In life, he was celebrated as a prolific author and novelist, who was a pioneering activist in what would later be known as the cause of human rights.
When Nazism arose in his native Germany—where he was the scion of a distinguished Prussian lineage dating back to the Crusades—he risked his life, and eventually suffered exile, when he spoke out against the Third Reich’s policy of anti-Semitism.
But it was his service during World War I, as a medic in the German military, that most shaped the soul of Armin T. Wegner. Stationed in the Ottoman Empire, Wegner was a first-hand witness to the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide. In Syria and Mesopotamia, he watched in horror as Armenians were marched to their deaths.
But he did more than merely watch. Wegner took photographs of the escalating tragedy, creating an archive of images that, to this day, remains the indispensable library of images testifying to the Genocide.
Wegner paid a personal price for his actions. In contravention of orders from his military superiors, he began to amass data on the massacres: documents, notes, letters, and hundreds of photos at dreaded locales like the Armenian death camp at Der Zor. Wegner was arrested by his own countrymen—who were bowing to the demand of the Ottoman government—and returned to Germany, where many of his photographs were confiscated and destroyed. But many more survived, smuggled to safety as negatives concealed in Wegner’s belt.
The experience set the course for the remainder of his long life. In 1921 he testified in defense of Soghomon Tehlirian, who was on trial for executing the war criminal Talaat Pasha in Berlin. In 1922 Wegner wrote an appeal on behalf of the world’s surviving remnant of Armenians, titled The Scream From Ararat. Five years later he embarked on a tour of the Soviet Union which included a visit to the then-Soviet Republic of Armenia; that trip formed the basis of his book Five Fingers Over You, which exposed the soul-breaking spiritual violence of life under Soviet Communism, predicted the rise of Stalinism, and made Wegner an international literary celebrity.
Wegner would return to Armenia in 1968, but this time at the invitation of His Holiness Vasken I, Catholicos of All Armenians, who conferred the St. Gregory the Illuminator Medal on the aged humanitarian. A decade further on, at Wegner’s death, some of his ashes were taken to Armenia and honored in a state funeral before the eternal flame of the Genocide monument at Dzidzernagapert.
Armin T. Wegner died 43 years ago, on May 17, 1978. His gravestone epitaph, expressing the resolution and burden of his life’s work, reads: “I loved justice and hated iniquity. Therefore I die in exile.” This week, offer a prayer in remembrance of this righteous soul, who on behalf of our people risked life and liberty to reveal the truth to the world.
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Click here to view a short video of the elderly Armin Wegner recalling his role as a witness to the Armenian Genocide.
—Christopher H. Zakian