentration camps prompted Yad Vashem in Israel to honour Wegner as Righteous Among the Nations.

The VHEC school program considers the questions:

• How did this individual respond to witnessing the Armenian genocide in 1915 and the Nazi persecution of Jews in 1933?
• What can photographs tell us about genocide? How can documentation function as resistance?
• What is the potential of letter writing as a form of activism?

Your visit will be interactive and inquiry-based: we will ask students to respond to photographs and documents in the exhibit, and to consider their meaning and significance.

In most instances, your school tour will be comprised of a 45-minute exhibition tour of the Armin T. Wegner exhibition and a 45-minute workshop of In Defiance. Additional teaching support material about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust can be found on the VHEC’s website: http://vhec.org/teaching.html.

The Armenian Genocide

For centuries, many different ethnic groups lived together in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The Armenians, a Christian minority, were one of these groups. Like other minorities, they had religious freedom but were considered inferior to the Islamic Turkish majority.
In the 19th century, the Armenian community became more educated, wealthier and more urban. This change challenged the social hierarchy and resulted in state-sponsored violence against the Armenians.

At the turn of the 20th century, a number of Turkish youth groups (known as the Young Turks) began calling for change in the Empire. They opposed the Sultan’s control over the state and demanded a more democratic society. In 1908, the Young Turk Revolution achieved this reform, establishing a constitutional monarchy.

In 1913, an extremist branch of the Young Turks, the Committee of Union and Progress (the CUP) seized control of the government. They introduced a policy of Turkification, encouraging non-Turkish citizens to convert to Islam and become more Turkish. Christian Armenians were particularly targeted by this policy. Some converted but many refused, and instead worked to preserve their cultural identity through education.

In January 1915, Forced Turkification began. To limit resistance, the CUP targeted the Armenian population in phases, removing those most likely to resist. First, young Armenian men in the army were assigned to hard labour in remote areas and executed. Then, on the night of April 24, intellectuals and community leaders were arrested

and deported to the countryside, where they were later executed. In commemoration, Armenian communities around the world today observe April 24 as Red Sunday.

In May, the remaining Armenian population was deported. They were transported by train and foot to concentration camps in the Syrian desert under the supervision of the Teshikilati Mahsusa – the Special Organization, a unit of the Turkish army made up of criminals released from prison for the purpose of handling the Armenian deportees. The members of this unit were notorious for their brutality. It is estimated that one million Armenians were killed in, and on their way to, the camps – approximately half of the pre-war population.

Reports of the genocide soon reached Western nations but these governments ignored calls for action. World War I was being fought on many fronts and other battles were of more immediate concern. The British and American governments did, however, issue official condemnations against the CUP regime, and American humanitarian organizations raised funds in support of the “starving Armenians.”

After the war, the three leaders of the CUP – Talaat, Enver, and Djemal – were tried in absentia, having each fled the country. They were later assassinated by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

In 1939, shortly before the German invasion of Poland, Hitler delivered a speech to the commanders of the German military, referencing the Armenian Genocide. Assuring them that history would forgive their use of brutal force against the Poles, he asked, “who today still talks about the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Over twenty nations have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, among them Canada, Germany, and France. However, controversy continues in Turkey, where the events have not been officially acknowledged.

Armin T. Wegner

Armin Wegner (1886-1978) witnessed the brutality of the Armenian genocide, and for the rest of his life promoted human rights with his photography and writing.

At the beginning of World War I, Wegner enrolled in the army as a volunteer nurse in Poland. When Turkey joined the alliance with Germany, he was sent to the Middle East as a member of the German Sanitary Corps. Wegner used his leave in the summer of 1915 to investigate rumors about the Armenian massacres. Travelling along the Baghdad Railway, he saw the Ottoman army leading the empire’s Armenian population on forced marches through the Syrian desert, and encountered scenes of starvation, disease and murder.

Deliberately disobeying orders meant to prevent news of the massacres from spreading, Wegner collected evidence of the genocide - including photographs, documents, and personal notes - to send to contacts in Germany and the United States. Wegner’s secret mail routes were soon discovered and, at the Turkish government’s request, Wegner was arrested and recalled to Germany. While some of his photographs were confiscated and destroyed, he nonetheless succeeded in smuggling out images of the Armenian persecution.

Between 1918 and 1921, Wegner campaigned for peace and supported the establishment of an independent Armenian state. In an open letter to American President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Wegner protested against atrocities perpetrated by the Turkish army against the Armenian people.

Wegner was also one of the earliest voices to protest the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany. On April 11, 1933 -- immediately following the state-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses and the

offices of Jewish lawyers and doctors -- he wrote a letter to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Shortly after delivering the letter to the Nazi Party headquarters, Wegner was arrested, tortured and interned in three concentration camps: Oranienburg, Börgermoor and Lichtenburg. Incarceration in seven different prisons was followed by years of exile in England, Poland and Italy.

Wegner’s actions were later acknowledged. He was awarded the Highest Order of Merit by the Federal German Government in 1956. His native city of Wuppertal awarded him the prestigious Eduard-Von-der-Heydt prize in 1962. In 1967 he was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel and in 1968 was awarded the Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator by the Catholicos of All Armenians. Wegner died in Rome at the age of 92.

Teacher Web Link - Preview Wegner’s Photographs: http://www.armenian-genocide.org/photo_wegner.html

Thinking About


Pre-Visit Activity: Behind The Camera

Students visiting the VHEC will examine photographs of the Armenian genocide taken by Armin T. Wegner. The following activity is designed to help students “read” and understand different types of photographs in preparation for those that they will encounter in the exhibit.

Students will examine and describe visual elements found in photographs in order to predict and make judgments about the significance of the photographs including their subjects, the photographers and the location and circumstances under which the photographs were taken.

Teacher Preparation
• Form small student groups. One student in each group is assigned the role of recorder and one the role of reporter.
• Make copies of the following three photographs and distribute copies to each group.
• Optional: find additional contemporary photographs from online sources or other media of people in situations of trauma or crisis such as war, refugee camps or natural disasters and distribute copies of this photograph to each group.

Activity: Decoding Photographs
Students examine their photographs and respond to the following instructions and questions. The recorder takes notes during the discussion. Groups may wish to make a chart to organize their responses. Reporters share each group’s findings with the class.

What was the first thing that you noticed about each photograph?
• Describe the subject(s) of each photograph, including pose, facial expressions and dress. Describe the location or setting of each photograph.
• Imagine who the subject(s) of each photograph might be and what they might be thinking or feeling.
• Predict where and when the photograph was taken. What visual clues are you using to make your prediction?
• Predict who the photographer might have been. Consider – friend or family member, professional photographer, journalist, witness, an enemy soldier, etc. Why do you think each photographer chose to take the photograph? What was their purpose and who was their intended audience?
• Compare all the photographs. How are they similar or different?
• Read the caption for each photograph.
• Describe how similar or different this information is to your predictions about the subject, the photographer and the circumstances under which it was taken.
• What is the most important thing that you learned about the photograph that you did not know before?
• Do you think it matters who the photographer was? Explain.
• Do you think that the photographer can affect the way the subject of the photograph is portrayed?
• How do documentary photographs like these contribute to your understanding of war and genocide?

Draw a chart on the black board, using the headings below. Ask students to list the different types of photographers they have come across in this activity. (Elicit: photojournalists, professional photographers, friends, family, enemies, etc.) Beside each photographer students list the various possible reasons that person might have for taking photos and the visual clues that have informed their ideas.

Types Of Photography

Visual Clues
Professional Studio, Photographer,
Friend, Etc.
Financial Gain, Etc
Subject’s Expression, Pose, Etc.

Post-Visit Extension: Imaging Darfur
• Compare the photograph of a Darfur refugee camp to the images in the Wegner exhibit. Use strategies
introduced in the Pre-Visit Activity and VHEC school program to “decode” the image.

• As a class, or as a homework assignment, have students view photographs taken by former United States Marine Brian Steidle in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s image gallery, “In Darfur, My Camera Was Not Nearly Enough”, and read the accompanying article: www.ushmm.org/conscience/alert/darfur/steidle/.

Discuss how do Wegner’s responses to Armenian genocide compare to Brian Steidle’s observations and records of Darfur. How are their photographs and writing similar? How do they differ?

• Direct students to explore World is Witness: http://blogs.ushmm.org/worldiswitness.

This new “geoblog” from the USHMM’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiatives, in partnership with Google Earth, documents and maps genocide and related crimes against humanity.

As a class, discuss the implications of information technology on activism. How does knowing about human rights abuses as they occur affect our capacity to respond?

Writing As Resistance

Armin Wegner authored two letters that serve as powerful models of articulating outrage and advocating action in the face of human rights abuses. By working with Wegner’s 1919 open letter to US President Woodrow Wilson, as well as his 1933 letter to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, students will consider the motivations and implications of bearing witness. They will then use Wegner’s models to write a response to a social justice issue of their choice.

Warm-Up Discussion: To Bear Witness
• As a class, discuss what it means to be a witness.
• What are some of the reasons to speak up? To stay silent?
• What are some of the risks that can be associated with being a witness? student readings & group discussion
• In groups, students read one of Wegner’s letters and discuss the following questions:

• What do we learn about the Armenian genocide/ the Holocaust from Wegner’s accounts?
• What actions does Wegner propose to Woodrow Wilson/ Adolf Hitler?
• Wegner was a poet and writer who used language to great effect. What words do you find particularly powerful?

Letter Writing Activity
• Have students identify a social justice issue they feel strongly about in their school, community or internationally. It should be an issue students have witnessed in some way, either first-hand or via news media.

• Have students identify a decision-maker to whom to address their letter.
• Have students research their issue and draft a letter outlining the problem and suggesting a possible course of action in response.
Students should be encouraged to use persuasive language, with Wegner as a model.

Extension Topics: Warning The World

• The Armenian Genocide

Read the telegram sent by the U.S. Ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, to Washington (July 16, 1915), notifying the American government of the mounting humanitarian crisis. Research Morgenthau’s role and response to the Armenian Genocide, and write a paper outlining the dilemmas he faced.

An additional report detailing his experiences can be found online:

Document: 1919 Wegner Letter

Selections From Armin T. Wegner’s Open Letter To Us President Woodrow Wilson Published In Berliner Tageblatt February 23, 1919

As one of the few Europeans who have been eyewitnesses of the dreadful destruction of the Armenian people… I dare claim the right of bringing to your attention this picture of misery and terror which passed before my eyes for nearly two years, and which will never be obliterated from my mind.

The Armenian people as such did not take part in this military campaign. They were not even given the chance to do so. The Armenian people were victims of this War.

The voice of conscience and humanity will never be silenced in me, and therefore I address these words to you. This document is a request. In it the tongues of thousands dead speak.

With the ardor of one who has seen their unimaginable sufferings and has felt them in his own heart, I speak in the name of those whose despairing cries I had to hear without being able to still them, whose cruel deaths I could only helplessly mourn, whose bones bestrew the deserts of the Euphrates, and whose limbs once more become alive in my heart and admonish me to speak.

If you, Mr. President, have indeed made the sublime idea of championing oppressed nations the guiding principle of your policy, you will not fail to perceive that even in these words a mighty voice speaks, the only voice that has the right to be heard at all times - the voice of humanity.

Document : 1933 Wegner Letter

Selections From Armin T. Wegner’s Letter To German Chancellor Adolph Hitler April 11, 1933

Document: 1936 Morgenthau Report

Document : 1944 Vrba-Weztler Report

Appendix: Genocide

The term genocide was first coined by Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar, in 1943. Lemkin formed the word by combining the Greek genos (race or tribe) with the Latin cide (to kill). Lemkin proposed the following definition for this new

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

- Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944)

This definition was inspired by Lemkin’s study of the massacres of Armenians during World War I and of the Assyrians in Iraq in 1933. It was adopted as one of the legal bases for the Nuremberg trials, where Nazi leaders were tried by the international community following World War II.

With Lemkin’s encouragement, the newly established United Nations passed a resolution criminalizing genocide. The UN adopted the following definition:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about
its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

- Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article II (1948)

Scholars and activists continue to debate the term. Many criticize the UN definition’s exclusion of “political groups” as a category of possible victims. One notable proposed definition states:

Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.

- Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn: The History and Sociology of Genocide (1990)


In 1996 Gregory Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch, proposed that genocide develops in eight stages. At each stage, he argues, preventative measures can be taken to avoid genocide from occurring. He presented this paper to the US Department of State.

Preventative Measures . . .

Timeline Of The Armenian Genocide

1894–1896 Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s policies result in the deaths of more than 100,000 men, women and children. The move cripples Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

1896 The great massacre of Constantinople; for two days, at the Turkish Government’s bidding, Armenians are killed indiscriminately in the streets.

1908 The Young Turks remove Sultan Hamid II from power and reestablish a constitutional monarchy. A liberal government is installed, but a more militarist faction, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) gains increasing support from the army. july 24

1909 A counterrevolution briefly returns Hamid II to power. In the unrest that follows, between 15,000 and 30,000 Christian Armenians are killed in Adana province.

1914 A boycott of all Armenian businesses is declared.

feb 21 Parliamentary elections are held; only candidates approved by the CUP win seats.

mar 2 Germany declares war on Russia, beginning World War I.

aug 1 A secret treaty of alliance is signed between Turkey and Germany virtually placing the Turkish armed forces under German command.

aug 2 Censorship of all telegraphic communication is imposed.

aug 5 Looting and vandalism of Armenian businesses occurs in the city of Diyarbekir and elsewhere.

aug 18 All men between 20 and 45 are drafted to the military.

aug 22 The Ottoman Empire enters World War I on the side of the Central Powers, allying with Germany, The Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Bulgaria.

november Convicts begin to be released from prison to form the Special Organization, which will later be responsible for the deportations of the Armenians.

1915 The CUP accuses Armenian bakers of poisoning bread; a false charge intended to spark riots.

jan 5 Armenian members of the army are demobilized and transferred to unarmed labour battalions.

feb 25 Mass deportations of the Armenian population begin.

mar 31 Mass arrests of Armenian political leaders in Sivas province.

apr 1 Resisting calls for conscription, the Armenian community of Van clashes with the army.

apr 20 Red Sunday. 600 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders are arrested across the Empire, 250 in Constantinople. They were later executed en masse.

apr 24-25 The Temporary Law of Deportation is passed, authorizing the government and military to relocate anyone considered a threat to national security. Deportations of Armenians begin throughout the Empire. Ethnic Turks are resettled into formerly Armenian regions.

may The New York Times reports that the Turks had adopted a policy to annihilate the Armenians.

may 6 The Temporary Law of Expropriation and Confiscation is passed, stating that all property owned by Armenians is to be confiscated by the authorities.

sept 13 Hundreds of thousands of Armenians are deported from cities and villages throughout the Empire.

sept - dec An announcement in Berlin claims that reports of the Armenian massacres are an Allied fabrication.

oct 13 Instructions are issued advising that the special measures taken against the Armenians be conducted in places beyond the view of foreigners and especially the American consuls.

oct 31 Orders are issued for the killing of Armenian priests.

dec 14 A circular telegram clarifies that the purpose of the deportations is annihilation.

dec 15 Orders are issued forbidding the acceptance from any Armenian of an application of exemption from the deportations.

dec 22 Orders are issued for the deportation of all children except those who do not remember their parents.

dec 25 In April, Wegner is send to the Middle East as a member of the German Sanitary Corps. In July and August, Wegner spends his leave investigating rumors of Armenian massacres and detention camps. He photographs what he sees and, disobeying orders, smuggles these photos to Germany and the United States.

April 1916 Instructions are sent to prevent foreign officers from photographing dead Armenians.

jan 13 The governor-general of Aleppo informs Talaat that only 10% of the Armenian deportees remain alive, and that measures are being taken to dispose of them as well.

jan 23 During this period of 47 days, of 486,000 Armenian deportees, 364,500 are reported to have been killed by the Turks or to have died because of the hardships of the deportations.

jan 23 - mar 10 50,000 Armenians are reported murdered at Intille (Intili) and another 50,000 deportees are reported at Ras-el-Ain (Ras ul-Ain).

feb 14 An American application to send relief to the Armenians is rejected by Turkey.

feb 16 The New York Times reports that German Catholics place the number of massacred Armenians at 1,000,000.

apr 16 The New York Times reports that 80,000 Armenians had died of starvation around Damascus.

may 24 The Russian Army occupies Bayburt and Erzinjan in the eastern province of Erzerum.

july 6 The U.S. House of Representatives adopts the resolution introduced in the U.S. Senate establishing a day of commemoration for the Armenian victims.

july 19 The Turkish government orders all Armenian orphans to be given Turkish names.

sept 5 Wilhelm Radowitz reports to the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg that of the two million Armenians in Turkey, one and half million had been deported. Of these 1,175,000 were dead; 325,000 were still living.

oct 4 The Turkish government confiscates by a provisional law all the real estate of the Armenians.

oct 5 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, acting on the resolution of Congress, proclaims these two days “Armenian Relief Days.”

oct 8 & 9 In November, Wegner is reassigned to work in Cholera wards in Constantinople. He takes with him photonegatives of the atrocities hidden in his belt. By the end of the year, he is recalled to Germany.


jan 4 Allied forces occupy Baghdad.

mar 11 36 | timeline of the armenian genocide

1917 | continued... Turkey breaks off diplomatic relations with the United States.

apr 20 Allied forces occupy Jerusalem.

Dec 9 1918 Enver orders the killing of all civilian Armenians over five years of age and remaining Armenians in the Turkish military within 48 hours. The Germans attempt to stop the Turks from committing this massacre.

mar 12 Allied forces occupy Damascus.

Oct 1 Allied forces occupy Beirut. The CUP Cabinet of Enver, Jemal, and Talaat resigns. All three prepare to flee the country.

Oct 8 An armistice is signed between Turkey and the Allies. The armistice agreement makes provisions for Armenian internees to be released and allows Armenian deportees to return to their homes.

Oct 8 A general armistice is signed between the Allies and the Central Powers.

nov 11 Enver, Jemal, and Talaat are summoned by the Turkish Parliament to appear for an inquiry within ten days.

Dec 11

Wegner’s eyewitness account of the Armenian Genocide is published as The Way of No Return: A Martyrdom in Letters. On February 23, Wegner’s open letter to US President Woodrow Wilson is published in the Berliner Tageblatt Newspaper.

Adolph Hitler elected Chancellor of Germany
jan 30

Recommended Readings

Akçam, Taner. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. London: Zed Books, 2004. Akçam contextualizes the genocide within Turkey’s transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. He investigates the effects that the genocide has had on contemporary Turkey, arguing that Turkey will never be a truly democratic nation until it confronts its past.

Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. A thorough overview of the genocide and America’s response to the humanitarian crisis. Balakian notes that America’s failure to recognize the genocide today starkly contrasts with its emphatic humanitarian response at the time.

Graber, G.S.. Caravans to Oblivion: The Armenian Genocide, 1915. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.
Graber focuses on the Turkish state’s organization of the genocide, demonstrating the extent to which it was centrally planned.

Hovannisian, Richard G., ed.. The Armenian Genocide in Perspective. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1986.
An early collection of essays approaching the genocide from different perspectives, this remains a lucid introduction.

Miller, Donald E. and Lorna Touryan Miller. Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
Interviews with over 100 survivors illustrating themes such as the imprisonment of Armenian leaders, life in orphanages, and th
e continued psychological trauma plaguing survivors.

Recommended Websites
20 Voices
A Video Introduction To The Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian National Committee of Canada
An organization dedicated to the concerns of the Canadian Armenian community on a broad range of issues.

The Armenian National Institute
A website dedicated to the study, research and affirmation of the Armenian genocide.

The Forgotten: The Armenian Genocide
Includes a timeline, biography and gallery of Armin Wegner, as well as survivor testimonies.


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