Henry Morgenthau (1856-1846) was the United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. For those interested in the modern history of Armenia and in America’s evolving relationship to the “Armenian question” in Turkey, this is a core text. In essence, Ambassador Morgenthau story is a diplomatic microhistory of Constantinople (later Istanbul) as the pressures and tensions leading to the Great War increase and as the highly nationalistic Young Turks solidify their grip on the country. As the Ottoman Empire fractures and contracts, state power turns tragically inward and against historic minorities—Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians—in a horrific pattern of ethnic cleansing and genocide that prefigured large-scale atrocities in the twentieth century, including the Holocaust.
Morgenthau spends a considerable amount of time, energy, and thought into documenting Germany’s direct involvement in and culpability in the Armenian genocide. During WWI, the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Germany controlled the Turkish military and intervened diplomatically, economically, and militarily, in order to extend its empire to the East. Morganthau asserts that Germany constantly urged Turkey to terrorize and ultimately exterminate its own citizens—actions that become even more terrible when viewed retrospectively through the lens of WWII. The United States remained neutral until 1917, when it declared war on Germany. Up until that moment, Morganthau had a unique diplomatic perspective, as he tried, sometimes in vain, to protect civilians caught in the literal and figurative crossfire.
Morganthau actually devotes only one chapter of his memoir to the massacre of Armenians in 1915: “The Murder of a Nation” (Ch. XXIV), and yet the deep context and thick description he provides in the previous chapters accentuate the pathos, as the devastating tableau unfolds—death marches, deportations, sexual violence, starvation, and disease—all as if in slow motion. Morganthau’s understanding of “national character” and racial/ethnic traits is obviously antiquated, drawing, as he does, on nineteenth-century ethnology and even the pseudo-scientific “physiognomy,” the notion that essential human characteristics could be “read” in facial features, a practice that most often leads to racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotyping. This is most apparent in chapter XXII, “The Turk Reverts to Type.” “The ragged, unkempt Turk was vanishing and in his place was appearing the Turk of the fourteenth and fifteenth, the Turk who had swept out of his Asiatic fastnesses, conquered all the powerful peoples in his way, and founded in Asia, Africa, and Europe one of the most extensive empires that history has ever known. . . . We must realize that the basic fact underlying the Turkish mentality is its utter contempt for other races. A fairly insane pride that is the element that largely explains this strange human species” (187). In this respect, it is essential to be aware of Morganthau’s Orientalism, his racialized lens, and the larger tropes that give shape to his study: the course of empire, in the classical sense, and the seemingly timeless battle between Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land. Most significantly, Morganthau’s memoir is a profound meditation on the heroic act of bearing witness, of giving voice to the historically silenced, and of taking a firm moral stance against the politics of racial and ethnic hatred.