Why You Should Read: Operation Nemesis, Eric Bogosian
By Luke Frostick
On the 15th of March 1921 Talaat Pasha was assassinated on the streets of Berlin by Soghomon Tehlirian. At his trial, Tehlirian would present himself as a survivor of the Armenian genocide, a man who lost his family and was driven from his homeland by the policies that Talaat Pasha orchestrated. Following the trial, the New York Times would run the title: “They Simply Had to Let Him Go”, so sympathetic was his case and so monstrous the crimes of the Ottoman authorities.
However, what the German court and the editors of the New York Times were seemingly unaware of was that Tehlirian, although a real survivor of the 1915 massacres, was a member of a grand conspiracy of expatriate Armenians and refugees to take revenge on the men that they saw as guilty of the genocide. It was called Operation Nemesis and is the subject of Eric Bogosian’s book of the same name.
The Armenian genocide, its causes, implementation and consequences are covered in other books. Bogosian chooses to focus on the small cabal of survivors and politicians that formed the core of the operation and tell the story of Tehlirian. An Armenian fighting for the Russians in WWI, Tellurian was unaware that only a few hundred miles from him the villages that his fellow Armenians had been living for centuries were being decimated, men conscripted to labour battalions where they would be worked to death, women raped and killed and children sold as ‘servants'.
After the war, the book continues to stay with Tehlirian as he was prepared to assassinate Talaat Pasha. It also sticks with the perpetrators of the genocide, men like Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha as they went into exile from British controlled Turkey and keeps up the narrative of events in Turkey and Armenia.
The plot of the Armenians was sophisticated. Tehlirian was not just selected because he was motivated and his time in the army had taught him the way round a gun, but also because his story was sympathetic. The Tashnags (Armenian revolutionaries) planned for him to get captured by the German authorities and put on trial after the assassination. As Tehlirian’s motivations for the assassinations were judged, the crimes of Talaat Pasha and the regime that he led would be exposed as well. The Tashnags, though terrorists, believed that they were righteous in their operation. They also were operating in a space where the future of Armenia was being decided, squeezed between the expanding Soviet Union, the British-French carve-up of the Middle East and Mustafa Kemal’s war for Turkey. Armenia’s fate as a country was still very much up in the air and those that supported it wanted to draw attention to the genocide to draw sympathy for the new state.
This central narrative makes for as compelling a nonfiction as you could wish for. The events on their own are fascinating without extra embellishment for the purposes of creating drama and Bogosian rightly avoids it. He also doesn’t let the fun spy drama aspect of the book detract from the horrors of the genocide that motivated the conspiracy.
The narrative surrounding Tehlirian and Operation Nemesis is where the book is strongest, bringing to life the conspiracy, its key players and their place in not only Turkish and Armenian history, but also in world history. The events depicted in the book have remarkably far-reaching consequences. For example, if you play around with some counterfactuals, a Turkey where Talaat Pasha hadn’t been killed and Mustafa Kemal was challenged for the leadership of the young republic could look wildly different.
The book starts with a potted history of the Ottoman Empire, which although rather arched in its overview is needed for people not intimately familiar with the empire. It then goes through the details of the Armenian genocide in painful detail both on the large scale and from what Tehlirian’s personal perspective might have looked like. Rightly, Bogosian treats the events of the genocide as fact and does not set out to “prove the genocide happened,” for the same reason a book on the Eichmann trial does not need to prove the existence of the Holocaust. In places it goes in the other direction outlining the steps the Ottoman administration took to cover their tracks. Bogosian also takes that as starting point to trace out as history of Turkish denialism. He is obviously not wrong to raise the rejection of historical fact as a extremely problematic aspect of Turkish political history and modern discourse. However, it is such a huge issue in its own right that just a few chapters at the end doesn’t nearly cover all the complexities that it entails. That being said, I'm never completely convinced that an incentive to do more research is a bad thing in a book.
The weakest sections of the book are in the events after the disbanding of Operation Nemesis. In a few brief chapters, Bogosian powers through a top ten hits of modern Turkish history from the Susurluk incident to the assassination of Hrant Dink (fair enough), to the Gezi Park protests without ever really satisfactory linking these events back to the Assassination Operation Nemesis. Those events each have their own complications and nuances and he doesn’t have the space to go into them. Moreover it doesn’t feel like their inclusion is bulging to any greater point about the Armenian genocide or modern Turkey, they are just there included without much more than a shrug and a “here is another bad thing that happened in Turkey”.
Overall, the core subject of the book is unimpeachable. It works as an account of one person trying to deal with surviving a genocide and to make sense of the world after such a horror rips a life and a nation apart. As a true spy story and as a history of a fascinating but overlooked moment in world history, the book is well worth a read.