Born in Wuppertal, on his father Gustav’s side, Armin Theophil Wegner descended from a family of rigid Prussian tradition, while his mother, Marie Witt, was inspired by the values of freedom and the defence of human rights and was active in the late XIX century pacifist movements. From a young age, Armin strove to be true to himself and to others and to search for answers to the fundamental questions about the meaning of existence.
His early experiences of work and his travels around Europe during short breaks in his studies brought him into contact with liberal circles. Although his father had insisted on him completing his legal studies, Armin was eager to place his literary and poetic talents at the service of social engagement. He was always strongly attached to his native Germany but, at the same time, he was a fiercely free and independent thinker and was capable of severe auto-criticism when his own ideals were belied by facts. This happened after his trip to Moscow in 1927, where he saw how the leaders of the 1917 revolution had betrayed their socialist ideals.
Certain autobiographical notes on episodes of his adolescence reveal a generous personality and a free thinker and shed light on the origins of his social commitment. On one occasion, despite the risk and without a moment’s hesitation, he had thrown himself into the Rhine to save a young woman from drowning; in addition, during his school days, he discovered how difficult it was for anyone ”different” – in this case a young Jewish boy – to be recognized and accepted. In and outside the classroom, during break, Armin Wegner approached this classmate, marginalized by his fellows, and became his only friend – a relationship facilitated by the sense of exclusion experienced by both boys. A diversity that Wegner felt linked to his artistic vocation (cf. “Armin T. Wegner’s relationship with Judaism”, from an interview given to Martin Rooney in 1972, in Armin T. Wegner e gli Armeni in Anatolia, 1915. Immagini e testimonianze, Guerini, Milano 1996, page 167).
His wartime experiences, which saw him as a volunteer in the German health service, first on the Polish front and then in the Middle East in April 1915, were to leave their mark. Germany was allied with Turkey. In 1915 Wegner was 29 and these were crucial years for him. An intellectual with an already defined vocation for poetry, a young German proud of his Prussian background, his aspiration was to engage in unique and exceptional endeavours: “I have become a soldier, I have put my life at stake for the values of my soul”, he wrote in his diary. But his existence was suddenly overwhelmed by tragedy, changing it forever.
In the Mesopotamian desert, faced with the anguished expressions and heart-rending pleas of the Armenian deportees, he felt he could not evade the crucial question. Before his very eyes were human beings, innocent victims, old people, women and children, not just abstract or remote representatives of human suffering. Armin had cultivated hopes and illusions that crumbled before the world that he witnessed, before radical evil, and he chose to say ‘no’. He said ‘no’ to the dehumanization of the victims and decided to make their human condition his own. Travelling that “road with no return” with destination “nothing” along with the Armenian people, trying to avoid the orders and prohibitions of the Ottoman and German authorities designed to prevent news of the columns of deportees from spreading, he entered the camps, took photographs, collected letters of entreaty addressed to foreign embassies or consulates and wrote a diary that was to provide vital testimony for the Armenians. In 1916 he wrote to his mother describing the massacres and atrocities he had witnessed; his letter was intercepted by the German censors and cost him a compulsory transfer to the isolation units for cholera patients in Baghdad, where he contracted the disease. He was sent back to Constantinople. Concealed under his clothing, he smuggled his photographs and diary. In December 1916 he was expelled and returned to Germany.
Back home, he busied himself with conferences, debates and appeals addressed to the powerful of the earth, invoking mercy for the victims. In January 1919 the first edition of the letters he wrote from the Anatolian desert came out in Berlin, Der Weg ohne Heimkher. Ein Martyrium in Briefe, [The road of no return. Martyrdom in letters.]
Armin Wegner devoted his entire life to the memory of these crimes and to resistance against new crimes. He created a link between the Armenian and Jewish tragedies, as testified in his letters addressed to Wilson in 1919, in which he pleaded for a country for the Armenians, and to Hitler in April 1933, calling for an end to the regime’s anti-Jewish behaviour. The price he paid in person was high: he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned. Released in the spring of 1934, he went into exile: in England, Palestine with his first Jewish wife Lola Landau and lastly Italy. As Wegner wrote: “Germany has robbed me of everything: my home, my success, my freedom, my job, my friends, my place of birth and everything that was dearest to me. Lastly, Germany has taken my wife; and this is the country that I still love, in spite of everything!”.
He came to Italy in 1936, first to Vietri and then to Positano, the refuge of numerous European intellectuals. Until the racial laws were passed in 1938, Italy enjoyed a relatively tolerant climate; after that the situation went downhill. Wegner was arrested, with other intellectuals, although only for a few weeks. It was a precautionary measure prompted by Hitler’s visit. The traumas of the lager experienced in Germany and the memories of the horrors of the Armenian massacres, indelibly impressed on his mind, returned to haunt Armin Wegner. His anguished cries at night – never forgotten by his son Mischa – were sure signs of wounds that never healed, on top of which he suffered from the loss of his identity as a writer. In the crucial years of the war from 1941 to 1943 he partially changed his name to Padova, and was granted a teaching post at the Germanic Academy. After the liberation he returned to Positano and then to Rome and to Stromboli. Wegner never managed to adapt to life in exile and never solved the dichotomy between his strong attachment to his native Germany and the equally strong sense of extraneousness that made it impossible for him to return home.
The silence that had shrouded the witness was broken in 1965. The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide provided the opportunity for the press to finally discover his photographic documentation, his role as a witness and his commitment to defending truth and human rights. Honours were bestowed on him by his native city Wuppertal, in the German Federal Republic; in 1968 by the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel, which awarded him the title of “Righteous” and by the order of St. Gregory in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, where a street bears his name. He devoted the rest of his life to writing and to testifying at various international events, in Europe and in the United States, always accompanied by a profound regret for what he could have been and never was.
It was the price Wegner paid for refusing not to think, not to voice his opinion, for having chosen to oppose evil. He was neither a saint nor a hero. He was a human being who managed to place self-respect and the search for truth above all else. Armin Wegner was a righteous person who chose not to debase and therefore not to despise himself. His photographs and his commitment to bearing witness to what he had seen are not simply an account of a historical event. They imply reflection on the values, the fundamental decisions in the past and in the present, on the “impenetrability” of certain deeds committed by man. At his own peril, he documented the tragic events that led to the extermination of a people – providing crucial testimony for the Armenian survivors, who still have to reckon with Turkey’s obstinate denial. Armin T. Wegner is a witness. Testimony is based on individual truth, it is powerful precisely thanks to the concern for truth that accompanies it, but it is also the most exposed to denial. Wegner died in Rome in 1978 at the age of 92. In Stromboli, on the ceiling of the tower overlooking the sea, you will find these words: “We were entrusted with the task of working on a project, but were denied the chance to complete it”.
On 21 April 1996 Pietro Kuciukian and Wegner’s son Mischa, took the ashes of Armin T. Wegner to Yerevan: the first “Righteous person and witness” for the Armenians, whose ashes have been laid in the Wall of Remembrance on Dzidzernagapert, the Hill of Swallows.