General Liman von Sanders
General Liman von Sanders (1855-1929), one of only three German officers with the rank of general or admiral who had Jewish ancestry

Liman von Sanders: A Matter of Honor


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, Special to the Mirror-Spectator

DARMSTADT, Germany — What constitutes honor? This is not an abstract question, but a very practical one in connection with a controversy that has recently erupted in Germany. The case involves the designation of “graves of honor” in a historic cemetery in the city of Darmstadt, not far from Frankfurt.

Late last autumn my husband and I were part of a small group of visitors to the Darmstadt Altfriedhof, one of the oldest and most famous cemeteries in Germany. Led by Fred Kautz, a German historian of Canadian descent, we strolled through the grounds, stopping at nine graves, and learned from him and his colleague Peter Behr the stories of those buried there, and why they had — or had not — been granted “graves of honor.” There was the anti-Nazi protestant priest Karl Grein who had defended church worship for his congregation; Konrad Mommsen and his wife Ulla, also anti-Nazis, who published the “Political Testament” of his grandfather Theodor Mommsen after the war; communist resistance fighter Georg Fröba; and, naval Captain Ludwig Fischer, who saved 28 seamen in a shipwreck, even at the cost of his own life.

Then we came to the grave of General Liman von Sanders (1855-1929), who had been accorded this honor for his military service in World War I, as one of the German generals engaged in the Dardanelles, leading Ottoman Empire forces. On his tombstone was inscribed not only his official military title but also “The Victor of Gallipoli.” We then learned that in 2015, General von Sanders was formally divested of this honor, along with six other deceased. The reason? Officially, because of his role as a military officer in that war. In fact, the other military figures buried with honors were similarly defrocked by order of the Darmstadt city authorities on grounds that “their status rested exclusively on military successes.”

But that is not the end of the story. Those Armenians who know the name Liman von Sanders also know (or should know) that he was responsible for actions which saved the lives of an estimated 6,000-7,000 Armenians in Smyrna (Izmir). Should he not be honored for this?

Removing the Laurels

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The decision to divest Liman von Sanders among others of their status in the cemetery was reported in the press on June 22, 2015, three years after an Experts Advisory Committee had come together to reexamine their cases. In their published findings, the “Documentation of Darmstadt Honor Graves,” the Experts Committee lumped von Sanders together with one von Hutier, an Infantry General and Hitler follower, writing: “As in the case of General […] Oskar von Hutier also regarding Otto Liman von Sanders the fundamental question is to be raised: Are purely military successes sufficient as ‘life achievements’ to qualify someone to be recognized with a grave of honor in the city?” Adding insult to injury, the text moots that he “must have been at least indirectly involved in the deportation and murder of the Armenians.” In lieu of any documented evidence for this assertion, the authors refer to “his work in a position of responsibility in eastern Turkey.”

The Historical Record

Who was Otto Liman von Sanders? Born in 1855, he was, as the First World War opened, “one of only three German officers with the rank of general or admiral who had Jewish ancestry … and had no good prospects in the profoundly anti-Semitic officer corps.” In 1913 he seized an unexpected opportunity to advance his military career when he was offered leadership of the German Military Mission on the Bosporus. This was not without complicated risks, since he was to come into conflict with the Turkish Minister of War Enver Pasha, who was 26 years younger than he and utterly incompetent militarily. According to Joseph Pomiankowski, Highest Austro-Hungarian Military Representative in Turkey, it was inevitable that von Sanders, schooled in Prussian discipline and experienced in military studies and service, would resist accepting the dilettantish Enver as his equal, not to mention his superior. In November 1914 it came to a clash, when Liman von Sanders refused the offer by Enver to assume command of the 3rd Ottoman army in a Caucasus campaign against the Russians. Knowing that the Turkish army was by no means adequately equipped to undertake such a winter offensive, von Sanders declined and Lieutenant General Friz Bronsart von Schellendorf led the campaign instead. It turned into a clamorous military and humanitarian disaster; 90 percent of the 100,000 troops had perished by February 1915, the vast majority were not killed by enemy fire but had starved or frozen to death. In an attempt to rationalize their defeat, both Enver and Schellendorf claimed that it had been due to the Armenians, who had stabbed them in the back.

The most intriguing question regarding the wartime experience of von Sanders relates to the Armenian Genocide. As mentioned above, those responsible for removing his honor status in Darmstadt assert that he “must have been involved” somehow in the deportations. But the official records indicate the contrary, that his involvement was deliberate, effective and honorable.

The theatre was Smyrna (Izmir). Von Sanders travelled there in early November 1916 to visit two divisions. In a letter dated November 12, 1916, to Radowitz, the Chargé d’affaire at the German Embassy in Constantinople, von Sanders includes a report given him by German Consul Count von Spee regarding the deportations of Armenians. Von Sanders writes: “As such deportations infringe on the military sector — those liable for military service, the use of railroads, health measures, unrest among the population of a town close to the enemy, etc. — I informed the Vali [governor] that, without my permission, such mass arrests and deportations would no longer be allowed to take place. I informed the Vali that weapons would be used to prevent such a situation, should it be repeated. The Vali then gave in and told me that this would not happen again.” He added that, since the deportation orders came from Constantinople, it might be that they would seek to circumvent his orders. Liman notes here that, “As far as I was able to find out, the number of Armenians living in Smyrna amounts to 6-7000, among them the richest people in town, but also some nasty personalities.”

On November 13, Radowitz sent a telegram to the Foreign Office reporting that “The mass deportation of Armenians began during the past two days. Marshal Liman von Sanders objected on the grounds of military interests. Report follows.” He also requested that Germany “work as far as possible at stopping or at least delaying Armenian deportations from Smyrna,” and suggested relocating Armenians out of harm’s way to Germany, which would also alleviate the lack of labor power there. The message also noted, “The United States once again protested here against the deportation of Armenians and urgently requested that we take remedial action.”

Topics: Analysis, Europe

On November13, Radowitz wrote to the Reichskanzler (Bethmann Hollweg), reporting on the deportations from Smyrna which had begun on November 9, and stated, “Marshal Liman von Sanders, who is at present in Smyrna, has pointed out to the Vali that these mass deportations are damaging as far as military considerations are involved and he would therefore not tolerate any more arrests and deportations.”

On November 17, the Ambassador in Extraordinary Mission in Constantinople Kühlmann sent a telegram to the Foreign Office, saying that, after discussion of the idea of sending Armenians to Germany and “with the consent of von Sanders,” he believed that that option would be politically inopportune. “Upon the intervention of the Marshal [von Sanders],” he added, “the deportations of the Armenians from Smyrna have been stopped.”

In a message to Bethmann Hollweg on November 17, Kühlmann enclosed a report from von Sanders on the Smyrna deportations. The orders for these deportations had come from Constantinople on the pretext that bombs and weapons had been found in an Armenian cemetery, pretexts he considered part of the inventory of the Turkish authorities. “The intervention of the Marshal,” he wrote of von Sanders, “is also welcome because in Smyrna … the rumor is going around that the German military authorities had demanded the expulsion of the Armenians.”

The enclosed report by Liman von Sanders contained the details of the deportations. He said that the German Consul Count von Spee had informed him that “on the 8th and during the previous night, numerous arrests of Armenians had taken place in Smyrna and that these Armenians had been transported into the interior of the country by train.” He went on: “I made inquiries with various authorities. It was confirmed to me that several hundred Armenians had been arrested by the police — partly in the roughest manner, by fetching old women and sick children out of their beds in the night — and had been taken directly to the train station. Two trains full of Armenians had been transported away. In the town there was great excitement about these occurrences.” On the morning of November 10, he continued, “I sent the Chief of Staff of the 5th Army, Colonel Kiasim Bey, to the Vali and had it said to him that I would no longer tolerate such mass arrests and transportations which in many ways intervened in military matters in a town threatened by the enemy. Should the police nevertheless continue with these acts, I would make the troops under my control prevent them by force of arms. I gave the Vali until midday the same day to make up his mind.” His threat was effective. “Around 1.30 in the afternoon,” he writes, “Major Kiasim Bey arrived back from the Vali … and informed me that the arrests and transportations had been stopped and would be discontinued.”

But there is more. He then turns in his report to the Greeks. “On the same evening, 3 Greeks came to me from Urla near Smyrna (ca. 25,000 Greek inhabitants) and reported to me that the ten most respected and richest notabilities in Urla had been arrested without a hearing by 30 gendarmes, sent directly there for that purpose, and have been put into prison in Smyrna. The Greeks asked for help.” On November 11, von Sanders went to the Vali personally. “In the course of a long discussion, the Vali explained to me the reasons for the mass arrest of the Armenians. I could not accept these reasons, which were based on completely insufficient grounds, and emphasized that the military situation absolutely called for the greatest calmness in the town of Smyrna which was mainly inhabited by Greeks.” He also demanded an investigation into the apparently innocent Urla residents who had been arrested. In response to his demands, the Vali shortly thereafter informed him in writing, “to which place the Armenians had been brought … and that those who were found to be innocent would be transported back to Smyrna.”

Further confirmation comes in other diplomatic dispatches. Ambassador Kühlmann sent a telegram to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on November 17, 1916 stating, “Deportation of Armenians from Smyrna have ceased as a result of the Marshal [von Sanders].”

The official diplomatic correspondence contains other important details, for example, that the Vali had come under pressure from the Young Turk officials in Smyrna for his being soft on the Armenians, when the deportations were being demanded by Constantinople. They document how the Turks had deliberately spread disinformation in Smyrna, alleging that the Armenians had bombs, and how rumors had circulated that it was the Germans who wanted to expel the Armenians, etc.

Falsely Accused

After the war, in winter of 1918-1919, French, British and Swiss press outlets circulated false accounts of the supposed complicity of von Sanders in the Genocide, and in February 1919, the British sent him to prison on Malta. The Young Turk leaders responsible for the Genocide had fled with German help to Europe and only a few intermediate figures were put on trial in person. The French suspected von Sanders had committed crimes against Christians and had sacked their consul’s villa during the Gallipoli campaign. In their investigations, however, they were unable to produce evidence substantiating these or other accusations. In his defense, a city councilman of the Greek minority in Bandirma, named Dr. Konstantin Makris, wrote in July 1919 to the authorities and reported on how, in his military authority, von Sanders had done everything possible to defend the Christian minorities. Unable to back up their accusations, the British were forced to release him from prison, and in mid-August, he learned he would be freed and allowed to return to Germany, without ever being told how and why.

To Be or Not to Be Honored

Back to Darmstadt. Where does this leave us with the issue of the “grave of honor”? Can it be that the Experts Committee did not have access to these documents from the German Foreign Ministry wartime archives?

I called the office of Darmstadt’s Lord Mayor Jochen Partsch several times following our visit to the cemetery and in December was referred to the Press Office, which told me to submit my queries for the mayor in writing, which I did. I asked, first, on what grounds the “honor” had been removed from his grave.

Writing “in the name of the Lord Mayor,” Herr Klaus Honold of the Press Office provided answers prepared by the archivists. “Otto Liman von Sanders,” he wrote, “ranks as one of the most successful German military leaders in World War I. At least in German military history, the ‘Hero of Gallipoli’ is personally credited with the defense of the strategically significant peninsula of Gallipoli by the 5th Turkish army and thereby the thwarting of conquest of the Dardanelles Straits (and Constantinople) by the Entente forces. In fact, prior to Gallipoli, Liman von Sanders led costly static warfare, which at times became a bloodbath. He was thereby responsible for the death of tens of thousands of English, Australian, New Zealand and other soldiers. However one may want to judge the battle of Gallipoli from the military or military-historical standpoint, for the Experts Committee on Graves of Honor this was from a current standpoint not a position that could serve to justify the recognition as a grave of honor.”

That was to explain the decision to remove the honors. However, the letter added, since they recognize his role as “a person of historical significance, the grave will remain as a personalized place of remembrance and will be further tended by the city of Darmstadt.”

Did the Experts Committee, I wanted to know, include persons familiar with the Armenian Genocide and the role of Liman von Sanders? Taking issue with their assertion that he “must have been at least indirectly involved in the deportations and murder of the Armenians,” I referenced his activity in Smyrna, which led to the survival of 6,000-7,000 Armenians. On that account, could the “honor” status not be reinstated?

As for his alleged involvement in the deportations and murders, the Mayor replied that von Sanders “had knowledge of them and that this influenced his activity as army commander.” How this “influenced his activity” is unclear. But the insinuation of culpability seems to have been erroneous. The mayor admitted: “It is not meant that he was an active participant in deportations or murders.”

If he was not a perpetrator, I ask, was he a defender of the victims? After assurances that the committee had indeed thoroughly dealt with the role of von Sanders in the Armenian events, the mayor wrote that that body “however decided not to take this into consideration, because the theme is disputed in historical research.” Yes, the documents from the Foreign Ministry archives do establish that he moved against the deportations in Smyrna, “but the motivation is the subject of diverse speculations.” Quoting the reasons von Sanders gave, as cited above, the mayor writes: “The documents do not prove unequivocally that Liman von Sanders really prevented the deportations and saved the lives of 7000 people.” Had his diaries not been destroyed by fire in 1944 in Potsdam, the letter continues, more could be learned of his views. Liman himself “after 1916 never addressed the issue of the deportations, and by no means in favor of the Armenians. Other German officials in Turkey took a much clearer position during and after the war and even then denounced the mass murders.”

It follows that the committee “sees no reason” to reverse its decision. “On the basis of the current status of knowledge, he did not offer any humanitarian resistance against the policy to expel the Armenians.”

Intentions on Trial

What is disconcerting in the mayor’s letter is the stubborn refusal to acknowledge that Armenians, perhaps up to 7,000 in Smyrna, were saved as a result of the intervention of Liman von Sanders, a fact confirmed by several other German officials in the diplomatic correspondence. Perhaps the Experts Committee should have studied the Foreign Ministry documents issued by Wolfgang Gust more carefully.

Perhaps they should have consulted Dr. Tessa Hofmann, a renowned genocide researcher who has published widely on the fate of the Armenians and Greeks under the Ottoman Empire. Asked in an interview about measures taken by the German imperial forces to stop the death marches and massacres, she answered: “Aside for ineffective protest notes, German diplomats and high-level German military in the Ottoman Empire in the end played the role of observers; the only exception is the German-Jewish Cavalry General Otto Liman von Sanders who largely prevented — with the exception of 300 deported on August 13, 1916 — the deportations of Armenians in his jurisdiction; in the city of Smyrna at the time there were, according to various estimates, between 6,000 and 20,000 Armenians, in the surrounding area 30,000 more. When,” she continued, “in the same year the governor of the Aydin province, Rahmi, ordered the deportation of the entire Greek population of Ionia, von Sanders again opposed this order, with the support of the Foreign Office, just as he prevented an attempt to deport Greeks from Smyrna at the end of 1917.” Hofmann added that von Sanders, however, did order the “evacuation” of about 2,000 to 20,000 Greeks from Aivalik (Aivali), “on grounds of their alleged espionage and betrayal for the Allies.” (According to another source, von Sanders threatened “to resign his commission in the Ottoman Army in December 1917 over Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha’s decision to order ‘the deportation of virtually all Greeks of the coast to inland areas.’ His action was supported by the German Foreign Office who made it known that it ‘advised strongly against the deportations.’”)

In sum, there is sufficient evidence in the historical record to establish the fact that von Sanders intervened, often successfully, to stop the deportations. Yet the Experts Committee argues to the contrary. Equally disturbing is the Committee’s putting von Sanders on trial for his intentions: assuming he did stop the deportations, the fact that he gave military reasons for his actions seems here to undermine the value of the act. But, as historian Kautz has noted in another location, Liman von Sanders was doing exactly what Oskar Schindler did, when he gave military arguments for saving Jews from the gas chambers. Does that make his efforts less worthy?

An Expert Evaluation

Stymied by this bizarre stance taken by the Experts Committee, I turned to my friend Wolfgang Gust for guidance. Here is what he had to say on the matter:

“Yes, Liman von Sanders was the head of the German Military Mission in Turkey and in this capacity, commander of the Turkish troops as well, as the Germans initially provided only the officers. It was only in the Dardanelles campaign that normal German troops were also deployed….

“At the start of the war there was a hefty dispute between [German Ambassador] Wangenheim and Liman, on the one side, and Enver on the other, regarding who actually was commander of the German-Turkish troops. Enver laid claim to this for himself, or for the Sultan (whom he represented as commander), whereas Liman insisted he should be commander. What formal decision was reached at the time is unfortunately unclear or at least open to interpretation. Wangenheim wrote to Bethmann Hollweg: ‘General Liman, however, has officially informed me in advance that he had arranged a detailed agreement with the Minister of War Enver which provided the Military Mission with the actual chief command.’ This actual command Berlin had explicitly demanded, but the exact agreement between Enver and Liman never surfaced.

“In practice, Enver deployed as his chief of staff Bronsart von Schellendorff (who at the time belonged both to the Military Mission and to the Turkish War Ministry), and other German officers (who were also members of the Military Mission), who all supported the genocide against the Armenians, or did not oppose it in any manner. As official commander, Liman von Sanders might possibly have spared hundreds of thousands of Armenians their fate. Since Enver however was the most important contact to the Committee of Unity and Progress, the German side maintained silence on the conflict. Enver gave the orders and the stubborn and rather isolated Liman led a difficult battle, a battle which however did reach a visible highpoint in the rescue of the Armenians in Smyrna.”

With this detailed historical account in mind, I wondered what should one make of the deliberations and decisions of the Darmstadt Experts Committee? Wolfgang Gust answers as follows:

“That the Experts Committee on Graves of Honor dealt in depth with the role of Liman von Sanders in connection with the deportations and murder of the Armenians in 1915-1916, I simply call into question. That the committee decided not to consider Liman’s positive role, on grounds that this theme is allegedly disputed in the historical research, is simply not true, because the theme has simply never been discussed among serious historians. On the same grounds, it is nonsense to say that the documents do not clearly establish that Liman von Sanders really prevented the deportation of the Armenians in Smyrna and saved the lives of 7,000 people. As Tessa Hofmann’s remarks demonstrate, Liman von Sanders saved perhaps many more lives, despite several documented cases in which one tried to prevent him. Liman’s motivation is not, as the Experts Committee moots, the subject of diverse speculation, simply because the theme has not been treated at all.

“After the war, German diplomats, or representatives, according to the Experts Committee, took clear positions and denounced the mass murder. What German top officials were they then? Almost all the German diplomats who had denounced the genocide internally in 1915-1916 behaved quite differently after the war: with very few exceptions, like Consul Rössler, they went over the Nazis and became members of the NSDAP (Nazi Party).

“Liman utilized extraneous arguments in order to prevent the deportation of the Armenians, but Schindler did the same thing later, to save Jews from death. After World War II it was even less opportune to acknowledge a spotless achievement regarding a crime against humanity, especially on the part of a Prussian General – even the Armenians hesitated and hesitate. Thus it is not surprising that their official organizations have maintained silence regarding these events in Darmstadt.”


Memory and Commemoration

As I was standing at his graveside, I reflected on how important it is for the story of Liman von Sanders to be studied. In the course of the debate leading up to the Genocide resolution in the Bundestag, Germans learned, many for the first time, about the Genocide and about the Armenians as a people. Historians also examined more critically the role played by the Ottoman Empire’s wartime ally Imperial Germany. Were the Germans unaware, or indifferent? Were they complicit or even co-responsible? Were there Germans who knew and refused to go along with the genocide? If so, how should they be remembered?

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Marc Antony, speaking at the funeral of Julius Caesar, bids his fellow Roman countrymen to lend him their ears. “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” he says.

“The evil that men do lives after them,

The good is oft interred with their bones;

So let it be with Caesar.”

This is apparently what the Darmstadt authorities have decided; “So let it be with Liman von Sanders.” Whatever evil he might have done has lived after him. That they have made sure.

But that he did do good, for whatever reasons: should that be left buried in his coffin? No, it should not.


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