The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide
Little, Brown and Company, 2015
This year marks another centennial; one that is going with very little memorial or commemoration, or even much more than a passing nod in the general press. In 1915, using World War I military operations against the Russian Empire as a cover, the Ottoman Empire began a program to systematically wipe out Armenians in their territory.
For various reasons, many countries still haven’t gotten around to calling it what it was: genocide. It’s not like Armenia is really going around demanding reparations or punishment for those responsible. After all, it was a century ago and everyone responsible is dead. In fact, some of those deaths were the direct result of the Armenians themselves.
Bogosian’s book focuses on the main hit: the assassination of Talat Pasha, the head of the Committee for Union and Progress, and one of the triumvirate that ran the Ottoman government during World War I, by engineering student Soghomon Tehlirian. It’s a calm, straightforward biography of Tehlirian and recounting of the killing and his trial. Bogosian is careful not to make him into a hero (he most definitely wasn’t, nor were his “sponsors”); and Pasha is not painted as a villain. Simply giving the details of the genocide is enough. That’s pretty much the strategy used by Tehlirian’s lawyers in his trial, which is why the New York Times announced the verdict with the headline “They Simply Had To Let Him Go!”. It was a clear case of justifiable homicide; and Pasha was under a death sentence from British occupation forces anyway.
But that’s not all the reader gets from Bogosian. Tehlirian’s story is only about half the book. The rest is a good history of Armenia and its people, both before, during, and after the genocide. That in and of itself would make this book welcome. It becomes clear how the overlooking has gone on so long. In some small part because Armenian radical and nationalist groups have been continuing the fight (putting a little bit of blood on their own hands), but largely because there’s no international pressure on Turkey to acknowledge the genocide. The country lies in a vital strategic position between Europe, the Middle East, and what used to be the Soviet Union. When you’re trying to woo them to your side, you’re not going to bring up something Turkey does not want to be reminded of.
And Turkey isn’t going to even so much as say that “The Ottoman Empire, under the guise of warfare, undertook an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of a minority.” Because if they did, every other minority group – Greeks, Kurds, Christians, Jews, etc. – that they’ve been oppressing and persecuting since then will surely stand up and say, “What about us?” It’s not likely that Turkey’s factionalized and barely stable government will be able to cope with that.
Armenia can’t let it go, either. Not that anyone should expect them to, but at this point it’s become too great a part of their national identity. There seems to be an unofficial tacit understanding among most nations that yes, what happened was indeed a genocide in every sense of the term. But that’s it. There’s no call for penalties or punishments. The Armenians took care of that themselves. All that’s really being asked for is to make that unofficial understanding an open acknowledgement.
It’s rather depressing to read that even at the time, the world was made aware that unpardonable atrocities were being committed in eastern Anatolia. You’d have thought we’d have learned just what sort of institutionalized evil human beings can do to other human beings. But as we see from the Nazis and the Jews, Hutus and Tutsis, and ISIS and the Yazidi, we refuse to learn. I’m not optimistic that we ever will….