Chapter Excerpt

A Problem from Hell
America and the Age of Genocide

"Race Murder"

Trial by Fire

On March 14, 1921, on a damp day in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, a twenty-four-year-old Armenian crept up behind a man in a heavy gray overcoat swinging his cane. The Armenian, Soghomon Tehlirian, placed a revolver at the back of the man's head and pulled the trigger, shouting, "This is to avenge the death of my family!" The burly target crumpled. If you had heard the shot and spotted the rage distorting the face of the young offender, you might have suspected that you were witnessing a murder to avenge a very different kind of crime. But back then you would not have known to call the crime in question "genocide." The word did not yet exist.

Tehlirian, the Armenian assassin, was quickly tackled. As pedestrians beat him with their fists and house keys, he shouted in broken German," I foreigner, he foreigner, this not hurt Germany ... It's nothing to do with you."

It was national justice carried out in an international setting. Tehlirian had just murdered Mehmed Talaat, the former Turkish interior minister who had set out to rid Turkey of its Armenian "problem." In 1915 Talaat had presided over the killing by firing squad, bayoneting, bludgeoning, and starvation of nearly 1 million Armenians.

The outside world had known that the Armenians were at grave risk well before Talaat and the Young Turk leadership ordered their deportation. When Turkey entered World War I on the side of Germany against Britain, France, and Russia, Talaat made it clear that the empire would target its Christian subjects. In January 1915, in remarks reported by the New York Times, Talaat said that there was no room for Christians in Turkey and that their supporters should advise them to clear out. By late March Turkey had begun disarming Armenian men serving in the Ottoman army. On April 25, 1915, the day the Allies invaded Turkey, Talaat ordered the roundup and execution of some 250 leading Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. In each of Turkey's six eastern provinces, local Armenian notables met roughly the same fate. Armenian men in rural areas were initially enlisted as pack animals to transport Turkish supplies to the front, but soon even this was deemed too dignified an existence for the traitorous Christians. Churches were desecrated. Armenian schools were closed, and those teachers who refused to convert to Islam were killed. All over Anatolia the authorities posted deportation orders requiring the Armenians to relocate to camps prepared in the deserts of Syria. In fact, the Turkish authorities knew that no facilities had been prepared, and more than half of the deported Armenians died on the way. "By continuing the deportation of the orphans to their destinations during the intense cold," Talaat wrote, "we are ensuring their eternal rest."

"Official proclamations," like this one from June 1915, cropped up around town:

Our Armenian fellow countrymen, ... because ... they have ... attempted to destroy the peace and security of the Ottoman state, ... have to be sent away to places which have been prepared in the interior ... and a literal obedience to the following orders, in a categorical manner, is accordingly enjoined upon all Ottomans:

  • With the exception of the sick, all Armenians are obliged to leave within five days from the date of this proclamation ...
  • Although they are free to carry with them on their journey the articles of their movable property which they desire, they are forbidden to sell their land and their extra effects, or to leave them here and there with other people ...

    The Young Turks -- Talaat; Enver Pasha, the minister of war; and Djemal Pasha, the minister of public works -- justified the wholesale deportation of the Armenians by claiming that it was necessary to suppress Armenian revolts.

    When Russia had declared war on Turkey the previous year, it had invited Armenians living within Turkey to rise up against Ottoman rule, which a small minority did. Although two prominent Ottoman Armenians led a pair of czarist volunteer corps to fight Turkey, most expressed loyalty to Constantinople. But this did not stop the Turkish leadership from using the pretext of an Armenian "revolutionary uprising" and the cover of war to eradicate the Armenian presence in Turkey. Very few of those killed were plotting anything other than survival. The atrocities were carried out against women, children, and unarmed men. They were not incidental "by-products" of war but in fact resulted from carefully crafted decisions made by Turkey's leaders. In June 1915 Erzindjan, the hometown of Talaat's eventual assassin, was emptied. Soghomon Tehlirian, then nineteen, marched in a column of some 20,000 people, with his mother and siblings -- two sisters of fifteen and sixteen, another of twenty-six who carried a two-and-a-half-year-old child, and two brothers of twenty-two and twenty-six.The journey was harrowing. The gendarmes said to be protecting the convoy first dragged Tehlirian's sisters off behind the bushes to rape them. Next he watched a man split his twenty-two-year-old brother's head open with an ax. Finally, the soldiers shot his mother and struck Tehlirian unconscious with a blow to the head. He was left for dead and awoke hours later in a field of corpses. He spotted the mangled body of a sister and the shattered skull of his brother. His other relatives had disappeared. He guessed he was the sole survivor of the caravan ...

    A Problem from Hell
    America and the Age of Genocide
    . Copyright © by Samantha Power. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

    Excerpted from A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power
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