“Dammit, you will never be useful,” said Dinosaur Mom.
“How would you know?”, thought Dinosaur Son with much derision, leaving the house for one last time, before – a mere 65,510,388 years later – filling up the tank of a stranded emergency ambulance vehicle at a gas station in the desert of Nevada.
For that, I thank you with this extraordinary, unplanned special supplementary episode for March 1921.
You should thank the supporters of this blog. Or, better yet, become one yourself, so that many more historical curiosities will be brought to light.
Currently, the trial for the so-called Tiergarten murder is being held in Berlin, after Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead in August 2019 in a Berlin park that deceptively calls itself Tiergarten (German for “zoological garden”), although the park has neither tigers nor elephants. The murder was a real pity, because Mr. Khangoshvili was simultaneously Georgian, Chechen, Kist and Kakheti, and thus more exotic than an elephant tiger. Who is behind the murder is not hard to guess, because there is this one mafia state that shoots, poisons and pushes people from the fourth floor balcony, which is why nobody should be surprised when this blog will come to a sudden eeeeeeeeeend.
In any case, there is a tradition of political assassination in Berlin, with foreign adversaries bringing their fury and firepower to the city. One well-known case occurred on 15 March 1921, exactly one hundred years ago. And, as if made for a historical-legal blog, it led to a well-known trial.
At least well-known in Armenia.
It was there, in the martial military museum in Yerevan, that I first heard about “Operation Nemesis”.
Now I’m afraid I’m going to have to lay some groundwork, and unfortunately it’s going to be gruesome. But I’ll keep it brief. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated for good. As is often the case when you lose an empire or a soccer match, you want to take revenge on a minority. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, these were mainly Greeks, Jews and Armenians. The latter were murdered and expelled in a systematic genocide starting in 1915.
Or maybe the reason was that Germany had played an inglorious role in the genocide. We are apparently a people with some affinity for mass murder, and with that I will stop counting whom I have already insulted with in this article.
Up to 1.5 million Armenians died, and the survivors fled all over the world. (I’m sure you’ll find some in your local chess club or brandy store.)
In 1919, the first legal surprise happened. The Ottoman Sultan set up a court before which Turkish politicians, officials and officers had to answer for the Armenian genocide. This was 26 years before the Nuremberg Trials.
Unlike the Leipzig Trials beginning in 1921, in which German soldiers were to answer for massacres in Belgium, the Turkish court took the matter quite seriously. At least initially.
The Turkish court handed down 17 death sentences, including against former Interior Minister and Grand Vizier Talât Pasha, former War Minister Enver Pasha and former Navy Minister Cemal Pasha. Whoever believes that international criminal law, i.e. the culpability of individuals for violations of international law, began in Nuremberg, has now learned something and will hopefully one day use this knowledge to win a television quiz.
The Pashas did not want to end up on the gallows, so they fled to their old comrades in arms – to Berlin. Germany was known for cozying up to war criminals and did not extradite the convicted murderers.
The Turks were furious and threatened: “If you don’t hand over Talât Pasha, we won’t support you in the next world war”, which is why World War II ended the way it did.
But the Armenians were even more furious.
The Armenians realized that Germany would do nothing against the murderers relaxing in its capital city. The Armenians realized that Turkey, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, which, to make matters worse, had annexed the briefly independent rest of Armenia, would not lift a finger. And the Armenians realized that the establishment of the International Criminal Court would be a long time coming.
So they decided to carry out the sentences themselves. Operation Nemesis was born.
Because it was a good excuse to postpone the exams to the next semester, a student volunteered for the execution of the main culprit Talât Pasha: Soghomon Tehlirian. Coincidentally, it allowed him to move to Germany, where he wanted to continue his engineering studies. Germany had a good reputation in engineering at that time. Unjustifiably so, because the airport in Berlin was still not completed. So Tehlirian had to hitchhike.
Hitchhiking was not a problem, because the Spanish flu had just died down after three waves and two years. People were eager for human interaction, and besides, Tehlirian was not one of those stereotypical scruffy students on LSD, but rather preppy and polite.
In Berlin, Tehlirian found out that the former Grand Vizier lived on Hardenberg Street, shadowed him for a few days and, when he was sure that the man was the target and that no passersby were in danger, he shot him in the open street on the morning of 15 March 1921.
Now, this was Berlin, where people are being shot all the time. No one would have cared about another death. The tabloids would have ranted about “gang warfare”, and after a few days the matter would have been forgotten. But Tehlirian remained beside the body, waiting for the police. He explained to the officers that he had carried out the Turkish death sentence and had also avenged the death of his wife and grandparents, and expressed regret at having inconvenienced the German authorities by doing so.
The Armenian student was charged with murder, and the trial before the criminal court in Berlin led to the second legal surprise. A real sensation in fact.
Tehlirian could not and would not deny the crime. So the defense had to rely on justifying and exculpating arguments. It turned the murder trial into a trial about the genocide. Surviving Armenians recounted the horrors. Johannes Lepsius, who had tried like no other to persuade the German public and politicians to protect the Armenians, testified as a witness. Otto Karl Viktor Liman von Sanders, a German general who had commanded the Ottoman army as a field marshal in World War I, was summoned to testify. And Tehlirian told how he had lost 85 family members to the genocide.
Then, on 3 June 1921, the sensation: Acquittal!
The verdict was hotly debated, with the men of Operation Nemesis, who killed other perpetrators of the genocide in subsequent years, receiving understanding for the fact that no court took up their cause: Turkey put the old verdicts on file. Other countries did not extradite. And Armenia, well, it had been absorbed into the Soviet Union, and with it the independent Armenian judiciary.
Pro tip: Whenver a woman e-mails on behalf of her boyfriend, most likely unknowingly, and refers to the boyfriend as “fiance”, expect some drama.
And expect only half of the story. At most. Although this half is confusing enough.
Okay let me start from the beginning. My fiance was having sex with his ex German girlfriend but she was also have sex with 6 other men along with him. She told one of the men she doesn’t care how many men she had to have sex with she was just trying to get pregnant again. So when my fiance found out she was pregnant with the child he already knew that it wasn’t his because she was having sex with 6 other men. Because he would not leave me and our unborn child at the time and move to Germany with her. She decided that she would just leave because my fiance told her that they broke up and that they were never getting back together. So she left. After the child was born in December 2015 she went after him for child support. He asked her why did she do file child support against him. At first she lied to him and told him it wasn’t her but the German Government. He told her he did not believe her. She finally admitted that she filed child support against him because she was mad at him for not leaving me and our child. He tried to keep in contact with the mother for the child’s sake but she wouldn’t let him. So he decided to give up on keeping contact. There was no point. He still believes in not paying child support for a child he never gets to see or be around. He wants to sign his writes away because he and I both know nothing about the German child.
Honestly, I think my time is better spent writing than trying to untangle this mess. But please have a go at it!
“You are from Germany?” asks Alex, the very friendly owner of the very cozy accommodation in a prefab neighborhood of Yerevan.
“Then I have to show you a steel helmet.”
He gets up, and I follow him into the dining room, where there is not only a swastika-decorated helmet, but also workbooks of the Reich Labor Service, Wehrmacht officer’s whistles, an SS badge and Heinrich Himmler’s glasses, all nicely arranged like in a museum.
I don’t want to start a discussion with my host (especially as I don’t speak any Armenian or Russian), but he can recognize my lack of enthusiasm. Alex quickly proceeds to show me my room, thankfully free of fascist memorabilia, the balcony and the bathroom.
I am not one to argue that you should only visit countries of which you speak the language. If I was, I wouldn’t have made it to 65 countries or so myself.
But speaking the language does increase the experience.
If I hadn’t known some Spanish, I would have been completely dumbfounded by this English translation at the bus terminal in Baza, Andalusia, for example.
Even the Spanish original has a typo.
Still, it was a lovely old-fashioned bus terminal, where the answer to everything from “Is there a bus to Orce today?”, “Can I buy a ticket here?” to “Is this the right bus to Orce?” is an optimistic, yet non-committal “I think so.”
More about Andalusia, all helpfully translated into a language that you understand.
I purchase three pieces of cake. They cost 5 euros and 13 cents.
I have 12 cents in coins, otherwise only bills.
“That’s not enough,” the bakery lady says with mathematical precision, so I have to hand her a 10-euro bill and she has to hand me a bunch of coins.
That’s how it works, perfectly correct.
A few years ago, in Bolivia:
I am walking through the neighborhood in Cochabamba, discover a small bakery, have two pieces of cake wrapped up for take-away, which costs 14 bolivianos (= 1.70 euros).
Unfortunately, I do not have the right change, but only a 50-boliviano bill. That equals only 6 euros, but is enough to embarrass the bakery lady, because she doesn’t have enough change. It’s a family bakery, tucked away in a residential neighborhood, not too busy.
“No problem,” I offer, “I’ll quickly go to the supermarket and buy something to drink, so I can get some change.”
“Do you live around here?” asks the bakery lady, who has seen me for the first time and must have noticed that I am not Bolivian.
“Yes, a few blocks away. Lucas Mendoza Street.”
“Then just pay whenever you come by again. Better enjoy the cake now!”
With the spectacular opening episode of this historical series, I wanted to point out that World War I ended neither with the armistice nor with the peace treaty. Shooting, fighting, conquering, occupying and liberating continued everywhere. The aftermath of the Great War will continue to haunt us for many episodes to come. Exactly one hundred years ago, in March 1921, for example, French and Belgian troops occupied parts of Germany, the Polish-Russian War was settled by the Treaty of Riga, and Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary attempted to coup his way back to power.
These are all interesting topics, but we are going further east today, where the aftermath not only of World War I, but also of the Russian October Revolution is raging. And how it is raging!
You know that already, from Doctor Zhivago, but contrary to popular myth, the carnage was not caused by the quarrel between Tonya and Lara. Russia, which hadn’t necessarily won World War I, but certainly hadn’t lost it either, and had been gifted with not one, but two revolutions, somehow didn’t manage to rest on its laurels. Instead, the October Revolution of 1917 was immediately followed by the Russian Civil War, which dragged on for another agonizing five years. Longer than the World War had lasted. And much more complicated.
Simplifying drastically and not taking into account the heterogeneity of the warring parties, the military interference of Germany, France, Great Britain, the USA, Japan, the Ottoman Empire and the Czechoslovak Legion who took the wrong way and ended up in Siberia, nor the national independence movements in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Abkhazia, Bessarabia and the People’s Republic of Tannu-Tuva, as well as the changing alliances, it was like this: There were the Reds and the Whites. The Reds were the Bolsheviks. The Whites were all those who were against the Reds, that is monarchists, democrats, nationalists and moderate socialists.
Some advice for students of history: Never attend the lecture on the Russian Civil War! It’s like a four-dimensional labyrinth with mirror-inverted wormholes. You won’t find your way out of it ever again.
In order not to get bogged down in details, which is a constant danger on this blog, we leave the big picture and focus on just one person, following him for a few years through the Russian Civil War and a few hundred kilometers across the steppe. Or more like a few thousand kilometers, because Russia is huge.
That one person is, no, not Doctor Zhivago. It is a Baltic German baron, i.e. a member of that German-speaking upper class in Estonia and Latvia who, as descendants of the Crusaders, subjugated the Estonians and Latvians. Roman Nikolai Maximilian Feodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg was his name. (The history of the Baltic Germans would provide material for a hundred digressions, but I’ll write about them when I am in the Baltics again.) Because the Baltic Germans liked to maltreat people, the Russian tsar gladly recruited them for the administration or the military.
Roman, not having learned anything useful, was drawn to the army, too. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05, incidentally the first war that a European country lost against a non-European country. After that, he bummed around a bit, served with a Cossack regiment in Transbaikalia, got drunk too often, quit the service, rode his horse to Mongolia, where, for lack of anything else to do, he learned Mongolian and read up on Tibetan, Hindu and Buddhist teachings. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he returned to Estonia in time to invade East Prussia with the Russian army. (Ethnicity was not yet so important at the time of the multi-ethnic empires, and Germans fought Germans on other fronts as well. Each for his emperor or tsar, who were certainly grateful for it.)
And when the World War was over, there was this stupid revolution, which didn’t fit into the baron’s concept at all. For one thing, as a nobleman he was loyal to the tsar. For another, the Estonians were now independent and revolted against the German overlords.
Roman von Ungern-Sternberg sided with the Whites, no question. Granted, loyalty to the tsar had become a questionable concept after the tsar and his family had been murdered. But Bolshevism, where barons were relegated to earn the same as bus drivers, was nothing for the nobleman. He was also angry that the revolutionary people had set fire to his manor house and that he had to move into one of those prefabricated apartment blocks.
What’s a cavalry officer to do when everything is a pain in the horse’s butt? Naturally, he takes a horse and rides east. He robbed trains under the pretext of cutting off supplies for the Bolsheviks. He held up traveling merchants to extract “customs” payments from them. And soon, he was back in Transbaikalia, setting up an Asiatic Cavalry Division, made out of Mongols, Buryats, Kyrgyz, Manchurians, Tibetans, Kazakhs, Evenks, Uyghurs, Bargas.
With all the evils that henceforth emanated from this man, I don’t even know where to begin. If the Russian Civil War had already been extremely brutal, Ungern-Sternberg stepped it up a notch and became the most fearsome commander of the Whites. With bloodthirsty brutality, he murdered opponents, alleged opponents, prisoners, his own soldiers, civilians, and above all Jews. To Jews he gave no pardon, they were hunted down until the last child was slain.
At some point, it had nothing to do with the Russian Civil War any longer, which had become a hopeless cause for the Whites anyway. Unpleasant-Sternberg simply lived out his hateful anti-Semitism. He behaved like a warlord with a private army.
Because this is getting too bloodthirsty for us, we change the setting a bit and move south to Mongolia. It lies roughly between Russia and China and had been a Chinese province for 200 years at the time of our story. But China was having a bit of domestic trouble (a virus, production shortfalls in the Apple factory or trouble with students in Hong Kong, I don’t know), and the Mongol princes thought: “If such trifle countries like Lithuania or Czechoslovakia can become independent, so can we.” (Mongolia, even if you’ve overlooked it until now, is pretty large.)
You must know that the Mongols are mainly Buddhists and therefore have a chief lama called Bogdo Gegen. That is the title, not the name. Just like the Dalai Lama, who has the same job with the Tibetans. Exactly, this is the guy who is always smiling for no reason, who makes harmless statements that people put on their Instagraph too feel “enlightened”, and who has accomplished zero point zero for his people.
The Mongols, as I said, had known the Chinese for 200 years and knew: “Smiling won’t get us anywhere.” Instead, they elected the eighth Bogdo Gegen as Bogdo Khan, i.e. the ruler of Mongolia, which thus declared itself independent. The Mongols contacted the Russian tsar (before his assassination, obviously) and received a huge loan, which they invested in a winter palace that still exists in Ulan Bator today.
There, they prayed for independence.
When that didn’t help and, to make matters worse, their Russian sponsor was shot, the Mongol princes sent desperate pleading and begging letters around the world. (Just like princes from Nigeria do today.) Two hundred letters, three hundred letters, four hundred letters. All with pompous seals, written with camel blood and delivered by Mongolian eagles. Very impressive.
But nobody could read the letters. Because nobody spoke Mongolian.
Wait! You remember the Baron’s youth, when he studied Buddhism and Mongolian? He was constantly ridiculed for indulging in such Far Eastern ballyhoo instead of studying something solid like civil engineering or multimedia marketing, but now it was a sign of fate. His fate and that of the Mongols: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg received one of those letters, summoned his multinational cavalry, bid adieu to the (already hopeless) fight against the Bolsheviks, and rode off toward Mongolia in August 1920. Of course not without looting and killing everything on the way.
Tragically, quite some time had passed since the letter was sent, and not as uneventfully as arrogant Westerners might imagine that time passes in Mongolia. In 1919, Chinese troops had regained control of Mongolia and deposed the Bogdo Khan in 1920. Nevertheless, during the long ride Ungern-Sternberg made the plan to unite all Central Asian peoples (Tibetans, Buryats, Uyghurs, Mongols, Kyrgyz, etc.) into a “Great Mongol Empire”, which should last forever and for all times as the monarchist bulwark against Europe and the civilizing bulwark against China. Nominally, Baron von Ungern-Sternberg was still fighting for the dead tsar, but in reality, he already saw himself as the new Genghis Khan.
In October 1920, the Asiatic Cavalry Division arrived in Urga (now Ulan Bator and still the capital of Mongolia) and was defeated twice by the numerically superior Chinese. Ungern-Sternberg deliberated for a few months, habitually passing the time by raiding villages and monasteries. Finally, in February 1921, he remembered a stratagem of Genghis Khan’s: He had fires lit on the hills around Urga to simulate a large army. The Chinese therefore did not throw the full defensive force at his cavalry, and the cavalrymen rode into the city, where they liberated the Bogdo Khan and put the Chinese troops to flight. (To avoid another such fiasco, China has since built the Great Wall and developed drones.)
Bogdo Khan and Roman von Ungern-Sternberg subsequently argued about who was the more important man in town. The Mongol invasion had gone to the baron’s head, and he saw himself as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. The Bogdo Khan didn’t much warm to the idea of the Great Mongol Empire; Mongolia alone was big enough for him. Finally, the two agreed that Ungern-Sternberg would install the Bogdo Khan as ruler of the newly proclaimed Kingdom of Mongolia in March 1921, exactly 100 years ago. In return, the new king recognized the baron as the founder of the state, as a heroic general, and as the incarnation of the Tibetan patron deity Jamsaran, a particularly wrathful deity.
As is well known, the wrath fitted like a glove. The baron made it clear that he was the real boss and that the king only served as figurehead. He had lists drawn up of all the Jews living in Mongolia. Many of them had fled the Russian Civil War to the supposed safety of the Far East. But now Baron von Ungern-Sternberg went from house to house with anti-Semitic obsession to exterminate Jewry in Mongolia. Even the German occupiers 20 years later, known to be extremely fanatical, did not come this far east.
And for only one reason: Because Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was already dead. Otherwise, of course, he would have made a pact with the Wehrmacht to fight against Jews and Bolsheviks, his dearest enemies. In the end, we were saved from this by a rebellion of his own people, when the baron ranted about having to advance on Tibet next. That was too far and difficult (there were no trains to Lhasa at the time), and the guys arrested their leader and handed him to the Bolsheviks.
The trial was rather short, probably for a shortage of lawyers. Annoyed by the baron’s anti-Semitic tirades (“Bolshevism was invented by the Hebrews in Babylon 3,000 years ago”), the judge suggested if he wouldn’t perhaps simply want to be shot. Compared to other methods of execution, this was quite a concession. (Do keep that in mind if you’re ever in a similar situation.)
“I would prefer not to,” Roman von Ungern-Sternberg replied, but the objection died in the hail of bullets from the Kalashnikovs along with the German Genghis Khan.
Mongolia, by the way, remained independent. Today, there are still voices that revere Baron von Ungern-Sternberg as the founder of the country. But much more important seems to be the question where the baron buried his legendary gold treasure. That is why people are digging and burrowing everywhere in Mongolia.
You don’t have to dig that deep to find people in Mongolia whose fascination with history, with the German baron and with everything that Germany has exported to the wider world since then, is rather unclouded by historical judgment.
So much for the swastika apologists who always claim: “Well, in Buddhism it has a totally different meaning.”
If this article has provided you with an interesting topic for a presentation at school or has prevented you from an ill-advised trip to Mongolia, I would be happy about any support for this blog. In return, there will be many more curious stories from a hundred years ago, the effects of which we still encounter today.
Today is International Women’s Day, but many of you don’t seem to know how to properly celebrate or commemorate it.
It’s NOT a day for those who forgot Valentine’s Day,
NOR is is a second chance for those whose object of affection has since changed.
It’s NOT a day to send flowers and hearts and other cheesy messages to your Facebook friends.
It’s NOT Mothers’ Day.
NOTHING is achieved by wishing someone a “happy Women’s Day”.
It’s NOT a day for companies to offer “Women’s Day Specials”.
No, it’s a day to fight!
As these Italian partisans show us, you can still be fashionable if you want to, but the guns and the fight are what counts.
8th of March is a political day, a day of justice, a day of equal rights and participation. Special Women’s Day offers with lots of stereotypical pink hearts are rather counterproductive and backward if you want women to progress beyond the status of Barbie dolls.
The only place where I have seen it done right was in Bolivia:
More from Bolivia, an exemplary country in many ways.
Outside the town hall, Antonio stands with a sign, no, with several signs against high taxes and levies.
Against which ones, I ask.
“All of them!”
I am probing further and learn that it’s about something like a property appreciation tax, which he has to pay for now living in the apartment of his mother, who passed away two years ago. And if he won’t pay, the apartment will be taken away from him, he says. He only has a pension of 436 euros a month and can’t afford the payments, he laments.
That’s why he is in front of the town hall every day. For two years already. Except on weekends, when he goes to church.
What happened to the apartment, I inquire anxiously.
“I still live there. I can pay the taxes in installments.”
And to get home, he probably takes the tax-subsidized bus. (Pensioners who earn less than 800 euros a month can use the bus for free.)
As I leave, Antonio calls out “Arriba España!“, a battle cry of the Franco dictatorship. Maybe he isn’t really here for the taxes after all.
But fortunately, there is this Russian lawyer and exposer of corruption, Alexei Navalny. He makes one film after another. And most of them are more captivating, better researched and better produced than most commercial films.
I know, Navalny is controversial, and I am the last person to approve of his nationalistic and xenophobic statements. (If he has moved on since then, he should finally distance himself from them.) But his films are really good.
The most famous film by now is “A Palace for Putin”. In feature length, it’s about much more than Putin’s 100 billion ruble (and butt-ugly) palace, the property for which is 39 times the size of the Principality of Monaco. It is about the system of corruption at the highest level, who pockets what money where and how, about the middlemen and straw men (or rather straw grandmothers, whose granddaughters always happen to have affairs with Putin). And it’s about the beginnings of this biggest heist in modern history – in Dresden, Germany.
If your Russian has gotten a little rusty since Perestroika, don’t worry. The films have English subtitles.
Equally meticulously researched is the film that reveals the exact sequence of events, the many years of planning, and the perpetrators of the Novichok attack on Navalny (and previous attempted attacks):
It’s really like a thriller. The story becomes even more incredible when Navalny finds out the phone numbers of the killers and calls them, one after the other. They all hang up. Only one of them is careless enough to speak with Navalny, who poses as a superior from the state apparatus, about what went wrong with the poison attack and how he made evidence disappear.
In Russia, all this evidence does not even lead to the opening of a criminal investigation. Instead, Navalny is sent to the gulag. After trials which the European Court of Human Rights declared unlawful and arbitrary.