Johannes Lepsius – A German Exception

Armenophilia as Lifelong Practice

Johannes Lepsius was the central figure of the pro-Armenian movement in Germany in the 1890s. In the summer of 1916, his famous three-hundred-page Report on the Situation of the "Armenian People in Turkey" was published. Lepsius clearly described what was taking place from spring 1915 onwards, particularly in Anatolia: an ethnic cleansing planned by the state, and which, in its execution by the organs of a Young Turk “deep state”, immediately shifted into genocidal measures.

Johannes Lepsius in den 1890er Jahren. (© Public Domain)

About Lepsius

In 1933, Franz Werfel called Lepsius a “guardian angel of the Armenians”, and in 1927, a year after his death, British historian George Peabody Gooch described him as a “well-known Armenophile” of substantial discernment.1 For over thirty years, Johannes Lepsius was committed to humanitarian activism for the rights of the Armenians persecuted under the Ottoman empire. As Werfel put it in the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, this was “task on earth”.2

Born in 1858, the theologian, philosopher, and orientalist would from the end of the 19th century become one of Europe’s most prominent public personalities in this field. In 1896, he founded the first branch of his Armenian relief organization in Urfa, south-eastern Anatolia. British liberal and statesman William Ewart Gladstone would invoke Lepsius’s widely-translated polemical treatise Armenia and Europe in his pro-Armenian campaigns of the late 1890s;3 Eduard Bernstein cited him as an authority in his famous 1902 pro-Armenian speech in Berlin.4 As Werfel recounts, Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Constantinople, made Lepsius’s acquaintance during a 1915 summer trip to the Bosphorus and found him to be a remarkable “Christian gentleman”.5 Within the limits imposed by wartime censorship, Lepsius was also able to influence public opinion in the German Reich. On 1 January 1916, the Berlin Reichstag was confronted with a question from Social Democratic deputy Karl Liebknecht as to whether the Reich Chancellor was aware “that Professor Lepsius had spoken of an outright extermination campaign being waged against the Turkish Armenians”.6 In the autumn of 1916, Matthias Erzberger of the Centre Party was anticipating that a major parliamentary debate on the Armenians would result from Lepsius’s widely publicized revelations.7 This failed to materialize once heavy German losses at Verdun overshadowed all other issues. According to the New York Tribune, the most significant denunciation of the Ottoman state crimes during the war was made by Johannes Lepsius, when in 1916 he secretly distributed 20,000 copies of his three-hundred-page report throughout the German Empire, bypassing the censors.8 The collection of diplomatic documents that Lepsius published in spring 1919, under the title Germany and Armenia, was one of the triggers for the first major German debate on the topic of genocide.9


Johannes Lepsius came from the upper echelons of Berlin’s educated middle class, with exceedingly good connections in political circles, the academy, the church, and the imperial court. His mother, a daughter of composer Bernhard Klein and writer Lilly Parthey, maintained one of Berlin’s last notable salons in the family home in Bendlerstraße. His father, Karl Richard, headed a four-year Prussian expedition to Egypt in the 1840s, and is considered the founder of German Egyptology. After taking his theology degree in 1884, Johannes himself went to Jerusalem as a curate and teacher. It was there that he first encountered the reality of the Ottoman multi-ethnic state, whose problems were to define the course of his life.

The “Protestant International”

The cultural environment in Jerusalem was even more formative for Lepsius than his parental home had been. He came into contact with circles that Swiss historian Hans-Lukas Kieser has called the informal network of a “Protestant international”, which envisaged peace spreading around the world from a reborn Middle East.10 Politically, they were mostly progressive liberals influenced by the Anglo-Saxon world. They thought that a functioning Ottoman constitutional state, offering equality and security for Christians and Jews alike, was the prerequisite for the fulfilment of their visions. According to Kieser, under the influence of this milieu Johannes Lepsius rapidly developed into a “neo-Pietist and liberal Lutheran Christian, inspired by the Protestant international and its Middle East mission”.11 This meant embracing political responsibility out of Christian conviction and, when in doubt, even against the reigning national authorities.

“J’accuse” – Lepsius’s Indictment of the European Powers

Johannes Lepsius was the defining figure of the German pro-Armenian movement in the 1890s. This movement, largely driven by Evangelical community circles and educated liberal Protestants from the milieu around Martin Rade’s periodical Die christliche Welt, was strongly Christian in tone – and in Rade’s case, with an added element of neo-Kantianism. Lepsius’s comprehensive book Armenia and Europe had already been published in 1896, comprising a survey and political analysis of the massacres of Armenians that took place between 1894 and 1896 and that left well over a hundred thousand dead. The book had considerable international impact. Lepsius described his book as an “indictment” of the great European powers,12 and the work helped to foster a journalistic gesture whose classic expression would famously appear in Émile Zola’s J’accuse two years later.

In the mid-1890s, Lepsius considered the urgent issue to be rescuing the survivors of the massacres overseen by Sultan Abdul Hamid II – most of them women and orphans – and laying the foundations for a rebirth of the Armenian people through the establishment of a relief organization. That the Armenians were themselves Christians was not of primary importance. For the pro-Armenian movement, their own Christianity – as Rade put it, in Kantian terminology, “the moral law within us” – rendered mandatory their duty towards the victims of persecution.13

But Lepsius’s involvement caused a scandal, because he did not limit himself to the charitable alleviation of suffering in the region, but also publicly and vehemently criticized the major European powers. The official Evangelical church, alarmed by the accusations raised in Lepsius’s publications and lectures, acted decisively: it refused his request for extended leave to pursue his pro-Armenian activities. In so doing, as Martin Rade pointed out, the church was transparently exercising a political function on behalf of the state.14 Lepsius resigned. For the rest of his life, the Armenian relief organization and his engagement with the Armenian question – including in his periodical Der christliche Orient – were the entire focus of his activities.

The First World War

Unlike the majority of the educated Protestants of his era, Lepsius did not celebrate the outbreak of war in August 1914 as a sort of national Pentecost. “Never has a war had less to do with religion than the present one,” he wrote at the beginning of 1915. The nationalistic animosity of the Christian nations made it seem advisable to reserve the term “Christendom” for a future epoch and, once the war was over, “recommence the education of the European nations with an ABC of basic moral concepts”.15 But even he considered the outbreak of hostilities to be unavoidable, if the people of Martin Luther were not to be destroyed.

Yet Lepsius could not help seeing that the crimes perpetrated against the Armenians in the course of the war increasingly contradicted his fundamental Christian convictions. When it came to moral and ethical borderline situations and questions of fundamental human rights, these convictions radically differed from the views of his Protestant nationalist contemporaries. As he stated in December 1918, Germany had, “through cowardly inaction and acquiescence, been complicit in the destruction of a Christian people”.16

During the war the German press had either been obliged to publish official Ottoman accounts, or kept quiet about the issue in self-censorship.17 Lepsius thus turned to the Swiss newspapers that were also available within the Reich.18 On 5 October, he informed the German press in the Reichstag, but in the weeks that followed – under instructions from the Foreign Office – the papers overwhelmingly printed anti-Armenian articles. On the basis of Lepsius’s information, representatives of the Evangelical and Catholic churches turned to Reich Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who replied that he would use his influence to ensure the protection of Christian peoples from religious persecution – knowing full well that what was happening was not a religious persecution, but an ethnic cleansing motivated by the Ottoman Empire’s internal politics.19

Report on the Situation of the Armenian People

In the summer of 1916 Lepsius published his famous Report on the Situation of the Armenian People in Turkey. Across three hundred pages, the report precisely recounts the chronology of the genocide and the various regional events, as well as providing extensive analysis of the causes. The work remains a challenge for historians. Even his closest friends from the German Orient Mission voted against publishing the report, after long hesitation and an intervention from the head chaplain of the imperial court, Ernst von Dryander. This was mainly because it addressed the question of political guilt for the genocide in an explicit and unambiguous fashion,20 and thus represented a public disgrace for Germany’s military ally. Lepsius, however, for reasons of ethical principle, purposefully rejected the “duty of silence that was being imposed on me”.21

Demographic Fantasies

The central claim of his book – which, according to Ulrich Trumpener, was for decades “the best synthetic work on the matter”22 – is that from the spring of 1915, and most intensively in Anatolia, an ethnic cleansing took place that was planned by the state, and which, in its execution by the apparatus of a Young Turk “deep state”, quickly transitioned into genocidal methods. As in his statements after the war, Lepsius continually kept the right-wing nationalist modernity and systematic character of the genocide in view. In 1921 he compared the lethal “demographic fantasies”23 of the Young Turks with those of the pan-German antisemitic nationalists, who were growing increasingly radical at the beginning of the Twenties. To this extent, for Lepsius the “genocide that the Young Turks have on their conscience”24 represented a perilous model.25

In 1919 and on his Potsdam Tempel-Verlag imprint, Lepsius published a selection, made by the Foreign Office itself, of German diplomatic documents and correspondence about events in Turkey during the war, Germany and Armenia. Despite the post-war condition of the archive and the lacunae caused by the Foreign Office’s direct interference,26 this was the first ever systematic documentation of diplomatic sources regarding the Young Turks’ genocide of the Armenians. Lepsius found that the diplomatic record fully confirmed the analyses he had made in his 1916 report.

The Talaat Pasha Trial

In 1921, Lepsius appeared as the chief expert witness in the trial against the Armenian assassin of Talaat Pasha, the former Ottoman Grand Vizier and the main perpetrator of the genocide. Political pressure meant that the trial was limited to two days. The German Foreign Office wanted at all costs to avoid the trial’s becoming a “political fiasco”, and “the whole unpleasant question of the atrocities against the Armenians, which was already known about during the war”, being raised for discussion again.27 There were also worries “that Talaat Pasha’s political role in general and his position towards Germany would be discussed in more detail in the course of the trial.”28 Yet this could hardly be avoided.

In 1921, Lepsius (right, at the stand) acted as the main expert witness in the trial against the assassin, the Armenian student Soghomon Tehliryan (left, in the dock). Image: Yerevan Genocide Museum, Armenia.

The trial began on 2 June 1921, and was heard by the Berlin-Moabit district court in Turmstraße. The trial once again placed Lepsius in the international limelight. In a long report, the New York Times wrote that “the most important phase of this dramatic trial was the ability of Professor Lepsius to produce Turkish official documents which proved the heads of the Turkish Government at Constantinople – and particularly Talaat himself – to be directly responsible for converting the deportation into shambles.”29 In this general mood the jury unanimously concluded that the accused, Armenian student Soghomon Tehlirjan, had acted in the heat of passion and was in a state of mental insanity at the time of the assassination. A plea for his acquittal was entered successfully.30

The lawyer for the defence, whom Lepsius chose, was so well prepared that Johannes Werthauer – one of the great lawyers of the Weimar period, and who in August 1933 was

one of the first to have his citizenship revoked by the Nazis – expressed his certainty, just days after the assassination, that “without the least doubt” the trial would end with the assassin’s acquittal.31 The main task for the defence, Lepsius said, would have to be “proving that Talaat is principally responsible for the deportations and massacres”.32 There is no doubt that it was Lepsius’s expert testimony that made this possible. The Talaat Pasha trial wrote legal history. Raphael Lemkin, the spiritual father of the United Nations Genocide Convention, repeatedly referred to this paradoxical legal event – even after the Shoah, to which 49 members of his family fell victim – as the decisive impetus for his life’s work.33

The Treaty of Lausanne

Lepsius was particularly appalled by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that was concluded after the victory of Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist movement, making Anatolia Turkish in its entirety, including the former core areas of Armenian settlement. The treaty put an end to any remaining Armenian hopes after the First World War, and with the expulsion of more than a million Greeks, in Lepsius’s words, sanctioned new methods of evacuating entire peoples through “coercion by international treaty”.34 A fatal precedent was being set for the future, which would continue to be confirmed as the twentieth century wore on.

1 G. P. Gooch, Recent Revelations of European Diplomacy, London, 1927, p. 130.
2 Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, translated by Geoffrey Dunlop, New York, 1934, p. 125.
3 William Ewart Gladstone to Johannes Lepsius, 25/7/1897, Lepsius-Archiv Potsdam (LAP) 157-1710.
4 Bernstein referred extensively to Lepsius’s Armenia and Europe, and called on people to speak out “in support of a nation against whom a cruel war of extermination is slowly but deliberately being waged.” Eduard Bernstein, “Die Leiden des armenischen Volkes und die Pflichten Europas” [The Sufferings of the Armenian Nation and the Duty of Europe], speech given at a public meeting in Berlin on 26 July 1902; in: Helmut Donat (ed.), Armenien, die Türkei und die Pflichten Europas [Armenia, Turkey, and the Duty of Europe], Bremen, 2005, p. 51, p. 21.
5 Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, Garden City and New York, 1918, p. 343.
6 Question by Karl Liebknecht, member of the Reichstag, at the 26th session of the Reichstag, 11/1/1916, Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office (PA-AA), R 14089.
7 Hans-Lukas Kieser, “Matthias Erzberger und die osmanischen Armenier im Ersten Weltkrieg” [Matthias Erzberger and the Ottoman Armenians in the First World War], paper, Stuttgart, 2011, p. 10.
8 “Another Chapter in Germany’s Confession of Turkish Guilt”, New York Tribune, 27/7/1919. PA-AA, R 1410. 9 Stefan Ihrig, Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler, Cambridge, Mass. and London, UK, 2016, p. 207ff.
10 Hans-Lukas Kieser, Nearest East: American Millennialism and the Mission to the Middle East, Philadelphia, 2010, p. 3.
11 Hans-Lukas Kieser, Johannes Lepsius, Orientmissionar. Annäherung an eine deutsche protestantische Biografie der Belle Epoque [Johannes Lepsius, Missionary to the Orient]. Link to the lecture.
12 Lepsius, Armenia and Europe: An Indictment, London, 1897 (Berlin, 1896).
13 Axel Meißner, Martin Rades Christliche Welt und Armenien. Bausteine für eine internationale Ethik des Protestantismus [Martin Rade’s Christliche Welt and Armenia: Foundation Stones for an International Protestant Ethic], Berlin, 2010, p. 81, p. 172.
14 Ibid., p. 111.
15 Lepsius, “Unsere Waffenbrüderschaft mit der Türkei” [Our Brotherhood in Arms with Turkey], in: Der Christliche Orient, vol. 16 (1915), p. 9, p. 32.
16 Lepsius, “Was hat man den Armeniern getan? Die Zeit zu reden ist gekommen” [Time to Talk About What Was Done to the Armenians], in: Mitteilungen aus der Arbeit von Dr. Johannes Lepsius, nos. 11–12, September–December 1918, p. 115ff.
17 Ibid., p. 115ff. “I have ... had a confidential letter of information sent out to the papers and periodicals and advised them, out of consideration for our national interests, not to mention the Armenian question.” Friedrich Faber, chairman of the Association of German Newspaper Publishers, to Undersecretary of State Zimmermann, 12 October 1915. PA-AA R 14088.
18 “For some time now the Basler Nachrichten and recently, too, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung have been printing articles about the so-called Armenian atrocities and subjecting the ‘extermination of a Christian people’ to highly disparaging criticism. ... The main driving force of this agitation is, as I have learned, a certain Herr Lepsius in Berlin, the son of the well-known Egyptologist.” Wunderlich to Bethmann-Hollweg, 22 September 1915. PA-AA R 14087.
19 Lepsius, Mein Besuch in Konstantinopel [My Visit to Constantinople], in: Der Orient 1/3 (1919), p. 11ff.
20 Uwe Feigel, Das evangelische Deutschland und Armenien [Evangelical Germany and Armenia], Göttingen, 1989, p. 219.
21 Lepsius, “Was hat man den Armeniern getan?”, loc. cit., p. 115.
22 Ulrich Trumpener, Germany and the Ottoman Empire 1914-1918, Princeton, 1968, p. 204.
23 Lepsius, Mein Besuch in Konstantinopel, p. 7.
24 A.a.O., S. 14.
25 Lepsius to Weckesser, 2 December 1922. LAP 141-1555 (1).
26 Lepsius had access to the files via transcripts administered by the former consul in Aleppo, Walter Rößler. See Kai Seyffarth, Entscheidung in Aleppo. Walter Rößler (1871-1929). Helfer der verfolgten Armenier [Decision in Aleppo: Walter Rößler, Helper of the Persecuted Armenians], Bremen, 2015, p. 193.
27 Foreign Office to the Prussian Ministry of Justice, 26/5/1921, PA-AA R 78551.
28 Ibid.
29 George R. Montgomery, “Why Talaat’s Assassin was Acquitted”, in: New York Times Current History, July 1921.
30 Armin T. Wegner (ed.), Der Prozess Talaat Pascha. Stenographischer Bericht über die Verhandlung gegen den des Mordes an Talaat Pascha angeklagten armenischen Studenten Salomon Teilirian vor dem Schwurgericht des Landgerichts III zu Berlin, Aktenzeichen: C.J. 22/21, am 2. und 3. Juni 1921 [The Talaat Pasha Trial, a Stenographic Report] Berlin, 1921, p. 127.
31 Ahrens to AA (confidential), 26/3/1921, PA-AA R 78551.
32 Lepsius to Benediktsen, 9/4/1921, LAP 148-1601.
33 Donna-Lee Frieze (ed.), Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin, New Haven and London, 2013, p. 20.
34 Lepsius to Weckesser, 2/12/1922, LAP 141-1555 (1).