Eric Bogosian’s Operation NemesisGreg Johnson
Spanish translation here
Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide
New York: Little Brown, 2015
For years I have been waiting for a book on Operation Nemesis, the secret Armenian organization that in 1921 and 1922 assassinated virtually the entire leadership of the deposed and exiled Young Turk regime for being the architects of the Armenian genocide. Thus I was delighted that Eric Bogosian’s Operation Nemesis was published this spring to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, on April 24, 1915.
The Armenians are an ancient Near Eastern Caucasoid people, closely related genetically to Kurds, Georgians, and other peoples of Upper Mesopotamia, Eastern Anatolia, and the Caucasus. Like the Persians, as well as the ancient Hittites and Mittanians, Armenians speak an Indo-European language. The Armenians are probably a continuation of the kingdom or Urartu, which appears in Assyrian chronicles in the 13th-century BC. Because of its location between larger empires to the East and West, Armenia frequently lost its independence, but often regained it by serving as a buffer state between its larger rivals. In 301, Armenia became the first Christian kingdom. In 1071, Armenia was conquered by the Seljuk Turks. From 1198 to 1375, an Armenian kingdom existed in Cilicia but fell to the Egyptian Mameluks. Eventually, all of Armenia was absorbed by the Ottoman and Persian Empires
In 1915, about 3 million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire, most of them in the ancestral Armenian homeland in Eastern Anatolia. (Persian Armenia had been absorbed by the Russian Empire.) During the 19th century, the Ottomans had an “Armenian Question”: As one Christian land after another threw off the Ottoman yoke — Greece, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc. — and the Russian Empire encroached on Ottoman territory, the Sultans naturally regarded the rising national consciousness of the Armenians with some anxiety. They were a populous, ancient Christian people, solidly entrenched in the Ottoman heartland, in the upper and middle classes of the empire, and even in the Ottoman bureaucracy. The personal fortune of the Sultans, for instance, was traditionally managed by an Armenian. (Armenians played similar roles in the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, many Byzantine Emperors were ethnically Armenian.)
In 1894-’96, the “Red Sultan” Abdul Hamid II, who was under Western pressure to give greater autonomy to Armenians, launched a series of massacres in which 80,000 to 300,000 Armenians were killed. This naturally gave rise to an armed Armenian resistance movement, which killed Turkish leaders and Armenian collaborators and almost blew up the Sultan himself on July 21, 1905. When Abdul Hamid was removed from power in the July 1908 Young Turk Revolution, Armenians and other oppressed minorities were elated.
The Young Turks, however, inherited the Ottoman Armenian Question. They wished not only to preserve but expand the Ottoman Empire to include all Tukic peoples across Central Asia to the borders of China, and an independent Armenia would have blocked this Ostpolitik. So, under cover of the night and fog of the First World War, the Young Turks hatched a plan to exterminate the Armenians and other Christian minorities in the East, including Greeks and Assyrians. (A minor flaw of Bogosian’s book is that he does not place the Armenian genocide in the context of a wider policy of exterminating Christian minorities.)
Christian soldiers — who, thanks to their new constitutional equal rights, could now serve in the military — were disarmed and put in work battalions, after which they were worked to death or slaughtered outright. On April 24, 1915, the Armenian community was decapitated. Some 250 prominent Armenians in Constantinople were arrested and subsequently murdered. In the Armenian homelands in the East, the genocide took place under the pretext of deportation and resettlement. Armenians packed and cataloged their valuables, handed over assets, and were marched out of their towns, where they were plundered and massacred, often with sickening Oriental sadism. Those who were not killed outright were marched to desert internment camps where they perished through disease, hunger, and violence. Between 800,000 and 1.4 million Armenians died, as well as more than half a million Greeks and Assyrians. Hundreds of thousands became refugees. By the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire had virtually eliminated its Armenian population.
In 1918, after the fall of the Russian Empire, Russian Armenia became the first sovereign Armenian state since 1375, but in late 1920, it was conquered by the Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union. On August 23, 1990, Armenia seceded from the Soviet Union. Modern Armenia is but a sliver of the Greater Armenia of old. Its population stands at just under three million, and another seven million Armenians live in a diaspora around the world, the largest populations being in Russia, the United States, France, Georgia, and Iran.
At the end of World War I, Constantinople was occupied by the British, who wished to try the Young Turk leadership for war crimes, including the Armenian genocide. Before they could stand trial, however, they fled the country. Thus they were tried in absentia, and five were sentenced to death: the Three Pashas, Talat Pasha (Interior Minister and later Grand Vizier), Enver Pasha (Minister of War), and Djemal Pasha (Minister of the Navy), as well as Dr. Mehmet Nazim and Dr. Behaeddin Shakir, the leaders of the Special Organization that coordinated and executed the genocide.
As the Paris Peace Conference dragged on and the Allies dithered about their plans for Turkey, General Mustapha Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, rallied Turkish forces in Anatolia and began its reconquest from British, French, and Italian occupiers, Armenian guerrillas, and Greek invaders and insurgents. In the meantime, the Young Turk leaders, exiled in Berlin, Rome, Moscow, and elsewhere, plotted their return to power.
The Armenian exiles, however, had other plans. A small group of Armenian businessmen, intellectuals, ex-diplomats, and guerrilla fighters came together to form Operation Nemesis, as it was christened in Boston on July 8, 1920 at the 27th Regional Conference of the Armenian Revolutionary Association. Operation Nemesis was funded primarily by Armenian-American businessmen and based in the United States.
Although the primary purpose of Operation Nemesis was to assassinate both the Turkish architects and the Armenian collaborators responsible for the genocide, it did, in fact, mark the emergence of a new leadership caste for a nation that — save for the small, embattled, and doomed Armenian Republic — was decapitated and stateless. Operation Nemesis performed the function of a sovereign as defined by Carl Schmitt: Standing above all human laws and institutions, in the space opened up by the existential clash between two peoples, it made life and death decisions to preserve a people facing the ultimate emergency, genocide. In Bogosian’s words, “. . . Operation Nemesis did what governments could not. They were appealing to a higher, final justice. One that exists somewhere between heaven and earth” (p. 302).
The assassinations served several purposes: for the dead, vengeance; for the living, the well-needed feeling of winning a round; for the enemy, a warning; for the world, an occasion to learn of the plight of the Armenian people.
The first assassination was of Talat Pasha in Berlin, on March 15, 1921, by Soghomon Tehlirian. His mission was not merely to kill Talat but to stand trial for his murder and use it as a platform to tell the world about the Armenian genocide. As Bogosian demonstrates, to protect the operation, Tehlirian claimed he acted alone and perjured himself extensively about the details of his life and travels. But the core of his testimony was true, and he very successfully publicized the plight of the Armenians to the world. Astonishingly, Tehlirian was acquitted.
Nemesis also assassinated Djemal Pasha. The third Pasha, Enver, escaped Operation Nemesis. A longtime collaborator with the Soviets, they killed him on August 4, 1922 after he raised an army against them in Central Asia. Other Nemesis victims were Said Halim Pasha, a former Grand Vizier; Behbud Khan Javanshir, Minister of Interior of Azerbaijan, who presided over massacres of Armenians in Baku; Cemal Azmi, Governor of Trebizond, who massacred the local Armenian community; and Dr. Behaeddin Shakir, one of the leaders of the Special Organization. The other Special Organization leader, Dr. Mehmet Nazim, escaped Operation Nemesis and eventually returned to Turkey, where in 1926 he was tried and hanged for plotting to assassinate Mustapha Kemal, now known as Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey.
Decades after the end of Operation Nemesis, the story slowly surfaced as the various conspirators published their memoirs. We can thank Eric Bogosian, the Armenian-American author of Operation Nemesis, for surveying these obscure sources, including Armenian-language ones, and synthesizing them masterfully, with a dramatist’s eye for detail. Bogosian is a novelist and playwright, but he is probably best known as an actor. (He did four seasons of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as Captain Danny Ross.) Generally, his flair for drama serves him well, but I found his account of Sogomon Tehlirian’s life and trial overly detailed and somewhat draggy.
The Armenian genocide illustrates the necessity of ethnonationalism, for stateless peoples are far more likely to be victimized than peoples with their own sovereign homelands. Bogosian, being a typical liberal, indicts Turkish nationalism for the genocide, but the problem was Turkish imperialism. The underlying problem was too few nation-states rather than too many.
Operation Nemesis itself illustrates how a decapitated and stateless people can form a leadership caste, capable of exercising sovereign functions. Indeed, Operation Nemesis was what Turks today call a “deep state” apparatus, namely an organization that operates outside of a state and its laws, performing sovereign acts to preserve the state — or, in this case, a people — in an existential crisis in which the state cannot protect them, or when there is no state to protect them.
I highly recommend Operation Nemesis, not just as a historical study but as food for political thought.
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I have heard that, but I have seen no compelling evidence, and much that is simply false (eg, that the Three Pashas were born in Salonika). Unfortunately, many anti-Semites simply lie, and we have to be very suspicious of all the lore and check it out carefully.
If safety is the overriding concern, then I have to disagree. A realist interpretation of international relations has it that the very nature of the global state system itself encourages states to war on each other as each seeks security and/or advantage. Nationalism only exacerbates the problem. Within living memory nationalist fervor and what realists term the “security dilemma” (a vicious circle of increasing interstate tension) have explosively combined to claim millions of lives – lives that, one assumes, would otherwise not have been lost. Whatever the benefits of ethnonationalism, it’s hard to believe greater security is one of them (unless one can count on being the big dog, which most nations can’t).
How much safer are Armenians today, now that they have their nation-state? Their relations with Turkey are as poisonous and fraught with insecurity as ever, and their victory in the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has only made them more insecure, as Azerbaijan, flush with oil-wealth and thirsty for vengeance, has begun to rearm. Nationalism may well have seemed the solution to Armenians’ security problems a hundred years ago, and it’s certainly unreasonable to blame them for having failed to foresee the state of affairs that would obtain a century later, but no objective analysis could today claim that Armenia has made Armenians safer.
Well, the Armenians in Armenia today are currently safe from being dispossessed and exterminated by their own government on ethnic grounds. I think that counts for something. Would Armenians be safer living under Azeri rule, for instance?
Darn it, I meant the last word of my post to read “safe,” not “safer.” (Note to self: proofread, idiot, proofread.) Safety is, of course, relative, so yes, Armenians are surely safer in their own state than under Azeri rule. But I would not say of Armenians in Armenia “they’re safe there, mission accomplished,” the way I would say of Quechua Indians in Ecuador (who are very far from being a majority in that state, but are not on anyone’s hit list).
I also find the general lack of emphasis on the particularilly anti-Christian nature of the genocide as misleading for the uninformed. I think the Australians have done a better job of recognizing the murder of half a million Greek Orthodox and Assyrians than Americans seem too. Though I believe NY state recognized the anti near eastern Europeans and Europoids and Christian nature of the Turk regime in the early 20th century, the orchestrated riots against the Constantinopoltans in the fifties and sixties, the barbaric Operation ATILLA against Cyprus, the support of the Azeri Turk against Armenians and continueing until this very day ‘https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=oSLM_N3STQk.
It’s too bad that the Armenians heroes who assassinated the Turk leadership didn’t get to Mustafa Kemal as well. Thank you for the recommendation Greg
Why was it “too bad” that Ataturk wasn’t killed? What was there that marks him as especially deserving of death compared to any other Turk – and if there isn’t anything, is it also “too bad” they weren’t all killed as well?
I too regret the Greek loss of territory, but time heals all wounds and I refuse to subscribe to the ultranationalist idiocy that demands I must forever wish death and destruction, prospectively or retrospectively, on anyone my people have ever come into conflict with. (After all, I’m not Jewish!)
Not sure why it isn’t clear to you that the Turk government has been and continues to practice covert and asymentrical warfare against Hellas and Cyrprus. Are you aware the Turks facilItate the illegal infiltration of Musulman and Negros? Are you aware of their threats to the EEZ in the Aegean? Do you care they are illegally occupying northern Cyprus and support gypsy separtism In Eastern Thrace?
I too don’t think that picking our wounds as a people ala the Heebs, but let’s be serious about the Turk and the life and legacy of the republican Mustafa Kemal.
In other words, Turkey is doing what every other state does as it pursues its interests. Wishing that the modern Turkish state’s most preeminent national hero had been snuffed out early on is going to ease tensions and lead to greater cooperation how exactly?
The specific complaints you make about Turkey’s behaviour carry the nauseating stench of nationalist self-righteousness. That remark isn’t aimed at you personally, since it is nothing that millions of other Greeks don’t also believe, so please don’t take undue offense.
If Turkey facilitates the transit of immigrants does Greece not do the same? In fact, I read only recently of Greece issuing an explicit warning to the EU: do as we demand or we’ll flood your countries with Africans. A foreign policy of “negrify thy neighbor” will doom us all, so it’s wrong when any one of us does it, not just when our enemies do.
The establishment and recognition of and respect for Exclusive Economic Zones rests as much on international goodwill as it does on “objectivity.” Turkey is a significant military power so it’s not surprising that it bristles at being hemmed in along its Aegean coast by a handful of sparsely populated Greek islands. I fail to see how antagonizing Turks over historical bygones will make their geopolitical circumstances more palatable to them.
I hesitate to say so, but the truth is, no, I don’t much care about Northern Cyprus. Given the political conditions that existed at the time, I’ve come to believe that, after all the heartache, an equitable, workable settlement has more or less been reached. I’m well aware of what an anathema such conclusions are to nationalists, but I long ago exhausted my psychic reserves of Turk-hatred. Considering that I’ve come to actually like Turks – not just tolerate them – it would take a lot more than the Cyprus issue to restock them again.
It seems that my comments are no longer visible or have been removed. Could you please shed some light on this or provide me a link to where they can be found?
Alas, we had a database loss, and I could not recover comments.
No worries. I save everything that I post just in case such things occur.
And of you are wondering what comments I am referring to, one of them with your response is:
Posted August 20, 2015 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
Thank you for your comment. But I think you are picking nits here. Bogosian makes it clear where Soghomon Tehlirian lied in his testimony and in his memoirs, and why he felt that necessary, which means that he did not reply solely on Tehlirian. You are right that he focuses a little too minutely on Tehlirian and that this is a remnant of his original interest in creating a screenplay. I hope the minor factual errors you point out can be corrected in a future edition.
Posted August 21, 2015 at 7:33 am | Permalink
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I was also hopeful that the inaccuracies would be corrected in a future edition, but according to a response to my suggestion of corrections in future printings, this is what Eric had to say on April 27th:
I don’t want to be negative, but I doubt there will be another edition. If there is, I would love to improve on what I’ve got here. The important thing is to get those memoirs of your grandfather’s published, one way or another. You should publish them. Translate them and publish them. Especially now that the interest has been sparked.
Have you read Marian MacCurdy’s book? Very interesting material.
As far as a movie goes, it’s not something I’m focusing on right now. (Every interviewer asks me about a possible movie, that’s the only time I think about it.) I would imagine that if the book has huge sales there will be interest in a movie deal. My priority was to get a book out on what I consider to be a very important topic and get it out to a large audience. I was striving for accuracy. Movies are rarely accurate.
So…let’s see what happens with the book! Again, I think the most important thing is to get that memoir out so the world can see what Shahan Natali had to say.
All the best
As for my grandfather’s memoirs, my grandfather wrote a first hand account of Operation Nemesis in 1923. He entrusted the transcript to his daughter (my mother) who was instructed as to when it should be made public. When Eric came to to see my mother and demanded that she surrender every scrap of paper that was in my grandfather’s archive (which Eric mentioned in one of the lectures was his “full court press” though I would call what he did bordering on elder abuse), she first asked for his resume to see if he was qualified to even read and understand the materials. For this reason and because of his arrogant (“Do you know who I am?”) and pushy disposition, he not only left empty handed, but lost a valuable introduction to Soghomon’s relations, who my mother would have facilitated.
Contrary to what Eric speculated in one of his lectures of my mother holding the memoirs and keeping them private because it makes her feel powerful, describing her as an old woman in her 80’s living in Glendale (which the age and location is inaccurate), my grandfather’s memoirs have been translated and will be published in December. The only thing that is not written by him in the book we will release is the introduction. That was recently dictated on video by Shahan’s 100 year old niece, who is not only a Genocide survivor, spending her first 4 years of her life hiding with her family in the basement of a German collage in Turkey, but in her own right a revolutionary who played a big roll in the French underground, supplying the French army with weapons and supplies during WWII. She is the only person alive today who knew Shahan and details of his work.
As for Eric’s book, other than about a dozen serious inaccuracies that I found, one of the most important that the Armenian Government at the time DID NOT give the green light to the operation and in fact tried to block it from happening. Of course they failed to protect Talaat and the others from being terminated, dashing any hopes they had to work together with the Turks to rid Armenia of the Bolsheviks and saving their independence (which would have lasted only as long as it took the Turks to kill or convert what Armenians remained in Armenia).
Someone else found at least a dozen others inaccuracies in Eric’s book. You can read them to better understand what the real fact about the subject are at and then decide if the book in the present form is worth the read as a historical document and if in fact it can be salvaged:http://www.armenianlife.com/2015/08/06/eric-bogosians-operation-obfuscation/
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