This year has marked the centenary of the Armenian genocide, one of the previous century’s darkest points. Amid the chaos of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, under economic and military pressure from without and faced with revolt from within. The empire’s large Armenian minority had long been subject to oppression for being educated, prosperous and Christian; now the community was targeted for physical destruction. More than a million Armenians were killed, hundreds of thousands more driven into exile, and an ancient community wiped out in its historic heartland of Asia Minor.
There has been a flurry of history books this year telling a story that can often be unbearably grim. In Operation Nemesis, author and actor Eric Bogosian concentrates not so much on the genocide as on its consequences. A descendant of survivors himself, he had listened to his grandfather’s horrific stories of massacres in the old country. But this seemed literally a world away from his home in Massachusetts. What really caught his interest years later was hearing of the assassination of Talat Pasha.
In March 1921, the British Army was in control of Constantinople, and many former Ottoman leaders had fled abroad for fear of facing war crimes trials. Talat Pasha, formerly the empire’s interior minister, the chief architect of the genocide and still an influential figure, was living incognito in Berlin. One morning he was gunned down in the street by Tehlirian, a young engineering student of Armenian origin.
At his murder trial a few months later, the jury took little more than an hour to acquit Tehlirian, making headlines around the world.
The story was not unknown – Hannah Arendt wrote about it in Eichmann in Jerusalem – but it wasn’t very well known, and had almost become an urban legend in the Armenian-American community.
Thinking it would make a great screenplay, Bogosian looked deeper into the story, and soon discovered it was more complicated than it first appeared. Not only was Soghomon Tehlirian not an engineering student, but he also wasn’t the lone gunman that he appeared to be.
In fact, he had a whole organisation behind him. Talat Pasha’s death had drawn attention because of his notoriety and the very public nature of the assassination, but it was the tip of the iceberg. During the period 1920-22, émigré activists belonging to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation assassinated a whole series of high-ranking former Ottoman officials who had been complicit in the genocide.
Operation Nemesis provides an obvious parallel with the hunt for fugitive Nazis after 1945, except that, far from having the intelligence agencies of a modern state at their disposal, the Armenians had few resources other than a tightly knit diaspora and their own wits.
Despite the sensation caused by the Berlin assassination, the Nemesis plot quickly faded into obscurity. It was too far away and too complicated for most foreigners, and the new Turkish republican government preferred to pretend that there had never been any Armenians on its territory.
Soghomon Tehlirian was living quietly in San Francisco when he died in 1960, leaving behind a memoir published in Armenian. Shahan Natalie, the main organiser of Operation Nemesis, died aged 99 in Massachusetts in 1983, a largely forgotten figure.
Bogosian has done a lot of detective work to bring the Nemesis plot to life, creating a work of history that at times reads more like a spy thriller. In doing so, he sheds new light on a complex and violent time in our history which, set alongside Syria and Iraq today, doesn’t seem so remote as it once might have.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (18/9/15)
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