Michael Hesemann, Historiker und Autor
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Pope Benedict XV, the Vatican and the First Republic of Armenia

By Dr. h.c. Michael Hesemann, Duesseldorf/Germany and Rome/Italy
Lecture at the Conference "Republic Armenia - 100" at the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia in Yerevan/Armenia, May 25-26, 2018

The ca. 3000 pages of documents which we located in the Vatican Archives – both the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (A.S.V.) and the Archivio della Segreteria di Stato, Affari Ecclesiastici Straordinari (A.E.S.) - document an impressive interest of the Holy See into the fate of the Armenians, the oldest Christian Nation on Earth. The genocide of 1915/16 was not only openly condemned by Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) in a public allucation to the College of Cardinals at the Consistory on December 6, 1915[1], he also tried to stop the deportations and massacres by diplomatic interventions via his Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople, Archbishop Angelo Maria Dolci, and even by two autographs sent to Sultan Mehmet V in 1915[2] and 1918[3].

But Benedict XV, the „Pope of Peace“, did not limit his efforts to the condemnation of the first genocide of the 20th century. He also took a vivid interest in creating the fundaments of a post-war peace order for the devastated continent of Europe in general, but also for the Christian martyr nation of the Armenians in special. Perhaps the most important step that the Pope took in support of the Armenian nation was his „Note to the Leaders of the Belligerent Peoples“[4] of 1 August 1917. In this document, at point 5, he made an explicit appeal for „the structuring of Armenia“ besides a similar request for the Balkan nations and Poland. The latter were a lesser surprise, given the strong Catholic presence in Croatia and the deep Catholic faith of the Polish. But nobody expected that Benedict XV considered the Armenian aspirations just as legitimate and important as those of two Catholic nations with close ties to the Holy See. Indeed, with this document, the Pope anticipated President Woodrow Wilson’s „Fourteen Points“ of 8 January 1918[5] which confirmed him in his intentions for Poland and the Balkan but was far less specific regarding „the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule“; the American president just wanted to assure them „an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development“, but mentioned Armenia with no word.

In the meantime, new dangers arose for the Armenians who fled into the parts of Western Armenia liberated by the Russians during WW1. After the Russian revolution, the new communist government, originally supported by the German Reich, agreed to withdraw their troops from Western Armenia in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 3 March 1918. Just an Armenian militia was supposed to guarantee the security of the Armenian community. Within weeks, the Turks, who considered the Armenian refugees as traitors, defeated the militia and evicted it to Eastern Armenia. At the same time, the Turkish allies in Aserbaidjian used the opportunity to raid Eastern Armenia. On 3 May 1918, negotiations started in Batum which even disconcerted the German allies of the Ottomans: "The excessive Turkish demand ... is aimed at territorial acquisition far beyond the Brest treaty ... and at extermination of the Armenians also in Transcaucasia"[6], the German participant General von Lossow wrote to the Auswärtige Amt (Foreign Office) on 15 May 1918. In this precarious situation, once again Papal diplomacy interferred. Alarmed by the Armenian Catholic Archbishop Peter Kojunian, the Patriarchal procurator S. Der Abramian and the Superior oft he Mechitarist Congregation, Fr. Giovanni Torossian[7], Pope Benedict XV started two initiatives:  First he wrote a second autograph to Sultan Mehmet V on 18 March 1918[8] and appealed for „generosity and mercy“ for the „unarmed and innocent population“ of Western Armenia. Second, he alarmed his new Nuncio in Munich (there were no official diplomatic relations with the Reich yet), Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, to launch a diplomatic approach in the name of the Pope directed to the Emperor and the Chancellor of the Reich, what he did on 9 March.[9] In his reply, Chancellor of the Reich Georg Graf von Hertling just repeated the Turkish point of view and blamed the „rebellous Armenians“[10] fort he atrocities. Indeed neither an emotional appeal of Cardinal Felix von Hartmann, Archbishop of Cologne, head of the German Bishop’s Conference and a personal friend of the Emperor[11],  nor reports about new Turkish massacres and cruelties („indescribable sufferings: children are put in bags and thrown into the sea. The old men and women were crucified and mutilated, all young girls and young women were raped by the Turks“[12]) changed his mind[13] but at least caused him to remind the Ottoman Sublime Port „how important it is … to avoid riots against the Armenian population … and prevent similar situations as they took place in 1915.“[14] Only when he received the Papal autograph to Sultan Mehmet V, von Hertling – a Catholic – suddenly realized the situation. In a Promemoria of 7 August 1918 he reported to Pacelli:  "When the Turkish troops entered their territory, thousands of Armenians had left their homes in the South Caucasus and fled to the mountains, where, for want of any supply, they were in the long run starving. They turned to us with requests to get permission from the Turkish government to return to their homes and recover their crops. After the Turkish government had initially (...) rejected it, it has now replied by our suggestions, supported by Austria-Hungary, to begin immediately with the repatriation of the Armenian refugees to their homeland."[15] It was another Turkish lie. Instead, the killings continued. In the Turkish Council of State, Enver Pasha pleaded for "the Armenians to be as thoroughly (exterminated) in the Caucasus as they are in Turkey", as Interior Minister Talaat Pasha has entrusted to the new Armenian Finance Minister Alexander Katisian[16]. Still driven by the Panturk ideology, his troops invaded Armenia in September 1918 and advanced to Baku, where they slaughtered about 30,000 Armenians[17] and deported 10,000 in a three-hour massacre; Tens of thousands had already fled the city. Then they continued their campaign to northern Persia. It was the last great success of the Ottoman army and "nearly 500,000 Armenians“, according to historian Wilhelm Baum[18], fell victim to him altogether. One last rapture before the fall, as we know today. Papal diplomacy, too, could not have prevented this with all its efforts.

The following events were very well investigated and documented by my colleague Mario Carolla, who, in his important work “Vatican Diplomacy and the Armenian Question: The Holy See’s Response to the Republic of Armenia 1918-1922”, published 125 original documents from the Vatican Secret Archives, so the following is based on his brilliant work:

Meanwhile, Ex-Russian Armenia, now governed by the socialist Dashnaktsutiun party (also: Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF), signed a demanding but ephemeral peace treaty with Turkey on 4 June 1918, given birth to the first Republic of Armenia. This accord would fall already in November with the defeat of the Central Powers but was necessary at that time to end the new massacres following the Ottoman advance.
On 26 June 1918, the Turkish newspaper „Hilal“ published an interview with Ahmed Djevat Bey, the Secretary of the Azeri delegation which had come to Constantinple to sign a treaty of friendship with the Turks. The background was the Azeri intention to conquer Baku with Turkish support, which was under control of Armenian Dashnaks at the time. In this interview, of which a copy was sent to the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, by Nuncio Dolci[19], Emin had made the false claim of an „inexistance of an Armenian government“. Indeed the Armenian National Council was fully active for a month already at that point.  For example, on 21 June 1918, the Armenian Catholic Vice-Administrator was informed that „Mr. Ferdinand Tactagian is leaving for Constantinople as a member of the Armenian Delegation, to carry out peace talks.“[20] Finally, a government was formed on June 30, 1918, four days after the Azeri claim, which indeed „just served as an excuse to make ever more exorbitant demands on Armenian territory that had just been … reduced to 11.000 square kilometres. The Turkish strategy was, essentially, aimed not only at reducing Armenia but surrounding her with hostile Muslim neighbors, in view of a final attack that would wipe out the country.“[21]

This obvious threat made it imminent for the Armenians to obtain the most authoritative international recognition possible. And indeed, they knew that they had every support from the Holy See already.
In July 1918, the Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople, Archbishop Dolci, cordially received an Armenian delegation, which had come to sign a peace agreement with the Turks and to thank the Pope (via Msgr. Dolci) for his help and support during the genocide, but also for his mention of Armenia in his „note to the Belligerent Peoples“ of 1917. „Especially the Armenian delegates‘ admission of the Great Power’s hostility towards the new Republic appears to have been an invitation to the Holy See, not particularly veiled, to take up Armenia‘s defense even more.“[22] Indeed the great importance Dolci, in his report, gave to the meeting and its very cordial atmosphere indicate the sympathy of the Holy See for the Armenian position. Therefore, their president’s explicit desire to establish official diplomatic relations with the Holy See „was noted with satisfaction and almost with relief by the pontificial representative.“[23] The Pope‘s wish to establish the new See of the Armenian Catholic Patriarch in Yerevan, in the newborn republic, was highly appreciated by the Armenian side as a first step towards an open support. The delegation and the Apostolic delegate met several times until they left again for Armenia on 24 October 1917.[24]

On 20 December 1918, Mr. Damadian, who represented Boghos Nubar Pasha‘s National Delegation in Italy, wrote to Cardinal Gasparri, thanked the Holy See for its support, referred to Benedict XVth „Note“ and again pleaded for support for the republic and its reorganisation within the historic boundaries „in order that Armenia reassume her role as a vanguard of Christianity and civilization in the East“.[25] When he was received by Gasparri, he presented a copy of his memorandum to the US ambassador in Italy, asking for Allied recognition of the Armenian Republic and the reunification of Russian Armenia with Turkish occupied Western Armenia, under the guarantee of the League of Nations or the Entente Powers. Would the Pope, he asked, support him in this cause? The reply seemed to be affirmative, and Msgr. Dolci had no reason to deny Armenian reports about two Papal delegates sent to Washington D.C. to promote the cause of a „united and independent greater Armenia“ and to obtain the benevolent attention of President Wilson in March 1919.[26]

After the first free elections in independent Armenia on 21-23 June 1919, the Holy See decided to send an Apostolic Visitor to Yerevan, Fr. Antonio Delpuch, which is the usual first step towards the establishment of diplomatic relations.[27] Still, a month later, this positive development was overshadowed by Mustafa Kemal’s revolt in Anatolia and his vow „not to cede even an inch of Anatolia to the Greeks and Armenians“.[28]

Upon his arrival in Yerevan, Fr. Delpuch adressed a letter to the Armenian presidet Khatissian in which he stressed not only the Pope’s evident sympathy for the Armenians but also Benedict XVs desire that Armenians would finally live in peace in a free and independent state.[29] Expectingly, he received a similarily warm reply from president Khatissian, expressing the highest appreciation for the Papal initiatives of the past in the name of the Armenian people.[30] Before he returned to Rome, on 27 November 1919 Fr. Delpuch paid a last visit to Khatissian, once again assuring him the great affection of the Holy Father towards Armenia and his full support for her „noble and legitimate aspirations for independence. A people faithful to their Christian tradition, which had paid for such affiliation with unherd-of suffering, would not be forgotten by the Holy See.“[31]

In his long report to his Superiors, Fr. Delpuch „recognized that with the Muslims, as with the Azeris, the Armenians had not been able to establish a peaceful coexistence. For Delpuch, anyway, the hatred between Armenian and Azeri was that between oppressed and oppressor, and the Armenian struggle was dictated by motivations of self-defense, pure and simple. The detail is not irrelevant, because in the case of conflicts the Holy See has demonstrated a great deal of caution before sympathizing with one of the contenders; the fact that, at least in part, Delpuch pronounced himself in favor of the Armenians means that it was not morally possible to ignore or relativize with equidistance the Armenian people’s suffering.“[32] As a consequence, the Vatican Secretary of State on 15 January 1920 sent warm thanks to the Armenian President Khatissian and confirmed the Pope’s wishes for every moral and material progress of the nation.[33]

In the same month, the Vatican officially sent the Bishop of Trabzon, Msgr. John Naslian, as representative of the Armenian Catholic Church to the Peace Conference in Paris.[34] Naslian was known to be a tireless activist for the Armenian cause. Right after his arrival, he appealed to the Catholic Bishops and faithful of France to support the new republic, considering the suffering of his people in the past and the long-term friendship between the French and the Armenians.[35] With the official blessing of the Holy See, he demanded the constitution of a free and independent Armenia, the extension of her territory including an outlet to the sea, the return of forcibly converted Armenians to Christianity, the release of Armenian women and children from Turkish slavery, repratriation assistance for the survivors of the genocide, disarmement of the Turks and huge compensations for Armenian individuals and institutions whose property was stolen and/or confiscated by the Turks. Unfortunately, he was not met with great sympathy by the secular French Premier Clemenceau. In April, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Gasparri wrote to the President of the Armenian Delegation in Paris, assuring him of the Papal interest in all matters dealing with Armenia.[36] Still, conflicts between the Allies found many excuses for them not to support the young state. The Holy See was excluded from the Peace Conferences under pressure from Masonic forces in France and Great Britain. But still it played a role „behind the scenes“. Even the Turkish Grand Vizier recognized that fact and tried a charme-offensive, telling Dolci „that the Crecent and the Cross had always gotten along: that the Catholics in particular were always loved and assisted by the Sultan… etc.“[37], as if he had forgotten that 85.000 Armenian Catholics were just slaughtered by the Turks. When the Turkish „sweet melodies“ were just politely ignored by the Holy See, the new Armenian requests for help received immediate attention.

On 8 June 1920, after the San Remo conference brought no satisfying results, Boghos Nubar Pasha wrote directly to Benedict XV and informed him that the European powers were all, in reality, betraying the solemn promises they had made to the Armenian martyr nation and leaving it unprotected to its hostile neighbors.[38]  The Pope understood immediately – and acted. He charged Cardinal Gasparri to urgently advise full satisfaction of the Armenian needs to the British representative at the Holy See, Count de Salis. In his note to the diplomat, Gasparri stressed that Benedict XV. has „ordered“ him to petition the British government to do everything possible to protect Armenia and her borders.[39] It is one of the rare instances in modern history that the Vatican directly takes sides in favour of a nation and, indeed, acts as its advocate – especially since strict neutrality was the main principle of his foreign policy. Right after, Gasparri wrote a very cordial letter to Nubar, assuring him that his request was immediately satisfied by the Pope who hoped his initiative to be fruitful. The Holy See would not cease to take interest in the Armenian question and to protect Armenia’s rights.[40] Indeed, supported by the Pope, the Allies compelled the Turks to sign the Treaty of Sevres on 10 August 1920, which made Trabzon, Erzurum and Van a part of Greater Armenia. Russia had not joined the signing nations, but, at the same time, negotiated with the Kemalists who flatly refused the Treaty of Sevres and any Armenian concessions in Anatolia. The resulting Soviet-Kemalist pact was a massive defeat of both, the Papal and the Allied policy. The advance of Mustafa Kemals troops caused more massacres and antichristian violence and the new Turkish dictator – to nobody’s surprise – ignored all Papal appeals to respect the lives and assets of the Christians in Turkey.[41] At the same time, the overthrow of the Dashnak government, replaced by a Bolshevist government and the proclamation of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic on 29 November 1920, followed by an imminent sovietization and  eventually the entry into the Soviet Union two years later, in December 1922, ended the promising and friendly relationship between the first Armenian Republic and the Holy See, a nation so dear to the heart of the Holy Father.
[1] A.A.S. (Acta Apostolicae Sedis) VII (1915), p. 510
[2] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia 101, Fasc. 528, p. 9-10
[3] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385; Fasc. 7, p. 37 f.
[4] „Una Nota del Sommo Pontefice ai capi die popoli belligeranti“, in: L’Osservatore Romano, 17.8.1917
[5] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/wilson14.asp
[6] Cit. Johannes Lepsius: Deutschland und Armenien 1814-1918, Potsdam 1919, p. 383 f.
[7] A.E.S. Asia 57, 2, No. 59712
[8] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385; Fasc. 7, p. 37 f.
[9] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385, Fasc. 7, p. 8
[10] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385, Fasc. 7, p. 9
[11] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385, Fasc. 7, p. 21-23
[12] Cit. Lepsius 1919, p. 377
[13] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385, Fasc. 7, p. 15 f.
[14] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385, Fasc. 7, p. 25
[15] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385, Fasc. 7, p. 50
[16] Cit. Wilhelm Baum, Die Türkei und ihre christlichen Minderheiten, Klagenfurt-Wien 2005, p. 140 f.
[17] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia, Fasc. 530, p. 14 of  21.10.1918: „The number of Armenians killed in Baku is about 30,000. The massacres lasted for three hours. Regular Turkish troops invaded the villages in small groups ... (...) Among the murdered are only Armenians."
[18] Baum 2005, p. 145
[19] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia 97, fasc. 503, p. 104 rv.
[20] A.E.S. Asia 57, 2, no. 81691
[21] Mario Carolla, Vatican Diplomacy and the Armenian Question: The Holy See’s Response tot he Republic of Armenia 1918-22, London 2010, p. 8
[22] Carrolla 2010, p. 12, summarizing A.E.S. Asia 57, 2, no. (..)61
[23] Ibd., p. 13, referring to A.E.S. Asia 57, 2, no. 81286
[24] A.E.S. Russia 540bis, No. 85097, doc. No. 28, 24.10.1918
[25] A.E.S. Asia 57, 2, no. 84492
[26] A.S.V. Guerra 1914-18, 244, 69, no. 90014
[27] A.E.S. Russia 505, No. 1120
[28] Carolla 2010, p. 22
[29] A.E.S. Asia 126, no. 3643
[30] A.E.S. Asia 126, No. 3643
[31] C.O. 106, 2, 3, No. 3228
[32] Carolla 2010, S. 27, summarizing CO, 106. 2, 3, no. 55
[33] A.E.S. Asia 126, No. 3643
[34] A.E.S.Asia 57, 2, no. 1066
[35] A.E.S. Asia 57, 2, n. (?)
[36] A.E.S. Asia 57, 2, no. 4764
[37] A.E.S. Austria 576, no. 7232
[38] A.E.S. Asia 57, 1, no. 8131
[39] A.E.S. Asia 57, 1, no. 8131
[40] A.E.S. Asia 57, 1, no. 8132
[41] A.E.S.Asia 117, no. 17569