One Hundred Years Ago, an Armenian Student took the Law into his own Hands – March 1921: Operation Nemesis

Zur deutschen Fassung.

For the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”, I had promised one episode per month. But the last episode about the Russian Civil War and Mongolia met with plenty of positive responses and led to new supporters on Patreon and Steady.

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.

I would be curious if you learned about this at school. Because back in the 1990s, I didn’t. Maybe because in Germany, there were more Turkish than Armenian classmates and surviving Turkish parents complain more often to the principal than dead Armenian grandparents. In other countries, the memory of this genocide is much more present.

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.

The lesson learned, as always far too late, was the development of international criminal law: Certain serious crimes can be prosecuted anywhere in the world, regardless of where they were committed. Germany celebrated the centenary of the Tehlirian judgment in 2021 with the conviction of a Syrian intelligence agent for torture in Syrian prisons.

Tehlirian moved restlessly around the world: Cleveland, Marseilles, Belgrade, Casablanca, Paris, San Francisco. He was never to return to Armenia.

By the way, in the military museum in Yerevan there were a few dubious exhibits as well. But that seems to be the case in every household in Armenia, and besides, it’s another story to be told later.

First, I’d like you to venture a guess about the subject for April 1921.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Armenia, Germany, History, Law and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to One Hundred Years Ago, an Armenian Student took the Law into his own Hands – March 1921: Operation Nemesis

  1. Pingback: Vor hundert Jahren nahm ein armenischer Student das Recht in die eigene Hand – März 1921: Operation Nemesis | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Very interesting, this operation NEMESIS, thanks! Diese Geschichte bringt mir auch meine Erinnerungen an den Tiergarten in Berlin wieder zurück:)

  3. Now that was something new to me. Thank you for this post on international law

    • I am glad someone appreciates my attempt to make legal history interesting.

      Outside of Armenia, I think this is hardly known at all. Even in Germany, I never learned or read about this case. There is a daily podcast in German with newspaper articles from one hundred years ago, and they brought it to my attention again.

      I am still surprised by the leeway the defense was given by the court. Usually, the judges are reluctant to let anyone stray from the main issue.
      The way the defense introduced it was by arguing temporary insanity because Tehlirian had (so he claimed) dreams of his dead mother in which she admonished him for having come across Talat Pasha without avenging his family. (I don’t see how this makes sense because he came to Berlin with the purpose of shooting Talat Pasha, but it did sway the jury.)

  4. I’m very happy to read that you got new supporters!
    And an interesting article. I still don’t know all the countries of eastern Europe. Our maps in school had the western countries, then a big area that was China, and a big area that was USSR.
    You’re teaching me with every post, and I LOVE learning new things, so Thank You!

  5. “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.”

    Do not worry, there is plenty of guilt to go around. Over here in the United States we have a country that was founded on the genocide of Native Americans and in the enslavement / persecution / murder of African Americans by a deeply ingrained system of white supremacy.

    At least Germany has worked to address its past sins and overcome them. Here in America the Civil War still casts an extremely long shadow, with the Southern Confederacy and the Antebellum South having been mythologized and idealized, rather than regarded as the horrific occurrences of treason and brutal exploitation of enslaved human beings that they actually were.

    In any case, this was definitely a fascinating, informative installment of your blog. Please keep up the good work.

    • Thank you very much!
      I am glad someone is enjoying this little series. Obviously, some months are better, some months less so. For some, I am happy to find anything at all. For other months, it’s hard to choose just one topic (which is why I needed to make this extra episode for March 1921).
      May 1921 will definitely be about the Tulsa race riots and Black Wall Street.

      It’s true that Germany has done a lot to address the recent past, and it gives me hope to talk to young people who are still interested in the history and want to draw lessons from it, even four generations later.

      But there is always a but.
      West Germany after World War II mainly did so in order to be allowed back into the group of civilized nations. It was sort of a price to pay, and Germans accepted it, took the Marshall Aid, and wanted to move on quickly.
      A lot of time was lost until the 1960s, when – except for the very high-ranking Nazis – nobody was prosecuted. That’s why we still have trials today, even in 2021, because decades were lost.

      And there is still quite a lot of pushback from people. Not of the kind that they would deny the Holocaust (okay, there are some, but they are a lost cause), but trying to minimize it with two main arguments: (a) Well, it was war and everybody did bad things. (b) Ordinary Germans didn’t know or couldn’t have done anything against it.
      Both of these points are not correct and aim to muddy the moral waters.

      So, it’s an ongoing project, generation for generation, and every decade or so, there is an event or a movie/book that reignites the debate.
      There is still an incredible amount of education to be done, for example regarding the persecution of other minorities, like the Roma, or the persecution of handicapped people, the willingness of many ordinary people to participate, also the participation of civilians and officials in occupied countries, etc. etc.

      But at least there is a debate and we don’t show movies that would be the equivalent to “Gone with the Wind” to return to the issue that you mentioned.

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