What if Hitler and the other architects of the Holocaust had escaped Germany after WWII, never to be punished for their crimes?
The appalling scenario certainly had a precedent. At the end of WWI, the Young Turks responsible for killing as many as 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were, despite the best efforts of the war’s victors, never brought to justice.
In a dramatic work of history that reads like a thriller, Eric Bogosian’s “Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide” describes a band of Armenians who conspired to assassinate the genocide’s masterminds in the face of this injustice.
An award-winning playwright, novelist and actor best known for creating edgy one-man shows and caustic characters like “Talk Radio” shock jock Barry Champlain, Bogosian unearths one of the genocide’s obscure yet dramatic chapters.
Twenty-five-year-old Soghomon Tehlirian stands at the center of his story. At the outbreak of WWI, Tehlirian joined an Armenian regiment fighting alongside the Russian army against the Ottomans. In 1916, his unit made its way to his hometown, Erzincan, in what is now central Turkey.
The Young Turks had emptied the area of Armenians through a systematic process of ethnic cleansing before his arrival. In town after town across the Ottoman Empire, they rounded up and killed the Armenian men before deporting the women and children. With scant food or shelter, most deportees resilient enough to stave off starvation and disease eventually died in concentration camps in the Syrian desert.
Though inured to this carnage, Tehlirian still fainted at the sight of his abandoned childhood home. News of his family’s demise pushed him further into despondency, crushing his spirit and infiltrating his dreams with images of dismembered family members. But it also emboldened him: Before leaving, he vowed to avenge his family.
The enormity of the genocide also inspired the war’s victors to take action. A 1920 treaty signed with the Ottoman Empire called for reparations, a homeland for the Armenians and prosecution of the Young Turk leadership. While tribunals did convict some midlevel officials, Ottoman Interior Minister Mehmet Talat and other perpetrators found guilty in absentia evaded punishment by escaping to Germany. As the tribunals sputtered, a resurgent Turkey led by Ataturk scrapped the treaty’s remaining terms.
Tehlirian joined Operation Nemesis to exact the justice the Allies failed to secure. Based in Watertown, an Armenian enclave just outside of Boston, the Nemesis team received financial and tactical assistance from supporters and agents stretched across the globe.
The months of surveillance work needed to narrow in on Talat, mired by inconsistent intelligence reports, took a toll on Tehlirian. Exhausted, suffering from epileptic seizures and haunted by nightmares, he lived with a constant fear of failure even up to the final moments of his mission. After a number of near-misses, on the morning of March 15, 1921, Tehlirian looked into his target’s eyes on a quiet street in Berlin, then walked past the Young Turk before firing a fatal shot to the back of Talat’s head.
Witnesses promptly subdued the assassin and, weeks later, Tehlirian was on trial for murder.
Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the Nemesis leadership welcomed the trial, which it hoped to use as a vehicle to publicize the massacres and condemn the Young Turks. The trial progressed exactly as planned. With Tehlirian feigning a form of insanity to a credulous courtroom, the testimony focused largely on Talat’s crimes. The jury’s not-guilty verdict countenanced Tehlirian’s actions and the proceedings provided a measure of legal reckoning for the Armenians before a global audience.
After the trial, the Nemesis team proceeded to kill seven other ringleaders.
Though others have covered Operation Nemesis, Bogosian’s extensive reliance on the assassin’s memoirs, published seven years before his death in 1960, injects his account with the psychological highs and lows Tehlirian endured. Bogosian also uncovers intriguing details about the role of the British in the assassination plot, introducing a new twist to a story that reads like a John le Carré novel.
Bogosian, a descendant of survivors who grew up listening to his grandfather’s accounts of Turkish horrors. Unlike some other titles on the genocide, Bogosian’s refrains from lionizing the assassins and eschews the argumentative tone reverberating throughout this body of literature.
The book’s one shortcoming is the closing section’s peripatetic path from the origins of Turkish denial in the 1920s to the current state of Armenian-Turkish relations. This material adds context to what would otherwise be a series of dramatic killings, but it meanders a bit too long, dampening the momentum built up during Tehlirian’s journey.
Nearly a century later, the questions surrounding the assassinations of the Young Turks still resonate. Were they an act of vengeance or justice? And were they a fitting response to the world’s failure to punish the perpetrators?
The Los Angeles Times had its own answer in its June 1921 headline announcing Tehlirian’s verdict: “Vengeance Justified.” Bogosian largely echoes this viewpoint yet ruminates about the ethics of resorting to extra-legal assassinations. “We live in a world where we attempt to achieve consistency in rule of law,” Bogosian writes. “The concept of ‘law’ demands it. Yet the men and women of Operation Nemesis did what governments could not. They were appealing to a higher, final justice. One that exists somewhere between heaven and earth.”
Bobelian is the author of “Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice.”
The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide
Little, Brown: 384 pp., $28