Friday, October 16, 2015

Birth of Armin Wegner (October 16, 1886)

Armin T. Wegner was the German writer and human rights activist who documented graphically the Armenian Genocide. At the end of his life, he described it “as a solemn pledge to do everything possible to maintain alive the memory of the Armenian fate.” He was also one of the earliest voices to protest Adolf Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in Germany.

Armin T. Wegner, 1916 in Bagdad.

Wegner was born on October 16, 1886 in the town of Elberfeld / Rhineland (Wuppertal) in Germany. His father was a civil servant employed by the German Imperial Railroad and his mother was a suffragette and pacifist. He studied law and political science at the universities of Zurich, Paris, and Berlin, receiving his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Breslau in 1914. He also attended theater director Max Reinhardt’s acting school in Berlin between 1910 and 1912, and began his career as a freelance poet and journalist shortly before World War I.

At the outbreak of World War I, he enrolled as a volunteer nurse and served in Poland during the winter of 1914-1915. He was decorated with the Iron Cross for assisting the wounded under fire. From the autumn of 1915 to November 1916, following the military alliance of Germany and Turkey, he was stationed in Turkey as a member of the German Sanitary Corps. He served as a medical officer on the Baghdad staff of Field Marshal von der Goltz with the Sixth Ottoman Army. He witnessed and recorded with pen and camera the systematic deportation and annihilation of the Armenians, despite explicit Turkish prohibition. In late June 1916 he was arrested by soldiers of the German military mission in Turkey because of censorship violations and reassigned to serve as an orderly in cholera barracks in Baghdad. Taken ill with typhus, he was sent back to Berlin in November of the same year. Hidden in his belt were his photographic rolls with images of the genocide.

A photograph of Armenian orphans at a makeshift camp on the deportation road taken by Armin Wegner.

He completed his first two volumes about his experiences in Turkey by early 1917, and they would be published in 1919-1920. His first volume of poetry appeared in 1917, but it was banned. He did some editorial jobs in 1918-1919, and after the revolution of November 1918, he was able to openly publish fiction as well as articles and manifestos about the Armenian annihilation. In January 1919 he published an open letter to President Woodrow Wilson, where he protested against the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks and appealed for the independence of Armenia. Wegner delivered several illustrated slide lectures about the Armenian massacres in October 1919 and his short stories appeared throughout 1920-1921 in the press. He published several books related to the Armenian cause during the 1920s.

In 1930 he received a subsidy from the Prussian Academy of the Arts to complete his Armenian novel The Expulsion, in four volumes, which he never finished. He had married Jewish poet Lola Landau in 1921 and had lectured actively on the pacifist circuit, as well as published various travelogues. In 1927 he visited Soviet Armenia.

After the Nazi accession to power, Wegner’s works were banned, his books purged from the shelves of German libraries, and some were burned in the May 1933 book burnings. He addressed a letter to Hitler where he warned him that Jews would survive the danger and “the shame and misfortune will however be allotted to Germany and will not quickly be forgotten, even in the future.” He asked the German chancellor “to protect Germany by protecting the Jews.” The result was Wegner’s arrest and imprisonment in jail and then in various concentration camps from August 1933 to the spring of 1934.

After his liberation, Wegner followed his wife, who had fled to London with their daughter, but later returned to Germany. He also followed them when they immigrated to Palestine in 1935, and visited there in 1936 and 1937, but was unable to secure permanent residence. Wegner and Landau drifted away and were divorced in 1938.

Wegner, later in life.
Wegner was allowed to migrate to Italy in 1938. He lived with his common law wife Irene Kowaliska (he married her in 1945) in Positano and managed to survive periodical German persecution during the war and to live upon minor income until the end of the war. His prodigious literary productivity was severely affected. Most of his projects were never fulfilled. He returned to Germany for the first time in 1952, but found out that after twenty years, he could no longer return to his native land. He moved to Rome in 1956. The same year, he was awarded the Highest Order of Merit by the Federal German government. His birthplace Wuppertal decorated him with the prestigious Eduard-Von-der-Heydt prize in 1962.

His photographs of the genocide were rediscovered by the press in 1965. He also wrote a commemorative essay in the same year. In 1967 he was awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel, and in 1968 he received an invitation to Armenia from the Catholicos of All Armenians and was awarded the Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

Wegner made a lecture tour of the United States in 1972, at the age of 86. He passed away in Rome on May 17, 1978. In 1996 part of his ashes were taken to Armenia, where a posthumous state funeral took place near the perpetual flame of the Armenian Genocide Monument.