Armin Theophil Wegner was born on October 16, 1886 in Elberfeld/Rhineland, Germany. Armin was born into a family with old noble Prussian roots. His father was a civil servant employed by the German Imperial Railroad and his mother was a suffragette and pacifist.
When he was 16, Wegner published his first book of poetry, I have Never Been Older than as a Sixteen-year-old. Between 1910 and 1912, Wegner attended theater director Max Reinhardt’s acting school in Berlin. When the Great War began in 1914, he studied law and political science at the Universities of Zurich, Paris, and Berlin, receiving his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Breslau. Shortly before volunteering for military service Wegner began a career as a freelance poet and journalist and was considered by many as one of the most promising pre-expressionist poets.
When the Great War began Wegner opposed it. In 1914, Wegner enlisted as an medical orderly to avoid being drafted into an infantry unit. In the winter of 1914 and 1915 he received the Iron Cross for assisting the wounded under fire. While he was able to help casualties using his medical training and supplies, Wegner is greatly known for documenting what he saw in the Middle East using his camera in the Spring of 1915 as a member of the German Sanitary Corp.
In the Spring of 1915 the Ottoman government began to fear that invading enemy troops would induce Armenians to join them. That fear lead the government to deport the Armenian population from its northeastern border regions to the desert regions of the south (today: northern and eastern Syria, northern Saudi Arabia, and Iraq). Many would succumb to dehydration, starvation, exposure, and disease with many other dying along the way enroute to the desert. It is considered by many historians the first genocide of the twentieth century killing as many as 1.2-1.5 million. A genocide that was announced to the world by Armin T. Wegner
The German and Turkish authorities were determined to keep this from the public and established strict orders to prevent the spread of news, information, correspondence, and visual evidence of the Armenian deportation camps. Between July and August of 1915, Wegner used his leave to investigate the rumors about the Armenian massacres that he had learned about from several sources.
During a walk through the refugee camps Wegner witnessed horrendous scenes of dead and emaciated people. In his diary he wrote: “I just came back from a walk around the camp. Now, I am writing these lines. From all sides I was besieged by screaming hunger, death, disease, and despair. Overall filth and foul smell. The grievance of a dying woman from a tent. A mother, noticing the dark purple cuffs of my uniform, a token of sanitary corps, rushed towards me with her arms stretched. Confusing me with a doctor, she made her last attempt to stick to me. Miserable me. I had no bandage, no medication. It was prohibited to help her anyway”.
His letters to Marga von Bonin a nurse that Wegner became friends with provide very emotional responses to what we had witnessed. In a letter to her on November 26, 1915
He wrote “all the roads are lined with famished and suffering Armenian deportees. Our tortured souls proceed through a sobbing and screaming live fence, from which extended thousands of begging hands.”
During his time there he took photographs and smuggled the plates out of the country with soldiers returning to Germany or with diplomats travelling to mainland Europe. He also was able to send secret letters to his relatives residing in Germany describing what he had witnessed in the camps. Wegner was able to get help from foreign consulates and embassies of other countries in order to get his material to Germany and the United States. Eventually, his clandestine mail routes were discovered and at the request of the Turkish Command, German officials arrested Wegner for censorship violations and was put to serve in the cholera wards.
After Wegner was released from military service he remained active in bringing the Armenian genocide to the public’s attention. In 1919, Wegner published an open letter to President Woodrow Wilson to plead the case for Armenian independence. On February 1st it appeared in Frau der Gegenwart. In his letter he wrote on behalf of the Armenian people pleading the case for Armenian genocide. In the same year he also published his eyewitness accounts of the atrocities in The Way of No Return: A Martyrdom in Letters.
Eventually the Armenian Republic would be lost in the 1920s when its leaders turned to the new Russian Bolshevik government. Years later the Nazis came to power in Germany bringing with them a vile racism that Wegner was familiar with. In April 1933, Wegner delivered a letter to German Chancelllor Adolph Hitler pleading for an end to the persecution of the Jews. In his six-page letter he warned that the continuation of the antisemitic campaign would bring disgrace to the German people. As a result of his letter Wegner was arrested by Nazi officials. In the Spring of 1934, with the help of a British Quaker attorney, he left for Germany for England.
After leaving Germany Armin Wegner could not bear to live there and remained in exile for the rest of his life. In 1978, he died in Rome at the age of 92. His obituary gravestone carries the following Latin lines: Amavi iustitiam odi iniquitatem Propterea morior in exsilio (“I loved justice and hated injustice Therefore I die in exile”)
On April 21, 1996 Pietro Kuciukian and Wegner’s son Mischa, took the ashes of Armin T. Wegner to Yerevan: the first “Righteous person and witness” for the Armenians, whose ashes have been laid in the Wall of Remembrance on Dzidzernagapert, the Hill of Swallows.
While Turks reject the conclusions of historians and the term genocide, saying there was no premeditation in the deaths, no systematic attempt to destroy a people. Indeed, in Turkey today it remains a crime — “insulting Turkishness” — to even raise the issue of what happened to the Armenians. Others have recognized Armin Wegner for his lifes work:
- 1956- awarded the Highest Order of Merit by the Federal German government.
- 1962-The city of Wuppertal, where he was born, decorated him with the prestigious Eduard-Von-der-Heydt prize.
- 1967 he was awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel
- 1968 received an invitation to Armenia from the Catholicos of All Armenians and was awarded with the Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.