Trial of Soghomon Tehlirian

Soghomon Tehlirian
Tehlirian in 1921
Born (1897-04-02)April 2, 1897
Nerkin Pakarich, Vilayet of Erzurum, Ottoman Empire
Died May 23, 1960(1960-05-23) (aged 63)
San Francisco, California, United States
Resting place Ararat Cemetery, Fresno, California
Ethnicity Armenian
Political party Armenian Revolutionary Federation

Soghomon Tehlirian (Armenian: Սողոմոն Թեհլերեան) (April 2, 1897 – May 23, 1960) was an Armenian Genocide survivor who assassinated the former Ottoman Grand Vizir Talaat Pasha in Berlin in the presence of many witnesses on March 15, 1921 as an act of vengeance for Talaat's role in orchestrating the Armenian Genocide. It was a part of the Operation Nemesis by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Earlier, Talaat Pasha was convicted and sentencing to death in absentia by the Turkish Courts-Martial of 1919–1920. Tehlirian was found not guilty by the German court and was freed. Tehlirian is considered a national hero by Armenians.[1][2]


Soghomon Tehlirian was born in the village of Nerkin Bagarij in the Erzurum villayet of Western Armenia in 2 April 1896.[3] Tehlirian's father left for Serbia in order to secure the family's planned move to the country.[3] During his return in 1905, Tehlirian's father was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. During this time, the Tehlirian family moved from Nerkin Bagarij to Erzincan.[3]

Tehlirian received his local education at Protestant secondary school in Erzincan.[3] Having graduated in the Getronagan (Central) Lyceum of Constantinople, Tehlirian continued his studies at the German University to study engineering.[3][4] Due to the start of World War I, Tehlirian was not able to finish his studies and was obliged to return to his native Erzincan.[3]


In June 1915, the Turkish local police ordered the evacuation and deportation of all the Armenians in Erzincan. He along with his mother, three sisters, his sister's husband, his two brothers, and a two-year-old niece were forced to be deported.[5][6] After marching for several hours, they heard gunfire coming and Turkish troops suddenly descended on the deportees.[5] His mother was immediately shot dead.[5] He witnessed his sisters being dragged behind the bushes and raped.[5][6][7][8] Next he watched a man cleave his brother's skull in front of him and then something smashed Tehlirian's head and he was knocked unconscious.[7] Tehlirian was then left for dead on a pile of corpses.[6][8]

After he awoke from unconsciousness, he escaped to Tbilisi where he joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.[3][6] He eventually participated in General Antranik's voluntary military detachments. Tehlirian took part in the volunteer detachment of Sebouh in 1914–17. In 1921 he joined the Operation Nemesis covert assassination operation.


During his eventual trial, Tehlirian claimed that while he was in Germany, he saw his mother in his dreams who scorned her son for seeing Talat Pasha and not having taken revenge yet.[9] During the trial, Tehlirian's dream would be described as follows:[10][11]

He remained calm, and thoughts of vengeance did not occur to him.

He carried on as before until five to six weeks later, when he saw a dream,
materially almost like a vision. His mother’s corpse arose before him. He
told her, “I saw Talaat.” His mother answered, “You saw Talaat and you did
not avenge your mother’s, father’s, brothers’, and sisters’ murders? You are
no longer my son.” This is the moment when the defendant thought, “I have
to do something. I want to be my mother’s son again. She cannot turn me
away when I go to be with her in heaven. I want her to clasp me to her
bosom like before.”
As the doctors explained, the dream ended when he woke up.

Tehlirian's main target was Talat Pasha, who was one of the Three Pashas and a former Minister of the Interior and Grand Vizier and was noted for his responsibility of the Armenian Genocide. As soon as he found out about Talat's address, Tehlirian rented an apartment near his house so that he can study his everyday routine.[3][12] Talaat was killed with a single bullet on 15 March 1921 as he came out of his house in Hardenbergstrasse, Charlottenburg district, Berlin.[8] The assassination, which took place in broad daylight, led to his immediate arrest by German police.[8]


Tehlirian was tried for murder, but was eventually acquitted by the German court. The trial of Tehlirian was a rather sensationalized event at the time, with Tehlirian being defended by three defense attorneys, including Dr. Theodor Niemeyer, professor of Law at Kiel University.

The trial examined not only Tehlirian’s actions but also Tehlirian's conviction that Talaat Pasha was the main author of the Armenian deportation and mass killings. The defense attorneys made no attempt to deny the fact that Tehlirian had killed a man, and instead focused on the influence of the Armenian Genocide on Tehlirian's mental state. When asked by the judge if he felt any sort of guilt, Tehlirian remarked, “I do not consider myself guilty because my conscience is clear…I have killed a man. But I am not a murderer.”[1]

It took the jury slightly over an hour to render a verdict of "not guilty".[1] The "not guilty" verdict of the jury was based on the account of Tehlirian's experience during the Genocide.[6]

Later life

After the assassination, Tehlirian would move to Serbia and eventually marry Anahit Tatikian who was also from Erzincan.[13] During his days in Serbia, Tehlirian was a member of the shooting club and was considered a skilled marksman.[13] The married couple would move to Belgium and live there until 1945, when they would move to San Francisco.[4]

Tehlirian died in 1960 and is buried at the Ararat Massis Armenian Cemetery in Fresno, California. Tehlirian's monument-grave is an obelisk with a gold platted eagle eating a snake on top. It is reported that the original artist of the monument was quoted as saying that the eagle was “...the arm of justice of the Armenian people extending their wrath onto Talaat Pasha,” who was symbolized by the snake.[1] The monument itself is centered in the middle of the cemetery with a walkway made of red brick surrounded by cypress trees.[1]


The trial influenced Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who later reflected on the trial, "Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?"[14]

Hannah Arendt, in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem, compares Tehlirian to Shalom Schwartzbard, who assassinated Ukrainian statesman Simon Petlyura in Paris in 1925 for what Schwartzbard believed to be Petlyura's culpability in the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine. Arendt suggests that each man "insisted on being tried", in order "to show the world through court procedure what crimes against his people had been committed and gone unpunished."[15]

[T]he one in the center of the play, on whom all eyes are fastened, is now the true hero, while at the same time the trial character of the proceedings is safeguarded, because it is not "a spectacle with prearranged results" but contains that element of "irreducible risk" which... is an indispensable factor in all criminal trials. Also, the J'accuse, so indispensable from the viewpoint of the victim, sounds, of course, much more convincing in the mouth of a man who has been forced to take the law into his own hands than in the voice of a government-appointed agent who risks nothing. And yet... it is more than doubtful that this solution would have been justifiable in Eichmann's case, and it is obvious that it would have been altogether unjustifiable if carried out by government agents. The point in favor of Schwartzbard and Tehlirian was that each was a member of an ethnic group that did not possess its own state and legal system, that there was no tribunal in the world to which either group could have brought its victims.[15]

Film adaptation

  • The 1982 American film Assignment Berlin, directed by Hrayr Toukhanian, accurately chronicles Talaat Pasha's assassination in Berlin.
  • The French film Mayrig (1991) by Henri Verneuil depicts Talat's assassination and Tehlirian's trial.
  • Tehlirian's trial was adapted in the Turkish film Blood on the Wall.

See also


Further reading

  • Gary Jonathan Bass. Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. Princeton University Press, 2001
  • Samantha Power. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Harper Perennial, 2007
  • Vartkes Yeghiayan. The Case of Soghomon Tehlirian. Center for Armenian Remembrance; 2nd edition, 2006

External links

  • Trial of Soghomon Tehlirian

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