Historian Fred Kautz (l.) and Gen. (ret.) Eckhard Lisec at the grave of Liman von Sanders

Reclaiming the Good Name of Liman von Sanders


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — On November 4, retired Gen. Eckhard Lisec delivered a lecture in Darmstadt, Germany entitled, “Marshall Liman von Sanders – An Honorable Soldier?” The question mark reflects the doubt cast on the role of the German First World War commander by authorities of the city Darmstadt, where von Sanders is buried. Until 2015 he had been given a “grave of honor” in the historic cemetery, but then the city decided to remove the designation, on grounds that military achievements alone (he was the “Hero of Gallipoli”) did not warrant such a commemoration. Worse, the findings issued by an experts’ committee charged with examining the issue, contained accusations that von Sanders had been implicated in the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire during the war.

Lisec was the right person to address the matter. He retired recently after a long career in the German military, serving in ministerial and diplomatic capacities in Belgium and, from 2002 to 2005, as brigadier general was assistant chief of staff support of the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps in Istanbul. Sparked by curiosity, he delved into study of the history of the Ottoman Empire, beginning as a hobby in 2002, and, thanks to his newly acquired language capabilities, has been able to consult source material in Turkish as well as other languages. He said he had read more than 1,000 works on the subject since retirement.

Several books of his own are the result of this effort, ranging from a study of a century of cooperation between the German and Turkish air forces (1911-2011), to a volume entitled, The War of Independence and the Founding of Turkey (2016). This year, Miles-Verlag in Berlin, a publisher specializing in military studies, released his book, The Armenian Genocide in the First World War – German Officers Involved? And in early 2018 his newest work should appear, entitled, History of the Turkish Army from 209 B.C. to the Present.


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The Germans’ Dilemma

German officers who had been engaged to train the Ottoman army were told by Emperor Wilhelm II to stay out of internal Turkish politics. This created a dilemma, Lisec said: should they blindly obey the emperor or should they obey their conscience? At a time when the anti-Armenian massacres were well underway, most of them obeyed their emperor. Then there were those, like General Friedrich Bronsart von Schellendorf, who did interfere or, rather, participate in Turkish internal politics, de facto supporting the deportations. Lisec showed how the command structure was supposed to function, and underlined the complexity of a situation with mixed troops and officers. In his book, he describes the “complicated situation of responsibilities and duties to obedience which … led to conflicts between Enver Pasha and Liman von Sanders.” In addition, he showed the differing interests and viewpoints even among the three members of the Young Turk leadership.

Liman von Sanders displayed independence of judgment and action on repeated occasions. As for the military decisions, he vehemently opposed the Caucasus campaign, which in fact turned out to be a disaster.

Lisec provided several examples of instances in which Liman von Sanders followed his conscience and made the right moral decision. “His behavior was to a large extent correct,” he said. In March 1915, he refused to expel Jewish and Armenian translators from his staff, and in the following year intervened more than once to prevent or stop deportations of Greeks from Urla and from coastal regions, for example, and of Jews and Armenians from Edirne, again of Armenians from Smyrna (Izmir). In this latter case, as is known, he went so far as to threaten the Vali with the deployment of weapons to stop the deportations. And his threats were effective. It is estimated that through his forceful actions, von Sanders saved the lives of 7-8,000 Armenians. In Smyrna, thanks to the assistance he lent the governor during a cholera epidemic, Greek lives were spared.

Citing the work of Christoph Dinkel, Lisec noted the cruel irony of the accusations made by the British, who imprisoned von Sanders in Malta, that he had been co-responsible for the genocide, when in fact he was the only officer who actually saved Greeks and Armenians.

Honor and Role Models  

In the lively discussion that accompanied Lisec’s lecture, the issue of honor, especially in relation to the military, was central. One participant raised the example of British Marshall Arthur Harris, famous for the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, which devastated the city and caused mass deaths of civilians. Yet in 1992, a statue was erected in London, at the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes, by something called the Bomber Harris Trust. Opponents then and now consider Harris not a hero but a war criminal.

Then there are the graves of honor, for example, in Berlin, which hosts over 500 such graves, paying tribute to statesmen, artists, poets, scientists as well as military; the Forest of Remembrance in Potsdam is dedicated to the memory of German armed forces. Finally, there is the case of Darmstadt’s old cemetery, where military men have had their graves stripped of this honor.

Asked for his views on the matter, Lisec said that Germany is a special case, because of the Shoa. Germany started two world wars, he said, and as a result, “We have a broken military history.” In light of this, he asked, “Do we need personal role models?” He answered in the negative, suggesting instead that what are needed are “philosophical” examples.

Although the case seemed to be closed in the Darmstadt cemetery, discussion of the principle, and of the specific case of Liman von Sanders, is sure to continue and spread, thanks to Lisec’s new book and lectures. The recent talk was covered prominently in the Darmstädter Echo, by Rüdiger Gilbert.

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