On 15 March 1921, a young Armenian posing as an engineering student strode across Hardenbergstrasse in an upscale Berlin neighbourhood, pulled a gun, took aim, and shot a fellow pedestrian dead with one bullet. The victim was Mehmed Talât, also known as Talât Pasha, a member of the triumvirate that ushered the crumbling Ottoman Empire into World War I and orchestrated the Armenian genocide.
As a descendent of genocide survivors, I’ve long found the history of this assassination discomforting. Talât’s name should strike the same chord as Hitler’s, but outside academia, WWI enthusiasts and the Armenian community, it’s scarcely known – except in Turkey, where streets and schools are still named after him. In the century since the Great War, historians and academics around the world have established the facts of the genocide that resulted in the deaths of more than one million people and prefigured the Holocaust. Yet the Turkish government continues a policy of denial that began with Talât’s government.
Talât grew up during the era of the Red Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who earned his nickname thanks not only to the Bulgarian Horrors of 1876, but also to the series of pogroms committed against the empire’s Armenian communities at the end of the nineteenth century. As his empire disintegrated, the Red Sultan branded the Armenians an internal enemy.
Alongside Cemal and Enver Pasha, Talât came to power through a violent coup in 1913. Amid the rallying cry of ‘Turkey for the Turks’, propaganda depicted Armenians as an invasive infection. The triumvirate’s alliance with Germany pitted the flailing empire first against Russia, and soon the English and French as well, leading among other things to the ill-fated Anzacs of the Gallipoli campaign.
It was this state of siege – an initial loss to the Russians after a poorly planned winter assault in 1914, followed by the Anglo-French naval assault on the Dardanelles in early 1915 and the Ottomans’ belief that they could not withstand the forthcoming Gallipoli offensive – that led Talât’s government to order the arrests of more than 200 Armenian political, religious and cultural leaders on 24 April 1915.
With the same resolve as the Nazi leaders, Talât’s government had strategically planned the first modern genocide – modern because of the new technology that made it so systematic, and, from the Ottoman perspective, so successful.
Denial-laced telegraphs flitted across Anatolia. Officials arrived in town after town, ordering the men into military service, then executing them a few kilometres away. They rounded up women, children and the elderly, and ordered them ‘deported’. Allowed to bring only what they could carry, Armenian civilians were marched into isolated, barren regions to die of starvation and exposure. Some marched for weeks with little food or water. Along the Black Sea, soldiers took thousands by the boatful to be drowned. They packed Armenians into cattle cars on the newly built railway to expedite the deportations. Concentration camps in the Syrian Desert held as many as 40,000 people. There, a rudimentary form of the gas chamber as a tool for mass murder was trialled: those who had survived the death marches were packed into caves, where fire smoke filled their last breaths.
Talât’s government set thousands of prison convicts free and armed them with weapons on the condition that they murder Armenians and other ‘undesirables’. If there was any international fuss about mass graves and desert death marches, the government could blame these violent bandits who got out of hand in the chaos of war.
None of these events happened in secret. In 1915, the Age published over 40 articles on the fate of the Ottoman Armenians. The New York Times published over 100.
My great grandparents, Paravon and Mariam Kalagian, were among the survivors. As a young boy, Paravon witnessed his family slaughtered and his village burned while he hid in the branches of a tree. Mariam was too young to remember her family. She spent years trying to find out if any of them had survived.
Even while bragging about his ‘accomplishments’ – as Talât did to the empire’s American Ambassador, Henry Morgenthau – Talât and his government built denial into their plans, enacting retroactive laws to make their actions appear legal and justifiable. When Morgenthau swore that Americans would ‘never forget these massacres’, Talât blithely demanded a list of slain Armenian policyholders with American insurance companies. The state, he said, was the rightful recipient of their settlements.
After the Allied victory, the British officials organised war-crimes trials to redress what they had described as a crime against humanity. Stacks of evidence led to numerous convictions for what amounted to mass murder. The term ‘genocide’ and its legal framework were yet to exist: the annihilation of the Armenians inspired their creation. Just as the Armenian genocide provided a blueprint for the Holocaust, the trials in Anatolia set a precedent for the Nuremberg trials of World War II.
Talât, Enver and Cemal were among those convicted of intentionally planning and orchestrating the massacres. All were condemned to death in absentia. They’d escaped before the end of the war, escorted on a German gunboat. The Reich refused to extradite them for the trials.
Which bring us back to 1921, and Talât living under a false name in Berlin. Picture him – forty-six years old, his trademark moustache gone, on his way to buy gloves on a bright, windchilled winter morning. A survivor of the genocide just happens to move to Berlin, where he just happens to stumble upon Talât. He manages to acquire a gun, stake Talât out and kill him with a single, perfect shot.
The supposed student was Soghomon Tehlirian, a tall, narrow, plain-faced twenty-four-year-old. After the shooting, he surrendered to the police. His trial was widely publicised. He described witnessing the beheading of his mother, the rape of his sister, and the death of his entire family. He only survived, he claimed, because he awoke in a pile of corpses after the gendarmes had moved on. His defense, funded by wealthy Armenian expatriates, focused on evidence of Talât’s role as the main architect of the Armenian massacres. When the judge asked if Tehlirian felt guilt over his actions, he replied: ‘I have killed a man. But I wasn’t a murderer.’
The trial lasted three days. It took the twelve-person jury less than an hour to declare him not guilty.
Tehlirian’s story made for compelling testimony, but the true details of the assassination are more remarkable. Tehlirian wasn’t a student. He’d come to Berlin for the sole purpose of killing Talât. His mother and brother were victims of the genocide, but he couldn’t have witnessed their deaths, being in Serbia at the time.
Tehlirian was not only a sharp shot, but also a decent actor, convincing the German judge and jury of his cover story through soft-spoken responses and careful omissions. There was a lot more at stake than the risk of a prison sentence for Tehlirian: though he claimed that he’d acted on own his own, he was a member of small group of Armenians seeking vengeance for the genocide. They called themselves Operation Nemesis.
Eric Bogosian, author of the definitive work on the group, describes Operation Nemesis as
an unprecedented conspiracy designed to avenge an unprecedented modern genocide. With little training, resources, or experience in intelligence operations, this humble collection of businessmen, intellectuals, diplomats, and former soldiers virtually eradicated an entire former government.
Over the next three years, the group sought out and killed seven high-level officials responsible for the genocide, including Enver and Cemal.
Operation Nemesis offered a rare moment of justice for the Armenians. In the years following WWI, survivors who’d fled to the tatters of Russian Armenia faced attacks from Mustafa Kemal’s military. Kemal planned to unify the nascent Turkish state with Azerbaijan by eradicating Armenia altogether. He likely would have succeeded, had the nascent Soviet Union not lumbered to its feet and annexed the Caucasus.
Armenia survived to suffer through the years of Stalin’s purges, its citizens grappling with their grief in a society where history officially began with Lenin, and where no public memorial would be held for the genocide until 1965. Other Armenians, like Paravon and Mariam, found themselves scattered across the globe, attempting to learn new languages while rebuilding their families and communities, burdened with survivor’s guilt, shame, and post-traumatic stress. And in the new nation of Turkey, the violence continued, most notably with the burning of Smyrna and the deportation of its surviving Armenians and Greeks. The phrase ‘Armenian genocide’ remains illegal in Turkey today.
Talât was buried in Berlin until 1943, when the Turkish government requested that Germany return the remains to them. In the midst of enacting a genocide of their own, the Nazis somehow found time to do this. Talât received a state funeral. You can visit his memorial next time you’re in Istanbul.
What’s discomforting isn’t that Talât was assassinated by a group of men who, under different circumstances, would have been considered terrorists. Instead, Tehlirian and the other members of Operation Nemesis are heroes to the Armenian community, who view their actions as righteous. They carried out a justified death sentence when no government was willing or able to. And for all the fabrications among Tehlirian’s testimony, his despair at the violence inflected on his family and his people had genuinely left him haunted, suffering nightmares and depression.
My discomfort, after a decade of researching and writing about the genocide, is that Operation Nemesis was needed in the first place. There was the genocide, that initial, monstrous injustice. But aside from the half-hearted effort of the British war tribunals, the injustices have continued, most notably with the Turkish government’s ongoing denial, of which their embrace of Talât’s memory is a small but representative factor. More than a century after the genocide, the assassinations of Talât and his confederates is one of few moments of justice for those whose bones still lay scattered across Anatolia. And that should be discomforting to everyone.
Image: a portrait of Soghomon Tehlirian