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Talat’s Assassin Speaks: Tehlirian’s Memoir Revisited

Session VII-07, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Soghomon Tehlirian (1896-1960) moved through many worlds during the course of his life. His status as an Ottoman citizen notwithstanding, upon the outbreak of the First World War he, along with a number of other Ottoman Armenians, decided to join the Russian side and enroll in a volunteer battalion that would take part in the ferocious military campaigns on the Caucasus Front. Genocide, revolution, and imperial collapse in Anatolia and Russia set him down a path in search of the individuals responsible for orchestrating the wartime murder of the Ottoman Armenian population and members of his immediate family. His six-year-long odyssey led him from the back alleyways of Allied-occupied Istanbul to Roaring 20s-era New York City, and culminated finally in Berlin, when in March 1921 he approached the former Ottoman grand vezir and the architect of the Armenian massacres, Talat Pasha, and shot and killed him in broad daylight. His subsequent trial and astonishing acquittal by a German jury would go down as a landmark case study on justice and international criminal law. Tehlirian recounted his remarkable journey from frontline soldier to a member of a clandestine postwar assassination unit in harrowing yet moving prose in his memoirs, which first appeared in Armenian in 1953. Coinciding with the memoir’s forthcoming publication in English, this panel seeks to bring the worlds that Tehlirian traversed across into greater focus and coherence by addressing some of the broader themes and problems that emerged during his time. Placed in conversation with recent scholarship on the Ottoman First World War, postwar international diplomacy, nations and empires, and the relationship between justice, truth, and fabulation, the panelists’ papers illustrate the tensions that arose between Christians and Muslims amidst the Russo-Ottoman clash, the consequences of Allied policies after the war, and the radicalization of politics in the Middle East that presaged the twentieth century’s age of extremes. Alternately examining the subjective experiences and motivations of the Ottoman Armenians who decided to enter the ranks of the Russian army, Allied policies toward the defeated Ottoman Empire, the coverage of Talat’s death by Istanbul's Ottoman Turkish press, and the supernatural elements in Tehlirian’s memoir, the papers open a wide window onto Ottoman and European politics, society, and the major questions of Tehlirian’s era as people migrated or moved, nations and empires disintegrated and were remade, and a new world began to take shape.
  • n the opening stages of the First World War, the Imperial Russian Army Command, anticipating the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers, authorized the formation of several volunteer infantry battalions (known as druzhiny) composed entirely of Armenians that would fight alongside the regular Russian army in the Caucasus and Anatolia. That these units drew their strength not only from Armenians living in Russia, but significantly among Ottoman-subject Armenians as well has long roiled the scholarship on the Russo-Ottoman clash during the Great War and, more urgently, the sequence of events leading to the Ottoman state’s decision in the spring of 1915 to order the systematic destruction of the Ottoman Armenian community. Yet for all the attention the establishment of the druzhiny has garnered, our understanding of why Ottoman Armenians like Soghomon Tehlirian flocked to the Russian colors remains rather rudimentary and weighed down by narrow definitions of nationalism and loyalty. This paper situates the formation of the Armenian druzhiny within the complex socio-political environment of the Russo-Ottoman borderlands in the prewar years and the novel and extraordinarily unique dimensions of the First World War. It uses letters, reports, petitions, and memoranda in the Russian and Armenian archives, drawn up by both Ottoman and Russian Armenian community leaders, Russian statesmen and military commanders, as well as memoirs and newspapers, to, first, examine the multivalent factors that compelled many Ottoman Armenians to enlist in the ranks of the volunteer battalions. It argues that ethnic and religious identities did not always necessarily reflect soldiers’ political dispositions and that those notions, together with loyalty, treason, and nationalism, be reconsidered in light of other exigent circumstances. Their decisions provide the context to the paper’s second aim to trace the passage of these men through the crucible of total war in the Russo-Ottoman bloodlands. The culture of violence born amidst prolonged fighting, occupation, and ethnic cleansing altered and shaped anew the men of the druzhiny and would color the political disorder the peoples of the Ottoman Empire would bear witness to well after war’s end.
  • In the living room of his Besiktas apartment, surrounded by a group of jovial men and women, Harutyun Megerdichian collapsed into his chair, blood streaming from his chest. Taken to the hospital, he died there the next day. Soghmon Tehlirian had fired a gun through the large window facing the street. He had hit his target and put an unexpected end to the dinner party. This paper draws on the Istanbul and the international press, archival material, and personal memoirs to investigate the political reckoning unfolding in Occupied Istanbul. It takes the murder of Megerdichian, an “informant” to the Unionist regime during the war, as a crucial touchstone of postwar debate. It suggests that beyond the trials of the wartime cabinet, Occupied Istanbul became an arena of political reckoning and settling score. The Azerbaijani politician Behbud Khan was shot and killed in front of the Pera Palace Hotel in 1921. The same year, Megerdichian’s assassin, Tehlirian, tracked down and killed Talat in Berlin. This paper explores the various responses and reactions in Occupied Istanbul to the string of political assassinations that followed the armistice.
  • Before the idea of minority rights gained traction at the Paris Peace Conference, numerous editorials appeared in Istanbul newspapers on the subject of Ottoman ethnic and religious minorities (akalliyetler). The pervasiveness of the minority question in the press was tied to debates on the future composition of the state in the aftermath of nearly a decade of continuous warfare and the total destruction of the prewar social order. Arguments about minorities were intertwined with an understanding of how Ottoman institutions and legal structures had operated from the 1880s through the First World War—especially those imposed by European states that had limited state sovereignty. Newspaper editors and commentators focused on two types of legal and administrative exception that had operated in the prewar empire: the autonomous or “exceptional provinces” (eyalat-ı mümtaze) and non-Muslim “privileges” (imtiyazat). While the postwar Ottoman government publicly endorsed the extension of administrative autonomy to the Arab provinces on the model of the pre-war “exceptional provinces,” the status of special rights for non-Muslims was far more contentious. This paper examines some of the threads of the early debates on the minority question in the Ottoman Turkish press, from the beginning of the Armistice in late October of 1918, through the Greek invasion and occupation of İzmir/Smyrna in May of 1919. It focuses on the liberal opposition to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), who many liberals blamed for the general depredations of the war, and especially for the murder and destruction of the Ottoman Armenian community. Writing under the shadow of genocide, Ottoman liberals grappled with the question of how rebuild the empire and remake the body politic in the aftermath of total war and, at the same time, struggled with devising ways to limit European interference in Ottoman affairs. As it became clear that Allies would partition the empire, Istanbul intellectuals abandoned any commitment to special rights for non-Muslims and the empire itself. This paper shows how debates in the press closely followed those in Paris and will provide part of the Istanbul and Paris context for panel’s larger Tehlirian story.
  • Soghomon Tehlirian was acquitted in Berlin in 1921 for the killing of Talat Paşa, Ottoman minister and architect of the Armenian Genocide. Reading Tehlirian’s memoir, which first appeared in Armenian in 1953, in the “speculative” mode (Kazanjian 2016), this paper challenges clear-cut distinctions between the medical discourse of insanity and the legal discourse of intentionality, between revenge and justice, and between truth and fabulation. Inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s call (2008) for critical fabulation, I move beyond the designation of Tehlirian as mere political assassin or self-evident moral witness and consider him instead as an empirical fabulist. I follow Tehlirian’s mother’s ghost as the spectral figure that hovers over both Tehlirian and the critic in the path towards a greater understanding of truth, revenge and retribution when the collective experience of violence exceeds the limits of the genre of personal testimony and when justice is not served within normative legal frameworks.