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The Epic of a Genocide

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Victims of the Armenian Genocide in an Armenian area of Anatolia, 1915

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh made Franz Werfel (1890-1945) one of the world’s most celebrated and controversial authors after it first appeared in German in 1933. He had worked a miracle for Armenians around the world, taking what might have been a footnote in the history of World War I—the deportation and mass murder of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority—and writing an epic that anticipated the ominous events unfolding in Germany as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power. The erosion of civil rights, the singling out of a minority for the nation’s problems, and the state-sanctioned violence perpetrated against it were becoming a reality for German Jews and this made Musa Dagh seem the work of a prophet.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh began with Werfel’s second journey to the Middle East in the winter of 1930. He had just published his third major novel, The Pure in Heart (1929) and married his lover, Alma Mahler, Vienna’s legendary consort of genius, the widow of Gustav Mahler and the former wife of the architect Walter Gropius. After touring the ruins of Karnak, Alma and Werfel traveled on to Palestine and Jerusalem. In Damascus, Werfel toured a carpet factory with Alma. He saw a number of children working the looms, many of them maimed and crippled. When he asked the factory owner about them, he was told they were Armenian orphans. Their parents had been lost in the massacres, forced deportation marches, and concentration camps of World War I. These events would not have been a surprise to Werfel. In the years following the war, the atrocities committed against the Armenians surfaced in the news stories, some tied to the revenge shootings of Talaat Bey, Jemal Pasha, and other wartime Turkish leaders, victims of an Armenian revolutionary assassination program with the chilling name of “Operation Nemesis.”

The haunting “El Greco” eyes of the children disturbed Alma and Werfel. As they traveled on to Lebanon, Werfel, although sick with fever, had his driver stop so that he could question the Armenian villagers who had returned to the region after the war. He then learned more about the seven villages to the north, in Turkey’s Hatay Province, which occupied the slopes around Musa Dagh—Mount Moses. There, in the summer of 1915, the Armenians disobeyed a government resettlement order. They had heard news of mass arrests of Armenian leaders in Istanbul, of columns of refugees left to die in the Mesopotamian desert, and of murders being committed against their people throughout the Ottoman Empire. Such news fit the pattern of atrocities that had occurred before the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, and it portended worse despite the new regime’s faded promise of ending the old empire’s ethnic divides, which had grown along with the nationalism of both Armenians and Turks during the previous century.

Werfel learned how the village leaders made the decision to resist and how they established an armed camp on Musa Dagh for a long siege. With the Mediterranean Sea at their backs, the Armenians hoped to wait out the war and resist the territorial police and Turkish army long enough to attract the attention of the British and French navies that patrolled the coast from their bases in Egypt and Cyprus. Werfel could not visit the actual site and came no closer than the packet boat that took him and Alma along the same Syrian and Turkish coast to Istanbul. But on the way, the novel that would take place in this landscape began to form.

Back home in Vienna in April 1930, at one of the many parties leading up to Easter, Werfel met his friend, the French ambassador to Austria, Count Bertrand Clauzel. The diplomat was quite familiar with the rescue of the Armenian survivors of Musa Dagh and promised to show Werfel secret French naval and diplomatic communiqués that named the officers and ships involved as well as other important details. Werfel also visited the monastery and library of the Mekhitarists, an Armenian Catholic order based in Venice, who provided more documentation about what had happened on Musa Dagh. Despite his research being interrupted by other books, travels, and lectures, Werfel, with the help of friends, gathered an incredible amount of detail about the regional climate, geography, economy, botany, even the stations of the moon in the sky at given times and other celestial events.

Over the next two years he became fully acquainted with Turkish and Armenian history, culture, nationalism, even cuisine. Werfel studied the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Sufi mysticism of Turkey’s Dervishes along with the arcanum of the Ottoman bureaucracy and military. He took pains to represent Turks and Armenians with objectivity, underlining reminders in his early manuscript: “Don’t polemicize against the Turks.” “Also the Armenians’ hatred of the Turks. Somewhere Enver must be in the right.” “Caution. The Turks cannot appear to be all too dumb and militarily godforsaken. All their actions must be well-founded.” These latter points concern Turkish public opinion, that European interventionism and colonialism had influenced Ottoman policy against the Armenians, and Turkey’s national pride in its military. For this, Werfel had been diligent in researching the battles scenes around Musa Dagh. His accuracy even made Musa Dagh useful to an American military historian who reconstructed Turkish operations around Musa Dagh to prove that it was a counterinsurgency.

What is more surprising here is that the novel had been appropriated for a revisionist interpretation that mostly agrees with official Turkish history—which denies the genocide—while still seeing the Ottoman army performing what “closely approximated ethnic cleansing” in accordance with the military practices of other “civilized” nations of the period. The Young Turks had only to look to the British strategy of forced resettlement and the first concentration camps of the Boer War in South Africa, or the brutal tactics of German colonial troops in suppressing uprisings in its African territories as well as the United States in the Philippines. Indeed, the American precedent vis-à-vis Turkey’s Armenian policy could be cited further for its long history of forced deportation and resettlement of Native Americans—but there is another reason that Musa Dagh suggests the Little Big Horn. As a boy, Werfel was an avid reader of Karl May’s “travel novels” set in the American West and the steppes and mountains of the Ottoman Empire. Much of their adventure, color, and struggle resurface in Musa Dagh.

Werfel’s corroboration of the Turkish atrocities came from many German sources and eyewitness accounts—nurses, diplomats, military people, and the like—the most important taken almost verbatim from the writings of the German Protestant missionary Johannes Lepsius and Dikran Andreassian, an Armenian Protestant pastor whose orphanage was forcibly closed by the Turks and its children deported to Mesopotamia. All of this detail and minutiæ would be arranged around what was generally accepted, that during World War I hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenian citizens had been expelled from the heartland of Anatolia and died as a result. Many had been murdered intentionally, especially members of the Armenian intelligentsia.

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Suse Von Winternitz/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Franz Werfel, 1935

With little countervailing evidence from Turkish sources to offset what Werfel had learned about the events of 1915 and their background—an antagonism for the Ottoman Armenian minority taking form during the nineteenth century not unlike anti-Semitism in Europe—he could only be merciless in portraying the Young Turks as the responsible party for the expulsions, the transit and concentration camps, and the deaths of innocent people. He portrayed their inner circle as having an ultimate goal, well informed by European Social Darwinism such that Talaat Bey uses European words to describe the elimination of an entire race of people, this before the term genocide had been coined for a League of Nations conference. Werfel reminds the reader that Talaat proudly kept a telegraph machine in his office, having been an operator in his youth, and to indicate that a paper trail existed between him and his henchmen in the Ottoman civil service. Yet Werfel’s novelization never shows the actual order being given, it is all intent, sinisterly verbal and eerily prescient of how no order for the Final Solution exists in Hitler’s hand and how a dutiful bureaucracy can be the central nervous system of evil.

Those who read The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in the 1930s could see the Young Turks of the novel as the Nazis of real life, the Turkish people as the German people, and the Armenians as Europe’s Jews. They saw Werfel as making this unavoidable connection, that it was the point of the novel, its provocation, to the point that many would also lose sight of the Armenian tragedy itself. Over time, this assumption of Werfel’s prescience has been questioned on the grounds that he could not have foreseen the Holocaust given the slow motion of the Final Solution, which came in increments, some imperceptible. Even the putative prophet himself, like others, thought the next German election could remove Hitler from power should he overreach.

Yet Werfel did not exist or write in a vacuum. He traveled through Germany, read the newspapers, especially those published in Vienna that nervously focused on Austria’s restive neighbor and the rise of its new “savior,” this Austrian nonentity now in charge of the hated Prussians! Werfel and Alma—with her income derived in part from the performances of Mahler’s symphonies by German orchestras—both kept a wary eye on the street battles between the Brown Shirts and Communists, and the overt anti-Semitism of Nazi journalists. What happened in Germany affected Werfel’s literary fortunes. It was there that he made and wanted fixed his reputation despite the inroads he had already made on the world stage. And in Germany his many readers lived and voted. Musa Dagh does not antedate the Third Reich, but its conception parallels its development, and its writing seems almost to be a race with the end of Germany’s better nature so as to change the hearts-and-minds of the rank-and-file who have a hand in letting evil happen.

The Germans had their chance to read Musa Dagh in late November 1933. “That it was at all possible was one of the contradictions that prevailed during those first months after Hitler’s rise to power.” Books by a “burned author” such as Werfel were not publicized. Bookstores put no signs in the windows. No advertisements or book reviews appeared in the feuilletons of the newspapers. Some copies of Musa Dagh even had Werfel’s name excised or blotted out so that no one would see the name of its Jewish author. But he was no secret to the Nazis and journalists who had gone over to them. They demanded that Musa Dagh be proscribed. The defamatory parallels between the Young Turks and the National Socialists were obvious. And not only loyal Germans objected to the book. Turkish writers in Germany had also read Musa Dagh and complained about the inaccuracies and the insult to their new nation. And in Austria, the publisher’s gift of a copy to the Turkish ambassador, intended to show that Werfel had also represented Turks in a favorable light, had turned into a public relations disaster. In February 1934, deeming it a danger to public order, the German government seized all remaining copies of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

But the fate of Musa Dagh took another course outside of Central Europe. Viking Press published the English translation in time for the 1934 holiday book season and Metro Goldwyn-Meyer secured the film rights even before it was translated. William Saroyan, of Armenian descent, praised the novel in the Saturday Review, writing that despite its length, its “swiftness of movement” made it seem “all too short.” Louis Kronenberger, in the New York Times Book Review noted that Musa Dagh differed markedly from The Magic Mountain and the other “eminent” novels of recent memory, Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past. Unlike these books, one need only read Musa Dagh once to get “a lasting sense of participation in a stirring episode of history.” More than 34,000 copies sold during the first two weeks and Musa Dagh continued to be a bestseller into 1935, becoming one of the most popular Book-of-the-Month selections ever.

When Werfel and Alma arrived in New York in November 1935 for the premiere of his Broadway play, The Eternal Road, the Armenian community honored him with dinners, ceremonial speeches, and praise. As one Armenian priest put it, Werfel had given his people a soul and had shown the world what crimes had been committed against this people. To this day, Werfel, a man so intrigued by saints and holy lives, is a virtual Armenian saint. He is certainly their ashug, the Armenian word for a people’s bard. The Turks, of course, felt differently during this fete of Musa Dagh. In Istanbul, a special correspondent to the New York Times reported on public protests based on new rumors of an impending MGM motion picture of Musa Dagh. The Turkish Jewish community there “warmly” denied that Werfel was a Jew as alleged. And the most surprising protest came from the Armenian population in Istanbul, who “solemnly” burned Werfel in effigy as “proof of its loyalty” to the Kemalist government. The reporter also noted that Turkey’s chief diplomat in Washington had secured the right to review any script. With Turkish (and even State Department) opposition to a motion picture version, MGM retained its rights to Musa Dagh, and whenever an attempt was made to revive the film a vigilant Turkish embassy suppressed it.

After the studio gave up the film rights in the 1970s, a wealthy Armenian American produced the long-awaited motion picture. But he could only find an Indian actor to play Bagradian, whose acting skills could not make up for the inferior talent of the other actors and a script that bore only a thin resemblance to the novel. The budget was quickly used up by union-scale labor costs while filming in the Los Angeles hills, and the end result was not a real film, not even a B-picture. Later Sylvester Stallone considered producing and directing a Musa Dagh film in 2007, but the controversy that dogged MGM followed, including a strident e-mail campaign sponsored by the Turkish Foundation for the Struggle Against Baseless Allegations of Genocide (ASİMED). Allegedly, Stallone was convinced not to pursue the project. When a rumor surfaced that Mel Gibson had taken an interest in Musa Dagh given his previous motions pictures celebrating history’s victorious underdogs, Armenian hopes as well as ASİMED’s protests were redirected to him.

Werfel’s revelation here is about identity with a people, and about the individual, the Mensch an sich, as the ultimate minority. For this revelation, Werfel appropriated and gave back the Armenian tragedy undiminished so that no one would forget.


Drawn from James Reidel’s introduction to Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, published by David R. Godine. Reidel has revised and expanded the original 1934 English translation of the novel by Geoffrey Dunlop.