Berlin 1921: The Avenger of the Armenians

The following article is an account of the convoluted history of Soghomon Tehlirian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide who assassinated one of the architects of that genocide in Berlin in 1921. Many thanks to JLH for the translation from Der Tagsespiegel.

Soghomon Tehlirian and the Armenian Genocide of 1915: Revenge Six Years Later

Julia Prosinger April 20, 2015

Crime Scene Berlin, March 15, 1921: Hardenbergstrasse — An Armenian kills the architect of the 1915 genocide. The ending of his trial in Moabit is spectacular. The whole truth comes out later.

He sees the slaughterer of his parents taking a sunbath on the balcony. He sees him start his morning walk. He picks up his suitcase, puts on his hat, crosses Hardenberg Street. Their eyes meet briefly, then he shoots him in the back of the head with a nine-millimeter pistol. The dead man’s body splats on the sunny sidewalk on March 15, 1921.

Soghomon Tehlirian drops the weapon. He shouts: “I am an Armenian, He is a Turk. No harm to Germany.”

The dead man is Mehmet Talaat Pasha, guiding spirit of the Young Turk Committee, Interior Minister of the Ottoman Empire, Grand Vizier, and lately a guest of the Weimar Republic under a false name.

His killer is an Armenian avenger. And that is how the genocide whose hundredth anniversary Armenians are commemorating now came to Berlin in 1921; to the “Berlin suburb” of Charlottenburg, as The New York Times writes.

Passers-by crowd around the young man. One of them hits him on the head with a key-ring, another picks up a stick — the wound on the back of Tehlirian’s neck measure 20 centimeters. He runs down Fasanen Street with the police behind him.

The trial begins on June 2nd, in Moabit Provincial Court III, Criminal Division 6. The world is watching. And it is not only about the defendant’s guilt of a murder on German soil.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs senses this and urges the court to make haste. Germans have better things to do than become involved with the Armenians — a people no one knows. They are already quarreling with the Poles about Upper Silesia. And they must prevent anyone learning how deeply involved in the massacre they were.*

24-year-old Tehlirian faces the court, pale and calm. The newspapers write about his high cheekbones — sign of an intellectual, and about many “darkly attractive” people in the courtroom audience. Berlin has received telegrams from all over the world, urging that the young student be released.

“I killed him, but I am not a murderer,” Tehlirian says softly. Then he relates how he grew up in a well-to-do merchant family in Erzincan in the present northeast of Turkey. How his people, like many minorities in the Ottoman Empire, were repressed, and subject to repeated pogroms, most recently under Sultan Hamid. How in 1915, when the Young Turk Committee had overthrown the sultan and entered the First World War, his school was closed and then the order for deportation came.

“I would rather die than continue to describe that black day.” Faltering, Tehlirian tells of the rape of his sister, his brother’s split skull, the odor of the corpse of his other brother when he regained consciousness underneath it. In a few sentences, Tehlirian the perpetrator becomes Tehlirian the victim. Kurds give the weakened youth barley bread; starving, he escapes to Persia. Completely alone in the world, he finally reaches Berlin, to study mechanical engineering, and there he happens to see Talaat Pasha on the street.

That man, born 1874, who advanced from telegrapher to cunning statesman and cold strategist, who then overthrew the Sultan and continued his work of annihilation. That Talaat Pasha who had admitted to the German consul: “We want an Armenia without Armenians.” Who had signed a writ which contained the phrase: “The goal of annihilation is nothingness.”

It has become even quieter in the courtroom. Since that day, says the defendant, his murdered mother had repeatedly appeared to him and asked him to kill Talaat Pasha. He rented a room, Hardenbergstrasse 37, across from Talaat’s number 44, and shot him. “I felt a contentment in my heart. Still today, I am satisfied with what I did.”

Tehlirian’s landlady describes him as polite and respectable. At night, he had played the mandolin and sung sad accompaniment. His friends report how shy he was with women at dancing lessons. His German tutor says he could never concentrate. There are five reports from experts. Does he have epilepsy or psychosomatic attacks when he thinks of his murdered family? Only one of them finds him not responsible.

Tehlirian’s strongest defense is not his illness, but Talaat Pasha’s past. The German Armenian expert Professor Johannes Lepsius is allowed to tell about that. The German public learns of: wounds doused in vinegar, body parts stuffed into mouths, starving infants thrown into the Euphrates by their mothers, which later runs red with Armenian blood, mass shootings, priests driven naked and tarred through villages, dogs and vultures feasting on clusters of corpses, skulls scattered along deserted paths, plundering of billions. Up to 1.4 million dead. “The facts are indisputable,” says Lepsius.

The incredible happens. After just two stages of the trial and an hour of consultation, the jury acquits Soghomon Tehlirian, the killer. It is not only Armenians who celebrate in Moabit. Some kiss his hand. His landlady weeps as if she were his mother. Uninvolved Germans greet him with flowers and chocolates as he is released from custody.

Perhaps because the Armenians are considered the guardians of the Christian faith. Perhaps because people regret the German stance. For no other country would it have been easier to stop the massacre. Their Turkish allies were militarily completely dependent. Several Germans on site, like the chief of the general staff, Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorf, disclosed the Young Turks’ impression that the doubtless violent Armenian resistance — as “enemy within” — could have paralyzed the entire Ottoman Empire. Other Germans had close friendships with people in power in Istanbul. On an October night in 1918, Talaat helped them flee via torpedo boat. Perhaps the acquittal is an apology for that.

The story could end at this point. Talaat is mummified in a zinc coffin. The Foreign Ministry bids farewell to the “great statesman and loyal friend” with a wreath. In 1942, the Nazis give the body to Turkey, where he is ceremoniously buried on Freiheitsberg in Istanbul.

But there is a prelude to the story. Tehlirian lied. More than once. He had not come to Berlin as a harmless student, but with an assignment. The Berlin police had not followed the clues. The Friends of Istanbul wrote of it in the Deutsche Allgemeine newspaper.

In 1920, a year before the assassination on Hardenbergstrasse, a committee met in Paris. It had been founded in 1890 in Georgian Tbilisi, with the goal of freeing Armenians from Russian, Persian and Ottoman domination. It decided on a secret campaign of vigilante justice. It is true that the Allies in Versailles had decided to bring those responsible for this genocide (the word was not yet created) to trial before an international war crimes tribunal (it would have been the first in history). But they dropped this intention in the next few years during the exchange of prisoners. To be sure, there were trials in Turkey itself. 200 arrests. The most important perpetrators — including Talaat — were convicted in absentia. Their death sentences were never carried out.

“Operation Nemesis” is created. Its three leaders, who had had barely escaped the genocide — scarred in both body and soul — act from the USA: solicit money, write coded letters. They draw up a list. At the top is Talaat Pasha. Soghomon Tehlirian is the man for the job. On his own initiative in Istanbul, he has already killed an Armenian collaborator who had delivered his favorite poet to the Turks, along with others. In the summer of 1920, Tehlirian travels to Boston for a meeting. He is to concentrate on Talaat, who is still exerting political influence from Hardenbergstrasse. The surviving Armenians fear that he will continue to plot their annihilation. Tehlirian receives two photos of him and the instruction: “No innocents!” In Berlin, a team of spies helps him to locate the perfect apartment. Tehlirian is not a well avenger. At one point during a pursuit, he loses consciousness.

Tehlirian makes himself a year younger for the trial. So that the truth would seem less probable. At the time of the genocide, he was certainly not in the death marches. He neither heard his sister cry out nor saw his brother’s skull split. Just as Turkish propaganda presumed of all Armenians, he was on the Russian side. But it could easily have been otherwise. The trial was a chance to tell everyone’s story.

In 1916, Tehlirian truly does find his hometown Erzincan in ruins. Twenty Armenians remain, from 20,000. He is the only survivor of his family of 85. The reports on the Tehlirian trial are so well-received among Armenians that they further finance Operation Nemesis. The avengers of Operation Nemesis kill six more Turks. In Istanbul, in Rome — from a coach driving by — and in Tbilisi.

After the killing, to be safe, Tehlirian corresponds as Saro Melikian. He moves to Serbia, where his father had owned a small store as a worker immigrant. He marries. He raises his son as a patriot who wants a united Armenia. He never speaks of Berlin. He is known as a good shot in the hunt club. Shortly before WWII, the Turkish secret service begins a fruitless search for him. Meanwhile, Talaat Pasha has become a martyr for the Turks, so Tehlirian moves to the USA in 1950. There, the avenger of his people works as an accountant in an Armenian restaurant.

Operation Nemesis closes down in 1922, erasing all traces. Decades later, letters of its members are found in an attic. In the 1930s, Armenian activists fight against Russian oppression. Hitler is encouraged by the suppression of news about the genocide. “Who mentions the annihilation of the Armenians now?” he says, before the invasion of Poland. The Armenians who remain scattered around the world speak seldom of what has happened to them. Many are ashamed of surviving. Some fear more persecution. They pass this trauma on to their children and grandchildren. The later generations fight as if possessed for the recognition of Turkish crimes and for reparations — until now, often without success. In the 1970s, a new Armenian terrorism arises. ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) is the name of the movement — connected to PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) — which conducts attacks against Turkish diplomats into the 1990s, hoping to force recognition of the genocide with 45 dead and 299 wounded, including civilians.

Soghomon Tehlirian is not a witness to that. In 1960, at 63, he dies in San Francisco of a cerebral hemorrhage. Armenians travel from all over the world to his grave and the memorial in Ararat Cemetery in Fresno, California, where a golden eagle is devouring a snake. Where Good triumphs over Evil.

Every child in Armenia knows about Hardenbergstrasse. It is a reminder even now, 100 years after the genocide, that Armenians were not just victims.

*   Likely reference to events in the 1918-1921 uprisings intended to detach portions of Silesia and attach them to Poland.

6 thoughts on “Berlin 1921: The Avenger of the Armenians

  1. Wow! Quite the History Lesson. L.A. has a rather sizable Armenian community and they are rather like refugees and really haven’t mixed in. I can only pray that their scars will heal. The Turks will get theirs soon, as the present government is trying to bring back their ‘glorious’ past. It is sad that the people will be the ones who will pay. Maybe ‘inglorious’ past is a better way to describe the founding of modern Turkey.

    • They see themselves as an ancient people and they’re right in the sense that they managed to remain a cohesive culture thru millenia. They were the educated, technologically advanced, prosperous people in Turkey. The envy of the Turks was ginned up bec Turkey wantd to get of that obstacle to a completely Muslim state.

      But their lack of mixing in isn’t hostile and individuals continue to prosper.

  2. We had an Orthodox memorial service for all the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians who perished in the Genocide at the hands of Turks at Church on Sunday. It brought MANY of us to tears.

    We had a large group of Armenians with us as they meet at our church while they build their own .


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