I found out what he meant when I read Shiragian’s memoir The Legacy a few years later. He was one of the volunteers who tracked down and executed Turkish officials responsible for the Armenian Genocide.
The best known of the avengers was Soghomon Tehlirian, who gunned down Talaat Pasha on a Berlin street in 1921. One of Turkey’s ruling triumvirate during the First World War, Talaat is considered the chief figure in the scheme that claimed at least 1.5 million Armenian lives.
At the war’s end, Talaat and his comrades fled the nation they’d led to defeat. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia. But those sentences posed little threat as the victorious French and British soon withdrew from Constantinople while the vanquished Talaat found safe haven among his former allies in Germany.
By 1920, Turkey was again convulsed in violence as Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist army reclaimed lost territory and took aim at the Caucuses. Just months before the Republic of Armenia collapsed under dual assaults by Turks and Russians, the Armenians launched their one shot at justice.
The plan to execute the nation’s arch enemies had to be carried out secretly and at arm’s length because Armenia was still clinging to hope that its Big Allies would stand by their commitment to protect its sovereignty while punishing the Genocide’s perpetrators.
In fact, the British knew where to find Talaat but did nothing. They also knew that Talaat and the others were plotting a return to power in league with their ally Kemal. This didn’t seem to bother the British or the French but the prospect both terrified and infuriated Armenians.
Any chance of finding and executing the targets depended on rapidly recruiting and deploying a dedicated network of spies and killers. The story of that effort, and its improbable success, is the subject of a new book by Eric Bogosian: Operation Nemesis.
The author is better known to most Americans than any of the book’s characters. He’s a talented writer and actor who has won praise for his stage, screen and television work as well as his novels. He’s best recognized from his long-running role on TV’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
Operation Nemesis is a striking departure, a serious nonfiction work that demanded long and intense research. I’d love to tell you Bogosian succeeded brilliantly because his name on the cover guarantees wide exposure well beyond the Armenian community. I think this is a story that deserves to be told boldly and without apology.
Unfortunately, Bogosian appears ambivalent at best on that central point.
To Bogosian’s credit, he deals forthrightly with the Genocide, which he portrays accurately and in brutal detail. He leaves no doubt that the slaughter of the Armenians was planned and carried out by their rulers.
Other interesting chapters deal with the highly publicized trial of Tehlirian. Bogosian shows that his arrest was very much part of the plan in hopes that a trial would allow a full airing of the Armenian case for justice.
The defense's portrayal of Tehlirian as a man driven by grief after witnessing the death of family members was calculated to gain sympathy for him and for the greater cause. In fact, Tehlirian was abroad in 1915 when his home was raided and his mother murdered. But his grief and revulsion were real, and they compelled him to find and kill the man he held responsible.
The trial strategy worked. Tehlirian was acquitted by the jury, and the German public was exposed to the enormity of its war-time ally’s crimes.
Unfortunately, Bogosian interrupts the tale repeatedly to offer observations and historical allusions that tend to diminish any sense of heroics on the part of Tehlirian and his colleagues while distancing the author from the vast body of Armenians of the time who embraced them.
He clearly understands why Armenians wanted Talaat and the others dead but he is just as clearly uncomfortable with the means of execution. At one point, he wonders if the Genocide stirred a “bloodlust” in the survivors.
The best critique I’ve read is by author and political cartoonist Lucine Kasbarian. She takes issue with Bogosian's efforts to frame the operation as a political assassination plot rather than an attempt to bring convicted killers to justice.
Bogosian is entitled to his point of view, of course, but Kasbarian identifies many errors and misinterpretations in the text, notably in the author’s attempt to draw a parallel between Genocide’s perpetrators and Armenian patriots who fought against them by citing “a shared code of violence.
This is the weak foundation for Bogosian’s further attempts to connect the Nemesis executions with the killings of Turkish officials by Armenians in the 1970s and the 2007 murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul by a Turkish extremist.
It’s all quite strained at best. I wonder why Bogosian thought any of it was necessary, or even interesting? I sense the heavy hand of a mediocre editor with a political agenda. A better editor would have sharpened – or preferably deleted – the author’s muddled attempt to summarize his thoughts about Operation Nemesis.
Bogosian notes that the agents of Operation Nemesis “did not see themselves as terrorists” and certainly believed they were responding to a higher calling than mere retribution.
“That does not make what Operation Nemesis did legal. One question that surrounds these assassinations is this: If you desire a world where justice prevails, then you must rely on laws. If you rely on laws, they must be universal. Laws cannot be superseded simply cause some feel that they are wrong or because a person ‘knows’ he has the right to break them.”
(Note to the publisher: You might at least hire an editor who knows what a question is.)
The author correctly states that many Armenians feel cheated by not having had a Nuremberg, the city where Nazis were tried by a special court set up by the Allies after the Second World War. His readers might have been better served, and his observations better formed, if Bogosian had explored the experience of the people most affected by those trials.
Of the many Nazi leaders involved in the persecution and murder of Jews, only 10 were executed as a result of Nuremberg. Others were sentenced to prison, but many more escaped prosecution and a number found refuge in other countries. As in the case of the Armenian Genocide, the world’s powers were eager to move on. Responsibility for tracking down the most vicious fugitives fell to Nazi hungers like Simon Wiesenthal and the Israeli government.
It took 15 years to locate the ugliest of all, Adolf Eichmann, who planned and directed the transport of European Jews to Nazi death camps.
Like Talaat, Eichmann had taken advantage of post-war chaos and powerful friends to elude justice. Arrested by the Allies in 1945, Eichmann escaped from American custody. This man responsible for the deaths of millions was living comfortably under an assumed name in Argentina when Israeli agents with the help of Wiesenthal were tipped to his whereabouts in 1960.
The Israelis could not risk seeking Argentina’s cooperation because Eichmann might be alerted, or even helped to escape once more. So no attempt was made to extradite him. Instead, Eichmann was kidnapped, flown to Israel on a government jet and tried for crimes against the Jewish people.
We know now that a good deal of consideration went into this plan. The Israelis believed a trial in Israel would have far-reaching effects in a world where the Nazis horrors already seemed to many like ancient history.
They were right.
Like the trial of Tehlirian, the trial of Eichmann – televised live– was about much more than one man’s guilt or innocence. Dour and unrepentant, Eichmann personified the Nazi death machine far more vividly than any grainy war-time newsreel. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and hanged.
To me, that sentence seems justified and overdue. But how was it legal?
Eichmann had committed no crimes in Israel, which didn’t exist when he fled Germany. The Israelis had no jurisdiction in Argentina, which protested the violation of its sovereignty. Although he was charged with violations of international law, Eichmann was never turned over to international authorities.
These objections were raised by legal scholars, including some Israelis. They echoed similar objections raised at the time of the Nuremberg trials. Among the prominent Americans who deplored the Nazis but challenged the legality of their post-war trials was Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. “We cannot teach liberty and justice in Germany by suppressing liberty and justice,” he said.
I think we can safely declare the good senator wrong based on a half-century’s hindsight and our knowledge of Germany’s emergence from both Nazis and Communists as a liberal democracy.
In trying the Nazis at Nuremberg, the world reached a vital consensus that the law of statutes and court opinions is always subordinate to the higher law that gives us all the right to live freely. Defendants at Nuremberg argued truthfully that they were following orders. That did not save them from the gallows.
In capturing and killing Eichmann, Israel followed its principles rather than any code book or treaty. Eichmann’s pivotal role in the Holocaust demanded the ultimate punishment, and there was no other realistic way to carry it out.
I see the Operation Nemesis in the same light.
To me, it’s this simple: Talaat and his murderous gang did not deserve to die in bed – and Armenians deserved justice. Operation Nemesis achieved both goals, and the people who carried it out should be venerated.
Would Bogosian feel the same way if he’d been lucky enough to shake hands with Arshavir Shiragian?