A reflection on the scandal of evil and the search for a universal moral conscience.
Several years ago, Germany was the scene of an embarrassing episode when, under pressure from Turkey, the federated state of Brandenburg removed any reference to the Armenian genocide from a school syllabus. The leader of the Armenian community in Germany said at the time that it was “a scandal” or downright “depressing if the content of textbooks in Brandenburg can be dictated from Ankara.” Therefore, for a while, a feeling persisted that the German-Turkish alliance was once again in effect. In 1898, the German Emperor Wilhelm II had declared himself the patron of all Muslims in the world and regarded the Armenian issue as Turkey’s own internal affair. Today, one hundred years after the beginning of the Armenian genocide, the issue is one eminently universal, given all its implications and all the ethical reverberations that it may produce.
One of the main architects of the Armenian massacre, Talaat Pasha—the Turkish Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) and an important member of the Central Committee which had authorized the genocide—, found refuge after World War I in no place other than Berlin, where he was nonetheless shot on March 15, 1921 by an Armenian genocide survivor, Soghomon Tehlirian. The latter was absolved of the murder charges in a German court of law, which was considered a major event at the time. His defense did not deny that the murder had taken place, but insisted on the genocide’s emotional impact on Tehlirian, who claimed that he had witnessed his own mother’s beheading. The German jury promptly acquitted him, at a time when the increasingly frequent news of the Armenian massacre turned Tehlirian into a sort of “agent of justice.” After the verdict, The New York Times headlines read the following: “They Simply Had to Let Him Go.”
What was not discussed at the trial, however, was the fact that “killing a murderer” was part of a global Armenian revenge, a campaign called “Operation Nemesis.” The first book on this topic, published in German, was written by Rolf Hosfeld (Operation Nemesis. Die Türkei, Deutschland und der Völkermord an den Armeniern). Now, American novelist and actor of Armenian descent Eric Bogosian published a book titled Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide. The subject is thoroughly discussed in a recent NYT Book Review article by Joseph Kanon.
How was this organization Nemesis structured, in a few words? Apparently, it started out in July 1920 in Boston and within no more than three years managed to identify and eliminate seven major Turkish figures directly involved in the genocidal episode. They received support from foreign intelligence services, had contacts in various cities around the world, and established their headquarters in Watertown, Massachusetts. A personal memory digression: when reading that article the other day, one of the authors of this essay (Marius Stan) recalled that, for a short while back in 2009, he had briefly lived in that very same—apparently quiet—Boston suburb.
Indeed, the Armenian store in Watertown was the one he visited regularly, as it was also the most enticing. One cannot help but smile bitterly when looking back only to realize that the elderly Armenians one greeted on a daily basis might very well have been the direct descendants of the Nemesis. They most probably were. The atmosphere of the streets, of the Watertown houses, but especially of that history-filled tranquility is hard to put into words. It should perhaps be sought among the aromas of coffee and the shuttered glances by the descendants of the former witnesses and avengers of the annihilating Apocalypse.
Similarly, one cannot help but think of Herschel Grynszpan, the Jewish-Polish teenager who shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris in 1938, which later became the excuse for unleashing Kristallnacht. He, too, was seeking vengeance for the terrible humiliation that his family and his people had been subjected to. Here is a disquieting question to which we do not claim to have the answer: when killing an exponent of terror, is the author of this action a terrorist, a vigilante or one carrying out an act of justice that transcends the lawfulness of normal times? When Reinhard Heydrich was killed in Prague in 1942 by the Czech partisans, was that an act of terror—as Hitler immediately declared—or one justified by moral imperatives?
The cause behind Operation Nemesis—although it did have its moment of maximum visibility around the year 1921 (it was dropped by the end of 1922)—was quickly shadowed by the greater events of that time, namely the emergence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Soviet expansionism etc. As an argument for the historical “shadow,” the author of this article feels compelled to repeat the words attributed to Hitler during his nightly conversations, who allegedly said the following: “Who even remembers the Armenians?” We do, a hundred years later, yet in the past century the Nazi Wolf (one of his nicknames) was under the impression that he could commit an even greater crime and get away with it. It was probably the same impression that Slobodan Milošević, Ratko Mladić, and Radovan Karadžić were also under.
What is still up for debate—at a historical, philosophical, and moral level—is the self-projection of the Nemesis members as agents of memory. This picture of modern history in which a handful of people have decided to avenge and thus make known to the world the grim fate of hundreds of thousands of Armenians is truly staggering. An individual murder that attempted to wash away mass murder. The singular of memory fighting against the plural of terror. The situation sounds very familiar. Israel’s Nakam (“Vengeance”) versus Nazi war criminals.
Kanon states the following:
“But the pattern is now painfully familiar — the personal tragedy (a family killed), the bottomless sense of being aggrieved, the recruitment into a new ‘family,’ the expatriate fund-raisers, the eye-for-an-eye ethos that promises no end but only more death. We could be in Belfast in the late 20th century or Gaza in the 21st.”
In the world nowadays which invented all sorts of justice mechanisms, from truth courts and commissions to various reparations and places of memory, the Armenian tragedy remained somehow stuck between nothingness and infinity. We commemorate a hundred years since those terrible events. A time capsule worth pondering upon, in our opinion. Humankind—as the ferociously bloody 20th century indisputably demonstrates—is prone to self-annihilation, murder, and atrocity. What sociologist Daniel Chirot calls “the power and prevalence of Evil in our age” is real. We regard the Armenian genocide as part of the history of what Immanuel Kant anticipated as Radical Evil (see also Richard J. Bernstein, Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002; Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
The scandal of Evil embedded in the episodes we claim to know so well is in fact a continuous challenge for a universal moral conscience, in the absence of which we are sinking into amnesiac relativism. And if we accept that, then we must also ask ourselves if one murder warrants another. We do not have all the answers, although we—people in general—enjoy allowing ourselves to give in to such vanity. Yet the issue of justified murder, in all its contemporary forms and regardless of party, is still one of the most terrible aporias of human condition. Albert Camus knew it when he wrote The Rebel and Hannah Arendt knew it when she wrote the conclusions to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. However, entering and exiting the moral kingdom of revenge very much resembles an ordeal dans la longue durée (in the long run). After all, one of the books born out of this suffocation, Minima Moralia, which we owe to Theodor W. Adorno, had the following subtitle: “Reflections on a Damaged Life”.
P.S. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, the political and philosophical masterpiece published in 1951, those interested in the issue of radical evil in contemporary moral-philosophical debates can find what we consider to be an essential contribution by Hannah Arendt:
“It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a ‘radical evil,’ and this is true both for Christian theology, which conceded even to the Devil himself a celestial origin, as well as for Kant, the only philosopher who, in the word he coined for it, at least must have suspected the existence of this evil even though he immediately rationalized it in the concept of ‘perverted ill will’ that could be explained by comprehensible motives. Therefore, we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know. There is only one thing that seems to be discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.”
Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.” Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books and articles in Romanian, English, and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest. This essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.
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