Tehlirian in 1921
April 2, 1896|
Nerkin Pakarich, Vilayet of Erzurum, Ottoman Empire
|Died||May 23, 1960
San Francisco, California, United States
|Ararat Cemetery, Fresno, California|
|Armenian Revolutionary Federation|
Soghomon Tehlirian (Armenian: Սողոմոն Թեհլերեան (classical), Սողոմոն Թեհլերյան (reformed); April 2, 1896 – May 23, 1960) was an Armenian Genocide survivor who assassinated the former Ottoman Interior Minister Talaat Pasha in Berlin in the presence of many witnesses on March 15, 1921 as an act of vengeance for Talaat's role in orchestrating the Armenian Genocide during World War I. It was a part of the Operation Nemesis by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Even before his assassination, Talaat Pasha had been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by his own Ottoman Empire in the Turkish Courts-Martial of 1919–1920 for his crimes against the Armenians of the Empire (among other things). After a two-day trial Tehlirian was found not guilty by the German court and was freed. Tehlirian is considered a national hero by Armenians.
Soghomon Tehlirian was born in the village of Nerkin Bagarij in the Erzurum villayet of Western Armenia in 2 April 1896. Tehlirian's father left for Serbia in order to secure the family's planned move to the country. During his return in 1905, Tehlirian's father was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. During this time, the Tehlirian family moved from Nerkin Bagarij to Erzincan.
Tehlirian received his local education at Protestant secondary school in Erzincan. Having graduated in the Getronagan (Central) Lyceum of Constantinople, Tehlirian continued his studies at the German University to study engineering. Due to the start of World War I, Tehlirian was not able to finish his studies and was obliged to return to his native Erzincan.
In June 1915, the Ottoman local police ordered the evacuation and deportation of all the Armenians in Erzincan, in the eastern region of the Ottoman Empire. Tehlirian, along with his mother, three sisters, his sister's husband, his two brothers, and a two-year-old niece were deported. After marching for several hours, they heard gunfire coming and Ottoman troops suddenly descended on the deportees. His mother was immediately shot dead. He witnessed his sisters being dragged behind the bushes and raped. Next, he reported that he watched a man cleave his brother's skull in front of him, and that something smashed into his head, knocking him unconscious. Tehlirian was then left for dead on a pile of corpses.
After he awoke from unconsciousness, he escaped to Tbilisi where he joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He eventually participated in General Antranik's voluntary military detachments. Tehlirian took part in the volunteer detachment of Sebouh in 1914–17. In 1921 he joined the Operation Nemesis covert assassination operation.
During his trial, Tehlirian claimed that while he was in Weimar Germany, he saw his mother in his dreams who scorned her son for seeing Talaat Pasha and not having taken revenge yet. During the trial, Tehlirian's dream was described as follows:
He remained calm, and thoughts of vengeance did not occur to him.
He carried on as before until five to six weeks later, when he saw a dream,
materially almost like a vision. His mother’s corpse arose before him. He
told her, “I saw Talaat.” His mother answered, “You saw Talaat and you did
not avenge your mother’s, father’s, brothers’, and sisters’ murders? You are
no longer my son.” This is the moment when the defendant thought, “I have
to do something. I want to be my mother’s son again. She cannot turn me
away when I go to be with her in heaven. I want her to clasp me to her
bosom like before.”
As the doctors explained, the dream ended when he woke up.
Tehlirian's main target was Talaat Pasha, who was a member of the military triumvirate known as the "Three Pashas" who controlled the Ottoman Empire. He was the former Minister of the Interior and Grand Vizier (an office equivalent to that of a prime minister), and was noted for his prominent role in the Armenian Genocide. As soon as he found Talaat Pasha's address, Tehlirian rented an apartment near his house so that he could study his everyday routine. Talaat was killed by Tehlirian with a single bullet on March 15, 1921 as he came out of his house on Hardenbergstrasse, in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. The assassination, which took place in broad daylight and led to Tehlirian's immediate arrest by German police.
Tehlirian was tried for murder, but was eventually acquitted by the German court. His trial was a rather sensationalized event at the time, with Tehlirian being defended by three defense attorneys, including Dr. Theodor Niemeyer, professor of law at Kiel University. Priest and Armenian Genocide survivor Grigoris Balakian, activist Johannes Lepsius, and German commander of the Ottoman armed forces during the war General Liman von Sanders were among several of the prominent individuals called as witnesses to the trial.
The trial examined not only Tehlirian’s actions but also Tehlirian's conviction that Talaat Pasha was the main author of the Armenian deportation and mass killings. The defense attorneys made no attempt to deny the fact that Tehlirian had killed a man, and instead focused on the influence of the Armenian Genocide on Tehlirian's mental state. When asked by the judge if he felt any sort of guilt, Tehlirian remarked, "I do not consider myself guilty because my conscience is clear…I have killed a man. But I am not a murderer."
After the assassination, Tehlirian moved to Serbia and eventually married Anahit Tatikian who was also from Erzincan. During his days in Serbia, Tehlirian was a member of the shooting club and was considered a skilled marksman. The married couple moved to Belgium and lived there until 1945, when they moved to San Francisco, USA.
Tehlirian died in 1960 and is buried at the Ararat Cemetery in Fresno, California. Tehlirian's monument-grave is an obelisk with a gold-plated eagle slaying a snake on top. It is reported that the original artist of the monument was quoted as saying that the eagle was "...the arm of justice of the Armenian people extending their wrath onto Talaat Pasha," who was symbolized by the snake. The monument itself is centered in the middle of the cemetery with a walkway made of red brick surrounded by cypress trees.
The trial influenced Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who later reflected on the trial, "Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?"
Hannah Arendt, in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem, compares Tehlirian to Shalom Schwartzbard, who assassinated Ukrainian statesman Simon Petlyura in Paris in 1925 for what Schwartzbard believed to be Petlyura's culpability in the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine. Arendt suggests that each man "insisted on being tried", in order "to show the world through court procedure what crimes against his people had been committed and gone unpunished."
[T]he one in the center of the play, on whom all eyes are fastened, is now the true hero, while at the same time the trial character of the proceedings is safeguarded, because it is not "a spectacle with prearranged results" but contains that element of "irreducible risk" which... is an indispensable factor in all criminal trials. Also, the J'accuse, so indispensable from the viewpoint of the victim, sounds, of course, much more convincing in the mouth of a man who has been forced to take the law into his own hands than in the voice of a government-appointed agent who risks nothing. And yet... it is more than doubtful that this solution would have been justifiable in Eichmann's case, and it is obvious that it would have been altogether unjustifiable if carried out by government agents. The point in favor of Schwartzbard and Tehlirian was that each was a member of an ethnic group that did not possess its own state and legal system, that there was no tribunal in the world to which either group could have brought its victims.
- The 1982 American film Assignment Berlin, directed by Hrayr Toukhanian, accurately chronicles Talaat Pasha's assassination in Berlin.
- The French film Mayrig (1991) by Henri Verneuil depicts Talat's assassination and Tehlirian's trial.
- Tehlirian's trial was adapted in the Turkish film Blood on the Wall, a largely inaccurate portrayal.
- Vartabedian, Sarah (2007), "Commemoration of an Assassin: Representing the Armenian Genocide," Unpublished University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Thesis, p. 7.
- Von Voss, Huberta (2007). Portraits of Hope: Armenians in the Contemporary World. New York: Berghahn Books. p. 6. ISBN 9781845452575.
- Derogy, Jacques (1990). Resistance and Revenge: The Armenian Assassination of the Turkish Leaders Responsible for the 1915 massacres and deportations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 65. ISBN 9780887383380. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
- "AGMI received rare photos of Soghomon Tehlirian". Genocide Museum. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
- Cummins, Joseph (2006). History's Great Untold Stories: Larger than Life Characters & Dramatic Events that Changed the World. Washington D.C.: National Geographic. p. 301. ISBN 9781426200311.
- Peter, Balakian (2004). The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. New York: Perennial. p. 345. "...he was acquitted on grounds of what today would be termed temporary insanity, when the jury heard the account of his experience in the Armenian Genocide"
- Power, Samantha (2003). A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 9780061120145.
- Totten, Samuel; Bartrop, Paul R. (2008). Dictionary of genocide (1. publ. ed.). Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Greenwood Press. p. 418. ISBN 0313346445.
- Vartabedian, "Commemoration of an Assassin."
- "Official Trial of Soghomon Tehlirian". Cilicia. German Government. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
- Yeghiayan, Vartkes (ed.) (2006). The Case of Soghomon Tehlirian (2nd ed.). Glendale: Center for Armenian Remembrance. ISBN 0977715310.
- "Soghomon Tehlirian". Ararat (Armenian General Benevolent Union of America) 31. 1990. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
- Սողոմոն Թէհլիրեանի Յուշարձանի Պատմականը. Asbarez (in Armenian). 9 January 2012. Retrieved 21 February 2014.
- "Along Armenian Footsteps in Serbia". Armenian Weekly. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
- January, Brendan (2007). Genocide: Modern Crimes Against Humanity. Minneapolis: 21st Century Books, p. 24.
- Arendt, Hannah (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press, pp. 265-66.
- Avakian, Lindy V. (1989). The Cross and the Crescent. Los Angeles: DeVorss. ISBN 0-943247-06-3.
- Bass, Gary Jonathan. Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Ihrig, Stefan. "Genocide Denied, Accepted, and Justified: The Assassination of Talât Pasha and the Subsequent Trial as a Media Event in the Early Weimar Republic," Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies 22 (2013), pp. 153-77.
- Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Harper Perennial, 2003.
- Yeghiayan, Vartkes. The Case of Soghomon Tehlirian. Glendale, CA: Center for Armenian Remembrance; 2nd edition, 2006.
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