New Perspectives for Armenian Genocide Studies in Germany

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
On June 6, two important cultural institutions in Germany signed an agreement that may break new ground in research on the 1915 genocide against the Armenians. The contract signed by University of Potsdam’s Philosophy Department and the Lepsiushaus for enhanced cooperation was anything but a bureaucratic act. If the two partners fully exploit the potential in the deal, they could create the conditions for significantly enhancing genocide studies which would include the Armenian case. The Lepsiushaus (“House of Lepsius”) in Potsdam is a museum and research center located in the former home of Dr. Johannes Lepsius, the renowned theologian and scholar who documented the 1915 Armenian genocide. It was there that Professor Dr. Johann Hafner, Dean of the Philosophy Faculty, and Dr. Rolf Hosfeld, Scientific Managing Director of the Lepsius House, held the official signing ceremony.
Professor Hafner, speaking for the University, said, “With cooperation in ‘Genocide Studies,’ the Philosophy Department is making its mark with a further special feature (or selling point) on the German research landscape.” He went on to explain that students will be able to make use of the Lepsiushaus facilities, including rooms, archives, and library. In addition they “will be able to complete scientific internships there, receive assistance with their thesis work, and participate in research projects, conferences, and publications.” Finally, there are plans for the Human Rights Center, also located at the Philosophy Faculty, to gain new momentum as a result of this cooperation, with a chair for “Cultural History of Violence.” This is the new name for a chair instituted by the Military Historical Research Office, formerly known as the Chair for Military History. When a professor is named to occupy the newly named chair next year, it is expected to work together with the Lepsiushaus and the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies, for example, in comparative studies of the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. This is not a chair for Armenian genocide studies as such, but the subject will be a point of emphasis in research.
When Dr. Hafner spoke of a “special feature”, he was referring to the new focus that the Philosophy Department in Potsdam will place on research on the Armenian genocide. The Halle-Wittenberg University, which has hosted the MESROP Center since 1998, also established a chair for Armenian studies (
Armenologie), which deals with Armenian history, culture, and philology. And, the Ruhr University in Bochum also has an Institute for Diaspora and Genocide Research, headed by Prof. Mihran Dabag. For the Lepsiushaus, as Dr. Hosfeld declared, the new level of cooperation will contribute to “anchoring [it] in the scientific landscape.” The two institutions plan to expand research on Lepsius’s work and more broadly the history of the 1915 genocide.
The Lepsiushaus already has a working agreement with the Moses Mendelssohn Center, also located in Potsdam. This fall, they plan a conference dedicated to Franz Werfel, the Jewish writer who in 1933 published
The Forty Days at Musa Dagh, a renowned saga on the genocide. Now, with the new arrangement such activities will multiply. As Dr. Hosfeld put it, “We have achieved a lot, but we are not yet what we can be.” There is already a full calendar of seminars, workshops, conferences, political podium discussions, lectures and book presentations prepared for the next three years.
Prof. Hafner said the university was “extraordinarily delighted that the house will be full of life.” The University, for its part, lends professional and institutional support to the work of the Lepsiushaus, cooperates on projects, and makes available rooms for conferences. At the end of September 2012 a joint scientific conference with international participation is planned on the subject “Johannes Lepsius, a German Exception.”
Dr. Johannes Lepsius, as the university’s press release notes, was a “German protestant theologian, Orientalist, philosopher, mathematician, and historian” who lived from 1908 to 1926 in the house which is now a museum and research center. It was in Potsdam in 1916 that he wrote his
Report on the Situation of the Armenian People in Turkey. He was co-founder in 1914 of the German-Armenian Society. Lepsius had founded a relief organization in Urfa to aid Armenian victims of the 1890s Hamidian massacres, and he tried to travel to Anatolia again in 1915 upon learning of the renewed persecution. He was prevented from travelling inland by the Young Turk leadership, but did manage to collect hundreds of eye-witness accounts in Constantinople from Armenian survivors, diplomats, and humanitarian aid workers. The Report, though banned by the censors and partially suppressed, was distributed to political, ecclesiastical, and media circles in Germany and became a cause célèbre.
The Lepsiushaus was officially opened in May of last year, despite longstanding resistance on the part of certain Turkish circles in Germany. State and city funds as well as private contributions served to finance the complete restoration of the magnificent building, which had fallen into decay under the East German regime. It should be added that Brandenberg, where Potsdam is located, is the only federal state where the history curriculum and textbooks at schools include the Armenian genocide among state-organized mass murders.
Dr. Hosfeld, who succeeded Professor Hermann Goltz after his death, studied German literature, history, political science, and philosophy in Frankfurt and Berlin. As editor and author he has published numerous articles and more than twenty books. Among them is
Operation Nemesis: Die Türkei, Deutschland und der Völkermord an den Armeniern (Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2005/2009), whose title refers to the Armenian underground organization which pursued and executed Turkish leaders responsible for the mass murder. As the California Courier wrote, “Hosfeld painstakingly describes the emergence of an aggressive Turkish nationalism and its systematic annihilation policies against the Armenians, which were protected under Turkey’s alliance with Germany during World War I.”
Professor Hafner studied theology and philosophy in Augsburg, Munich, and in the Philippines. From 1998 to 2001 he was visiting lecturer at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and has been professor of religion at Potsdam since 2004. In 2010 he became Dean of the Philosophy Department.
(For an English language article on the agreement, see‘house-of-lepsius’-to-advance-genocide-studies/)