Review – Bogosian, “Operation Nemesis”

Eric Bogosian, “Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide” (2015) (read aloud by the author) – Some of you might know Eric Bogosian as an actor, a curly-haired, vaguely Elliot-Gould-like presence in such films as Uncut Gems and Under Siege 2, a spin on Law and Order, and at least one cinematic adaptation of his several renowned plays. I actually know a lady who was his personal assistant! She says he is great. In any event, he has also written this history book for a broad audience, and brings his storytelling instincts with him to make it a crisp read. He says he first thought of it as the potential basis for a screenplay, and once you know the story, you can see why.

The Armenian Genocide seemed likely to become — is, in some places, like Turkey, where it is forbidden to be taught about in schools — a footnote to the tragedy of the First World War. Those most directly responsible for the hundreds of thousands, upwards of 1.5 million, Armenian deaths, the leadership of the CUP (“Young Turks”) and their flunkies, easily escaped war crime trials helmed by the British and their Turkish collaborators in the immediate aftermath of the war. Many of them looked set to return, to join their former underling Mustafa Kemal in rebuilding Turkish power in Anatolia and the broader Middle East. The larger powers of the world didn’t care. The French and Italians soon lost their taste for their more ambitious meddlings in the Middle East; The British wanted their oil concessions, and would work with whoever they had to to get them; this also went more or less for the Americans, with more of the inconsistency (Wilson promising a League of Nations Mandate for Armenia, then Congress slapping him down) we’re used to from American imperialism; Russia was devastated by the war and the Revolution and mostly wanted a quiet Armenian Soviet Republic. The Armenians were on their own. 

But they were not without resources. As Bogosian reminds us in his crash course in Armenian history for his random anglophone readers, the Armenians are an old, old people. They’ve dealt with a lot of empires. They’re a diasporic community- and a strong diaspora, like it or not, does seem to be the sine qua non of which genocides get to be turned into moral stories, and even avenged, and those that become statistics as far as most of the world are concerned. As any resident of East Watertown, like myself, can tell you, Armenians, wherever they go, enjoy quite lively community life- there’s a half-dozen Armenian social clubs in my neighborhood, each seemingly attached to a different political faction with a long, hoary history, rivals to each other but they come out for their people when the chips are down. Some of Armenians, some of them diasporic, some of them who saw the slaughter that started in 1915, decided they would not let the world forget, nor the Young Turks get away with it. 

Operation Nemesis was a plan put into place by the Dashnak, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a socialist Armenian party that has gotten involved with all kinds of stuff all over the world in pursuit of their goal of a free, social democratic Armenia. Nemesis, named after the Greek goddess of righteous revenge, was the plan to track down the perpetrators of the Genocide and shoot them, one by one, wherever they were. More than avenging the Armenian people, it would also force the world to look what happened to them in the face. Bogosian tells us some of the planners — passionate young Shahan Natalie (one rather thinks he came up with the name), old stalwart Armen Garo — but his main focus is on young Soghomon Tehlirian. Tehlirian shot Talaat Pasha, arguably the single man most responsible for the genocide, one of a triumvirate of Pashas more or less running the Ottoman Empire during the war. He also surrendered to the Berlin police (this was 1921, near the beginnings of the Weimar Republic) and had his day in court. 

Courtroom scenes are irresistible to certain kinds of writers, and Bogosian seems like one. He’s right to put some focus on this one, as it’s pretty fascinating. Soghomon Tehlirian came from a family that had suffered from previous Turkish persecution of the Armenians. After centuries of living under relatively stable, if not exactly liberated, existence under Ottoman suzerainty, the Armenians came to receive the lion’s share of the violence of the Turkish elite trying to figure out how to hold on to its power as its antiquated system crumbled, under pressure from the rise of nationalism among its subject peoples and competition from growing European powers. There was already a revolutionary movement in Armenia, and many who looked to an Ottoman collapse to liberate their people- especially after the Young Turk movement, which came to power in Istanbul with the help of Armenian revolutionaries, turned violently on the Armenian community. So, Tehlirian joined a small unit of Armenians who volunteered to fight for Russia against the Ottoman Empire after World War One broke out. His family was killed while he was fighting mostly pointless engagements on the Caucasian frontier. 

This isn’t what Tehlirian told the German court. He told a story of surviving a massacre similar to the many, many which eyewitnesses recorded during the course of the genocide: Turkish gendarmes riding into town, killing some, forcing the others into the desert, and letting hunger and violence (sometimes official, sometimes from “paramilitaries,” often random civilians or Kurdish tribesmen) pick off the rest. Except he wasn’t there for any such massacres. He saw terrible things; he made himself a caretaker to dozens of children orphaned by the massacres and who were surviving on the edges of society. But he did not witness his family being beheaded. Plenty of families were beheaded- not the Tehlirians. 

The Dashnak instructed Tehlirian to lie on the stand, and coached him carefully to do so. They had several reasons for this. One was protection: the Dashnak was an illegal militant organization, and if the world knew that they were hunting Turkish genocidaires, that would be a serious problem, for themselves and for the surviving Armenian population. Another was drama. They wanted the stories to get out. Nothing Tehlirian said on the stand was beyond what the Turks actually did, over and over. Another consideration was Tehlirian slipping the noose, but the Dashnak network proved pretty good at getting their people out, post-mission, without making them do a trial first. Tehlirian was also a brilliant witness. He could play a man driven to divine vengeance, not some thuggish assassination, because it was true. He was epileptic and ridden with nightmares about his murdered family. In part due to sympathy, in part because they wanted to sweep Germany’s role in allowing their wartime allies to destroy the Armenian population under the rug, the German court acquitted Tehlirian of all charges. He died in Fresno in 1960, and you gotta figured that dude never had to pay for a drink in Fresno (good amount of Armenians there, I’m told) as long as he lived. 

Bogosian tells the story well. Some of his History 101 instruction for the reader has some mix-ups. One weird one was when he insists that the pre-WWI Germans sought relations with the Ottoman Empire, and built the Berlin-Baghdad railroad, as a plan to seek “lebensraum,” the agricultural “living space” Germany would eventually seek in Eastern Europe. I guess the idea was they were going to settle Anatolia? There’s no evidence of that, and plenty of evidence that the Germans wanted to prop Turkey up as an ally because its collapse would benefit their biggest rivals, Russia and Britain. There’s a few goofs like that in the book. Bogosian is a smart guy but not a historian. 

Still and all, it’s an amazing story, and he tells it well. Tehlirian may have been a somewhat nebbishy assassin. Some of those Dashnak guys were slick, though, and you can’t help but enjoy their derring-do. One dude, Arshavir Shirakian, improvised an attack on a group of Turkish war criminals he ran across in Berlin, and then escaped the police cordon by chit-chatting with a family group that hadn’t seen him just shoot a guy. The cops assumed he was a relative of this nice German family and let him right through. If the people of Armenia could be forgiven for thinking that the God they were among the first to embrace — Armenians will tell you, they were the first officially Christian kingdom, way back in four-hundred-something — abandoned them during the genocide. But some goddess of revenge dictated that the last of the three Pashas, who had the bright idea of joining the Bolsheviks, well beyond Dashnak’s reach, and then double-crossing the Bolsheviks to start some Pan-Turkic rebellion, got got in the end by a Cheka officer of Armenian extraction.

Are we still allowed to thrill at that kind of thing? Well, I’m going to, anyway. I’m aware of the reasons why smart people, even people who aren’t pacifists, don’t, generally, allow murders, even the assassinations of unrepentant killers intent on killing again, to excite them… openly. I am aware of the arguments. I’m aware that Nemesis did not bring any Armenians back to life, did not bring Armenia’s land back or create a stable, free Armenian state. I’m aware that revenge, generally, is unhelpful, especially between ethnic groups that are expected to live near each other, because it perpetuates a cycle of violence. I am aware that violence, even the killing of guilty enemies, is meant to do damage to the soul of the perpetrator. I am aware, lastly, that praising violence is generally the provenance of “the enemy,” the reactionaries and the bullies, those practiced at and comfortable with violence, generally against those weaker than them. I’m aware that beyond that principle, cheering on violence is often seen as “cringe,” the sort of thing cop groupies do, dividing good guys and bad guys and, surprise surprise! They are fans of the good. 

Well… tough. Nemesis wasn’t indiscriminate slaughter. The Armenian revolutionaries of all factions have made clear, over and over and over again, they want no generalized revenge against the Turkish people (they may not love them, but they don’t want to slaughter them all). They wanted the people who specifically singled them out for the horrors of genocide. They worked at it, and they got it. In fact, probably the closest the Dashnak people came to a serious strategic miscalculation was the idea that genocidal madness was restricted to the leaders of the Turks. I’m not willing to say all Turks wanted to slaughter Armenians, and in fact one group of participants — the Kurds — have even apologized for their role in the genocide, through a range of Kurdish political organizations. But enough Turks did desire that violence, and a larger number were prepared to look the other way, that you could argue that the Pashas were just expressing their will… and still. They probably made the situation better by preventing the worst actors from returning to Anatolia, and there really was no creating a real Armenian nation at the time, anyway. 

And while Bogosian does do some “oh, isn’t violence terrible for the soul” stuff… well, most of the violence that was terrible for the soul of the Armenians, in his telling and in theirs, was the violence that was done to their people. Soghomon Tehlirian slept reasonably well after getting his man, it seems. If Shirakian was soul-sick about the multiple war criminals he gunned down, he didn’t say so in his memoirs. The Dashnak people didn’t crow about blood. They weren’t sadists. They took a difficult and unpleasant job (though one with some emotional rewards) and did it. I don’t think there’s anything but sentimental mythology to tell us that such experiences, always and everywhere, hurt the mind or the soul worse than any other difficult, unpleasant task. Among other things, human psychology does not tend to be that straightforward. 

And doesn’t it damage the soul to allow world-historical criminals to go unpunished, to get back into power even? Some part of me thinks one of the things at the core of the madness the world is now seeing is how nobody, nobody, got punished for crimes that helped end the period of relative stability at the turn of the twenty-first century, the American invasions of the Middle East, the economic crash of 2008, etc. A few Icelandic scammers got thrown in Scandinavian summer camp prison and that was it. I can’t prove it, but I do tend to think it makes people crazy, that kind of inconsistency, when millions suffer and die for nothing and the perpetrators get to enjoy their lives, even continue to hold power. I’m not saying revenge always “works” or is worthwhile. But neither does, or is, the sort of secularized version of Nietzsche’s parody of Christianity that us lower-order types are expected to extend to our betters. The Armenian people refused this, resolved to set things right, and wrote another chapter in their long and honorable history in doing so. ****’

Review – Bogosian, “Operation Nemesis”

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