Armin T. Wegner, the only writer in Nazi Germany ever to raise his voice in public against the persecution of the Jews, was born on October 16, 1886 in the town of Elberfeld/Rhineland (today part of Wuppertal). He was the scion of an old aristocratic Prussian family, with roots reaching back to the time of the Crusades.
After receiving his doctorate in law, the young Wegner tried his hand successively at being (in his own words) a “farmer, dock-worker, student of drama (with Max Reinhardt), private tutor, editor, public speaker, lover and idler, filled with a deep desire for unraveling the mystery of things.” Already at sixteen, he published his first book of poetry, I Have Never Been Older than as a Sixteen-year-old. Between 1909 and 1913, he wrote his cycle of poems, divided into five, Face of the Cities (Antlitz der Städte), which established his reputation as one of the promising pre-expressionist poets. However, the real driving force of his life was a burning moral passion, an unfailing commitment to the causes of justice and humanity, which made him raise his voice whenever he saw these values betrayed or traduced.
The history of the twentieth century provided Wegner with plenty of opportunity to speak out against evil and injustice. On the road to Baghdad in the spring of 1915, serving as an ensign on the staff of German Fieldmarshal von der Golz, he could observe first hand some of the worst atrocities perpetrated by the Turkish army against the Armenian people. The horrendous scenes of dead and emaciated people that he had witnessed in the Armenian refugee camps - visible proof of the first systematic genocide of the twentieth century - continued to haunt him long after. He protested against them in his Road of No Return: a Martyrdom in Letters and in an open letter, which was submitted to American President Woodrow Wilson at the peace conference of 1919.
In the 1920s Wegner reached the height of his success as a writer. He became a celebrity with his Russian book, Five Fingers Over You, which foresaw the advent of Stalinism; his travel book, At the Crossroads of the World, sold over 200,000 copies.
In April 1933, he sacrificed it all - his German home, his well-being, his liberty - because he could not bear to be party to the complicity of silence that surrounded the persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich. Wegner’s open letter (“Sendschreiben”) to Hitler was written a few days after April 1, 1933, the date of the general, state-organized boycott against the Jews of Germany. Since no German paper would publish it, Wegner sent the “letter” to the “Brown House” (the headquarters of the Nazi party) in Munich, with the request that it be forwarded to Hitler. The six-page letter - originally titled “For Germany” - constituted an eloquent panegyric on the historical greatness of the Jewish people and their immeasurable contribution to human civilization at large and to Germany in particular. It warned that a continuation of the antisemitic campaign was bound to bring disgrace upon the German people.
The receipt of the letter was acknowledged by the head of the chancellery, Martin Bormann, with the remark that it “would be laid before the Führer shortly.” Instead of an answer, Wegner was arrested a few days later by Gestapo thugs in Berlin and thrown into the dungeons of the infamous Columbia House, where he was tortured and brutalized until he lost consciousness. He would suffer incarceration in seven Nazi concentration camps and prisons before he could make his escape to Italy. After that, he could never again bear to live in Germany and remained in exile for the rest of his long life. He died in Rome in 1978, virtually forgotten by his own people. His obituary gravestone carries the following Latin lines:
Amavi iustitiam odi iniquitatem
Propterea morior in exsilio
(“I loved justice and hated injustice Therefore I die in exile” - lines attributed to Pope Gregory VII as he lay on his deathbed in 1085 A.D.)
On May 23, 1967, Yad Vashem decided to recognize Armin Wegner as Righteous Among the Nations.