Operation Nemesis, the post–Great War conspiracy by Armenians to avenge the Armenian Genocide of 1915 by tracking down and assassinating its Ottoman organizers, would make one helluva movie.
The Armenians’ prime target was Talaat Pasha, the strong man of Ottoman internal policy from 1913-1918 (and Grand Vizier in 1917-18).
Centered in a Freemasons’ lodge in Salonika, a multicultural city so far west in the Ottoman Empire that it’s now Thessaloniki in Greece, the Young Turks, including Talaat, emerged in 1908 to stage a coup against the modern autocracy of the Sultan and his secret police and impose a republican constitutional monarchy. (In case you are wondering about the role of the Freemasons, the elaborate protocols for advancing as a Mason made their lodges difficult for police informants to penetrate.)
It’s important to note that Talaat and company were by no means Muslim fundamentalists. For example, the young Talaat worked for a Jewish school in Salonika and fell in love with the headmaster’s daughter, although he wound up marrying a Muslim Albanian girl.
When he became Grand Vizier in 1917, he announced there is “only one civilization in the world [Europe], [and that Turkey] to be saved, must be joined to civilization.” His protege Mustafa Kemal Ataturk extended his secularization program.
But ruling the multiethnic Ottoman Republic during the disasters of the Balkan Wars proved frustrating, and led many of the once liberal-minded Young Turks, such as Talaat, to radicalize, turning to extreme Turkish nationalism and militarism as their panaceas.
When World War I broke out, seeing total war as their salvation, they quickly accepted the offer of Germany and Austro-Hungary to join the Great War.
Seeing the Christians of the Ottoman Empire as the greatest roadblock to Turkification, and with the Armenians near the Russian front as the most imminent threat to side with the Entente, in the spring of 1915 Talaat launched his war on the Republic’s Armenians. He ordered them deported from Anatolia to the Syrian desert, and if they happened to die along the way in vast numbers from the inconveniences of travel, such as no food and murderous attacks by Muslim mobs excited by the government’s declaration of jihad, well, c’est la vie.
This expelling-into-the-desert ethnic cleansing thing… It’s been tried.
By most estimates, around one million Armenians died.
Other Christian minority nationalities of the Ottoman Empire, such as Greeks and Assyrians, were targeted as well.
The German response was unedifying. German Army officers, who tended to be mean bastards during WWI (ask the Belgians), were highly complicit. But many other Germans in the Ottoman Republic were horrified. For example, the builders of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad carried out a Schindler’s List project on a vast scale of hiring Armenians as essential workers ineligible for deportation.
In early 1918, with the withdrawal from the war of the new Soviet Union, things looked promising for the Central Powers. But then the French halted the German drive outside Paris and the Americans began to arrive in vast numbers. As the Germans fell back as the Americans proved they could fight, the Ottomans and Austrians began to collapse. In early November 1918, Talaat and the other Ottoman rulers responsible for the Armenian Genocide fled Istanbul on a German torpedo boat.
Talaat wound up in Berlin with the permission of the new Social Democrat government. There he organized a weird coalition of Turkish nationalists, German nationalists, and Bolsheviks to back Kemal’s defense of Anatolia from the Greek invasion. He was briefly jailed for his role in Rosa Luxemburg’s Communist revolt.
Meanwhile, the Armenian diaspora organized Operation Nemesis to take vengeance on the Young Turks. Soghomon Tehlirian, who had lost 85 (extended) family members in the genocide, was chosen to kill the prime target Talaat in Berlin. His order was: “You blow up the skull of the Number 1 nation-murderer and you don’t try to flee. You stand there, your foot on the corpse and surrender to the police, who will come and handcuff you.”
I really like this image of foot on the corpse and hands in the air, like an image out of a Jacques Louis-David painting of Republican Roman history from the 1780s. If I was making a movie, I’d show the assassin pre-visualizing this noble tableau.
But then when Tehlirian actually shot Talaat dead on March 15, 1921, he suddenly ran off to escape. He was chased down by Berliners outraged by this carnage on their orderly streets, who, like how the Boyle Heights Chicanos who captured the Night Stalker and beat him before the LAPD arrived, whaled on him.
Talaat’s funeral was attended by numerous German dignitaries and most of the news coverage was sympathetic to Talaat.
But then Operation Nemesis got back on track. Armenian-Americans paid for three top lawyers to defend Tehlirian, who put the dead man on trial for the Armenian Genocide. The German government appears to have been uncertain of its stance. While it was definitely opposed to homicide of historic allies on the streets of the capital, it also didn’t want to be seen as complicit in the Armenian Genocide. Ultimately, the German official attitude appears to have been: Let justice be served, but don’t drag this out too long and don’t get us involved.
The two-day trial might have been the most concentratedly dramatic of the 20th century. The defense called witnesses to the genocide, climaxing with Tehlirian’s testimony of how he had witnessed the murder of his mother and brother. He had been slammed on the head and left for dead but had awoken under his brother’s corpse.
Now that’s cinema!
Decades later, however, it emerged that Tehlirian’s testimony was perjury conjured up for him by Operation Nemesis’ intellectuals. He was actually a volunteer in the Russian Army on the Anatolian front when his family was murdered in the genocide. On the other hand, that kind of thing happened to countless Armenians (except for the waking-up part—the vast majority of the murdered stayed dead).
This is a pretty interesting real-life exemplification of the screenwriter’s temptation to take history and punch it up to personalize it.
The jury was sent off to deliberate Tehlirian’s fate on the second morning of the trial.
An hour later they returned with their verdict: not guilty.
Talaat was disinterred in Berlin in 1943 and buried with pomp in Istanbul. Tehlirian died in 1960 and is commemorated at the Ararat cemetery in Fresno, CA with a monument of an eagle killing a snake.
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