Eight years ago I made plans to write a screenplay based on Soghomon Tehlirian’s assassination of Talat Pasha in Berlin in 1921. The story seemed simple and perfect for film adaptation. Unfortunately, (or fortunately), the story Tehlirian told in court was mostly fiction and in fact, a much more extensive and complex conspiracy was behind the assassination as well as the killing of a number of other elite Ottoman leaders connected to the Armenian Genocide. This story was first told by Jacques Derogy in a book that is not well-known in the United States, Resistance and Revenge published in the 1980’s. For the past seven years I have researched the story of Operation Nemesis further and the result is my book to be published by Little, Brown this month. I wanted to write a book that would be accessible to Armenians and non-Armenians alike, that would set the context of the assassinations clearly (especially for those who are not familiar with Armenian or Ottoman history) and investigate further various facets of the case, particularly the role of British agents in the assassination of Talat. I wish also here to thank Aram Arkun who translated key texts and gave me a crash course on Armenian and Turkish history. This is the prologue from my book.
from Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide by Eric Bogosian. Published by Little, Brown and Company, April 2015. Copyright 2015 Ararat Productions, Inc.
Around ten o’clock on the morning of March 15, 1921, a heavyset man wearing an overcoat emerged from his apartment house in the fashionable Charlottenburg district of Berlin. He carried a cane and was bareheaded despite the cool early spring weather. The man wasn’t comfortable wearing a European-style hat. It didn’t look right to him. But he wouldn’t dare wear a fez in this anarchic city of spies. The last thing he wanted to do was call attention to his Turkishness. As he stepped onto the sidewalk, the fresh air lifted his spirits. The winter had been long and hard, but a thaw was coming. Soon this exiled Turk could return to his home in Constantinople. His fellow Young Turk, General Musta- pha Kemal, was finding success in the east; in months the war would finally be over.
The man in the overcoat, Talat Pasha, had been hiding in Germany under an assumed name, pretending to be a businessman. In the years prior to moving to the apartment on Hardenbergstrasse, Talat had achieved fame as the leader of the Ottoman Empire during the Great War. The name Talat was known to people all over the world, but for the present it was a liability. The British forces occupying Constantinople had arrested numerous Ottoman leaders, the sultan’s government had held war crimes trials, andthough he had evaded arrest, Talat had been found guilty and sentenced to death in absentia. For the time being, it would be wiser to go by the more humble “Salih Bey.”
Exile had diminished but not extinguished Talat’s power. He was still a very important man, looked up to by many for leadership. But he had no choice; he had to remain hidden. Only days before, in a secret meeting with the British agent Aubrey Herbert, Talat had been asked if he feared assassination. He had coolly responded, “I never think of it.”1 But he did think of it. He thought of it all the time. There were rumors that the Armenians were hunting for him, that there was a bounty on his head. Talat was accustomed to the fact that his very presence intimidated people, but he also knew that he had to be extremely careful.
What Talat did not know as he strolled down Berlin’s fashionable Hardenbergstrasse on this cool spring morning was that his alias had already been discovered. Danger was much closer than he imagined. Even as he stepped lightly among the local Berliners on his way to the Tiergarten park, he was being followed. Across the street and parallel to his course, a young Armenian émigré from Turkish Anatolia tracked his route. Unlike Talat, Soghomon Tehlirian was almost invisible, figuratively and literally. No one knew his name, no one in Berlin would ever recognize him, and in the midst of this posh neighborhood of White Russian émigrés, he did not stand out at all. Tehlirian was the personification of anonymity. In a few moments, that anonymity would end.
Anticipating Talat’s path, the assassin jogged across Hardenbergstrasse, then abruptly turned and strode back toward his quarry. The young Armenian found himself coming face-to-face with the heavyset Turk. His temples throbbing with excitement, Tehlirian focused on his breathing, slowing it, controlling it. This was no time to fall to pieces. Tehlirian searched Talat’s eyes as the two men passed each other. Was there a reaction, a recognition? If there was, it lasted only a fraction of a second. “Fear came into his eyes,” Tehlirian would later write, as an “amazing calmness engulfed my being.”2
As Tehlirian stepped past Talat, the larger man adjusted his stride, slowing just slightly. The young soldier drew his pistol from his waistband, raised it to the nape of Talat’s broad neck, and squeezed the trigger. The victim probably never heard the gun fire. The bullet cleaved Talat’s spinal cord, entered the base of his skull, traversed his brain, and exited his temple just above his left eye. The shock set off a massive coronary, and the large man shuddered. Then, according to Tehlirian, “he fell on his face with a sound like a branch sawed off a tree.” A woman a few feet ahead of them on the sidewalk screamed and fainted as a single thought popped into Tehlirian’s mind: “So effortless!”
Tehlirian, whose sole raison d’être was to end the life of the man now lying on the ground before him, immediately understood that another bullet wouldn’t be needed. Transfixed, the twenty-five-year-old Armenian refugee stood over the corpse, the pistol still clutched in his hand, as “the black thick blood flowed like kerosene out of a broken container.” The killer then dipped the toe of his shoe into the pool of blood as shouting rose up all around him: “Someone has been murdered! Grab him!” Tehlirian broke out of his trance, reflex took over, and he ran, completely forgetting his handler’s explicit instructions to stay put after the killing. “I passed by them, no one tried to stop me.” Tehlirian sprinted twenty or thirty steps, then veered into the Fasanenstrasse.
The crowd, at first reluctant to chase a violent, perhaps deranged killer, caught up with the young man and surrounded him. Someone grabbed his shoulder. Another smacked him on the back of the head. More punches and slaps. People in the crowd were attacking Tehlirian because they mistakenly believed he had gunned down a famous German general. As he was being beaten, Tehlirian felt something hard and sharp tearing at his face. Later he would realize that someone had been hitting him with key ring full of jagged keys. The blood dripped down onto his shirt. A man interceded and hauled him off to the local police outpost by the Tiergarten gate. Tehlirian shouted to the crowd, “What you want? I am Armenian, he, Turkish. What is it to you?”3
The police hauled the bleeding young man back to the scene of the crime. “Blood was flowing from my head. Other policemen arrived. They turned me toward Hardenberg. The monster had fallen in the same position on the sidewalk. The police, the crowd, at a certain distance, surrounded all sides. We passed on.”4 The crowd surged, still struggling to lay hands on the killer. A paddy wagon rolled up and Tehlirian was shoved into the back. Fifteen minutes later he was in his cell at the Charlottenburg police station.
A trial followed a little over two months later. Stunningly, Tehlirian was acquitted. In occupied Constantinople a few weeks after that, the Muslim Azeri leader Khan Jivanshir was gunned down outside the Pera Palace Hotel by another Armenian. That assassin, Misak Torlakian, would also be set free after a two-month trial. In December, Said Halim Pasha, former Young Turk Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, was shot dead as he was returning to his home only blocks away from the Borghese Gardens in Rome. This assassin would also evade arrest despite a massive manhunt.
The following spring in Berlin, Said Halim’s killer, Arshavir Shiragian, teamed up with Aram Yerganian to assassinate both Dr. Behaeddin Shakir, former head of the organization that oversaw the genocide of Armenians in Turkey, and Djemal Azmi, the notorious former governor-general of Trebizond. Neither Shiragian nor Yerganian was caught. Finally, in July 1922, Djemal Pasha, one of the key members of the Young Turk government, was slain by Stepan Dzaghigian in Tiflis, Georgia. Dzaghigian was arrested by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, and sent to Siberia, where he would remain until his death.
These assassinations and at least four others were a response to the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. As the war wound down, it appeared that those Turks responsible for the massive destruction of the Christian civilian population would face judgment. Trials were held in Constantinople, but by that time the central leaders had already slipped out of Turkey and had found safe harbor in Berlin, Rome, Tiflis, and Moscow. President Woodrow Wilson proposed a protective “mandate” for the Armenian provinces of Turkey, providing a homeland to which survivors might return. The mandate never materialized. Instead, Turkish nationalists under General Mustapha Kemal successfully pushed back forces seeking to occupy Turkish territory. By 1922, any thoughts of reparations for the Armenians, an Armenian home- land, or even a right of return had been extinguished as the Soviets moved in to claim possession of the short-lived the Republic of Armenia, the tiny sliver of territory in the Caucasus to which hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled.
Operation Nemesis was an unprecedented conspiracy designed to avenge an unprecedented modern genocide. With little training, resources, or experience in intelligence operations, this humble collection of businessmen, intellectuals, diplomats, and former soldiers virtually eradicated an entire former government. As a group, they complemented one another: the quiet, steadfast members collaborated with the romantic visionaries; the impetuous spurred on the cautious. Together they formed an international team, under- staffed and underfinanced, at a time when communication was by cable and all travel by rail or steamship. This thin network spread out across Europe and the Near East before systematically and effectively dispatching its targets. In the end, “Operation Nemesis” would satisfy its ambitions while having repercussions far beyond its need for revenge. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, this small cadre of businessmen, editors, and veterans faded into the back- ground of history, almost forgotten. This is their story.