Nearly all high school students will instantly recognize the famous phrase in English literature “et tu Brute?”, which Julius Caesar uttered moments before he was assassinated by Brutus and other conspirators. Immortalized by Shakespeare, the event occurred on March 15 in 44 BC or what is commonly referred to as the Ides of March. Given our dual identity as Armenian Americans, in addition to reading Shakespeare in high school, I learned about another event that took place on that date many centuries later in post-WWI Europe.
It was during our early teenage years that many in my generation began to comprehend the horrific evil of the Armenian Genocide. It was overwhelming to internalize “man’s inhumanity to man” as the Turks planned the extermination of my ancestors who were citizens of the state. I was stunned by the personal nature of the horror as our family stories unfolded. It became clear that the genocide was connected to many of the questions I had about my Armenian identity. It explained how and why we came to America. It explained why there was a mix of anger and profound sadness whenever the word “Turk” was mentioned, and it explained why my grandparents were so devoted to the retention of our heritage. Everything I absorbed was very depressing. We lost three-fourths of Western Armenia. We experienced unthinkable atrocities and lost our ancestral lands—the Armenian Highlands that we had inhabited for several millennia. It was an abundance of negativity to absorb as I was struggling with my dual identity in America. The vast majority of the communal and individual wealth of the Armenians was stolen and redistributed to Turkish citizens or the emerging Republic of Turkey.
Struggling for optimism, I searched for a “happy ending” to that fateful decade. As I continued my pursuit of our history, the years 1915 to 1923 delivered one crushing blow after another. I tried to imagine my dear grandparents in their youth and their remarkable strength in surviving the trauma of loss, dispossession and survival. There was no PTSD diagnosis or therapists available. They simply reached deep into their hearts with the fortification of their faith to carry on. There was little time to mourn or isolate. They carried the burden of survival and recovery.
As the story unfolded, I soon learned about an event that gave many Armenians a sense of redemption. We are all aware that the Ittihad Party (Young Turks) was led by a triumvirate, but that Mehmed Talaat Pasha, as Minster of Interior Affairs and Grand Vizier, was the primary decision maker and architect of the genocide. After the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the fall of 1918, the Young Turk leaders, including Talaat, escaped but were tried in absentia and convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death in 1919. The remaining leaders, who were captured, were exiled to Malta. Talaat had escaped to Berlin, Germany before the fall of Constantinople. He assumed a low profile with his wife. The British briefly attempted to have the German government return Talaat to carry out the sentence, but post-war geopolitics enabled justice denied. The sentences were never carried out by the allies or the post-war Turkish government. It seemed that the allies were ready to move on. Sensing this injustice, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) created “Operation Nemesis”—organized here in the United States to target the unpunished Turkish criminals. Young Soghomon Tehlirian, a survivor from the Erzurum region and student, was selected to track and assassinate Talaat. Tehlirian was instructed not to attempt escape, but to surrender to German authorities. After months of precise planning and gathering intelligence on Talaat’s daily activities, Tehlirian completed his assignment with a single round after following Talaat from his home on 4 Hardenbergstrasse in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. He was arrested and charged with murder. His trial attracted significant media attention both in Germany and around the world. One could make the argument that Tehlirian was carrying out the sentence that was mandated, but a vigilante defense would have deflected attention from the main issue. Instead his defense focused on the personal impact to Tehlirian with the murder of several direct family members during the planned attempt at complete annihilation. They also pursued the psychological impact on his “sanity” when confronting the murderer of his family. To provoke factual context of the atrocities, witnesses such as Bishop Krikoris Balakian (survivor), German activist Johannesburg Lepsius and German army general Otto Liman von Sanders (served with the Ottoman army) provided unequivocal confirmation of the Turkish crime. The trial lasted two days. Tehlirian was acquitted of all charges. A modest servant of the Armenian nation, Tehlirian famously stated, “I have killed a man, but I am not a murderer.” The German courts agreed.
I chose the word “redemption” this week for a specific reason. One of its definitions is as follows: “the action of regaining something lost.” In 1921, the Armenian nation was in a battered and injured state. A majority of the population from Turkish-held Armenia was lost, the indigenous territory usurped, survivors scattered around the globe and the wealth of the community stolen. The mental trauma of mourning a family murdered combined with an uncertain future would place any group at great risk. Tehlirian’s heroic act was one of redemption because it restored some sense of dignity to his ravaged brethren. Tehlirian lived in several places over the years and spent the last years of his life in San Francisco. I remember hearing stories from the survivor generation of common Armenians warmly greeting Tehlirian; many sought to simply touch him or kiss his hand—the man who restored some sense of their dignity.
When I was in college and on the AYF-CE, I went to California to conduct field work with the chapters. I was scheduled to be in Fresno for a few days. My host from Fresno was a local patriot named Bob Papazian. He asked about our personal interests aside from our organizational work during our visit. I mentioned that I didn’t want to leave the Fresno community before visiting a raisin farm and Tehlirian’s grave. Fresno has several Armenian-owned vineyards that grow the kind of grapes that become raisins. My visit was timed perfectly to the harvest and drying season. It was a treat to see raisins picked and processed in barns ready for the market. But my visit to Tehlirian’s grave was an entirely different experience. The sound of spiritual silence pervaded as I approached the large manicured gravesite. It was a moment I will never forget, when I prayed at the grave of the great man who participated in bringing redemption to his people. Our nation has always been blessed with such unique individuals.
Tehlirian’s act and its aftermath was carefully studied by Raphael Lempkin, the Polish Jew who coined the term “genocide” some two decades later in 1944. In 1921, unless leaders were convicted of war crimes by the victorious party, the oppression of citizens (i.e. the Ottoman citizens of Armenian, Greek and Assyrian extraction) was considered an “internal” affair. As you can also observe today, rogue countries like Turkey continue to argue that denying human rights to their citizens (journalists jailed, Kurds oppressed, Armenian discrimination) is a domestic matter and within their sovereignty definition. Lempkin was concerned that when injustices such as mass atrocities take place, the victim community was left with little recourse but to respond. This, of course, could lead to additional violence and calls for the legitimacy of individual acts. He was determined to define and mandate these oppressive acts on defenseless groups as crimes. The Armenian experience helped him define the term “genocide,” and most importantly, make it a crime for which nations can be held accountable. The period after 1921 saw many in Europe engaged in debate about how to prevent such crimes after experiencing the “war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, the discussions were primarily in intellectual and scholarly circles and did not make significant inroads in the political domains. We have learned painfully that defining the crime and preventing or enforcing are two worlds apart. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Armenians of this period, including Tehlirian, made significant contributions to the dialogue that eventually led to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in 1948.
We should never underestimate the impact of restoring dignity to Armenians in the 1920s. Dignity is a component of self-esteem and communal confidence. It is the fuel behind imagination, dreaming and risk taking—all the elements that enabled our people, without financial resources and higher education, to build a new Armenian life. Nemesis allowed the Armenians to believe that they could control some small element of justice and that they were not the defeated nation that the Turks pronounced. Mehmed Talaat was a convicted criminal who paid for his crimes. Tehlirian helped to free his people from a dark cloud that was a constant presence. With Misak Torlakian, Arshavir Shiragian and others, the redemption was enough to allow slivers of sunshine and hope to return. The rest is the modern history of the global diaspora. With over four thousand years of recorded history, we have far too many “anniversaries” to recall, however this one is on the short list. While we deal with the current instability in Armenia and the constant threat of the criminal Turkish alliance, let us pause to remember and pray for the soul of this gallant son of Armenia. A meaningful way to honor his memory is to read about this extraordinary period. I would recommend “Operation Nemesis” by Eric Bogosian or “Sacred Justice” by Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy.