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Operation Nemesis
Dr. Sabine Mangold-Will / History
Photo: Private

Operation Nemesis:

Assassination of the former Ottoman Minister of the Interior in Berlin
Interview with apl. Professorin Dr. Sabine Mangold-Will

On March 15, 1921 Soghomon Tehlirian shot the former Ottoman Interior Minister Talât Pasha on behalf of an Armenian secret commando in Hardenbergstraße in Berlin-Charlottenburg. What was the reason for this?

Mangold-Will: For Tehlirian and the Armenian secret organization to which he belonged, the reason was obvious: Mehmet Talât Pasha was already considered by contemporaries to be the main perpetrator of the persecution and murder of Christian minorities, especially Armenians and Greeks, in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Talât, along with War Minister Enver and Navy Minister Cemal, had formed the center of power in the Ottoman Empire since 1913. He was one of the leading political figures of the nationalist "Committee for Unity and Progress," which was oppositional until 1908 and sought the complete Turkification of the Ottoman Empire. As minister of the interior, Talât was largely responsible for the concrete implementation of a population and persecution policy aimed at the radical decimation of non-Turkish populations in the Ottoman Empire.

The murder of the Ottoman interior minister was an act that went under the code name "Operation Nemesis". What stood behind it?

Mangold-Will: "Nemesis" wanted - as the name already indicates - revenge: revenge for a crime that we today adequately capture with the term genocide. Talât had already been sentenced to death by an Ottoman court in 1919 in the Istanbul trials held under Allied occupation - but in absentia, so that the sentence could not be carried out. Operation Nemesis was organized by the Dashnaks, an Armenian nationalist and socialist party founded in 1890 and usually referred to in English-language literature as the "Armenian Revolutionary Federation." The Dashnaks already maintained paramilitary units during the World War to establish an armed resistance of Ottoman Armenians.

The persecution and murder of an estimated 300,000 to 1.4 million Armenians was the first genocide of the 20th century. In his book "Operation Nemesis" Rolf Hosfeld, a cultural scientist and director of the Lepsius House in Potsdam, takes on this topic. He states that the systematic extermination of the Armenians after 1915 was only possible in the shadow of war and de facto took place under the protection of the alliance with the German Empire. Why did the German Empire stand idly by?

Mangold-Will: The answer lies in your question: Germany had been allied with the Ottoman Empire since 1914 and regarded the stability of the Oriental front as decisive for the war. The German argument was composed of at least two elements: German diplomats viewed the treatment of Christian minorities as a matter of domestic policy for the Ottoman Empire. The German military in the Ottoman Empire also accepted the Ottoman government's declaration that the Armenians represented a (military) threat to the internal and external stability of the Ottoman Empire. Imperial Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg has been quoted as saying: "Our only goal is to keep Turkey at our side until the end of the war, regardless of whether Armenians perish or not. If the war lasts longer, we will still need the Turks very much." This explains the motives of the German Empire. Incidentally, there were voices from German diplomacy and the military on the ground, as well as private individuals, such as the Protestant theologian Johannes Lepsius, who pointed out the crimes of the Young Turks behind the scenes or in public and called for a stop.

Talât Pasha fled the Ottoman Empire as early as the end of 1918 in a nocturnal action and, with German help, made his way to Berlin, where he was able to live largely unmolested on Hardenbergstrasse. Why did the Germans help him?

Mangold-Will: The Ottoman Empire was the ally of the German Empire for four years. The former partners saw it as their duty to protect the Ottoman leadership from the Allies' grasp. Sentencing the Ottomans under "victors' justice" seemed to them a portent for their own future. Moreover, the new political elite of the young Weimar Republic was by no means happy about the presence of Talât and other Young Turk refugees; but it never officially questioned the asylum. This was also due to the fact that the majority of Weimar society rejected a legal condemnation of the allies as well as of its own responsible persons of the years before 1918.

In the trial before the Berlin Regional Court III, the jury acquitted the defendant Tehlirian. Why?

Mangold-Will: One of the trial observers, the Wuppertal writer and pacifist Armin T. Wegner, who had spent the war as a medical officer in the Ottoman Empire, called the trial against Tehlirian a "tribunal of humanity," a "judgment of world-historical significance". For although the prosecutor refused to address Talat's responsibility in court, the jury was certainly impressed by the charges against him. Legally, however, the acquittal was based on a finding that the perpetrator's culpability was diminished. The jury believed the murderer to have been a direct victim of persecution and to have witnessed the murder of his family. Even there were contemporary indications that Tehlirian was a politically motivated assassin.

The Armenian genocide remains a controversial topic to this day. A resolution introduced to the Bundestag in 2016 by the CDU/CSU, SPD and Grünen states: "The Bundestag regrets the inglorious role of the German Empire, which, as the main military ally of the Ottoman Empire, did not attempt to stop these crimes against humanity despite clear information, including from German diplomats and missionaries, about the organized expulsion and extermination of the Armenians." Therefore the commemoration of the Bundestag is also an expression of special respect. The Turkish Republic, on the other hand, which even under Erdogan's government continues to see itself as part of Europe, has never apologized to the Armenians for the atrocities. Why do governments not face up to their responsibilities at all, or only very belatedly?

Mangold-Will: The delayed political confrontation with the Armenian genocide in Germany is easy to explain: The persecution of Christians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I understandably took a back seat in the Federal Republic of Germany to the much more pressing task of coming to terms with the Shoah. The Turkish Republic, on the other hand, explicitly refuses to recognize the atrocities as genocide to this day because it has never fundamentally distanced itself from the Young Turks' policy of Turkification during the First World War. Moreover, it fears Armenian demands for reparations. The European Parliament, meanwhile, spoke of the Armenian genocide as early as 1987. There are now statements comparable to the German parliamentary resolution in many, mainly European countries, such as France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.

Uwe Blass (Interview on January 4, 2021)


Dr. Sabine Mangold-Will studied history, political science and Islamic studies at Saarland University. An adjunct professor at the University of Cologne, she is also a private lecturer in modern and contemporary history at the University of Wuppertal.