Do we learn from history?

The Armenian Genocide and the economic interests behind it

by Sofia

Thinking of components, actors and stages of mass killings, we often think of the perpetrator and the victim in a specific set of time.  However, in big political arenas behind the visible actors there are usually the invisible ones. Their roles in crimes, if unrecognized and unpunished, threatens to prolong the process of remedy, restitution and reconciliation between all actors. One such event in need of re-evaluation of its indirect perpetrators is the crime against minorities in Ottoman Empire at the beginning of 20th century, particularly the case of the Armenian Genocide. Not only is it worth searching further for other actors’ involvement in this process apart from the direct perpetrators, but it is also worth extending the timeframe of the crime to its pre and post execution. Only this would allow assessing the full scale of the tragedy and redefine claims for justice from all involved actors.

At the end of 19th century a central component of the industrial and commercial expansion in Europe was the rapid development of rail transportation.  It connected separated areas, opened new markets and politically united new territories. In this way it also facilitated the military defence and control of a region. The Berlin-Baghdad railway was one such grand project. It attracted German and Austrian financiers, industrialists and politicians because the project promised an increase of their influence in the Anatolian region. The risks appeared to be minimal taking into account the need of the Ottoman Empire to attract foreign money in order to pay off its debts and keep itself from eminent collapse. After Deutsche Bank founded the Anatolian Railway Company in 1888, it took over the existing British line which was extending further into south Anatolia.

The actions of this German-Austrian partnership had great geo-political dimensions: among the factors that the partnership had to take into account, however, were Russia’s sphere of influence on Persia, France’s sphere of influence over Syria and northern Anatolia, as well as Britain’s sphere of influence in Basra and Mesopotamia.


Berlin to Baghdad map ©

To build the railway, Germany recognized the dominance of these empires over the mentioned areas.  But it turned out there were more factors to be considered not only before but also during engaging in this business: factors which even after they started to come to light were nonetheless ignored.

The Armenian Factor in the Railway Construction

The end of 19th and beginning of 20th century was the period when Armenians were deported from or exterminated in the Ottoman Empire for various ideological, political and economic reasons. Around 880 Armenians were employed by the company operating the railway and a large number of Armenians worked on railway construction sites in the Taurus and Amanus mountains, as well as in northern Syria. As a result of mass exterminations and deportations the railway company was heavily affected since it lost its personnel. The company’s administration constantly reported about the situation to the Deutsche Bank and the German government. This provided a valuable insight in the organization of this crime from a non-governmental perspective, for instance by taking photographs of deportation trains.


The photo, attached to the letter as an evidence was sent by Anatolian railway director Franz J. Günter to Deutsche Bank manager Arthur von Gwinner (October 30, 1915): “Attached to the letter I am sending you a small photo, where the Anatolian railway is presented as a testimony of Turkish culture. These are our so called “sheep carriages,” each transferring around 880 people.” ©

However, the reaction of Deutsche Bank and the German government to railway company’s reports was not merely indifference, but a political stance which shaped the policy of the Ottoman Empire’s successor, the Republic of Turkey, for the coming decades. The German side, for interests of its own, created the picture of Armenians as rebels guilty of treason. They claimed that the measures taken against them were justified. For years to come this political stance was to be the exclusive answer to many questions rising in the Turkish society.

Company’s Reaction to the Crime

Meanwhile, the railway company itself had its own struggles with the Ottoman government. It had to reject the Ottoman government’s various pressures to gain more money from the company, such as demands to reduce transport tariffs which would establish precedent for further reductions. Having no backing from the Bank and the German government in its efforts to oppose the Ottoman policies against Armenians, the company was paid for deportations and thus “transported” Armenians away. But the company feared the costs it had to bear as a result of replacement of its skilled workforce with unskilled newcomers.

Thus on the one hand, the company objected to replacing the Armenian skilled workforce with unskilled newcomers. On the other hand, there was a submission of the company to the officials’ orders of deportations of Armenians. This conflict of interests makes it difficult to understand the driving force for the company’s efforts to stop its Armenian employees’ deportation: was it an act of humanity as one may conclude from reading the company’s reports to the Bank and German officials or was it a mere calculation of losses and thus an attempt to mitigate them?

In any case, all these efforts had to succumb to interests of the sponsors – Deutsche Bank and the German state on the one side and the German officer Lieutenant Colonel Bottrich on the other side. The latter was the head of the railway department of the Ottoman general staff and he was the one who cooperated and harmonized the company’s decision with the Ottoman government’s plans. The railway project served as a good pretext for the Ottoman government to uproot Armenians from the region. The order of May 30, 1915 by the Interior Minister Talaat to resettle Armenians living near the war zones at least 25 km away from Baghdad railroad eventually served as a deportation rather than a resettlement campaign.

Prolonged crime  

Now let’s think over another aspect of this crime’s timeframe – the aftermath. If we broaden the essence of this crime against Armenians not only in terms of actual murder, but erasure of the traces of both the victims and the crime itself, then it is essential to mention the law adopted in June 1915 regarding the “Abandoned Property” of Armenians. It is estimated that around 5 million Turkish gold pounds (22 million USD in those times) flowed out of Ottoman Empire to Germany as a result of the seizures of property. This money eventually ended up in Britain in forms of reparations after Germany’s loss of WWI. But this law had its revival even after the Turkish Republic was established.  In December 1925 Kemalist newspapers published the government’s order of starting a process of estimating movable and immoveable property abandoned by Armenians and selling them on auctions, declaring that this measure aimed at stopping “theft and irregular sale” that harmed the state’s economy. This law was in force until 1988. In a way, it helped to close debts after wars and eventually created a substantial pillar of Turkish national capital, 32-35 percent of which, according to some estimates, originates from Armenians’ possessions. Therefore any claim that changes in the forms of government, such as the shift from Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic, would put an end to responsibilities for past conduct is unacceptable. Even more so since the policies of extermination (whether of persons or materials) continued even after the shift.

Looking at a crime such as Armenian Genocide from the perspective of a single perpetrator acting in a specific set of time simplifies the situation because it allows to direct moral and material claims to only one single perpetrator.  Contrary to this over-simplification, recognising all of the perpetrators, both on the stage and behind curtains, as well as those acting before, during and after the crime helps understanding how various interests may have become a driving force for crimes – crimes which have not just been committed in the past, but also continue in the present with all the disorder and confusion that is ongoing in the Middle East and other parts of the world. If we learn from history, we might better understand the present.

Sources and for further reading:

Sean McMeekin, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 2010

R. G. Hovannisian, Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide, Wayne State University Press, Michigan, 1999

R. Kevorkian, The Deportees on the Istanbul-Ismit-Eskisehir-Kony-Bozanti Route and Along the Trajectory of the Bagdadbahn. In: The Armenian Genocide: A Complete History, I.B. Tauris, London-New York, 2011



One comment

  1. On 2nd of June 2016, the German Parliament adopted a Resolution declaring the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 a genocide. Cem Ozdemir, the co-chairman of the opposition Greens and the initiator of the resolution read century-old statements by officials of the German Empire showing they knew that up to 90 percent of Armenians had been killed. The vote in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, was nearly unanimous, with one lawmaker voting against and another abstaining. The president of the Bundestag kicked off the debate with a clear message: “Parliament is not a historians’ commission, and certainly not a court,” he said. He added that the current Turkish government “is not responsible for what happened 100 years ago, but it does have responsibility for what becomes of this” in present times. More in New York Times:
    Resolution in German:


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