Written by Laura Davies
Between 1915 and 1917, around 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children were brutally shot, drowned, burned, raped, and starved by Ottoman authorities. At the time, the word “genocide” didn’t exist, but 33 countries now officially recognise that that’s what it was. The deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation with the aim of destroying that nation.
Why Were the Armenians Targetted?
What did the Armenians do to become targets of this brutality? Of course, it can be traced back to religion. Way back in the 4th century, Armenia became the first nation to declare its official religion to be Christianity. This became a problem when, in the 15th century, Armenia was absorbed into the largely Muslim Ottoman empire. Christians were able to keep their religion, but at a cost. They were treated as a lower class, had fewer political and legal rights, and were made to pay higher taxes.
Tensions were heightened at every clash between the Ottoman Empire and Christian nations, particularly Russia. Things became worse in 1876 when Sultan Abdul Hamid II came to power. He confiscated Armenian-held land and created Hamidiye regiments, tasked with harassing and assaulting the Armenians living in the eastern provinces. In response, some Armenians joined revolutionary political parties like the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), but they found little support.
Between 1895 and 1896, at least 100,000 Armenians were killed under Abdul Hamid’s rule. Shockingly, though, this wasn’t the genocide. Much worse was still to come.
Hamid’s cruel and oppressive use of power sparked unrest and the desire for a constitutional government. This led to the rise of the Young Turks political reform movement of the early 20th century and its most infamous faction, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). This was led by the three Pashas. The Grand Vizier Mehmed Talaat, later known as Talat Pasha, the minister of war, Enver Pasha, and the minister of the Navy, Djemal Pasha.
ARF initially sided with the CUP in the hope of a more equal position in society following the Young Turk reform. However, what the CUP really sought, after removing Hamid from power in 1908, was to ‘Turkify’ the empire, and that involved the removal of all non-Turks, especially Christian Armenians.
The beginning of World War I brought tensions to a head. The CUP was to enter the war on the side of Germany and became suspicious that, if pushed, the Armenians would side with fellow Christians, Russia, instead of them. So, in August 1914, an ARF conference was held where the CUP requested that they not only remain loyal to the empire but that they should also incite Russian Armenians to rebel and fight for the Ottoman side. The ARF refused, concluding Armenians should fight for the countries of their citizenship. This was a watershed moment. The CUP would no longer tolerate the Armenians, and in order to ‘save the empire’, they’d have to be wiped out.
Isolated massacres began in December 1914 after the Minister of War, Enver Pasha, suffered heavy losses in a failed invasion of Russian territory at the Battle of Sarikamish. Instead of admitting the loss was due to poor preparation for the harsh winter conditions, he claimed the Armenians had turned against him and sided with Russia. As the Ottoman army retreated they sought revenge and decimated dozens of Armenian villages. Mass murders were common and photos exist of Ottoman soldiers posing with severed heads and standing amid the skulls of those they’d murdered.
Fearing a response, on the 23rd of April 1915, Talat ordered hundreds of Armenian intellectuals, political activists, and community leaders to be rounded up and deported or killed. This was a decapitation strike, a strategy to defeat an enemy by destroying its leaders. With no one to command a resistance, the Armenians would have no way to defend themselves. At this point, hostilities accelerated from isolated massacres to what many consider to have been a full-on genocide.
The empire wanted the Armenians dead but also wanted to avoid destroying their villages, as had been done in the earlier massacres. To achieve this, the men, considered to be any boy over the age of twelve, were removed first. They did this through forced deportations and transport to execution sites. The men gave little resistance for fear their families would be killed if they didn’t go. Those who did resist were shot on the spot.
Lakes and gorges were chosen for the murders as they provided a place to conceal and dispose of the bodies. Men were shot, pushed from the cliffs or sometimes tied back to back and drowned. So many were killed in this way that the rivers and gorges became choked with bodies and had to be cleared with explosives. The ones that made it into the lakes caused pollution and epidemics downstream, and rotting corpses lay deposited on riverbanks as far as the Persian Gulf.
Those who weren’t killed were forcibly deported. This involved being loaded onto overcrowded trains and taken to transit or concentration camps. Some would die on the journey, others were extorted for ransom en route and, if they couldn’t pay, were murdered. While a few families were able to dig shallow graves for their loved ones, most were left at the side of the road, and Armenian bodies became a common sight along the deportation routes. There are even reports of children being loaded onto boats, taken out to sea and thrown overboard. For those that made it to the camps, life didn’t improve. Conditions were kept intentionally dire so that starvation and disease could do some of the dirty work.
Women and children were also subjected to so-called death marches. This involved entire communities being marched 1000km out into the Syrian desert with no rest or water. As they fell, they’d be shot or left to die. The bodies weren’t buried and simply left to rot in the elements.
The women and children who survived were subjected to sexual assault, rape and, forced marriages which required them to give up their religion. Some were kept as prostitutes or displayed naked and sold as slaves. Many committed suicide rather than being subjected to a life of torture.
By 1918 between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians had been killed.
Following the end of World War I and the Armistice of Mudros, which ended hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies, the post-war Ottoman government held the 1919–1920 Ottoman Special Military Tribunal. The aim was to pin the genocide on the CUP leaders rather than the whole Ottoman empire. Eighteen were convicted of the crime of mass murder and sentenced to death, including the three Pashas.
Unfortunately, though, at midnight on December 2nd, 1918, they’d boarded a torpedo boat, with the help of German diplomats, and escaped out of Constantinople. Only three remained to be executed, the others had to be tried in absentia.
Those who fled made it to Germany and, from there, Rome, Moscow, and a number of other cities and assumed new identities. Frustratingly, there were no international laws in place by which to prosecute them, and using the law to bring them to justice became an impossibility. This allowed the men who were responsible for over 1 million horrific deaths to relax into their new lives with freedom and anonymity.
From the 27th of September to the end of October, the ARF’s general conference was held in Yerevan, the new capital city of Armenia. Here, members argued over the issue of justice and the fates of those responsible for the genocide. Writer and political activist, Shahan Natalie, whose father had been murdered, was the one to suggest assassination. Many were opposed but, after a vote, he ultimately won the debate and a ‘black list’ of 200 names were written up. 200 people who were responsible for the atrocities but had ultimately evaded punishment.
Operation Nemesis, named for the Greek Goddess of divine retribution, was not an official response from a government, as it might sound. It was a plan devised by a small US contingent of the ARF. Ordinary men who were so angry about what’d happened to their people and the lack of justice that they took matters into their own hands.
Based in Watertown, Massachusetts, Shahan Natalie, Grigor Merjanov, Armen Garo and Aaron Sachaklian orchestrated the assassinations. They had no training and had never held a gun but knew that no one else was seeking justice for them, they had to find it themselves.
As they lacked the necessary skills to assassinate a man, the first job was to recruit a team. This was largely done by word of mouth but they also placed an advert, requesting only bachelors. They didn’t think there was any chance of the person they sent coming back. Despite this, people volunteered. Some because the genocide had left them with nothing, others because they simply couldn’t rest until some justice had been done.
1920 was not an easy time for an international manhunt. There was no social media or CCTV, so they relied on a network of informants posted throughout Europe. As they could speak Turkish, they’d hang out in coffee shops and eavesdrop on conversations, hoping to pick up tips about where the three Paschas could be. They also bribed border guards and spread word throughout Armenian communities living abroad. They did all this without the internet, transatlantic flights, or even the ability to call their agents in Europe. The entire operation had to be conducted via letter.
Number 1 on the blacklist was, of course, Talat, the orchestrator behind the atrocities. Unfortunately, he’d changed his name and shaved his distinctive Walrus-style moustache, so finding him wouldn’t be easy.
They had their first bit of luck when a border guard bribe paid off and they managed to track him to Berlin, but that still left a whole city to search. However, a breakthrough came when they received word that a group of exiled Turkish leaders were planning to meet in Italy. So, they sent an agent to the train station to see who might show up. Sure enough, a man with Talat’s build but without his moustache arrived but didn’t board a train. They followed him, and he led them right to his apartment. All that was left to do was confirm the ID and, well, kill him.
This task, the most important of the entire operation, was entrusted to Soghomon Tehlirian. Soghomon was a 23-year-old man who’d been in Russia, serving against the Turks during the genocide. When he returned to his home town, he found the 25,000 residents, including 85 family members, missing. Massacred.
He left for Constantinople, and while living there, a friend mentioned an Armenian man living nearby who’d been spying for the Turkish authorities during the genocide. Soghomon, furious, went to the man’s house, watched through a window as he ate a meal with friends, pulled out a gun and shot him dead.
News of the murder made it to Operation Nemesis, who thought he might make an ideal assassin. So, they flew him to the US, had him vetted, and agreed. He was perfect, not just for killing Talat but for being caught for it. His mission wasn’t to get away with it; it was to stand trial and highlight to the world what Talat had done. Natalie sent him to Germany with the orders, “You blow up the skull of the Number One 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.”
The Assassination of Talat Pascha
The team set their assassin up with an apartment in Berlin, opposite Talat’s. Soghoman stayed there for weeks, watching him and learning his routine. Every morning at 11am, Talat would leave and walk to the local tobacco shop. This was the obvious time to do it. So, as soon as the ID was confirmed on the 15th of March, 1921, Soghomon left his apartment at the same time and followed Talat. He stayed on the other side of the road until he’d overtaken him, crossed, passed face-to-face to confirm the ID, and shot Talat behind the left ear. He didn’t have to worry about witnesses or an escape route as he wanted to be caught.
According to the autopsy, Talat’s brain essentially exploded and he fell to the pavement like a stone, cracking his skull. Passersby went after Soghomon and started beating him and stabbing him with keys. When police arrived, he was arrested, dripping with blood.
The Rest of the Black List
Enver Pasha died in 1922 during the Basmachi Revolt against Russian Imperial and Soviet rule, which left only one of the three Paschas alive, Djemal Pasha. Operation Nemesis managed to track him to Tiflis, the capital city of Georgia, where he was acting as a military liaison. He was shot in broad daylight, along with two aides, by Operation Nemesis assassins, Stepan Dzaghigian, Artashes Gevorgyan, and Petros Ter Poghosyan on July 21st 1922.
Another Nemesis target, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1917, Said Halim Pasha, spent some time in a prison in Malta before being acquitted and moving to Rome. On the 5th of December 1921, Nemesis agent Arshavir Shirakian shot and killed him in a taxi.
Azerbaijani attorney, Fatali Khan Khoyski, was another name on the blacklist. He was included due to his involvement in the September 1918 massacre at Baku. On June 19th, 1920, he was killed by Aram Yerganian in Tbilisi’s Yerevan Square. Yerganian and Shirakian went on to kill Ottoman politician, Cemal Azmi, and founding member of the CUP, Behaeddin Sakir, on April 17, 1922, as they walked with their families in Berlin.
Behbud Khan Javanshir, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan, was also targeted due to his involvement in the Baku massacre. He was shot and killed by Misak Torlakian on the 18th of July 1921, while returning with his family to the Pera Palace Hotel after an evening at the theatre. Torlakian was arrested but claimed the assassination was justified due to the murder of the Armenians in Baku. His defence claimed the grief to which he’d been subjected triggered epilectic seizures that left him “not responsible for his actions”. A British tribunal agreed, and he was released.
In total, seven murders were carried out by Operation Nemesis.
Soghomon was tried in Germany for murder. Fortunately for him, Germany had played a role in the genocide, by providing weapons, and was eager to wrap things up as quickly as possible. For this reason, Soghomon was able to make up his side of the story and no one took the time to corroborate it. This allowed him to describe the atrocities committed against Armenia in the greatest detail possible, achieving the true aim of Operation Nemesis. To bring international attention to the genocide and ensure it wasn’t forgotten.
He claimed to have been present during the massacre of his family. That he’d watched his entire family murdered and had only survived because his mother had shielded him with her body. The killing of Talat had been an impulsive act and a total coincidence. He was only in Berlin as an engineering student and by chance had recognised Talat walking his way. Without thinking, he’d instinctively shot him. No one bothered to ask why he had a gun, how he’d come to live in the apartment opposite Talat’s, or how he’d been so confident of Talat’s identity.
Soghomons’ lawyers built the case of temporary insanity brought on by the horrors he’d lived through. Expert witnesses were also used who testified that Talat was a guilty man who’d been sentenced to death. When asked if it’d been premeditated, Soghomon stated, “I consider myself not guilty because my conscience is clear – I killed a man, but I’m not a murderer.” The trial only lasted a day and a half, and the jury took less than an hour to reach a verdict. “Not guilty”. The New York Times went with the headline, “They Simply Had to Let Him Go!”
It’s difficult to know how to feel about the assassinations, particularly for the children of both the assassins and the organisers of Operation Nemesis. Had they committed murder or had they simply carried out the sentence that’d been justly decided? Should they feel pride or shame? Was it all for the greater good? Did they even achieve their aim? Yes, seven perpetrators received justice, but the true aim was recognition that the atrocities committed against the Armenians were genocide.
Currently, 33 states recognise this, but not as an immediate response to Operation Nemesis and Soghomon’s trial. In fact, it took until 1965 for the first official recognition, which came from Uruguay. The United States took much longer with a Senate Resolution in 2019. Even then, Trump disagreed with the ruling, so Armenia had to wait until 2021 for official presidential recognition from President Biden.
What’s holding the other countries back is a fear of souring their relationships with Turkey, which officially denies genocide but concedes that war crimes were committed. The UK justifies their genocide denial with the statement, “The terrible suffering that was inflicted on Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century should not be forgotten. But, while we remember the victims of the past, our priority today should be to promote reconciliation between the peoples and Governments of Turkey and Armenia.” And maybe that’s true, but then again, maybe it would be possible to do both.
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