Michael Hesemann, Historiker und Autor
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Pius XII and the Armenian Genocide

A study on Papal reactions

Paper delivered at the International Conference
"Pius XII and the Second World War: Assumption and New Archival Evidence" at the Universitá degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi, Rom, 2. Oktober 2014

By Michael Hesemann
One key to understand Pius XII reaction on the holocaust – his hesitation to name both, murderers and victims, and his dedication to save as many lives as possible – is the Vatican’s diplomacy during World War I, is Benedict XV (1914-22) unsuccessful attempt to save the Armenians during the genocide of 1915-18 by an open protest.
I came to this conclusion after studying about 2000 pages, entitled “persecuzioni contra gli Armeni”, in both, the Archives of the Apostolic Delegation in Constantinople and the Secretary of State in the Vatican Secret Archives for an upcoming book[1], many of them for the first time.[2]

There is no doubt that Eugenio Pacelli was extremely well informed about this darkest chapter of World War I.[3] Since 1914 he was Secretary of the Department of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State and became Undersecretary of State when Benedict XV. named Cardinal Gasparri as Secretary of State. In this position he had prime access to all information on the Armenian genocide and indeed we find his characteristic handwriting on several documents dealing with it. Being responsible for several Papal relief initiatives during the War, he was rather well-informed about it. In several cases, the Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople, Msgr. Angelo  Dolci, addressed Pacelli directly in his letters and reports to the Holy See.[4] Later, when Pope Benedict XV. appointed Pacelli as Nuncio to Bavaria, Pacelli was involved in a diplomatic intervention to prevent further massacres after the Russian retreat from Northeastern Turkey following the Brest-Litovsk treaty.[5]  Indeed, all biographers of Pius XII agree that the wartime diplomacy of Pope Benedict XV served as a model for Pius XII actions during WW2, when the “Pope of Peace”[6] served as his role model, especially in his stress on the Vatican’s “impartiality”.[7]
But what did Pius XII learn from his experience with the Armenian genocide?

Under close scrutiny, the “Armenocide” appears like a model for the Shoah. Obsessed by a racist and nationalist world view, the Young Turks intended to transform the multinational and multireligious Ottoman Empire into a homogenous “Volksgemeinschaft”. Since racial characteristics were difficult to determine in the mixed population of Turkey, religion became the indicator of “true Turkishness”: A “true Turk” had to follow Sunnite Islam. Only homogenous “purity” would save Turkey from “inner microbes” and “parasites” and make it strong enough to fight for the panturkish Vision, a mythical Turkish “fatherland” named “Turan”, reaching from the shores of Europe into the west of China, the Caucasus and parts of Siberia. As “microbes” and “parasites”, the Panturanic ideologists identified the Christian minorities: Armenians, Greeks and Syriac Christians.[8]

Coming to power in a peaceful revolution in 1908, the Young Turk party “Ittihat ve Terraki” (Unity and Progress) originally promoted a modern, secular government. But shortly after, a counterrevolutionary coup d’Etat of conservative and islamist circles caused a strong reaction within the Ittihat-party: the radicals took over. Sultan Abdülhamid was replaced by his apathic and sickly half-brother Mehmed V, when the power was now in the hands of the triumvirate of three parvenues and political adventurers, Talaat Bey, Enver and Cemal Pasha. Their original paranoia was intensified by two factors: The loss of the Ottoman provinces on the Balkan, when Russia and the West used the discrimination of its Christian population as a reason to interfere; and constant pressure on Turkey to guarantee equal rights to the Christian Armenian minority, as agreed in the Berlin treaty of 1876. Fearing another intervention especially by Russia, the Young Turk regime soon used World War I to solve “the Armenian problem” in a different way: by eliminating the Armenians.

On April 24, 1915, hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople were arrested and deported to the interior of the country, and most of them were murdered afterwards. To justify their actions, the Ittihat government accused the Armenians of a conspiracy with Russia and the preparation of a revolt, although it was never able to present any evidence for this claim. At this point, most male Armenians already served in the Turkish Army and were suddenly forced to do slave labour or got massacred. Beginning in May 1915, nearly the entire remaining Armenian population (of 2,1 million, before the war) was, province by province, town by town and village by village, deported. On foot, with nearly no bread and not even water, old men, women, children and those Armenians who were wealthy enough to avoid military service, were sent to Der Zor in the Syrian desert. On those death marches, hundred thousands already died of exhaustion, starvation or diseases. Those who survived in miserable condition were forced into concentration camps, starved there or died from cholera, typhoid and dysentery during the following months, became victims of massacres or were sent even deeper into the desert where local tribesman slaughtered them.

By Mid-June 1915, Msgr. Dolci learned about “rumors of massacres”, as he wrote in a telegraph to the Holy See[9]. About a week later he received confirmation that indeed a “persecution” with the purpose “to remove the element of the Christian Armenians from the entire province” took place.[10] Among the victims were many Catholic Armenians, too; even the Catholic bishop of Mardin, Msgr. Ignatius Maloyan (1869-1915), and several of his dignitaries were slaughtered after their deportation by Mid-June. After learning the details of this massacre, Dolci sent a written protest to the Grand Vizier, requesting the immediate stop of those deadly deportations at least of the Armenian Catholics.[11] He did not even receive a reply.

“Horrible atrocities are committed by this government against innocent Armenians in the interior of this Empire. In some regions they get massacred, in others deported to unknown locations to die of starvation on the way. Mothers sold their children to spare them of a certain death. I work excessively to stop this barbarism”[12], Msgr. Dolci wrote to Cardinal Secretary of State Msgr. Gasparri on August 20, 1915. After his original protest was ignored, he formed an “détente againt the persecution”[13] with the Austrian ambassador Janos Count Pallavicini, the German Consul General Heinrich Mordtmann and US-Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, to approach the head of Sunni Islam in Turkey, the “Sheikh ül-Islam”, as well as Talaat Bey and Enver Pasha on occasion of a Government reception on September 2nd. On this occasion Talaat Bey promised to telegraph his state gouverneurs an order “to respect (Armenian) Catholics and Protestants”[14]. Indeed, according to Mordtmann, he sent and showed him those telegraphs afterwards – just to withdraw those orders the next day. Instead, the Catholic Armenians were offered to be spared in case they convert to Islam; the others were allowed to pay a trainride to Konya, to continue their march to Syria from there by foot.[15]

When the massacres continued, the Armenian-Catholic Archbishop of Chalcedon, Msgr. Peter Kojunian, sent an emotional letter to Pope Benedict XV, stating that “a systematic extermination of the Armenians in Turkey”[16] takes place. The Holy Father acted and wrote an autograph to Sultan Mehmet V., appealing to his “high-hearted generosity” and requesting his compassion for the innocent Armenians.[17] The Papal initiative was made public and reported by newspapers all over the world. At the same time, Secretary of State Cardinal Gasparri contacted the Nuntii in Vienna and Munich, ordering them to promote the Holy See’s initiative at Turkey’s allies and urge them to interfere so that “these barbaric acts should immediately be stopped”[18] At least the Nuntius in Munich, Msgr. Frühwirth, managed to get the influential Zentrum Member of the Reichstag, Matthias Erzberger, a devout Catholic, on his side. Erzberger tried his best in Berlin – without a success. At the same time in Constantinople, Msgr. Dolci desperately tried to get the Papal autograph to the Sultan but was refused several times by the Sublime Porte. Only when the German ambassador interfered, Dolci was received by Mehmet V. on 23 October 1915 – after nearly six weeks. One month later he was invited to pick up the sultan’s reply, justifying the deportations by the claim of an Armenian conspiracy.[19] Although US-Ambassador Morgenthau and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Zaven I. Der Yeghiayan  applauded the Papal initiative, it remained unsuccessful. The foreign ambassadors, including Msgr. Dolci, were told about the end of the deportations only when in most provinces no Armenian was left. “There are new cases of deportations and massacres”[20], the Apostolic Delegate reported to Rome by Mid-December; indeed the speed of the Turkish action had only increased after the foreign interventions. And when the Turks promised the return of the deportees “soon”, indeed order was given to massacre all inmates of the Concentration Camps in the Syrian desert. Only the Armenians of Constantinople were spared, to demonstrate “good will” to the Turkish allies. At the end, the Armenian Catholics were those who suffered most; when about 25 % of the Orthodox Armenians survived the genocide, it was only 13,3 % of the Catholics.[21]

Eventually, even the German ambassador to Constantinople, Paul Graf Wolff Metternich, admitted in a letter to the Cancellor of the Reich, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg: “The Turkish government was not deterred in its program to solve the Armenian question by the extermination of the Armenian race, neither by our initiatives nor by the initiatives of the American ambassador or the Papal delegate, nor by the threats of the Entente and at least by the public opinion in the West … they also got rid of the Catholic and Protestant Armenians, although the Sublime Porte assured to spare them.”[22]  This included even the public protest of Pope Benedict XV, who, in an allocution to the Consistory on December 6, 1915, explicitely mentioned “dum miserrima Armeniorum gens prope ad interitum adducitur.”[23] – that “the unlucky people of the Armenians are nearly completely sent to extermination”. Furthermore, the influence of the Apostolic delegate in Constantinople was nearly nullified afterwards. In a letter to – yes, indeed! -  Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli, Msgr. Dolci wrote on December 14, 1915: “By defending the Armenians, I lost the grace of Caesar, the Nero of this unlucky nation. I mean the Secretary of the Interior, Talaat Pascha, Grandmaster of the Masonic Orient. He must have learned of the great pressure which followed after the intervention of the Holy Father in form of his autograph, by the other embassies. Since then, I receive only malevolent looks from him.”[24]

Is this the lesson, Eugenio Pacelli learned from the Vatican’s reaction on the Armenian genocide, the “Holocaust before the Holocaust”, as Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Shoah and Nonel Peace Prize winner of 1986, called it? Was it “don’t speak out, don’t launch a public protest, it will only lead to greater suffering and worsen the situation for the Catholics and converts”?

If this is the case, he would have followed the recommendation of US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who, already in July 1915, warned his government of “a campaign of race extermination” in the Ottoman Empire and, at the same time, advised the US Secretary of State not to protest publicly:

“Deportations of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is (sic!) increasing and from harrowing reports of eye witnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion.
Protests as well as threats are unavailing and probably incite the Ottoman government to more drastic measures as they are determined to disclaim responsibility for their absolute regard of capitulations and I believe nothing short o factual force which obviously United States are not in a position to exert would adequately meet the situation.”[25]

Indeed, the influence of Pacelli’s “Armenian experience” on his later reaction on the Shoah should not be underestimated.
[1] Hesemann, Michael: Der erste Holocaust, Manuscript, 2014
[2] An overview was already published by Andrea Riccardi: “Benedetto XV e la crisi della convivenza multireligiosa nel l’Impero Ottomano”, in: Rumi, G.: Benedetto XV e la pace 1918, Brescia 1990
[3] To name some of the most important studies on the “Armenocide”: Akcam, Taner: The Young Turk’s Croime Against Humanity, Princeton 2012; Balakian, Peter: The Burning Tigris, New York 2003; Dadrian, Vahakn N.: The History of the Armenian Genocide, New Yorek/Oxford 2008 (6); kevorkian, Raymond: The Armenian Genocide, New York 2011
[4] E.g. A.A.E.E.S.S., Austria 472, Dolci to Pacelli, 14.12.1915
[5] A.S.V., Arch. Nunz. Monaco d.B. 385, fasc. 7, p. 2ff.
[6] As biographer John E. Pollard called Benedict XV., see: Pollard, John F.: Benedict XV. The Pope of Peace, New York 1999
[7] Pollard, John F.: “The Papacy in Two World Wars: Benedict XV and Pius XII Compared”, in: Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Volume 2, Number 3, Winter 2001, pp. 83-96(14)
[8] Hacisalihoglu, Mehmet: Die Jungtürken und die mazedonische Frage (1890-1918), Berlin 2003; Balakian 2003
[9] A.C.O., Armeni del patriarcato 1891-1926, 105, Fasc. 3, n. 36771
[10] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia, 101, Fasc. 527, p. 4
[11] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia, 101, Fasc. 527, p. 13
[12] A.C.O., Armeni, fasc. 2050/28, 20.8.1915, Dolci to Gasparri
[13] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia 101, Fasc. 527, p. 33
[14] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia 101, Fasc. 527, p. 30 (draft), 42 f.
[15] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia 101, Fasc. 527, p. 45
[16] A.S.V., Segr. Stato, Questione Armena, B.S. 174, 3.9.1915, Kojunian to Benedict XV.
[17] ASV, Arch. Deleg. Turchia 101, 528, p. 9
[18] A.A.E.E.S.S., Austria 472, Gasparri to Scapinelli, 15. September 1915 and 2. October 1915
[19] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia 101, Fasc. 528, p. 37-38
[20] A.S.V., Arch. Deleg. Turchia 101, Fasc. 528, S. 32-33, Dolci to Gasparro, 12.12.1915
[21] Hesemann, Michael: Der erste Holocaust (Manuscript), 2014, p. 240
[22] PA-AA/R 14092; A18548, 14.7.1916; cit. Gust, Wolfgang (Hrsg.): Der Völkermord an den Armeniern, Springe 2005, S. 475ff.
[23] A.A.S. (Acta Apostolicae Sedis) VII (1915), p. 510
[24] A.A.E.E.S.S., Austria 472, Dolci to Pacelli, 14.12.1915
[25] National Archives, State Dept. Record Group 59, 867.4016/76, cit Balakian 2004, p. 232 h.