Archive for April 10th, 2010

1919: Mehmed Kemal, for the Armenian genocide

3 comments April 10th, 2010 Headsman

Ninety-one years ago today,* the tottering Ottoman Empire hanged one of its officials in Istanbul for his role in the mass slaughter of its Armenian minority during the First World War.

Kemal Bey’s hanging in Bayezid Square occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Here, on its last legs, the remains of a sultanate splintered apart in the war instituted tribunals for wartime offenses by the Young Turks who had run the government during the war — a sop to the British occupying forces making worrying noises about international trials for much bigger fish.

Much testimony at the trial pointed to the governor’s fervor for massacres; an Armenian priest who survived the slaughter later wrote that a Turkish officer had told him that Kemal “made a vow on the honor of the Prophet: I shall not leave a single Armenian alive in the sanjak of Yozgat.”

A response to the New York Timesreport of the hanging noted that “his part was that of an executioner. The originators of the plan to exterminate the Armenians were primarily Enver, Tallat, and Djemal.”

These “Three Pashas” who had driven Ottoman policy during the war had fled abroad. They would be condemned to death in absentia, and though none would hang, neither would they outlive Mehmed Kemal by as much as four years.

They were among the many unpunished perpetrators of the slaughter hunted down by Armenian assassins. The latter two were avenged by Operation Nemesis; Enver Pasha died in battle in Tajikistan during the Russian Civil War.

Though overshadowed in historical import by those three, our day’s principal is distinguished as the first person executed for “crimes against humanity.”

This novelty, combined with the trial’s victor’s-justice character, were immediately controversial, and remain so in the fraught politicking around the genocide. (This genocide-denialist paper describes, on page 13, the rowdy funeral scene that erupted the next day, also attested** by annoyed British officials.)

Events would soon outstrip these tribunals and lay waste to all parties’ plans for the Ottoman carcass, incidentally leaving the Armenian issue permanently unresolved.

The month after Mehmed Kemal swung, western allies went one dismemberment too far by backing the irredentist Greek state’s landing at Smyrna — an intervention that was to backfire catastrophically for the Greeks, and help birth the Turkish Republic.

* A few secondary sources say April 12 rather than April 10, but the earlier date appears much better attested.

** e.g., a diplomatic note cited in The Burning Tigris, p. 337: “Not one Turk in a thousand will think that any other Turk deserves to be hanged for massacring Christians.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Politicians,Public Executions,Turkey

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