As a result of the world’s inability to criminally punish the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, the Ninth World Congress of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation made the decision to track down and execute the most culpable Ottoman leaders in a covert undertaking called Operation Nemesis. By the end of 1922 dozens of top Turkish leaders were extra-judicially brought to justice.
Understanding the chain of events which led to Nemesis offers important insight to the current difficulties faced by Armenians to achieve reparations and restitution for the crimes committed by Ottoman Turkey.
Post World War I
As early as May of 1915, the Allied powers formally accused the Ottoman government of crimes against humanity (a term which would be made infamous thirty years later following the Holocaust). However, following World War I, France focused its outrage on Germany and pursued rapprochement with the Turks. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russia lost all interest in bringing the Young Turks to justice. And despite the well-documented and harrowing accounts of American diplomats, including Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr., America did not take serious steps to punish murders that killed non-Americans. More than any other Allied Power, Britain took the massacre of Armenians seriously.
In 1918, Britain had an occupying force of over a million soldiers in the Ottoman Empire which allowed it to exert extensive pressure on the post-war government of Sultan Mehmet VI. Furthermore, the developed British legal system wanted to hold individual members of Ottoman leadership criminally responsible for war crimes. The Sultan, however, feared that if he took large-scale action to prosecute the Young Turks it would provoke a nationalist revolution where he would be overthrown.
In 1919 under British pressure, the Sultan ordered domestic Turkish courts-martial to try Ittihadist (Committee of Union and Progress) leaders of the Ottoman Empire. By April, over 100 top Turkish officials were under arrest. In custody were the grand vizier, the sheikh ul-Islam, the president of the council of state, a former director of intelligence, the commander of the garrison at Yozgat (the site of some of the most heinous Armenian massacres), several former valis (provincial governors) from Smyrna, Bogazlian, Mosul, Broussa, and Diarbekir, the ministers of justice and public instruction, along with dozens of others. Subsequently four major trials began: for Armenian massacres and deportations in Yozgat and in Trebizond, of Ittihadist leaders, and finally for wartime Turkish cabinet members. There were lesser trials for atrocities in Harput, Mosul, Baiburt and Erzinjan. More trials for atrocities in Adana, Aleppo, Bitlis, Diarbekir, Erzerum, Marash, and Van were planned but never held.
The first verdicts handed down by the tribunals found Major Tevfik Bey, commander of the Yozgat police, and Yozgat lieutenant governor Kemal Bey guilty of organizing deportations, murder, pillage, robbery and crimes against humanity and civilization. Tevfik was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor and Kemal to death. Kemal Bey’s funeral became a rallying point for Turkish nationalists who were still not convinced Turks had done wrong during the war and were insulted that punishments were being doled out for killing Christians.
The courts-martial continued against prominent leaders including Said Halim Pasha, as well as those who had fled to Germany, including Talaat and Enver, who were tried and sentenced to death in absentia. The indictment of Talaat and Enver read in part:
“The disaster visiting the Armenians was not a local or isolated event. It was the result of premeditated decision taken by a central body; and the immolations and excesses which took place were based on oral and written orders issued by the central body.”
At the same time, politics began destroying the domestic tribunals. The British army presence shrank by over two-thirds—along with its authority. As dozens of the accused Turks began being released, the British gave up on the Ottoman trials and decided to take custody of sixty-eight of the most prominent prisoners who were guilty of the most heinous crimes and transfer them to a British detention center in Malta. This left the Turkish courts-martial a toothless farce.
Malta International Tribunals
After taking custody of the prisoners, the British assumed that they could implement British-style trials to attain a just conclusion. The idea of having show trials or summarily executing the prisoners was dismissed outright. However, an unusual problem presented itself: the Armenians were slaughtered en masse, but the massacres were carried out under Ottoman sovereignty and not under British law. Since international law had not yet developed, a new kind of criminal law was needed: a crime against humanity (this same problem flustered the planners of Nuremberg).
Unfortunately, the British were slow to set up tribunals even after the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920, which included five articles on war crimes including language calling for Turks “guilty of criminal acts [to be] brought before the military tribunals” and even carved out a new independent Armenian state. The British were left in a quagmire, not wanting to release the prisoners and not having the political will to prosecute.
As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist revolt gained strength, defeating French troops in Cilicia, the British began cutting their losses. By 1920, War Secretary Winston Churchill was clearly weary of the entire issue. He wanted to make sure that Ataturk would not be pushed into the arms of the Soviet Union. When pressed to choose between prosecuting war criminals and protecting British soldiers, Churchill did not hesitate to advocate choosing the latter.
The final straw came in August of 1921 when Ataturk’s nationalists took a group of 29 Britons hostage and demanded the release of all Turkish prisoners who remained in Malta jails. All fifty-nine remaining Turks in custody were subsequently freed. Finally, as a further insult, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in July 1923 by Ataturk, containing no clauses on war crimes tribunals and no mention of an independent Armenia. British Prime Minister Lloyd George referred to the treaty as an “abject, cowardly and infamous surrender.”
In Comparison with Nuremberg
The lessons learned from the failed attempts of international justice following World War I, along with the political commitment to punish wartime aggression led to the Nuremberg trials, criminally prosecuting the leadership of Nazi Germany. Henry Morgenthau Jr. (son of Ottoman-era US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.) led calls to summarily execute all top Nazi leaders without any trials. However, the plan set forth by War Secretary Henry Stimson to put the criminals on trial won out.
The Allied effort (led by the United States), to punish the Nazis was undertaken mostly out for retribution for the Nazi instigation of the war, rather than just punishing the perpetrators of the Holocaust. While the intention was to punish the Nazis for starting the war, the legacy left by the trials is that it was an effort to punish crimes against humanity, namely the Holocaust. By 1963 over 2000 Germans were sentenced, nearly 700 to death. These trials have subsequently led to the 1948 adoption of the UN Genocide Convention as well as the later creation of the International Criminal Court.
Had the war crimes tribunals held in Constantinople been given the opportunity to uncover evidence and document high-level testimony, as was stipulated by the Treaty of Sevres, it would have been significantly more difficult for subsequent Turkish governments to deny, distort or minimize Turkish culpability for the Armenian Genocide. For Britain, it was in their strategic interest to leave Constantinople. For Ataturk, nationalist fervor led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic on the blood of murdered Armenians. For the Armenians, abandoned by the international community, justice became an elusive concept.
Unlike Germany, whose Nazi-era leaders were held criminally responsible and punished, the Turkish Republic has never confronted the Armenian Genocide. In the short-run, the lack of adequate criminal prosecution of Young Turk leaders following the Armenian Genocide led to vigilante justice to preserve Armenian dignity. In the long-run it has caused decades of denial, and has given a path for the successor state to avoid reparations. However, during the past five decades, Armenians worldwide have persevered to attain global recognition of the Armenian Genocide. While the perpetrator generation of Turks may have escaped justice, what remains is the civil and territorial compensation to the Armenian people from the benefactors of Genocide.