A Beautiful Crime: Soghomon Tehlirian and the Birth of the Concept of Genocide

Soghomon’s Revenge

On the morning of March 15, 1921, at approximately 10:45 a.m., Mehmet Talaat, the former Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, leaves his home with the intention of purchasing gloves. He has been living in Berlin on 4 Hardenbergstrasse for more than two years, a city he has fled to following the defeat of Turkey in the First World War. Germany has granted him asylum as compensation for having been an ally during the World War.

Not long after, Talaat passes a young man, who looks at him calmly, staring at him as though recognizing an image that has been engraved in his memory. The young man turns around and fires a shot. Talaat is killed immediately and his body remains fallen in front of a house on 27 Hardenbergstrasse. The police arrive quickly after hearing the cries of witnesses. The young man tries to walk away, however the crowd that has gathered catches up to him and begins beating him.

The incident causes a great uproar.

The murdered man had been one of the strongest rulers in the world not long ago. The killing committed in broad daylight was unheard of in its boldness. At first, Greece and Great Britain were suspected of the crime, but it was later revealed that “Turkey’s Bismarck” and “the great statesman and faithful friend” (as it was written on the funeral wreath by Germany’s Foreign Ministry) was assassinated by a young Armenian student, Soghomon Tehlirian. However, during the trial that took place on June 2-3, 1921, another even more terrible crime was revealed. Facts were disclosed that shook German society to its core.

It emerged that the murder victim had been the mastermind behind the design and execution of a mass murder. Because of his diabolical plan, an entire Christian nation, the Armenians, were brutally exterminated. German society, unaware of what had transpired was horrified. Newspapers that at first were hostile toward Soghomon began to justify his actions and one of them even called Soghomon the “Armenian William Tell.” Those attending the trial would note that the testimonies of the witnesses began to put not Soghomon Tehlirian, but rather Talaat Pasha on trial.

Trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, 1921.
S. Tehlirian, Memories [Terrorizing Taleat], written down by Vahan Minakhorian, Cairo, 1953.  Source 

On June 3, 1921, the judge and jury deemed that Tehlirian was in an “unconscious state” during the commission of the crime and committed the act at a “time of mental turmoil.” Tehlirian was acquitted and walked away a free man from the courthouse. According to the experts who testified, Tehlirian’s actions were conditioned by the “manifest remembrance of a traumatic experience.” The psychological problems had surfaced because of the horrors he had witnessed when the members of his entire family were slaughtered before his very eyes, his sisters raped. Soghomon had been saved by being buried under the corpses of slaughtered Armenians. Based on the conclusion of the Medical Council and the decision by the jury, the judge in Tehlirian’s trial had declared him not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity.

Tehlirian’s actions and the verdict were mythologized. Soghomon became the embodiment of the struggle against injustice and the horrific crime committed against an entire people. Books were written and songs composed about him. It also had a certain healing effect, not only for Soghomon, but for an entire nation. Soghomon recalled that his repeated epileptic seizures stopped after the murder of Talaat on that early morning in March 1921. At the same time, the Armenian people, engulfed by the horror of the Great Tragedy was gifted a glorious narrative, one which was possible to remember and revere. Tehlirian’s actions were considered a redemption – the main criminal behind the Great Tragedy received his worthy punishment. An entire nation that had been slaughtered and victimized was in some measure assuaged by this heroic act.

Excerpt from the trial:

Closing arguments by Defense Attorney Kurt Niemeyer:
The Armenian nation, from thousands of years ago down to its youngest child, stands behind Tehlirian.

Tehlirian carries with him in his thoughts the flag of justice, the flag of humanity, and the flag of vengeance to uphold the honor of his sisters and relatives. With all these thoughts in mind he confronts the one person who violated his family’s honor, destroyed the well-being and hap-

piness of millions of people, and physically annihilated a whole nation.

The defendant became a psychologically disturbed person. You, gentlemen of the jury, have to decide what went on in his mind at the time of the killing and whether he was in control of his will.

An Important Witness to the Trial

However, that murder in Berlin had far reaching repercussions and consequences not only for the Armenians. Robert Kempner, who was a law student in Berlin at the time, was present during Tehlirian’s hearing. The matter had fascinated him and several years later, he took part in the 1924 trial of Nazi Party member Wilhelm Frick for his role in the attempted overthrow of the German government, known as the Beer Hall Putsch. At the time, Kempner, proposed to legally dissolve the Nazi Party. It’s unclear how the wheel of history would have turned, if he had been able to succeed in his objective.

After the Nazi Party came to power, Kempner, because of his Jewish heritage was sent to a concentration camp for some time and later was forced to flee the country, eventually immigrating to the United States. He returned to his birthplace only after another trial was held for another crime against humanity – the Nuremberg Trials that prosecuted the Nazis. This time, Kempner was serving as assistant U.S. Chief Counsel. He played a key role in the military tribunal, heading the Defense Rebuttal Section, which was responsible for countering the strategies of the defense team and preparing cross-examinations – something he did brilliantly, being a well-versed scholar of the German legal system.

A Crime Without a Name

Soghomon Tehlirian’s trial also interested Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish student studying linguistics at the University of Lviv. Born in Poland, Lemkin had heard the story of the Armenian avenger and wanted to satisfy his curiosity regarding the incident. He was deeply shaken when one of his professors explained that if there was an applicable legal arrangement in the murder of one man, there were no clear legal formulations for the murder of millions. International law, which referred to the annihilation of an ethnic, racial or religious group simply did not exist. His conversation with his professor has been preserved:

Lemkin: “Why did the Armenians not have Talaat arrested for the massacre?”

Professor: “There was no law under which he could be arrested. Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”

Lemkin: “It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men? This is most inconsistent.”

Raphael’s discomfort became more acute when in 1921, the British Command decided to set free Ottoman military criminals being kept on the island of Malta, who were awaiting their punishment, including also for realizing the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman prisoners were exchanged with 22 Brits, who had been captured during the growing nationalist movement in Turkey led by Mustafa Kemal.

Lemkin’s interest in these issues finally forced him to leave his promising career as a linguist and make the transition to the study of law.

The Case of Shalom Schwarzbard and the Convention

In 1921, Shalom Schwarzbard, a Jewish tailor in Paris, assassinated Ukrainian national leader Symon Petliura, who had organized the pogrom of thousands of Jews in 1918. The case was similar to Soghomon’s. Shalom’s parents had also been victims of the massacre. Petliura’s murder had taken place in a European capital. The murderer stood before the court and disclosed all the horrors that had befallen his people. The court was once again before a dilemma – morality and legality in conflict with one another. The same solution was applied. The young Jew was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity.

Lemkin, who was now a student at law school begins to think more seriously about the need for an international law punishing the wholesale annihilation of groups of people, because aside from that deep concern he had for the issue, he was also concerned about the recurring cases of men taking revenge into their own hands. Why should Soghomon Tehlirian and Shalom Schwarzbard take the law into their own hands?

“He had acted as the self-appointed legal officer for the conscience of mankind. But can a man appoint himself to mete out justice? Will not passion sway such a form of justice and make a travesty of it? At that moment, my worries about the murder of the innocent became more meaningful to me. I didn’t know all the answers but I felt that a law against this type of racial or religious murder must be adopted by the world,” Raphael Lemkin wrote in his autobiography. After Schwarzbard’s trial in 1927, Lemkin authored an article where he wrote that he “deplored the absence of any law for the unification of moral standards in relation to the destruction of national, racial and religious groups.” He called Schwarzbard’s act a “beautiful crime.”

Lemkin devoted his whole life to the eradication of this injustice. Years would pass with fruitless efforts, different versions of a law that was never adopted, the Jewish Holocaust that wiped out his entire family, the coining a new word – Genocide, the disillusionment with the Nuremberg Trials when the word “Genocide” was not included in the text of the verdict, his relentless and untiring lobby for the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide at the UN. That day, hours after the conclusion of the UN General Assembly that adopted the Convention, journalists would find Raphael Lemkin sitting motionless, tears streaming from his eyes.

And 27 years earlier, on the morning of March 15, 1921 at approximately 10:45 a.m., a young Armenian by the name of Soghomon Tehlirian in front of a house on 27 Hardenbergstrasse would find Talaat, look at his face, pass him by, turn around and fire a shot…

Kempner was also responsible for discovering the minutes of the Wannsee Protocol, a key document of the Holocaust. Later, he represented many Jews in numerous lawsuits lodged against Germany for restitution. He also took part in the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main organizers of the Holocaust.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tehlirian family, first one on the left is 12-year-old Soghomon, Yerznka, 1908. Ara Oskanyan’s family archive. source 
In the center: Soghomon Tehlirian’s father and uncle, from left to the right: Oskian, Khachatur, Asatur.
First on the right: Soghomon Tehlirian, in front of him Armenuhi, Misak’s daughter. Ara Oskanyan’s family archive. source 
Ticket-certificate of Soghomon Tehlirian’s release from prison, June 3, 1921.
Armenian Revolutionary Federation History Museum . Source 
Robert M. W. Kempner when he was a prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1946. source
Raphael Lemkin, 1951.  Photo from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.