Armin Theophil Wegner (1886 –1978) was a German soldier and medic in World War who came to be a witness of the Armenian genocide, taking numbers of photographs in the Armenian deportation camps. Ayşegül Şah Bozdoğan, a philosopher of Istanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi, tells his story and reflects upon it.
Armin T. Wegner, forgotten photographer of a forgotten genocide, “the eye” which witnessed, testified, and never forgot, human rights activist, author, victim of Nazi persecution, was born in Wuppertal, Germany in 1886, and died in Rome, in 1978.
He enlisted as a voluntary nurse in 1914 and was sent to the Middle East as a member of the German Sanitary Corps. He traveled through the Middle East: where he witnessed the Armenian massacres. He collected documents, took thousands of photographs of the deportation camps, and “deportees” on the way to the Syrian desert, regardless of the rigid prohibitions to prevent world public opinion from finding out what was happening there. Wegner sent some of these documents to the United States and to Germany. After Turkish military forces realized his efforts, he was arrested by the Germans and recalled to Germany. Even though documents were destroyed, he succeeds to save the negatives by hiding in his belt.
In 1933, right after the beginning of the attacks against the Jews, Wegner wrote an “Open Letter to Hitler” and sent it to him. He was arrested and tortured by the State Secret Police and sent to Nazi concentration camps and released in 1934.
In 1936, he fled to Italy. Wegner received the title “Righteous Gentile” by the Yad Vashem in Israel and was honored at the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, where a street was named after him. At this point, it would be interesting to discuss the influences of the Catastrophe pictures taken by Armin T. Wegner:
How do “we” feel when we look at these kind of pictures? And above all things, as Susan Sontag has remarked, “should be “we” taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain? Who are the “we” at whom such shock-pictures are aimed?”
What is the difference between the glances of an Armenian and a Turk at these pictures? How about the Other side in Us: not purposely evil but cruel, not organizer but participant, spectator, the ordinary fascist in US? It is important to remember the “collective instruction” notion of Susan Sontag, “Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about.... There is no such thing as a collective memory- part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is a collective instruction. All memory is individual”. In the light of this notion, it seems that it is not a coincidence that neither Germany nor Turkey remember Armin T. Wegner anymore.
As a conclusion, let us share a memory of Carlo Massa, childhood friend of Armin T. Wegner's son Misha:
“Sometimes, bothered by our din, he would shout at us which brought immediate results. But one day when we had not given due importance to his warning, he suddenly appeared before us as a flashing divinity, and removing his shirt in silence, showed us the terrible scars on his back. This made me a great impression on me even though I did not understand its significance at the time.”
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
- September 2011 dossier : European memory from the Bosphorus
Source photo : YashicaMinister-D-top, par Henrique Pinto, sur wikimediacommons