Missionaries and the Armenian Genocide

Missionaries were the first foreign eyewitnesses of the Armenian Genocide. With their successful evangelizing among Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, Protestant missionaries, mostly associated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), had created an extensive network of school, orphanages, hospitals, and colleges across Anatolia and Armenia. On account of US neutrality during the first three years of World War I, the missionaries were allowed to stay in the Ottoman Empire. Their institutions, however, were devastated by the destruction of the Armenian population. The missionaries made heroic attempts to provide for the care and feeding of the destitute, especially orphans, only to face hardships of their own at the hands of Turkish officials. Attempts to provide refuge proved futile and only provoked the ire of the government, which came to look upon them with increasing suspicion. Next to the US consuls, the American missionaries collectively became the second most important group of witnesses to the Armenian Genocide. Virtually every mission sent reports, which together with the official consular communiques, came to constitute the body of English-language eyewitness and documentary evidence about the Ottoman policy of extermination filed with the American Embassy in Constantinople and forwarded to the US Department of State in Washington. Many of these reports were compiled by Arnold Toynbee, then a young historian, and were published in Lord (James) Bryce's The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire presented to the British Parliament in 1916 as proof of "the gigantic crime that devastated the Near East in 1915." While the Department of State classified the cables from the Embassy in Constantinople as confidential, the ABCFM was able to release the contents of the reports it received and alerted the US media and the American public. Formal US reaction to the deportations and massacres did not go beyond verbal protests to the Ottoman government. Strong public sympathy generated by the atrocity reports, however, helped in subsequent relief efforts. Swiss, Danish, and German missionaries also witnessed the Armenian Genocide. Johannes Lepsius of the Deutsche-Orient Mission, whose wartime report was suppressed by Germany upon the protest of the Turkish government, with the authorization of the postwar German government published Deutschland und Armenien 1914-1918: Samlung diplomatischer Aktenstucke (1919), the second important volume of documentary evidence released during the time of the Genocide.

--Rouben Paul Adalian