On This Day in History: One of the Biggest Trials of the 20th Century

On this day in 1921, “one of the most spectacular trials of the twentieth century” concluded in Berlin, Germany, when Soghomon Tehlirian was acquitted of murder after arguing: “I have killed a man, but I am not a murderer.”

The man in question was Talat Pasha—former grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, and the main architect of the Armenian genocide—whom Tehlirian shot point blank in a busy Berlin street two months before. The assassination, though little remembered today, influenced everything from the creation of the crime of genocide, to laying some of the ideological groundwork for Germany’s own atrocities decades later.

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The courtroom with all eyes of the world.

Like many Armenians at the time, Tehlirian came from the Ottoman Empire—namely the eastern half of what is now Turkey—which had been a major center of Armenian civilization for two thousand years. Before the First World War began in 1914, up to two million Ottoman subjects were Armenians—a significant proportion of the total population—who had historically occupied a tenuous and complex position in society: Armenians, as non-Muslims, were regarded as second-class citizens and stripped of many rights, but were nonetheless granted considerable autonomy and freedom of worship—often greater than they would have had under a rival Christian sect.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman government tried to implement Tanzimat, a series of reforms to modernize the waning empire across political, legal, and social dimensions—including by introduce concepts like equal rights regardless of religious or ethnicity. Suffice it to say that the effort largely failed, and circumstances gradually worsened for the Armenians and other minorities in the empire, culminating in one of the first genocides in modern history.

Whole books have been written about the genocide and the complex historical factors that led up to it; this post could not do it justice. But few debate the central role played by Talat Pasha, who was the de facto leader of the empire from 1913 until the end of the war in 1918. He headed the ironically named Committee of Union and Progress, which had begun in 1889 as a liberal reform movement, but by the time Talat rose to power was a nationalistic and autocratic political party. (In fact, the CUP government is considered the first example of one-party rule and may have even been a model for authoritarian parties across Europe leading up to the Second World War.)

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Talat Pasha

Like many genocidal regimes, the CUP-dominated Ottoman Empire used war as both an excuse and a smokescreen for eliminating a target population—in this case, minorities like the Armenians deemed disloyal and incongruous to a pure Turkish and Muslim state. In 1915, just one year into the war, Talat ordered nearly all the empire’s Armenians to the Syrian Desert to die of exposure, hunger, or outright murder. Of 40,000 Armenians deported from Erzurum—Tehlirian’s home region—it is estimated that fewer than 200 reached their destination. When more Armenians survived than Talat had intended, he ordered more massacres the following year.

Talat coolly estimated that around 1,150,000 Armenians disappeared during the genocide. In 1918, he told a Turkish journalist “I assume full responsibility for the severity applied” during the Armenian deportation and, “I absolutely don’t regret my deed.” By the end of the war, the subsequent German ambassador Johann von Bernstorff described his discussion with Talat: “When I kept on pestering him about the Armenian question, he once said with a smile: ‘What on earth do you want? The question is settled, there are no more Armenians.”

Tehlirian’s hometown had 20,000 Armenians before he moved to Serbia before the war to study engineering; by the end of the war, it had none. After hearing about anti-Armenian atrocities, he joined the Armenian volunteer units of the Russian army, which was allied against the Ottomans in the First World War. As these units advanced west into the former Armenian homeland, they found the aftermath of the genocide. Realizing his family had been killed—he named 85 relatives in his memoirs—Tehlirian vowed to take revenge. He suffered from regular fainting spells and other nervous system disorders that were likely the result of what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder; during his trial, he said they were related to his experiences during the genocide.

When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in 1918, Pasha and nearly all other major perpetrators fled abroad, mostly to allied Germany. In July 1919, the Ottomans established a special military tribunal that tried and convicted Talat and other CUP exiles in absentia for the “massacre and annihilation of the Armenian population of the Empire”, sentencing them to death. Yet because there was no international law on which they could be tried—indeed, the word genocide, let alone the concept, had not been invented yet—the genocide’s principal leaders remained immune so long as they were outside Turkey.

After it became clear that no one would bring Talat and his murderous cronies to justice, the Dashnaktsutyun—an Armenian political party founded in Russia and still active in Armenia and elsewhere—launched the secret Operation Nemesis, headed by Ottoman-born Armenians. The conspirators drew up a list of 100 genocide perpetrators to target for assassination, with Talat naturally at the top of the list. There was no shortage of volunteers for these dangerous missions—mainly young men who survived the genocide or lost their families. Nemesis operatives never carried out assassinations without confirming the identity of their targets, who were carefully tracked for weeks or even months before making a move;

Meanwhile, after the war, a vengeance-driven Tehlirian went to Constantinople and assassinated Harutian Mgrditichian, a member of the Ottoman secret police who facilitated the deportation of Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915 (widely regarded as the starting point of the Armenian Genocide.) This killing convinced Nemesis to entrust him with the assassination of Talat Pasha. His orders: “You blow up the skull of the Number 1 nation-murderer and you don’t try to flee. You stand there, your foot on the corpse and surrender to the police, who will come and handcuff you.

Photograph of Soghomon Tehlirian
Soghomon Tehlirian.

When he was caught and turned over to police, Tehlirian stated “I am not the murderer; he was.” His legal defense was funded by the Dashnaktsutyun, mostly from Armenians in the U.S.; the strategy was to put Talat on trial for the Armenian Genocide, and to argue that Tehlirian acted as a lone vigilante driven by the trauma of his loss. The prosecution sought to avoid “politicizing” the murder, and the trial was half as long as requested by the defense, many of whose witnesses were never called. Extensive evidence on the genocide was heard, and it became an international platform for the Armenian cause; media around the world widely reported on the trial, which brought attention and recognition to the Armenian Genocide.

Tehlirian’s testimony, though false—he claimed to have witnessed and experienced the genocide firsthand, when he had only seen the aftermath—was nonetheless based on the collective stories and experiences of his fellow Armenians. Tellingly, the prosecution never challenged the veracity of these claims, and the truth was not uncovered until decades later. (Though it certainly helped that there were plenty of documents, reports, and firsthand accounts to back up the atrocities claimed.)

Indeed, observers understood the trial to be more about the Armenian genocide than Tehlirian’s personal guilt—just as the defense had intended. News coverage reflected the tension between public sympathy for the Armenian victims of genocide and the value of law and order; as the New York Times reported, the jury faced a dilemma: by acquitting Tehlirian, they would condemn the Armenian atrocities, but also sanction extralegal killing—“All assassins should be punished; this assassin should not be punished. And there you are!”.

After the closing arguments were delivered, the judge asked Tehlirian if he had anything to add, to which he declined. After just an hour of deliberation, the twelve-person jury answered the question of whether Tehlirian was guilty of deliberate killing with one word: “No”. The verdict was unanimous, leaving no possibility of appeal.  The audience burst into applause, and the international reaction was largely positive. Transcripts of the trial were purchased by Armenians around the world, with the proceeding covering the cost of Tehlirian’s defense and raising money for the Nemesis operation

Following his acquittal, Tehlirian was deported from Germany. He went to the U.K. and then the U.S., where he adopted an alias; he continued needing medical treatment for his PTSD. He settled in Belgrade, Serbia, where, appropriately enough, he had a reputation as a skilled marksman at a local shooting club. He later moved to Morocco, then France, and finally California, before dying there of a brain hemorrhage in 1960. He was buried in an Armenian cemetery in Fresno, where his monument-grave can still be seen—an obelisk with a gold-plated eagle slaying a snake on top.; reportedly, the original artist claimed the eagle was “…the arm of justice of the Armenian people extending their wrath onto Talaat Pasha,” symbolized by the snake.

Unsurprisingly, Tehlirian became a national hero for Armenians, with statues and memorials in Armenia and major Armenians communities worldwide. Operation Nemesis continued for another year, assassinating several other high-profile targets, include Talat Pasha’s co-ruler, a founder of the CUP, and an Ottoman governor with an alleged penchant for killing Armenian children. (Another major leader was killed in a later role by a Red Army unit commanded by an ethnic Armenian.)

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The trial inspired Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the word genocide and campaign for its inclusion as an international crime.

The trial’s legacy was bigger than anyone at the time could have foreseen. German nationalists condemned the ruling as a judicial scandal and began justifying the genocide; arguments justifying mass extermination were not only widely accepted by nationalist newspapers, but were predicated on now-familiar claims about the racial characteristics of Armenians. Years later, a major Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, claimed only the “Jewish press” welcomed Tehlirian’s acquittal, and that Talat’s action were justified by Armenians leading espionage against the Turk—not unlike the antisemitic “stab in the back myth” that formed a key basis for the persecution and later massacre of Jews.

Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin claimed that reading about the Armenian genocide and Talat’s assassination sparked his interest in war crimes. Lemkin asked his law professor why Talat could not be tried for his crimes in Germany, to which the answer was that national sovereignty meant governments could kill their own citizens, and that foreign intervention was unjust even then.  Lemkin concluded that Tehlirian’s assassination was just, but worried about the excesses of vigilante justice, which prompted him to devise a legal framework for punishing genocide; this resulted in him coining the phrase in 1944—as no one knew quite what to call the Holocaust, let alone the earlier Armenian massacres— and in the near-universal ratification of the Genocide Convention in 1948.

Tehlirian’s trial was cited in later cases involving survivors of extermination meting out justice against perpetrators; these included  Sholem Schwarzbard‘s assassination of Ukrainian anti-Jewish pogromist Symon Petliura in 1926, for which he was subsequently acquitting. One historian notes that the trials of Tehlirian and Schwarzbard were “the first major trials in Western Europe featuring victims of interethnic violence and state-sponsored mass atrocities seeking justice”.  Hannah Arendt contrasted both cases with the later Eichmann trial—in which Israeli agents kidnapped Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial—noting that both avengers sought a day in court to publicize the unpunished crimes committed against their peoples. Swiss lawyer Eugen Curti, defending the Jew David Frankfurter, who assassinated Swiss Nazi Wilhelm Gustloff in February 1936, cited Tehlirian’s act, presciently comparing the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany to the Armenian Genocide; only under pressure from Germany, was Frankfurter was convicted.

Future Nuremberg trial prosecutor Robert Kempner, who attended the Tehlirian trial as a law student, believed it marked the first time in legal history when it was recognized that “gross violations of human rights, and especially genocide that is committed by a government can be contested by foreign states, and that [such foreign intervention] does not constitute impermissible meddling”. The German lawyer, exiled for his Jewish heritage and opposition to Nazi policies, would later help the U.S. in prosecuting many perpetrators of the genocide, based on his familiarity with German laws and legal doctrines.

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