Operation Nemesis was the plot to assassinate the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide. Between 1920 and 1922, the Armenian Revolutionary Army killed eight former Turkish officials and three ‘traitors’ in four different countries. The mission’s name comes from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution and it proved one of the most efficient assassination plots in modern history.
Between 1915 and 1922 the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk regime deported its Armenian population to Syria where over a million died. After their defeat in WW1, the genocide’s architects fled overseas and were sentenced to death in absentia.
With no one held accountable, a tight-knit group of survivors assumed the duty of revenge. Each member of Operation Nemesis had lost family members in the genocide. One, a 24-year-old engineering student named Soghomon Tehlirian, had lost 85. He would be their leading assassin.
Led by Shahan Natalie, the conspirators drew up a black-list of the two hundred Turkish officials and Armenian informants responsible for the genocide. Chief among them were the ‘Three Pashas’ who led Turkey in WW1 and oversaw the deportation and murder of its Christian minorities. Pasha is a title, not a surname.
As governor of wartime Syria, Djemal ‘the Butcher’ Pasha (above) brutally suppressed the Arab Revolt and oversaw the massacres of Armenians and Assyrians. Three Armenians shot him in Baku, Azerbaijan on July 21st, 1920.
Enver Pasha (above) was the leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and commander-in-chief of the Ottoman army in WW1. He organised the death squads who perpetrated the genocide. After the war, Enver fled to Central Asia, where he helped lead Turkic rebels against the Soviets. On August 5th, 1922 Red Army cavalry commanded by Hagop Melkumov of Operation Nemesis assailed Pasha’s position. Enver Pasha lost the ensuing fight and died by Melkumov’s hand.
Talat Pasha was the ‘number one” target. As minister of the interior, it was he who issued the resettlement order and proclaimed that for Turkey to prevail, the Armenians had to go. In 1920 he was living in Berlin under a different name.
Shahan Natalie told Tehlirian:
“You blow up the skull of the Number One 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.”
The plan was to make the trial publicise Talat’s crimes.
On March 21st, 1921 Tehlirian did as ordered. He approached Pasha in broad daylight, declared ‘this is for my mother’ and shot him dead. The police arrived immediately and arrested Tehlirian without resistance. When the judge asked if Tehlirian felt remorse, the accused replied:
“I do not consider myself guilty because my conscience is clear. I have killed a man, but I am not a murderer.”
The trial explored whether Talat was responsible for the destruction of innocent Armenians as Tehlirian claimed. German officers present in Turkey during the war testified on his behalf. Tehlirian made a convincing case and within one hour the jury agreed. They acquitted him on grounds of temporary insanity.
Enter Raphael Lemkin. A Polish-Jewish lawyer, he had studied historical atrocities and found their perpetrators were seldom punished. The case of Soghomon Tehlirian fascinated and inspired him. Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ in 1943 as his own family perished in the Holocaust.
In his view, Tehlirian’s actions were justified. “Why is a man punished when he kills another man?” he asked. “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?” In 1948, genocide made international law and was declared a crime against humanity.