Soghom Tehlirian

AGBU Europe Hosts Lectures on International Impact of Armenian Genocide

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BERLIN — An academic initiative sponsored this summer by AGBU Europe, “Ideas & their Consequences: Genocide and International Justice after 1919,” took place on June 3 and 4. Co-sponsored by the Lepsius House in Potsdam, the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) and the Roma organization Phiren Amenca, the series of talks is leading up to an academic conference to be held in late August in Berlin.

The academic conference began on the 100th anniversary of the Tehlirian trial, which followed the assassination of Ottoman Turkish wartime dictator and architect of the Armenian Genocide, Talat Pasha, by Ottoman-born Armenian revolutionary Soghomon Tehlirian. Tehlirian was acquitted of the charges of murder, though it was admitted that he had killed Talat, an outcome which, as the first two speakers reminded us, had vast implications for international human rights law.

Soghomon Tehlirian

The first two speakers were Dr. Rolf Hosfeld of the Lepsius House and Dr. Stefan Ihrig of the University of Haifa. Both are authorities on the relations between Germany and Turkey during the First World War, including the history of the Armenian Genocide. Both talks were conducted via Zoom and introduced by members of the AGBU Europe team in France. They are available to view on YouTube.

Hosfeld: Tehlirian and International Law

Hosfeld’s lecture focused in on the Soghomon Tehlirian trial and examined its implications for international law. Tehlirian’s trial, though little known today in the Western world, is a key reference in Hannah Arendt’s well-known book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” where the question is explored of how crimes against humanity can be punished when the customary rules of legal jurisdiction have to be foregone in order to do so. f

Stefan Ihrig

Tehlirian’s trial, pointed out Hosfeld, was a politically engineered event on the part of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Operation Nemesis group under the leadership of Shahan Natalie. Tehlirian was sent to kill Talat and specifically to surrender to the police in order to be put on trial for murder. The trial was seen by the Armenian conspirators as an opportunity for the facts of the Armenian Genocide to be proven in a Western court of law. The defense attorneys essentially argued that Tehlirian had been driven to temporary insanity by the experience of witnessing the massacre of his family, which necessitated testimony regarding the atrocities committed against the Armenians by the Ottoman government and the fact that Talat was ultimately responsible for those atrocities. Despite the fact that Tehlirian had actually been fighting on the Russian side when the massacres started, he was highly familiar with what had happened to families like his, and his invented testimony was corroborated as an accurate description of the massacres by German eyewitnesses who commented on the trial.

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German, American, and British papers at the time carried the news of the trial and commentators inside and outside the courtroom observed that the trial had become more about the actions of Talat, the ostensible victim, rather than the defendant, Tehlirian. In telling the story, Hosfeld also graces us with many little known facts, such as the Germano-British political games that led up to the assassination (both countries were well aware that Talat was hiding in Berlin) and the fact that one Mehmet Zeki Bey along with his comrades of the Turkish Club in Berlin actually opposed the actions of the Committee of Union and Progress and published an extensive document listing and denouncing Talat’s crimes.

Dr. Rolf Hosfeld

In regard to international law, Hosfeld also noted the fact that prior to the coinage of the word “Genocide,” the phrase “Crimes Against Humanity” was already being used, and that the Tehlirian trial was one of the first times it was used in a judicial setting. A young Raphael Lemkin was following the trial and was troubled by the fact that it appeared typical legal rules had to be flouted in order to punish the perpetrator of the most heinous atrocities imaginable. This became the impetus for Lemkin, when he saw the same thing happening to his own people, to push for a new category of crime: Genocide, a word he coined. The ratification of the Genocide Convention was Lemkin’s brainchild and the punishment of the Nazi commanders at the Nuremberg Trials was ultimately based on an international law theory he had begun to develop after being upset with the unsatisfactory way that Tehlirian’s attorneys and the pro-Armenian side had to proceed in the Tehlirian trial.

Importance of Armenian Genocide to World History

After listening to Ihrig’s talk, Hosfeld’s, while informative, seemed like an introduction. Ihrig spoke on many of the same issues that Hosfeld brought up, but in a more expansive way. His main purpose was to show that the Armenian Genocide was an extremely consequential event not only for Armenian and Turkish history, but for World History, and to explain the vast consequences of this event that Armenians sometimes see as their own issue.

Armenians are often heard stating that the Armenian Genocide was the first of the 20th century and was the precursor to the Holocaust, but aside from Hitler’s alleged phrase “who today remembers the Armenians?” the actual historical connection has been little studied and is little known to Armenians — no matter how educated — alone to the rest of the world.

Ihrig showed decisively that the Armenian Genocide did in fact pave the way for the Holocaust and explained exactly how that happened. Trivia facts like Hitler’s quote and the phrase “first Genocide of the 20th century” are a bit irrelevant as far as Ihrig is concerned. Hitler’s quote, while shown to be legitimate by Kevork Bardakjian, is still debated, and the first Genocide of the 20th century was actually committed by German colonialists against the Hereros of South-West Africa. But after listening to Ihrig’s discourse, one will realize the massive impact the Armenian Genocide really did have and these questionably true trivia facts become just that.

Ihrig showed that while atrocities against the Hereros and other peoples deemed less than equal by European colonizers were a matter of intense debate, it was the Armenian Genocide that really turned mass murder into a philosophical and moral quandary for Europeans. Explaining the European outlook of the time in a non-offensive way, Ihrig noted that it is unfortunate that Germans did not consider tribal Africans as equal human beings, but that is indeed how they were viewed. On the other hand, Ihrig argues, Germans essentially did view Armenians as their equals. After all, they were Christian and highly Westernized. This meant that the slaughter of the Armenians in 1894-1896 and 1915-1918 had to be made sense of, as opposed to the African peoples who could be ignored. Because Germany was pro-Turkish in the 1890s and early 20th century, and because the two countries were allies in the First World War, a public debate erupted in the German press after the end of the war as to how to view and respond to the Armenian massacres. Just as Germany reacted to the imputation of war guilt and the Allied demands for reparations, they also reacted to the Allied condemnation of their wartime ally Turkey, though this is little known today.

Ultimately, in the German public discourse, extreme right-wing voices tried to justify the extermination of the Armenians by depicting them as a war-profiteering, fifth-columnist, shrewd traitor race within the Ottoman Empire who didn’t contribute to Turkish society. These were the same tropes that had been used since the 19th century to denigrate the Jews, and would be used again under the Nazis to justify Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Ihrig presents the postwar debate about the Armenian Genocide as a turning point for European modernity where the Germans accepted racist, pseudo-scientific, and anti-Semitic narratives as not only a way to blame the Jews for their problems — or the Armenians for the problems of the Turks — but as a justification for mass murder. The victims were the Armenians, in the past tense, but once the door was opened, the same arguments would be used to justify Hitler’s reign of terror. The same far-right streams of thought that existed in Germany in the early 1920s were, of course, the same streams of thought that would create and feed into the Nazi movement in the same decade.

Ihrig also points out the importance of the Armenian Genocide in other aspects of human rights issues. It was the Talat Pasha assassination, he noted, and the Armenian case in general, that inspired Raphael Lemkin to formulate the legal definition of genocide and fight for its recognition in international law after the Second World War and in response to the Holocaust. Franz Werfel’s well known novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, was written as memorialization of the Armenian Genocide, but its immediate context was the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party to power in Germany. Werfel, touring the country just before Hitler became chancellor, read to audiences excerpts of the book depicting Enver Pasha’s rise to power as a warning to the public against the danger of Nazi rule. Ihrig notes that the novel was extremely popular in the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere among Jews under the Third Reich. While reading the book gave some Jews courage and inspired resistance to the regime, others were disillusioned, thinking that if the Western world hadn’t even come to the aid of the Christian Armenians, there was little hope for the Jews.

Raphael Lemkin

Ihrig’s takeaway, though he actually mentions it at the beginning of his talk, is that the Armenian Genocide needs to be integrated into the general history narrative because of its importance and stressing the above points, in order to tie it in with general European and World History. The conclusion can be made in an American context, that the World History curriculum in high schools needs to be adapted not just to give a day or so on the Armenian Genocide as an extra and extraneous topic, but to incorporate it into the historical narrative as the important and highly relevant topic that it is, having causes that are major world events and consequences that are other major world events (like the Holocaust).

Ihrig’s argument is that the Armenian Genocide has not attained the status it deserves in the Western world’s historical self-image because of a sort of chilling effect caused by the continued activity of the denialists. Like some kind of worldwide gaslighting campaign, Turkey and its army of denialists have sown doubt into the heart of the average historical generalist, and even the average historian of the First World War, and caused writers to shy away from including the Armenian case in their historical analysis on the chance that it might not have really happened and that if it did, it probably wasn’t that important anyway. According to Ihrig, that could not be further from the truth — not only for Armenians, but for all world citizens.

Both lectures were followed by question and answer sessions moderated by the AGBU-affiliated organizers. They can be watched at https://www.genocideandjusticeafter1919.com/videos.

Dr. S

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