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Virtuous Victims? Imagining Armenians in the West

Virtuous Victims? Imagining Armenians in the West
A German handcolored depiction of Armenians from J. A. C. Löhr, Die Länder und Völker der Erde; oder vollständige Beschreibung aller fünf Erdtheile und deren Bewohner [The Countries and Peoples of the World; or a complete description of all five continents and their inhabitants , Vol. II, Leipzig 1818, p. 55. The accompanying text acknowledges that there are conflicting views on Armenians--some say they are devious, some that they are honest--but the emphasis is on Armenians as basically cowardly merchants.

A German handcolored depiction of Armenians from J. A. C. Löhr, Die Länder und Völker der Erde; oder vollständige Beschreibung aller fünf Erdtheile und deren Bewohner [The Countries and Peoples of the World; or a complete description of all five continents and their inhabitants , Vol. II, Leipzig 1818, p. 55. The accompanying text acknowledges that there are conflicting views on Armenians–some say they are devious, some that they are honest–but the emphasis is on Armenians as basically cowardly merchants.

During the winter of 1902-03, small groups of Armenian refugees began arriving in Sweden, survivors of the 1890’s Abdülhamid massacres,1 and according to newspaper reports some even made it all the way to Norway.But it was claimed by an alleged authoritative source that such groups were not, or not necessarily, actual Armenians at all. In the summer of 1903, a party of “fake Armenians” arrived in Copenhagen, ostensibly collecting funds for victims of the massacres. As a Danish popular periodical wrote in a rather sarcastic tone that speaks volumes of widespread perceptions of the Oriental Other:

A few days ago, Copenhagen had the honor of receiving a strange visit. It was said that a group of unfortunate Armenians had arrived from Riga to collect money for the victims of the cruelties perpetrated by the wild Kurds, and the noble feelings already began to stir in the soft Danish hearts. Later the feelings took another direction. It so happens that the Asiatic party, consisting of six men, one woman, and four children, had not counted on the fact that at the moment there lives a man in Copenhagen who could check them thoroughly: The former Turkish consul general, Ali Nouri, whose name will be familiar to the readers of this journal as a regular contributor. … Police Inspector Petersen then summoned the Swedish Turk, and he quickly informed the police about the true nature of these ‘Armenians.’ It has become a large and profitable industry among industrious inhabitants of Asia Minor to journey around Europe begging, falsely claiming to be refugee Armenians. … It is no wonder that such swindlers quickly inspire others. They come home, buy a house, and live off their money—and they are not unwilling to share this business secret with family and friends for a fee. At the moment Europe is being flooded with hundreds of these charlatans, and they have even extended their business to America.3

How Ali Nouri Bey (a.k.a. Swedish convert, Ottoman dissident, and Young Turk sympathizer Gustaf Noring) managed to determine that the members of the “Asiatic party” were not Armenians but, as he claimed, Chaldeans, is unclear. In any event, as a result of instant taxonomy, they were shipped off to Lübeck, Germany. Whatever their claim to “true” Armenianness and victimhood, the apparent fact that this and many similar groups made a living traveling through Europe, reaching as far as Scandinavia on a wave of sympathy in the wake of the 1890’s massacres, shows that the “Armenian Question” was a matter of serious concern way beyond the Ottoman borders.

Who, then, were the Armenians suddenly mentioned so often in newspapers, petitions, public speeches, academic publications, even police reports? How should they be classified, what was their “essence”? This became a hot topic, a battleground between realpolitik and humanitarianism, between more or less scientific world views, political ideologies, religious affiliations, and economic interests. As seen in the example above, human taxonomy is rarely an innocent occupation: How Ottoman Armenians were classified in the West—in Europe and North America—could have direct and far-reaching consequences when linked to discussions of the Armenian Question, in general, and to issues of intervention, proselytizing, and relief work, in particular. Did Armenians deserve aid? Were they worthy of the money and time spent by good Western citizens? The question of how to define the “true nature” of various Ottoman groups even became a topic when discussions of whether any given group deserved, or were capable of managing, a national home when the empire was carved up in the wake of World War I.4 In this article a small but representative sample of mainly Scandinavian sources is used to analyze and categorize—classify, as it were—Western attitudes towards Armenians in the wake of the 1890’s Abdülhamid massacres in the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to address these questions.

Intellectual Armenophobia

In general, knowledge about Armenians (and all other Ottoman groups) before the Abdülhamid massacres was marked by racism, religious prejudice, or superficial research. It has been said that “in its narratives of cross-cultural contact, the Western form of the travel book continually sees otherness as inferiority.”5 While this is not necessarily true, the information about Armenians that reached Western countries was in fact mainly provided by popular travelogues or ethnographic accounts that often portrayed Armenians as greedy, devious, and cowardly—in short, like Jews were supposed to be.6 One early example will suffice to illustrate this point: In a detailed and otherwise rather nuanced account of encounters with Armenians, Greeks, Turks, and Jews in Constantinople in 1831, Danish theologian J. F. Fenger could only compare Armenians to Jews, “God’s chosen people wandering the earth, worshipping material goods and a dead religion.”7

A postcard from the archives of the Danish Women Missionary Workers, c. 1910, one of a series sold to raise money for missionary work among Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The caption reads: ‘Young Armenian women in national costumes’ These Armenian women, probably from the Kharpert region where the Danish organization was based, would have looked exotic in the West at the time, but they do not look weak or passive as ‘Oriental’ women often do in Western imagery. It is rather an image of strong, assertive women, an image which women missionaries would not have picked at random to put on a postcard. Virtuous victims, perhaps, living proof that missionary work mattered?

A postcard from the archives of the Danish Women Missionary Workers, c. 1910, one of a series sold to raise money for missionary work among Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The caption reads: ‘Young Armenian women in national costumes’ These Armenian women, probably from the Kharpert region where the Danish organization was based, would have looked exotic in the West at the time, but they do not look weak or passive as ‘Oriental’ women often do in Western imagery. It is rather an image of strong, assertive women, an image which women missionaries would not have picked at random to put on a postcard. Virtuous victims, perhaps, living proof that missionary work mattered?

But it took a human catastrophe, the Abdülhamid massacres, to truly put a distant, “exotic” people like the Ottoman Armenians on the map in the Western world. These events happened to more or less coincide with the rise of certain vital aspects of the modern age: scientific classification; nationalism; racial thinking; public opinion; improved means of transportation and communication increasing the speed, quality, and quantity of travel and news reports; professionalized grassroots movements; debates on human rights and humanitarian intervention, etc. Thus, the nature and timing of the massacres made the Armenian Question an issue among populations, not just elites. Nor was it an issue only for major countries like Great Britain, France, or Germany with significant political and economical interests in the Near East. Scandinavian and other “peripheral” sources suggest that Armenophobia and Armenophilia in fact became truly widespread transnational cultural phenomena during and after the 1890’s massacres. Indeed, this quote by famed Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (later to become a Nobel laureate in literature and a staunch supporter of the Nazi regime in Germany) is quite representative of a certain type of Western reaction to the resurfacing Armenian Question:

Armenians are the trade Jews of the East. They penetrate everywhere, from the Balkans to China, in every city you go to the Armenians are up to their old tricks. While the papers of the West are overflowing with tears over the misfortune of this people it is not rare to hear in the East that they deserve their fate, they are remarkably unanimously represented as a people of scoundrels. In Turkey proper they push the country’s own children out of one position after the other and take their places themselves. Trade falls into their hands, pawn-broking and money. And the extortion.8

With apparent ease intellectuals such as Hamsun extended their “classic” (ethno-religious) and/or “modern” (racialized) anti-Semitism to include Armenians and other “similar peoples,” like Greeks. Especially those with no nation state—Jews and Armenians—were viewed with contempt. In an age of nationalism, persons without a national home were cosmopolitan, city people, rootless; they were “modern,” removed from the soil in body and soul and thus unclean, suspicious, and possibly or even inherently subversive. Often, Jews were the prism, their alleged traits were the traits of the negative other par excellence. Any person or people, Semitic or not, deemed to possess some or all of these traits were considered unreliable at best. At worst they were considered deserving of persecution or destruction. Edward Said wrote that Islamophobia is a “secret sharer” of anti-Semitism.9 Armenophobia was certainly also a “sharer” of anti-Semitism, and it was hardly a secret: Anti-Semitism and Armenophobia went hand in hand in the media and popular culture around the turn of the century and for decades to come, often contrasted with other, “nobler” peoples.10 For every villain there is a hero in the classification game.

Examples of Western intellectual Armenophobia are legion and can be found in major newspapers, periodicals, authoritative encyclopedias, and publications from large, respected publishing houses. In 1900, a major, authoritative Danish ethnographical volume briefly defined Armenians as “an intelligent race,” but—paraphrasing the classic proverb, “One Greek cons two Jews, one Armenian cons two Greeks” 11—more greedy, cunning, and ruthless than Greeks and Jews, “races” that, it is implied, were already plenty greedy, cunning, and ruthless.12 Danish reporter Frantz von Jessen wrote during the 1903 uprising in Ottoman Macedonia that “all connoisseurs praise the Turks at the expense of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews.”13 Yet another variation of the stereotype can be found in a book by Swedish officer and war correspondent Spada (Johan Christian Janzon), Incursions into the Orient. Here, Spada also contrasts in a typical fashion what is described as the loud and cunning behavior of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian merchants at a Constantinople bazaar with the dignified, calm, and stoic composure of the Turkish merchants.14

Such views spread into educational materials, including a geography textbook endorsed by the Danish Ministry of Culture,15 and they were indeed quite common in the press as well from early on. In 1895, in a leading Danish journal, it was stated that though there was no excuse for the ongoing Abdülhamid massacres, and though the Western Powers and Russia could reasonably demand that the empire avoided such incidents in the future, it was equally reasonable and understandable that “strict measures” were applied to suppress the Armenians:

A rebellious Armenian in the Ottoman Empire is quite the same as a rebellious Hindu in British India; the Sultan cannot tolerate that the orders of his officials are being challenged by such an ignorant and restive people as the Armenians who are subjects in his Empire, and when the Mohammedans are defending themselves in their own country they are only exercising their right.16

This was a defense of empire and imperialism, wherever and with few restrictions; a defense of Turks/Muslims as perhaps brutal masters, but rightful masters nonetheless, pitted against Armenians/Christians. They, in turn, were lowly, rebellious, cunning, intelligent and/or primitive subjects (logical consistency is rarely a hallmark of racist beliefs), a miserable people who brought their misery upon themselves through protests or provocations; they were alien usurpers with no rightful claim to influence or equality, let alone power or land.

Armenophobia could also be an expression of a “scientific” racist negative stereotype influenced by a certain branch of Marxist thinking—the widespread variant of the comprador or “middleman” thesis that brands groups like Jews, Greeks, and Armenians as parasitic, bourgeois agents of international capitalism and imperialism, preventing a certain “progressive” economic development in, for example, the Ottoman Empire.17 For sure, very many merchants, etc., in the Ottoman Empire were Armenians, Jews, and Greeks, but this fact alone hardly explains the outright hatred directed at these groups. On April 30, 1909, on the front page of the official organ for the Danish Social Democratic Party, Social-Demokraten, a background article on Turkey, the Motley Empire, was printed following the Adana massacres. The reality of the massacres was readily acknowledged, but rather than seeing Armenians and other Ottoman Christians as “virtuous victims,” they were once again designated as cold, calculating, dishonest business-minded people that belonged to an economic class exploiting the “honest” and “easygoing” Turks.

There were variations of Armenophobia based on the primacy of the environment, not biology, in determining human behavior. According to such explanatory models, Armenians were not born, say, bloodsuckers or “vagabond, ransacking, plundering invaders” as Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) characterized them in 1920.18 (They were in fact usually not associated with such martial traits in the West until during and after World War I, when actual or invented armed resistance and “cultural machismo” became assets in the competition between would-be nation states.) Armenians had rather developed their alleged negative traits after centuries of oppression by the Turkish invaders, but were now exploiting their proud but indolent masters.19 As a former Serbian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire put it, “It is said that in cunning and astuteness the Jews are innocent babes when compared with the Armenians. Personally, I do not believe that that has anything to do with the race, and probably it is the result of the peculiar circumstances in which they live. Give them liberty, give them the responsibility of a self-governing nation, give them possibilities of higher culture, and the Armenians, in a couple of generations, would prove to be a noble and generous, as well as a highly intelligent race.”20 Finally, some claimed that while the Armenians encountered in the ports and bazaars of Constantinople and Smyrna (Izmir) were notorious cheats and liars, Armenian peasants were honest and laborious, uncorrupted by city life.21

U.S. historian and publisher William M. Sloane neatly summed up some important basic assumptions shared by all the above Orientalist persuasions in 1914:

It is no exaggeration to say that the passing generation had in its youth little conception but that the homogeneity of nationality with which they were familiar at home was to be found within the territories represented by each of these dividing lines. If it was England for the English and France for the French and so on, why not Turkey for the Turks? Starting from this deep-seated conviction, a few of the better educated and more intelligent read such delightful books of travel in Turkey and the Orient as Byron and Kinglake had rendered attractive and fashionable. Even from the perusal of them, there survived a general impression that within the Ottoman Empire there were ruling Turks who were Mohammedans and gentlemen; that the aristocracy was fairly refined and likewise Mohammedan; and that there was otherwise a huge plebeian mob separated in refinement and culture from the rest by an impassable chasm.22

The beginnings of Armenophilia

While Armenophobia was arguably widespread among intellectuals, it was hardly the “natural” unchallenged position in the West. Pro-Armenian sentiments appear, in fact, to have been more common, perhaps because support for the persecuted Armenians was not “negative” or speculative like Armenophobia. It was a tangible “good cause” with larger potential for mobilization, as many found it easy to sympathize or even identify with the victim group, and it had broad appeal, as it commonly transgressed otherwise rigid boundaries of religion, politics, class, and gender. Whether based on notions of Christian solidarity, human rights, or plain outrage, condemnation of the massacres was an issue for feminists, conservatives, liberals, and school children, Christians, Jews, pacifists, atheists, and military men, evolving into a virtual counter-discourse to Armenophobia. Detailed information on the massacres quickly became available and helped create this situation, as in 1895 when a popular Norwegian journal with readers and contributors from Denmark as well as Norway published a serialized treatment of the massacres, their background, the Armenian Question in general, and Europe’s responsibility to protect the Ottoman Armenians.23

“Europe” felt otherwise, but despite political inaction, the Ottoman Armenians were not quickly forgotten. Papers and public figures raised awareness of the atrocities, thereby laying part of the foundation for the substantial missionary and relief work that lasted through the Armenian Genocide and beyond. Missionaries and relief workers were sent to the Ottoman Empire, thousands of “ordinary citizens” in Scandinavia alone donated money for the cause or sponsored Armenian orphans, while articles, pamphlets, and books on the subject kept being published, including in Scandinavia: Swiss theologian Georges Godet’s Les souffrances de l’Arménie was translated for a Danish and Norwegian audience in 1897, with the proceeds of the sale going to ”the miserable Armenians,” and Edouard (Edward) Bernstein’s speech on the sufferings of the Armenians was published in several countries.24 In 1904, Johannes V. Jensen, a Danish author who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944, had an encounter with an Armenian massacre survivor as one of the central scenes in his popular novel Madame D’Ora, which was published simultaneously in Denmark and Norway.25 The Suffering Armenian had become a literary figure.

Partly as a reaction to Armenophobe stereotypes, pro-Armenians began at the turn of the century to introduce what became a recurring theme of depicting Armenians as a persecuted people that not only deserved sympathy, but respect for their virtues and accomplishments, whether acquired or “natural.” In missionary circles there was much Armenophobia, especially early on, but it was often stated outright that, by sticking to their faith through centuries of oppression and persecution, culminating with the genocide, Armenians had become virtuous by redeeming themselves and their “petrified” Apostolic Christianity. They had become the “martyred people,” a people to be admired and respected as “keepers of the faith,” even if they remained alien, “Oriental,” in the eyes of the Western beholder. Danish relief worker Karen Jeppe, on the other hand, believed Armenians were “naturally virtuous,” and she consistently underlined in public what she believed to be either Western or generally positive qualities of Armenians—Christianity, work ethic, honesty, moral conduct, willingness to sacrifice.26

In 1903, a Danish periodical published Armenian poems introduced and translated by writer and feminist activist Inga Collin (from 1904 Inga Nalbandian, after her marriage to an Armenian scholar), who later became an important figure in the international Armenophile movement as well as the International Woman Suffrage Alliance well into the 1920’s. In her introduction, she stated that “awareness of the limitless sufferings of the Armenian people has eventually been thoroughly raised, it has in a manner of speaking become part of today’s culture; but awareness of the great spiritual value of this mistreated people is completely lacking in this country.”27 There was an implicit, sometimes explicit, message from Collin, Jeppe, and others to domestic and international audiences where many were exposed to anti-Armenian articles, etc., and where many (but far from all) believed that freedom from foreign rule or oppression was a Western or white prerogative anyway. The message was that Armenians as virtuous victims had the same rights to peace, prosperity, security, self-rule, or independence as other “civilized peoples.”

In the end, the Ottoman Armenians were destroyed by the Young Turk dictatorship, partly to avoid giving Armenians exactly such rights, while the survivors were persecuted by the Kemalists and abandoned by Western governments. And in that sense Armenophobia, realpolitik, or just plain indifference prevailed over pro-Armenian sentiments. Furthermore, as the Armenian Question ceased being a media issue in the 1920’s, most intellectuals and ordinary citizens found new worthy causes to fight for or donate money to. But while other causes célèbres came and went, the most dedicated of the Western missionaries, relief workers, and activists carried on their work among the remnants of the Ottoman Armenians in exile—some, like Danish missionary nurse Maria Jacobsen, almost until the Armenian Question resurfaced once more in the 1960’s.


  1. Tomas Hammar, Sverige åt svenskarna. Invandringspolitik, utlänningskontrol och asylrätt 1900-1932, Stockholm: Caslon Press 1964, p. 70.
  2. Nordlands Avis, June 30, 1904; Ranens Tidende, July 12, 1911.
  3. Hver 8. Dag, No. 41, 1902-1903, July 12, 1903, pp. 643-644.
  4. See, e.g., G. W. Prothero, ed., Armenia and Kurdistan, no. 62 in the series Handbooks Prepared under the Direction of the Historical Section of the Foreign Office, London: H.M. Stationery Office 1920, p. 4.
  5. Howard J. Booth, “Making the Case for Cross-Cultural Exchange: Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana,” in Charles Burdett and Derek Duncan, eds., Cultural Encounters: European Travel Writing in the 1930s, Berghahn Books 2002, p. 163.
  6. See, e.g., Alexander von Humboldt, A. v. Humboldts Reiser i det Europæiske og Asiatiske Rusland, transl. by Hans Sødring, Copenhagen: F. H. Eibes Forlag 1856, p. 231; Pierre Loti, Tyrkiske Kvinder: Nutidsroman fra de tyrkiske Haremmer, transl. By Elisabeth Gad, Copenhagen: Gyldendal 1908, p. 15. For an early, relatively positive appraisal of Ottoman Armenians, see P. Blom, Fra Østerland, Christiania: Alb. Cammermeyer 1875, pp. 71ff.
  7. J. F. Fenger, ”Erindringer fra et Ophold i Constantinopel i Aaret 1831,” part II, Nordisk Kirke-Tidende, vol. 4, no. 37, Sept. 11, 1836, pp. 576-591.
  8. Knut Hamsun, ”Under Halvmaanen,” in Stridende Liv: Skildringer fra Vesten og Østen, Gyldendal: Copenhagen and Kristiania [Oslo] 1905, pp. 204-206.
  9. Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books 1978, pp. 27-28.
  10. See, e.g., J. E. Rosberg, Bland alla slags Nationer under Himmelen den Blå, Helsingfors: Söderström & Co. 1923, p. 197; Dr. L. Sofer, ”Armenier und Juden,” Zeitschrift für Demographie und Statistik der Juden, no. 5, 1905, p. 65.
  11. Stephen H. Astourian, “Modern Turkish Identity and the Armenian Genocide: From Prejudice to Racist Nationalism,” in Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press 1998, p. 30.
  12. Kristian Bahnson, Etnografien fremstillet i dens Hovedtræk, vol. II, Copenhagen: Det Nordiske Forlag 1900, pp. 357-358.
  13. Frantz von Jessen, Mennesker Jeg Mødte, Gyldendal 1909, p. 84.
  14. Spada, Ströftåg i Orienten, Stockholm: Oscar L. Lamms Förlag 1881, pp. 212-213. See also Vahagn Avedian, The Armenian Genocide 1915. From a Neutral Small State’s Perspective: Sweden, unpublished MA Thesis, Uppsala University 2008, p. 29.
  15. Johannes Holst, Geografi med Billeder, 17. ed., 296,000-320,000 copies, Copenhagen 1914, p. 92.
  16. Illustreret Tidende, no. 3, Oct 20, 1895, p. 34.
  17. See Hilmar Kaiser, Imperialism, Racism, and Development Theories: The Construction of a Dominant Paradigm on Ottoman Armenians, Ann Arbor, MI: Gomidas Institute 1997; Margaret Lavinia Anderson, “‘Down in Turkey, Far Away’: Human Rights, the Armenian Massacres, and Orientalism in Wilhelmine Germany,” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 79, March 2007, pp. 80-111; Mark Levene, “Port Jewry of Salonika: Between Neo-colonialism and Nation-state,” in David Cesarani, ed., Port Jews: Jewish Communities in Cosmopolitan Maritime Trading Centres, 1550-1950, London and Portland, OR.: Frank Cass 2002, pp. 135-36; Ingrid Leyer Seeman, “A Turkish Proverb and Its Tradition,” Haigazian Armenological Review, vol. 28, 2008, pp. 391-405.
  18. Fatma Ulgen, “Reading Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the Armenian genocide of 1915,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 44, no. 4, 2010, p. 380.
  19. Fra alle Lande, no. 2, 1876, pp. 47-49.
  20. Chedo Mijatovich [Čedomilj Mijatović], “The Problem of the Near East. I. Sultan Abdul-Hamid. A Character Sketch,” The Forthnightly Review, no. CCCCLXXVIII, New Series, Oct. 1, 1906, p. 577.
  21. Vatche Ghazarian, ed., Armenians in the Ottoman Empire: An Anthology of Transformation, 13th-19th Centuries, Waltham, MA: Mayreni Publishing, p. xxi; J. E. Rosberg: Jordens Länder och Folk: Geografisk Handbok, vol. II, Stockholm: Bokförlaget Natur och Kultur 1926, p. 165.
  22. William M. Sloane, The Balkans: A Laboratory of History, New York: Eaton and Mains 1914, p. 23.
  23. Mac Coll Malcom, “Til belysning af det armeniske spørgsmaal,” in Gerhard Gran, publ., Samtiden. Populært tidsskrift for litteratur og samfundsspørgsmaal, vol. 6, Bergen: John Griegs Forlag 1895, pp. 318-336, 384-395.
  24. E. Bernstein, Det Armeniske Folks Lidelser, Tale holdt i Berlin d. 28 Juni 1902, Copenhagen: Jul. Gjellerups Boghandel 1902. German version: Die Leiden des armenischen Volkes und die Pflichten Europas, Berlin 1902. On Bernstein, see also Yair Auron, The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide, Transaction Publishers 2000, pp. 110-111.
  25. Johannes V. Jensen, Madame D’Ora, Copenhagen and Kristiania [Oslo]: Gyldendal 1904, pp. 28-29.
  26. Matthias Bjørnlund, “Karen Jeppe, Aage Meyer Benedictsen and the Ottoman Armenians: National Survival in Imperial and Colonial Settings,” Haigazian Armenological Review, vol. 28, 2008, pp. 9-44.
  27. Dansk Tidsskrift, 1903, p. 764. Italics in original.

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