Werfel’s “Forty Days of Musa Dagh”


Armenians and their sign on the top of Musa Dagh – in the hope a passing ship might see them

A couple of months ago, I received an email from a producer at the BBC informing me that they were putting together a programme on Franz Werfel, and more specifically on his book about the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. “I’ve never read it, so I’m not sure how I can contribute.” I replied. The answer came back, “Well, you could always talk about Alma Mahler-Werfel and Vienna of the period”. I agreed thinking that it would still be a good idea to read the book prior to taking part in their documentary. I checked on Amazon and saw that I could download the complete Franz Werfel for .99 cents – in German. He wrote it in German and I can read German as well as English, so downloaded the entire lot. I admit to never having read Werfel: neither his novel on Verdi, or his more famous Song of Bernadette.


Franz Werfel at the time of writing “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” 1929-1933

From the opening, the Forty Days of Musa Dagh is both engaging yet incredibly slow-moving. Werfel is a writer of immense perception and undeniable poetic elegance, while never lapsing into wordiness. Even in his slowest passages, there’s an energy that keeps the reader interested, if only in trying to remember all of the complicated Armenian names and places, along with the titles of endless Turkish officials. Despite an impression that everything was being laid out in enormous detail, the detail itself was fascinating and the political background intriguing with many surprises and paradoxes. Convinced I had read hundreds of pages by the time of the interview, the Kindle was showing a frustrating 5%. Only a month later, in New York while packing the musical estate of the composer Wilhelm Grosz, a close friend of Werfel’s, did I discover not only correspondence, but a personalised copy of the first edition. Staring down at me from the shelf of Grosz’s granddaughter were two fat volumes, each one at least 500 pages or more. It looked like it might take forty months to read about the forty days.


Armenian Children being led onto the death march across a desert to settlements that didn’t exist.

Initially, it’s hard to imagine being engaged in reading about a genocide the Turkish state denies having taken place. How many modern readers are prepared to admit to being interested in one of the many Anatolian communities that once counted as part of the Ottoman realm? Without the tragedy of the Syrian Civil War, most modern Europeans would not know anything about the former “Levant”, and most would have cared less. Yet the Ottoman Empire was as multicultural as the Habsburgs, and as a result, as dependent on the tolerance of different linguistic communities and religions, if legitimacy of the ruling house was to be maintained. Just as the Habsburgs would come to accept Jews and eventually Muslims, so the Ottomans would come to accept Jews and Christians.


Franz Werfel with his wife, Alma Mahler, née Schindler, 11 years older than Werfel

This loyalty to ruling houses rather than to nation states is almost impossible for modern Europeans to comprehend. By the time of the First World War, so many Serbians lived in Bosnia and so many Austrians lived in Serbia, that with the outbreak of the earlier Balkan Wars, Serbians fought Serbians and Austrians fought Austrians. With the powder keg of nationalism ready to explode, it was also easy for majorities of each power to suspect the intrigues of minorities within their midst. Jews were seen as potential fifth columnists in Hitler’s attempts to conquer Europe, just as Muslim Turks saw Christian Armenians as being natural allies of the French and British. Before the “Final Solution”, Jews were to be used as slave labour and held in concentration camps. The Turks took the decision to “relocate” Armenians to settlements in Western Syria, through desert routes without provisions and ultimately, with no settlements for them to relocate to. The plan was simply to kill them off as they walked through the desert without water or food. Turkish guards raped at will, executed the weak, the young the elderly or anyone unable to undertake the journey. To this day, Turkey insists that it was not a planned “genocide” but a failed and mismanaged attempt at re-settlement at a time of war. A million and a half Armenians died most horribly as they marched across the wastelands of the Syrian desert.

Fighters of Musa Dagh

Armenians remember Musa Dagh

Werfel solves the problem of European readers not being able to connect with a foreign and arcane culture by making his principal character fundamentally European. Gabriel Bagradian is the grandson of an Armenian nobleman with an estate in the Armenian valley beneath the mountain Musa Dagh (or Moses Mountain). Furthermore, he’s a reserve officer in the Turkish army and fought in the Balkan Wars. He’s a patriot, despite having lived the previous twenty-three years of his life in Paris, having left his grandfather’s estate at the age of twelve. His wife Juliette and twelve-year-old son Stephen are French, though Stephen quickly adapts to life in Yoghonuluk (the village where the Bagradian estate is located) and becomes more Armenian than the locals as he attempts to fit in with the other boys in his school.


The village of Yoghonuluk on the slopes of Musa Dagh

Werfel then introduces us to the mesh of Yoghonuluk society who make up the connecting fabric between the Levant and Europe: local burgers who are educated, speak European languages and the occasional European (a Greek in this instance with an American passport) who wanders into this remote corner of the Eastern Mediterranean. Bagradian, as a former officer in the Balkan Wars on the side of the Ottomans is the obvious counterpart to the Jews who served in the Kaiser’s army in the First World War. For a book published in 1933, it would have obvious subliminal messages to convey. How subliminal, even Werfel could not have known. Hitler famously justified his murder of Jews by stating that nobody remembered the genocide of Armenians.


Enver Pasha (1881-1922) on an Ottoman postcard

Werfel takes the reader not just through the forty days, but also offers parallel story-lines that only come together in the course of the narrative. We’re offered accounts of the so-called “Young Turks” such as the Minister for War Enver Pasha, and the attempts of Germans to halt the deportation and inevitable annihilation of the Armenians. We’re presented with one astonishing historic paradox after another: The German horror of the very idea of genocide; the genocide of the Armenians being planned in Jerusalem and the participation of the Kurds in the eradication of the Armenians. Werfel also offers an account of the differing Christian Armenians, with important roles taken by Ter Haigasun, the Orthodox priest, and Aram Tomasian, the Protestant pastor. In the course of a few hundred pages, the Armenians cease being a distant and exotic Anatolian sub-set, and become vividly familiar, despite their very unfamiliar names.


The meadows of Musa Dagh

The story of the 5000 Armenians who held out on the mountain top of Musa Dagh until rescued by the French navy is historic. Werfel offers us a surprisingly accurate account of the various battles and attempts by the Turks to take the mountain from an Armenian militia made up of peasant farmers and a posse of Armenian deserters from the Turkish army. With each victory, under the command of the fictional Bagradian, they capture more and more Turkish weapons.

Preparing the Herissa

Preparing the Harissa, (called Herissa in the book) with a Gabriel Bagradian type gentleman standing to the right

Werfel examined the records of Musa Dagh and records how the five villages in the Armenian valley (including Yoghonuluk) beneath Musa Dagh on the Syrian coast took all of their farm animals to the top of the mountain, and made everything communal. Tempers flare as some of the villagers are wealthy farmers and are against this mass “nationalisation” of their herds and crops while others are dirt poor. Ter Haigasun is made ultimate arbiter and leader of the five Armenian villages and unites all of them with a large Harissa festival where a national dish is ceremonially prepared and communally eaten. Indeed, at the beginning of the forty days, the peaks of Musa Dagh seem to offer more abundant resources than the valley with fresh water, lavish forests and expansive meadows for grazing. The Turks attempt to take the mountain, but are under-resourced, and Stephen, Bagradian’s young son, is able to capture two large canons together with ammunition supplies.


Villagers arriving on Musa Dagh

Werfel’s style is as poetic as Soma Morgenstern’s but his story-lines are tighter and more coherent. In this respect, he can be compared with Lion Feuchtwanger, though he’s far more elegant and despite length, never slides into empty wordiness. I was surprised at how even at narrative plateaus, the reader was still propelled forward with engaging accounts of the many different individuals. The representation of what is supposed to be a culturally homogeneous community living in close quarters, shows that all communities are made up of individuals, and individuals are as different from one another within a community as they are with those outside of their communities. The Armenians of Musa Dagh were made up of religious illiterate peasants, intellectuals, atheists, doctors, Communists and simple citizens with the same sense of community pride found anywhere. The sobering realisation of what happened to the Armenians in what one would have assumed to have been a cut-off mountainous valley, was how un-cut off they were. Even in 1915, they were aware of what was happening around them. With today’s Syrian Civil War in our daily papers, the cities and town mentioned in Werfel’s novel all take on a very contemporary resonance.


The French Navy rescues the 5000 Armenians of Musa Dagh

Any 1000-page historic novel is in some ways life changing. War and Peace, like The Forty Days of Musa Dagh offers context, while draping events around a cast of individuals the reader immediately recognises and is able to respond to. Yet what so profoundly shocks when reading Werfel’s novel, is the fact that it’s published in the year that Hitler would be proclaimed Reich Chancellor. To read it, is to realise that genocide is more than just wiping out an entire community or ethnic group, but a planned operation that is justified in the name of “self-defence”. We see in today’s ultra-nationalist, populist movements the same need to find a group of people who can be seen as a danger to everyone else. The sheer beauty and elegance of Werfel’s prose should be enough to engage any reader, yet the story is unforgettable and sadly, has already been largely forgotten. Perhaps, with Turkey a crucial ally of the West, even deliberately suppressed.