The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

In 1930, well-known novelist and playwright Franz Werfel made a fateful trip to the Near East. It was there that he first encountered Armenian orphans, many of whom were crippled or maimed, working in a carpet factory in Damascus. Haunted by the images of these children, Werfel went on to further investigate the deportations and massacres of the Ottoman Armenians in World War 1 and learned of the remarkable story of Armenian resistance that had taken place on Musa Dagh (Մուսա Լեռ in Armenian). Werfel later said, “The struggle of 5,000 people on Musa Dagh had so fascinated me that I wished to aid the Armenian people by writing about it and bringing it to the world.” Thus was born Werfel’s harrowing and emotionally intense epic, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

Book 1: Chapter 4, p. 101:

“To be sure the vast war zones along every European front were equally crowded with refugees. But, hard as was the fate of these homeless people, it was nothing compared with that of these poor townsfolk. Where the evacuees in the European theatre had been led from the battle zones for their own protection, had been cared for even in hostile territory, and never lost hope in being allowed to return to their homes after a bitter but not unexpected hiatus, the Armenians could expect no protection, no help, no hope. They had not fallen into the hands of an enemy who, on reciprocal basis, had to respect international law. They had fallen into the hands of a far more terrible, unfettered enemy—their own country.”

The first thing that strikes the modern reader in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh are the clear parallels that Werfel, an Austrian Jew, appeared be drawing between the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turks of 1915 and the National Socialists of his own time. Indeed, after The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was published in 1933, Nazi authorities had seized and destroyed all copies of the book by February of the following year. Werfel, a “burned author”, was forced to flee Austria in 1938, and after escaping through Europe, eventually settled in Los Angeles.

In The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Werfel shines a critical light on the Ottoman leadership of 1915. One of the most powerful chapters in the book, titled “Interlude of the Gods,” takes the reader away from the theatre of the war in and around Musa Dagh, to Istanbul where we meet two important players in the Armenian deportations and massacres, Enver Pasha and Talaat Pasha. In this well-researched chapter (e.g., see recent findings by noted genocide historian Taner Akçam on Talaat Pasha’s telegrams in Killing Orders), the reader gets a chilling glimpse into the mindset of the Ottoman leadership and the horrific impact this would go on to have for the population of Armenians throughout the Empire. Reading this book more than eighty years later, it is remarkable to consider that the novel was written and published prior to the worst events of the Holocaust; the parallels between the political situation in the Ottoman Empire of 1915 and that of Germany in the 1930s is unmistakable.

It is perhaps unsurprising that despite attempts by Nazi authorities to suppress the book, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh had a powerful effect on Werfel’s own Jewish community at the time of its publication. As the Dictionary of Genocide (2008) explains, “…the book was read by many Jews suffering under the Nazis during World War II and was viewed as an allegory of their own situation in the Nazi-established ghettos, and what they might do about it” (p. 148). There are many accounts of the book playing an important role in the Jewish ghetto uprisings of the 1940s, with those being persecuted seeing the Armenian defence of Musa Dagh as inspiration for organised collective resistance instead of surrendering to a brutal regime and horrific fate. 

Book 1: Chapter 6, p. 216: 

“Human compassion is at an end. Christ crucified demands of us that we follow Him in his passion. There is nothing left us but to die…”
Here Ter Haigasun paused for a scarcely perceptible instance before concluding on a new note. “The one question is—how?” 
“How?” shouted Pastor Aram Tomasian, and pushed his way quickly out beside the priest. “I know how I mean to die—not like a defenceless sheep, not on the road to Deir ez Zor, not amid the filth of the deportation camp, not from hunger, and not from a stinking epidemic—no! I mean to die on the threshold of my own house, with a gun in my hand. Christ will help me to it, Whose word I preach. And my wife shall die with me, and the unborn child in her womb…”

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh describes in depth how the Armenian population of the six villages at the base of Musa Dagh—Bitias, Yoghunoluk, Vakef, Kheter Bey, Haji Habibli, and Kabusia—joined together in July of 1915 to resist deportation orders. With few weapons and limited fighting experience, more than 4,000 of the brave men and women of Musa Dagh managed to survive atop the mountain, holding back assaults from the Ottoman army for 53 days, until they were eventually rescued by French and British warships. Over the course of approximately 850 pages, Werfel brings this incredible story of resistance to life, making the reader feel as though they too have been with the fighters on Musa Dagh for the duration of their defence. 

Given that Werfel was not Armenian, he employed clever techniques to allow him to tell this story. In addition to his meticulous research, Werfel created his own fictional character, Gabriel Bagradian, through whose eyes we view much of the story. Although the fictitious Gabriel is of Armenian heritage, he spent most of his life in France, thereby allowing Werfel (and the reader) to view the events on Musa Dagh—at least at the beginning of the novel—through the eyes of a character who identified more as a European than an Armenian. Even so, such creative choices mean that there is no getting away from the fact that The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is ultimately a fictionalised account of a real historical event. This also means that the line Werfel draws between fact and fiction may at times become too blurred. For example, the defence of Musa Dagh really lasted for 53 days, not 40 days (a change Werfel made to further the religious symbolism in the book); and in his account of the true events on the mountain, Pastor Dikran Andreasian claimed that the Allied Warships responded to the Red Cross flag, not a fire.

For my own part, the problem of this blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction was most apparent in the character of Gabriel and his role in the book. While I thought his creation was a clever way for Werfel to get around the problem of not being Armenian yet still telling this story in an authentic way, I also felt that Werfel may have taken too much artistic license in his decision to make Gabriel the defence leader on the mountain. In particular, Werfel prominently credits Gabriel’s upbringing and education in Europe and prior military experience as the primary keys to the resistance’s success. To Werfel’s credit, he does also attempt to portray some of the real historical figures from the defence as well, such as the Protestant Pastor Dikran Andreasian, who is represented in the novel as Pastor Aram Tomasian. Nevertheless, I still spent a large part of the novel wondering where the line between fact and fiction really lay. Who were the real defence leaders, and would they too have credited the success of their campaign to an upbringing and education in Europe?

Although I do not know the answer to these questions, in a 2013 lecture at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies about the Musa Dagh resistance, Professor Vahram Shemmassian discussed some of the real historical context that led to the events. He explains that through missionary efforts to convert the Armenian community on Musa Dagh to Protestantism in the years preceding 1915, the Apostolic community had opened their own grammar schools to help preserve cultural and national identity, and that the Armenian Revolutionary societies had been visiting the villages at the base of Musa Dagh since the 1890s. As a result, he explained that “a degree of cultural, national, political awakening had taken place in Musa Dagh by the start of World War 1.” You can watch Professor Shemmassian’s full lecture here.

There is no denying that novels such as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh are incredibly important, especially when they can raise awareness about a historical event or period in history that may not otherwise be recognised, but my own feeling as I read the novel was that sometimes there is greater historical benefit in reading the original literature of the people whose history is being described. For any visitors who have already read our recently published translation of Raffi’s Jalaleddin, you will realise that the importance of self-defence is one of the most prominent themes in the work—and it was written by an Armenian author 37 years before the events atop Musa Dagh took place. Indeed, if you stay with us for the future translations of Raffi’s work that we have planned, you will see this theme reappear time and again. Yet Raffi, unlike the fictitious Gabriel, was not raised in Europe and did not receive any education there.

Related to this, Werfel’s repeated use of terms such as “Oriental” and “Asiatic” in describing the Armenian characters in the novel gave me a strong impression of the type of Orientalism that one sometimes finds in 19th century and early 20th century European fiction. Although Werfel did acknowledge Armenian intellectuals at various points in the book, it was the French characters in the novel who were described as “cultivated” and “civilized”. The one exception was Werfel’s central character, Gabriel, who had been educated in France; however, as we see Gabriel and his son embrace their Armenian heritage as the novel progresses, we also see exchanges such as the following start to take place. 

Book 1: Chapter 6, p. 174: 

“I don’t quite understand you, Effendi. What can you expect your son to learn here? I should say he knew more than I do about most subjects, though I did study for some time in Switzerland. But I’ve gone to seed in this wilderness for years. Just look at all these children. They’re like bush blacks. I don’t know whether they’ll be a good influence.” 

“It’s just their influence that I don’t want him to miss, Hapeth Shatakhian,” Gabriel explained – and the teacher wondered at this father who seemed so stubbornly set on turning his son from a good European into a little Oriental. 

This is by no means an isolated instance in the book. As this excerpt suggests, it is implied repeatedly throughout the book that by embracing the Armenian side of their heritage, Gabriel and his son would be lowered from “good Europeans” to “little Orientals”. Although this undercurrent in the novel made the reading uncomfortable at times, it must be acknowledged that this kind of Orientalism was not uncommon for the time period in which Werfel was writing, even among those who were well-intentioned. For example, Charles H. Schnapps wrote a sympathetic novella in 1922 to raise awareness following the genocide, Archag, The Little Armenian, that also expresses Orientalism. 

Ultimately, the portrayal of ethnic and cultural identity in the novel is complex and thought-provoking, even if it can also be questionable at times, as in the preceding excerpt. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Werfel’s decision to make the relationship between the Armenian-born Gabriel, his French wife Juliette, and their son Stephan, central to the plot of the novel. Throughout the novel, Juliette is placed on a pedestal by those around her, and this even extends to their mountain exile, where Gabriel makes it clear that although “all the others, by dint of their ethnicity, would have to accept the outcome of their fate,” as a Frenchwoman, she should “have nothing to do with that, being an innocent victim.” Likewise, Juliette sees herself as superior to those around her and is horrified at the change she sees in her husband and son as they come to embrace their heritage. 

Even though there were times when the Juliette subplot frustrated and even angered me, we must turn once again to the time period in which Werfel was writing and examine his own life to better understand how he might have been approaching this particular theme. As we have already discussed, Werfel was a Jew living in Austria when anti-Semitism was approaching a peak in the 1930s. In addition, Werfel was married to the glittering Alma Mahler, a talented composer, who—despite having been married to two Jewish men, Gustav Mahler and Werfel himself—appeared to hold some fairly strong anti-Semitic attitudes (see Mosaic for a discussion of this in relation to Alma’s diaries). 

This clash of cultures and the feeling of “otherness” that accompanies prejudice and discrimination can be felt throughout the novel, but is most apparent in the turbulent relationship between Gabriel and Juliette, suggesting that perhaps Werfel was including some of his own personal experiences in the novel. Although this helps to bring a real human element to the story, I couldn’t help wondering if projecting questions related to Jewish identity onto Armenian identity truly captured the Armenian experience during the genocide. I do not know the answer to this; but I do find it interesting that despite focusing on similarly brutal events and featuring characters from multiple ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Raffi (who was himself married an Assyrian) does not make identity a major theme in his work—at least not in the same way that Werfel explored it.  

Despite these questions, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is unquestionably an important modern classic that is well worth the reading experience for anyone interested in learning more about defence of Musa Dagh or the Armenian genocide in general. I would, however, recommend supplementing your reading with works by Armenian authors, such as Raffi, to gain a more complete picture of the Armenian experience during the Ottoman Empire and in the years leading up to World War 1. For interested readers, our recent translation of Jalaleddin is a good starting place for this, and we will have many more following over the months and years to come.