Lepsiushaus Remembers Its Namesake

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

POTSDAM, Germany — In Potsdam, not far from Berlin, there is a beautifully renovated villa known as the Lepsiushaus, or House of Lepsius, which was the family home where the German pastor and humanitarian aid worker, Dr. Johannes Lepsius, lived and worked from 1908 to 1926. Since its official opening as a museum and research center in May 2011, the Lepsiushaus has become the venue for exhibits, lectures and conferences related to the theme of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Most recently, the Lepsiushaus hosted an international conference honoring its namesake. The September conference gathered experts from several universities in Germany, Switzerland, US and Armenia, including Prof. Ashot Hayruni of Yerevan State University, and Prof. Margaret L. Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley, who shed light on the many sides of this complex and controversial individual.

Lepsius is known to most Armenians as a courageous German who intervened in an effort to halt the Genocide being perpetrated by the Young Turk government in Turkey. He travelled to Turkey to set up his humanitarian mission in Urfa in 1896 to aid victims of the Hamidian massacres, and after hearing reports through the foreign ministry in Berlin of new massacres in 1915,

again traveled to aid Armenians. He set off for Constantinople hoping to mount a humanitarian aid initiative to save Armenians, but was prevented from travelling inland by the Young Turk officials. In a famous personal encounter with War Minister Enver Pasha, which Franz Werfel immortalized in his saga, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Lepsius confronted Enver with the Young Turks’ political and moral responsibility and pleaded with him to be able to intervene to help the Armenian population. Enver refused. The only thing that Lepsius could do was to interview Armenian refugees arriving in the capital, along with foreign missionaries and other eye-witnesses to the mass murders, in order to compile a report based on the testimonies that would document the tragedy being perpetrated. That report was to shake Germany and the world.

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As Dr. Rolf Hosfeld, director of the Lepsiushaus, recalled in his keynote speech to the conference, that report titled, “The Situation of the Armenian People in Turkey” and published secretly in Potsdam in 1916, made history, and not only in Germany. In Lepsius’s own country, the privately printed report was sent out in 20,000 copies to officials of the Protestant church, other selected personalities and the editors of the major press. The report was soon confiscated and banned by the German authorities — Germany being allied to the Young Turk government — and Lepsius had to flee to Holland, where he continued his campaign to inform world public opinion of what was happening in Turkey. In America, where the drama of the Armenians had been followed closely, Lepsius’s account was reported in the New York Tribune in July 1919. “That the most significant charge against such crimes committed by a state should indeed come from a German…,” Hosfeld noted, “must have surprised the reader of the New York Tribune.”

In fact, it is precisely this fact that led Hosfeld to characterize Lepsius as “a German exception,” the title of the conference. Not only did he openly criticize the policy of an ally of his nation in WWI, but he identified that Young Turk policy as part of “an internal political program” aiming at the “elimination of the Armenian element of the population” and rejected any notion that it had to do with military measures related to Turkey’s defense. Lepsius, as Hosfeld stressed, “saw his work from the onset as explicitly political” even back in the 1890s. And he had to pay a price for it. When his Protestant church superiors denied him free time for his pro-Armenian activities, he decided to resign and to work independently. Lepsius collab- orated with the German foreign office on a reform plan in 1913 to protect the Armenian minority, but the outbreak of war rendered it a dead letter. When news of the new massacres reached Germany, he left for Turkey, where he tried unsuc- cessfully to save the Armenians. What he did man- age to do with his documentation to inform German and world public opinion was, however, of historic importance. Lepsius was not and is not just a hero. As Hosfeld indicated in his speech and other con- ference speakers detailed, he was a creature of his time. Though firmly opposed to the Young Turks’ genocide policy on religious, political and humanitarian grounds, Lepsius “had diffi- culties in fully admitting a qualified co-respon- sibility of the German Empire on this first great European mass murder, even though he spoke in 1919 of genocide,” said Hosfeld.

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