#23 Franz Werfel’s Musa Dagh (1933) and the Christians of the Middle East


In March 1930, the poet and novelist Franz Werfel made a long trip to the Middle East. It was the second visit time he and his wife Alma Mahler visited the region. This time the trip included stays at Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem. In Damascus they were invited to a tour  a carpet factory , a ‘Teppichweberei’, and when Werfel and his wife noted the many extremely skinny children that were picking up threads from the floor, ‘mit bleichen El Greco-Gesichtern und übergroßen dunklen Augen’ (as Mahler noted in her diary), he asked the owner about them. He answered:

Oh, I pick up these poor creatures from the street, I give them ten piaster per day to save them from hunger. They are the children of the Armenians that were slain by the Turks. If I don’t shelter them, they will die; nobody cares about them.[ii]

From that moment on, Franz Werfel (1890-1945) is obsessed by what he calls ‘das unfaßbare Schicksal des armenischen Volkes’.[iii] Already during the trip he started to make notes and collect materials preparing for a novel on this topic. Early in 1932 he began to write, based on further research and interviews with Armenians, using among others the Mekhitarist library in Vienna and the information of the Viennese Armenian community more generally.[iv] In November 1933, the novel was published in Vienna and became a bestseller almost immediately.[v] In the years that followed many translations were made, in English (1934), Armenian, Dutch, Yiddish and Hebrew. Recent re-editions, especially in German (2016) and English (2012[vi]), and a modest scholarly bibliography suggest something of a revival of interest in Werfel and his work. In this revival, Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, as he called this work, takes a central place, playing a role in recent debates over the recognition of the Armenian genocide in Germany and elsewhere.[vii]

Today, this bulky novel, little less than a thousand pages in a recent German edition, is perhaps more often referred to than read (although, since I started to work on it, I come across a surprising number of people who did indeed read it, especially in the German-speaking world). However, the novel certainly deserves to be read and reread, especially by those who are concerned about the of Christians in the Middle East. My reading of Werfel’s novel in its historical context concludes with some reflections on the contemporary discussions about Christians in the Middle East, and on the role of scholars of religion, theology and the humanities more generally, in these debates. In order to do so, I invite you to join me to the Moses mountain, the Musa Dagh, the primary location of much of this novel.


Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh

It was at the upper slopes of the Musa Dagh that a group of several thousand Armenians tried to shield themselves from the threat of deportation in the summer of 1915. By that time, many of them had come to understand that the Turkish military actions were not just about deportation, but also about murder, rape and abduction.[viii] Apart from the Armenian military units that opposed the Turkish genocidal politics in the Eastern provinces of Anatolia, it were the Armenians of a number of villages in the Antiochian region (that is: the hinterland of current Antakya) that resisted what elsewhere seemed unavoidable. Under the leadership of Moses Der-Kaloustian (1895-1984),[ix] this group hold out a couple of weeks, were able to avert several attacks of the Turkish army and was eventually saved by French military vessels that reacted to their distress signals with an evacuation. Werfel spoke to survivors of this episode, in addition to his use of a wide range of written sources. Among these were also the papers of the German Protestant missionary Johannes Lepsius (1858-1926) who meticulously recorded what he saw was happening to the Armenians. He himself actively tried to avert further harm and his notes of his meeting with Enver Pasha formed the basis of Werfel’s literary imagination of this conversation.[x]

In the novel, Werfel as the omniscient narrator mostly takes the perspective of the civil leader of the group on the mountain. He transforms Der-Kaloustian into the westernized and ‘estranged’[xi] Armenian Gabriel Bagradian. For many years, Bagradian had lived in Paris, with his French wife Juliette and their thirteen-year old son Stephan. In the summer of 1914, the three of them had returned to Syria, to help out his elder brother who was taking care of the ancestral estate but had fallen ill. Before moving to Europe, Bagradian had served in the Ottoman Army, in the period when this was still a novelty for Christians, participating in the new Ottoman ethos that allowed Christians to earn their military honors alongside Muslims. When in 1915 the situation quickly deteriorates and Armenians in the East become a target of deportation and annihilation, Bagradian (whose brother meanwhile had died) quickly realizes the danger. He motivates the leaders of the Armenian villages around the Musa Dagh to opt for defense, rather than to wait for things to come. The archpriest Ter Haigasun supports this course and the villagers, a few thousand people in all, retract to the upper slopes of Musa Dagh, building make-shift camps and a defense line around the mountain slopes. During the symbolic forty-day siege the community is threatened by attacks from the Turks as much as by internal divisions and weakening moral. Young adolescent boys, among which his own son Stephan, are inclined to take too big risks, hirelings show lack of solidarity, and the food rations become smaller and smaller during this long summer month.

The story of the besieged community forms the backdrop against which Werfel explores Bagradian’s doubts about his connection to the Armenian community that he so unexpectedly became re-involved with. Does he, being an assimilated and westernized Armenian, have any right to speak let alone to lead? What, in this all, is the meaning of his love for his French wife and their barely-Armenian speaking son? His growing platonic love for the beautiful but handicapped Armenian refugee Iskuhi (who survived one of the early genocidal episodes in Eastern Turkey) symbolizes the difficult choice that Bagradian has to make: is he going to leave wealthy and comfortable Paris for good and cast his lot with his people in his uncertain and dangerous homeland? In the early days of the siege he tries to convince his wife to return to her family in safe Paris, almost as if he needs her gone to make up his mind. She, however, refuses to let go of her Armenian husband and her Armenian son. In the end, she is the only family member to survive, being among those who are saved by the French warships. By that time, her son had died when he, for a second time, felt challenged to proof his masculinity. Her husband is shot by the Ottomans when he chooses to return to climb the mountain when the others go down to the ships at the coast. Reminiscing about the forty-day siege, Bagradian falls asleep, only to wake up when the ships are preparing themselves to leave the coast, taking in the few remaining refugees. He remains where he is, finding himself unable to hurry down to the ships and commit himself to a renewed diaspora, to the life of an Armenian exile in Egypt or Europe. By staying where he is, he faces the inescapable death at the hands of Ottoman soldiers that are climbing the mountain in search of any Armenians left. He dies at the grave of his son, as ‘Mensch an sich’ –  the ultimate, decidedly non-sectarian, position which is only possible after he had been fully Armenian.[xii]



This all too brief summary underlines that Werfel makes Bagradian’s search for his position in life, his relationship to his family in Paris and the Middle East and his relationship to his work and his people, the central theme of this novel. That is, of course, everything that in common parlance is grouped under ‘identity’.[xiii] Does the ever more pressing option to remain in Syria and take his place at the head of the family estate mean that he has to cut his ties with Europe? Can one be a ‘modern’ Armenian in the Middle East? What specific role does one play when coming from an upper class Armenian family with ties to the Ottoman army?

Werfel uses language as a crucial indicator in his attempt to describe the varied and sometimes conflicting attachments of his protagonists. They speak Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, Greek, French, German and English, suggesting ever changing identifications rather than fixed connections between language and identity. An important scene from the first chapter stresses Bagradian’s surprise when his Paris-born-and-raised son answers him in Armenian:

Bagradian raised his head. Stephan had said it in Armenian. But had he asked the question in Armenian? Usually they spoke French to one another. His son’s Armenian words stirred the father strangely. He was conscious that in Stephan he had far more often seen a French than an Armenian boy.[xiv]

In this respect, religion is very different from language. Rather than something flexible and open for choice, religion appears as a given. The Armenian archpriest of the region, Ter Haigasun, takes up a leading role in the community, alongside Bagradian as the secular leader. A small supporting role is carved out for the Protestant Armenian pastor Harutiun Nokhudian, reflecting the religious status quo in the wider Armenian community. Religious rituals, both the formal ecclesiastical ones as the more popular folk-type ones are being used by Werfel to show how the community functions during the crisis.

However, more than merely the core element of Armenian communal identity, Werfel makes religion into a reference to another world, referring to an immaterial, transcendent reality which ultimately decides on the fate of human beings. In this, ‘God’ and ‘fate’ become almost identical. It is up to every human being to come to understand and come to terms with this ultimate reality.[xv]

This brings us to the second major theme of the book, which is that of ‘fate’, ‘das Schiksal´ – the word that returns over and over again.[xvi] The dark fate of the Armenian people, their being led into destruction without anyone being able to change the course of events, for Werfel is something for which merely political analyses of the workings of modern nationalism,[xvii] with all the exclusionary and destructive forces that come with it, or the cold geopolitical considerations of the major powers, do not quite capture the ultimate horror and ultimate significance of it. ‘Das Schiksal’ with Werfel refers to something beyond human understanding. The ‘large dark eyes’ of the Armenian children that set off the engagement that led to this novel, confronted Werfel and his wife not only with the hunger and loneliness of the post-war generation, but above all with the unspeakable fate that had caught up with them.

At the same time, the importance of ‘Schiksal’ in Werfel’s world view does not prevent him from taking one of the most visible acts of Armenian resistance as his main topic. Where most Armenians had accepted their bitter fate with resignation, the villages around Musa Dagh chose to try another route – one that offered only the slightest of hopes of ultimate rescue, but that at least offered dignity as well as space for a miracle to happen. It was clear to everyone that the people at the mountain could not endure for very long: food supplies would run out, winter would come and eventually the Turkish army would build up enough force to break the siege and capture those who remained. In the end, however, a miracle happens. French war vessels see the signals of distress and rescue the survivors just hours before the Turks would recapture the mountain.

This brings me to the third and last Werfel-theme that I want to highlight on this occasion, which is the great difficulties of the Armenians to find outside support. Werfel describes several attempts of the Armenians to enlist help. Bagradian sends two young boys in different directions to tell the story of the Armenians on the mountain, among them to the American consul in Antakya. Before the siege started, Bagradian himself pleaded with the Turkish authorities in Antakya to avert the danger for the Armenians of the their region, not much later Johannes Lepsius, the missionary mentioned above, had his historical conversation with Enver Pasha about the fate of the Armenians. During the siege, some women, among which Bagradian’s wife Juliette, sewed a large banner with ‘Christen in Not, Hilfe!’, to be fastened at a rock looking out onto the sea.[xviii]

However, none of these cries for help made any difference: the consul turned out to be politically powerless, the Turkish authorities were unwilling to change course, the banner was hardly visible and soon was damaged by the wind. In the end it was a large fire on the mountain, a fire that destroyed the last remaining food supplies and much of the make-shift housing of the refugees, which alerted the French ships to the drama that is playing out on the mountain. For this particular group of a few thousand Armenians, rescue came just in time. However, in light of the unimaginable disaster that enfolded in the summer of 1915 in Turkey and Syria, it was too little, too late.



Before returning to these themes in relation to the current situation of the Christians in the Middle East, we need to zoom out and have a look at the wider context in which Werfel wrote his seminal novel.

As is probably well-known to most of you, Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler-Werfel, belonged to the vibrant circle of Viennese novelists, poets, musicians, artists, scholars and scientists. The Roman-Catholic Alma was the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, was in a relationship with the artist Oskar Kokoschka and was still married to the architect Walter Gropius when she met Werfel towards the end of 1917. Werfel was the son of a German-speaking Jewish family from Prague, whose friends from young adulthood included Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Ernst Deutsch and Willy Haas. This group of friends met regularly at the famous Café Arco.[xix] Many of them reconnected in post-war Vienna or during summer holidays in Italy. In the spring of 1938, Werfel and Alma lived in Paris, when they realized that they could not return to Austria because of the increasing number of anti-Jewish regulations. Notably, already before the publication of The Forty days of Musa Dagh in 1933, several of Werfel’s books had been blacklisted and burned in Germany.[xx]

Franz Werfel monument, Vienna (@ MvdB)

Early in 1940, the couple finally decided to leave Europe, and via a complicated journey through France and Spain they escaped to the United States just before the borders were completely closed. They settled in Beverly Hills, California, reconnecting (yet again) with many of their artistic friends from Austria and Germany.[xxi] Different from many of his German-speaking colleagues, Werfel was successful in finding new audiences for his writings. The first of these was bestseller about Bernadette Soubirous from Lourdes, which he wrote immediately after their safe arrival in the US as a tribute to the Lourdes saint, whose town had sheltered them during their flight and who, according to Werfel, had protected them on their journey.[xxii] Within a year the novel was published first in German and then in English (1941/1942) and quickly made him a name in the English-speaking world.

This brief biography and historical context suggests that Werfel’s novel about the Armenians in many respects responds to Hitler’s often quoted but not always well-understood remark of August 1933: ‘‘Who still speaks today about the destruction of the Armenians?’. Of course, I do not suggest that Werfel in any way reacted directly at Hitlers quipping, which was uttered in a closed meeting after Werfel had already started working on his novel. However, I do consider his novel as being part of a broader response of the Jewish community at what they were seeing around them.[xxiii] Werfel’s novel about the annihilation of a considerable part of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire, the precise description of how mass murder and mass expulsion were executed – including the passivity and powerlessness of onlookers inside and outside Turkey, and the in-depth analysis of the Armenian response, ‘speaks’ about the same mass murder that inspired Hitler in his attempt to annihilate the Jews of the German speaking lands.

At that point in time, Werfel could not and did not foresee that the fate of the Jews in so many respects would resemble that of the Armenians, up to systematized mass murder. However, the underlying issues of personal and communal identity under pressure of modernization and assimilation on the one hand, and nationalism and exclusion on the other, were already clearly present in the early 1930s. They formed an important theme of discussion among Werfel and his Jewish friends in Germany and Austria. The all too obvious parallels between the predicament of the Jews and the Armenians caused the book to be banned within a few months, in February 1934.[xxiv] Jews everywhere read the novel in this way, and in 1943 inspired those in the Warsaw Ghetto to a crucial act of resistance.[xxv] The Armenians adopted the novel as part of their quest for recognition, while the Turkish government felt attacked and in the early 1940s successfully prevented an American attempt to make an international movie out of it.[xxvi]

Perhaps even more than the correspondences between the fate of the two peoples, it is the response of the individual to such circumstances that forms the core theme of the novel. It is likely that Werfel’s complicated relationship to his Jewish background inspired him to explore these themes via Gabriel Bagradian’s choices vis-à-vis his family and his people. The questions put to Bagradian, about the importance of his Armenian heritage, his French-Parisian marriage and about his identification with the fate of the Armenians in the Orient, all too obviously reflect Werfel’s ambivalent relationship to Judaism, the Jewish people and Jewishness more generally – issues that came to the fore especially in his relationship with the practicing Roman-Catholic Alma.[xxvii] In the period when the novel was conceived and written, Werfel, more than in his younger years, had started to become aware of his deep and ongoing connection to the Jewish community, while at the same time, both religiously and communally, rejects being restricted to it. In fact, in other writings he explicitly espouses a kind of inter-religiosity in which Judaism and Christianity (in particular Catholicism) are seen as overlapping spiritual systems that refer to the same eternal and transcendent truth. Both spiritual worlds have their historical and theological justifications, and Werfel, rather than choosing for one or the other (which many in his circle of family and friends urged him to do) wants to move in both circles simultaneously, taking religion in a uniquely personal and mystical way.[xxviii]


Christians in and out of the Middle East

It is hardly necessary to explicate the many parallels between scenes described by Werfel in Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh and the situation of Christians in the contemporary Middle East. Themes like the search for integrating personal and communal identities in a context of local and geopolitical turmoil, against the background of international paralysis in finding ways to fundamentally change the course of events, are as clearly present today as they were in 1915 and 1933.

Even if perhaps labelling the actions of Daesh/IS against the Christians of Syria and Iraq as genocide in international law might not hold up to legal scrutiny (as it has for the Yezidi community in North Iraq), there can be no doubt that the killing, expulsion and abduction of Christians have an impact far beyond the numbers of the people involved, with effects very close to those of systematic genocide.[xxix] As many have realized, it were especially those Christians whose ancestors had survived the massacres and deportations of 1915 and had been resettled in the northern and northeastern provinces of Syria, that were hit especially hard in the last four to five years. The Armenians of the Kessab-region, the Syriac-Orthodox around Homs and Qaryatain (Mar Eliyas), and the Assyrians of the Khabur were among those that were forced to flee their homes while those who could not make it were taken as hostages. Chaldeans, Syriac-Catholics and the Syriac Orthodox of Mosul and the larger Christian villages of Qaraqosh, Bartilla and Telkef also had to flee their homes en masse when Daesh captured these regions. While by now many of these areas have been recaptured (showing also the full extent of destruction), Christians are reluctant to return. Some have already acquired visa for safe countries elsewhere (especially US, Canada, Australia), but even those living as refugees in Kurdish North-Iraq or neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, are hesitant to return. Recently, the situation in Egypt deteriorated. Starting from attacks on the Christians in the Sinai peninsula, the Palm Sunday attacks at two churches shock the world, being followed by yet another horrendous attack on Friday May 26 on a bus with Christian pilgrims.

None of these events count as government persecutions in the strict sense, being mostly sponsored and executed by extremist groups whose funding tends to come from sources outside the countries involved (among which might indeed be governments). However, the recent violence has made Christians become very much aware that these extremist acts could take place only because larger segments of the population and perhaps even segments of the government were silently allowing such attacks to take place. While in all countries there have been courageous neighbors, police officers, security officials, public servants and religious leaders who not only condemned such violence but who also actively worked towards preventing them, at the same time there were many who remained silent, or worse, who actively supported the extremists in their attempts to scare away the Christians, profiting from their houses and businesses after they left.

Even if violence directed specifically at Christians was and will remain the exception in the larger violent record of the years of strive in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, it has reinforced a profound sense of fragility of Christians in today’s Middle East, making them realize even more that as an ever shrinking minority, they are utterly  dependent on the goodwill of one’s neighbors – a goodwill that can never be taken for granted and that might change every moment.

Like the Armenians in 1915, and like the Jews in 1933, the Christians in the Middle East are easily scapegoated for the many evils that continue to beset the region, especially because they are seen as complicit with the Western interventions which from the early 1990s had such a devastating impact on the region as a whole. What is more, there are strong indications that Daesh consciously employs the fact that the Christians’ fate is covered in the Western press, making these attacks part of their media strategy of fueling the fears of Western conservatives (as they use destroying monuments to heighten the fears of the progressives).

The current destabilizing of the region also warrants the conclusion that earlier attempts to unite the region’s many different religious, regional and ethnic groups under the banner of national or transnational Arabism, no longer work. In the middle decades of the twentieth century societal modernization and political secularization did a reasonably good job in integrating Jews and Christians into the fabric of the newly formed Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.[xxx] The developments of last quarter of the previous century, however, have made it clear that crucial issues have not been solved. How does one deal with political Islam in a society that is ostensively neutral? How does one counter covert discrimination of non-Muslims when Islam still plays a major role in the public imagination? How does one further ongoing societal, cultural and political integration when the officially neutral state for many civil law purposes still maintains the older communitarian system that safeguards the boundaries between religious communities?[xxxi]

Over the years, many Christians have chosen to build up new lives in western countries, in Europe, the Americas and Australia. Living in the diaspora, however, brings with it its own set of problems, dilemma’s very similar to the ones described by Werfel for the Armenian Gabriel Bagradian (and thus informed mostly by the dilemmas of the Jews of the German-speaking lands in the 1930s). Language and religion are both crucial: how does one participate fully in a western society if at the same time one is convinced that preserving language and religion is the only way to preserving a people that is under threat? How does one find space to learn and use more than one language, identify with more than one group, and simultaneously preserve a unique form of Christianity in Western societies that – not so different from those in the Middle East – tend to see diversity as a threat and secular mono-culture as the norm? And how, in all this, do the personal and the communal intertwine?

Questions like this have been part of migrant communities everywhere, and certainly also of those Middle Eastern Christians who arrived in Europe in earlier periods. With the arrival of new immigrants, refugees from Syria and Iraq, Muslim and Christian, they once more become acute.[xxxii]

One of the most important questions that Werfel addresses in his novel is the one about personal and communal responsibility in extreme situations. What should outsiders do, what should a community do and what should each individual person do? Werfel is no naïve optimist: he is very much aware of the limits of what can be done in situations of extreme violence such as those that befell the Armenians. Whether one chooses to describe it as fate or divine providence: there are situations in which human freedom to choose is restricted to a bare minimum. However, Werfel takes Bagradian’s choice for resistance and leadership in face of internal and external opposition as the leading thread of his narrative, underlining his faith in the positive contribution of individual choices.

Werfel is also pessimistic about the possibilities of outside support for those in need. This is the case not only because many outsiders are not really interested in what happens to people in need, but also because for those that do care, options are limited. As Werfel notes (and is backed by historical evidence both about Armenians and other Christians), some Armenians were hidden and saved by friendly neighbors, some were sheltered during their flight, some local mayors withstood political and military pressure to hand over Christians to the troops that were set out to get them. However, Bagradian’s, Lepsius’ and the American ambassador’s attempts came to naught, the German military who were in the field and saw what happened to the Armenians kept notes but almost never interfered. In the end it is only the French warships that through a combination of luck and determination were able to save a few thousand Armenians. For all other Armenians, the rest of the world was unable to do little more than providing relief after the worst was over.

Werfel’s pessimistic (or perhaps one should say realistic) estimation of what the world could do in situations such as these, did not prevent him from telling the story of what happened. Because that is what matters to him as a novelist: it is not just about earning one’s living, about celebrating the heroic choices of the individual, about making up his mind about where he stands as a European German-speaking Jew married to a Catholic woman. It is about telling the story, about continuing the narrative about identities, choices, survival and continuation – based on the conviction that for the author telling the story is the best possible response to Hitler’s hubris.



The first conclusion to my reading of Werfel’s Musa Dagh, therefore, is that storytelling might provide an alternative route to understanding marginalization, forced migration and genocide. This is true for the situation of today’s Christians as much as it is for the ongoing narratives of the Armenian and Jewish genocides. In this, it is important to take note of Werfel’s double perspective: marginalization and exclusion is never about one group only. When and where the genocide on Syriac and Armenian Christians is allowed to be forgotten, space is created for new forms of exclusion and expulsion, of Jews, Christians, Yezidis, Muslims, on religious, ethnic and social minorities everywhere in the world. Such a layered and inclusive perspective also prevents us from understanding the problem of Middle Eastern Christians merely as part of a world-wide war against Christians, or, the other way round, of down-playing it to merely the results of local tensions. As Werfel shows for the Armenian case, both Armenians inside and outside the Ottoman Empire, and non-Armenians in and outside the region, are involved. Some aspects of the violence are to be explained purely local, but, like in WWI, international and transnational actors are crucial in understanding what happens. Like the Germans and the French in WWI, today’s major powers often have conflicting interests to which those of the region’s most vulnerable groups are clearly subservient.

Such a complicated narrative is well served by a novel, because a novel thrives by allowing different and conflicting perspectives to be heard. And perhaps the difference between novels and scholarly texts is not as big as one is inclined to think, especially when one avoids reading the novel as the literal truth and the scholar’s work as the end of all discussion.[xxxiii] In this way, Werfel’s novel about the Armenian genocide, further developed by ongoing artistic imagination and by ongoing academic research, contributed to the recent German discussions about the recognition of the Armenian genocide – allowing not only for discussing Turkish responsibility, but also German complicity in what happened.[xxxiv]

It is in this way that I see ourselves, students of the history and current situation of Christians in the Middle East, as narrators of complicated stories, allowing for multiple perspectives and interpretations, and thus contributing not only to a better understanding of what happened and happens in the Middle East, but also to our own complicity in the global narrative, concerning vulnerable minorities in our home societies as much as the ongoing Western involvement in what happens in the Middle East. The story of the Middle Eastern Christians continues to evolve in many different ways, in the region as much as in the transnational diaspora. Researching and telling it also involves continuous engagement with it. And from the particularities of the story of this specific part of the Christianity, we return time and again to the enduring questions about the condition humaine, about individual and community, inclusion and exclusion, belief and unbelief.

It is from this perspective that I am convinced that our knowledge of and involvement with the story of the Christians of the Middle East makes our work relevant not only to our students and colleagues, not only to those belonging to these communities or to Christians more generally. Sure, the work that we do in history, theology, religious studies and the wider humanities has a lot to contribute to understanding the complexity of the socio-political and cultural-religions situation in the Middle East, as well to understanding the specific character of orthodoxy within wider world Christianity.

However, it is precisely the ongoing exchange between the particular and the general, between the particular circumstances of this one group of Christians and the circumstances of so many groups in distress all over world, between the specific situation in the Middle East, and that of many societies in conflict, that makes our contribution relevant to a much wider public. Understanding the dynamics of majorities and minorities, of the role of religion and language in modern day societies, are of crucial importance in building strong and inclusive societies – in the Middle East and in the West, in North and in South.[xxxv]

There are no easy solutions fort the complicated societal questions of today. There is no simple recipe for how to live together. But as much as we need good medicine, solid well-built bridges and healthy crops, we need stories, multiple stories, to understand our past and our future, our shared past and our shared future. And whether we are personally inspired by religious faith or not, whatever kind of rituals we participate in to structure our lives, religion forms an intrinsic part of the stories that have constituted our world. Without understanding these stories we do not understand ourself and we will not understand the other.



[i] This piece is the translation of my inaugural address given on December 2, 2016, at Radboud University (Nijmegen, Netherlands) on the occasion of the official acceptance of the special chair of Eastern Christian Studies. Compared to the Dutch original (‘Christen in Not! Hilfe!’ Franz Werfels Musa Dagh (1933) en het verhaal van de geesteswetenschappen, Radboud Universiteit 2016) this version is slightly expanded as to notes and references, and shortened as to the traditional ‘Thank you’ at the end. May 5, 2017, I presented this English version during the yearly meeting of the Gesellschaft zum Studium des Christlichen Ostens in Salzburg. Thanks are due to many people who in one way or another contributed to the discussions underlying this piece (see the Dutch version), but friend and colleague Theo van Lint, professor of Armenian Studies in Oxford who advised me many years ago to read this novel, deserves to be singled out.

[ii] Alma Mahler, Mein Leben (1960): ‘Ach, diese armen Geschöpfe, die klaube ich auf der Straße auf und gebe ihnen zehn Piaster pro Tag, damit sie nicht verhungern. Es sind die Kinder der von den Türken erschlagenen Armenier. Wenn ich sie hier nicht beherberge, verhungern sie, und niemand kümmert sich darum. Leisten können sie ja nicht das geringste, sie sind zu schwach dazu.’; Peter Stephan Jungk, Franz Werfel: Eine Lebensgeschichte (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1987/2006), 189; Werfel himself dates the visit to late 1929, but other sources suggest that early 1930 is more likely; see Junck (basing himself on the diary of Arthur Schnitzler), so Jungk also in Roy Knocke, Werner Treß (eds), Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern (Europäisch-jüdische Studien – Beiträge – De Gruyter 2015), ‘Franz Werfel – ein Weltfreund zwischen den Welten’, 7-19, and Andreas Meijer, idem, ‘Franz Werfel und Armin T. Wegner in Palästina’, 62-3.

[iii] Prologue Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (uitgave Köln: Anaconda, 2016; abbreviated VTMD), spring 1933 (‘the unfathomable fate of the Armenian people’).

[iv] Jungk, Franz Werfel, 192, 204-5. He uses the Lepsius correspondence (see note 10) and materials and conversations with eyewitness and Protestant Armenian pastor Dikran Andreasian (one of the few persons who appears more or less as himself in the novel). Additionally, Werfel uses a lot of ethnographic materials, checked out the weather in that period and used his knowledge of military matters (he had been conscripted during WWI) to describe the battles between Armenians and Turks. On the Armenians of the region, see also Vahram Leon Shemmassian, The Armenian villagers of Musa Dagh: A historical-ethnographic study, 1840-1915 (University of California, Los Angeles, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1996), and the interesting blog Musadagh.

[v] Jungk, Franz Werfel, 213, 401 (Paul Zsolnay Verlag).

[vi] Quotations in English are from this recent translation: Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, translated by Geoffrey Dunlop and James Reidel, with a preface by Vartan Gregorian (Boston: David R. Godine, 2012).

[vii] See the studies by Jungk, Franz Werfel: Eine Lebensgeschichte, Lionel Bradley Steiman, Franz Werfel, The Faith of an Exile: from Prague to Beverly Hills (Waterloo Ontario: Wilfried Laurier University Press, 1985) and Hans Wagener, Understanding Franz Werfel (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993). A recent volume edited by Roy Knocke and Werner Treß (eds), Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern (Europäisch-jüdische Studien. Beiträge; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015) discusses Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh in a broader context. The first English translation, made by Geoffrey Dunlop, was published in 1934 by Viking Press and was an immediate success; various attempts to produce a movie (first by Metro-Goldwyn-Maier) were prevented by Turkish intervention, see the introduction by James Reidel in the 2012 English translation, and Raffi Kantian, ‘Von Musa Dagh nach Hollywood und zurück. Franz Werfels Roman als Object diplomatischer Verwicklungen,’ in Knocke en Treß (eds), Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern, 131-9. For the book’s  publication history, see Steiman, Franz Werfel, 209-210 and Hacik Gazer, ‘Die armenische Übersetzung von Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh: Eine Spurensuche,’ in Knocke en Treß (eds), Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern, 148-65. The first Dutch translation was published in 1938 by De Pauw in Amsterdam, translated by R.H.G. Nahuys (latest probably in 1981, Elseviers). Recently Das blassblaue Frauenschrift (1940) was translated into Dutch (Het bleekblauwe handschrift van een vrouw) by Marc Rummens and published by Uitgeverij Vrijdag (Antwerpen, 2016). See also David Welky, ‘Global Hollywood Versus National Pride: The Battle to Film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh’, Film Quarterly (2006) 59/3.

[viii] For an introduction into the historiography of the Armenian genocide, see Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2006), The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), Ugur Ümit Üngör, The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-50 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), Vahakn Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus (Berghahn Books, 2003), and with due attention to the Ottoman context, Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans. The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 (London: Allen Lane, 2015/ Penguin, 2016). The historiography for the effects on the Syriac/Assyrian/Chaldean population is less extensive, but growing; see David Gaunt, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia During World War I (Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press 2006), David Gaunt, Naures Atto, and Soner O. Barthoma (eds), Let them not Return: Sayfo – The Genocide Against the Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean Christians in the Ottoman Empire (New York/Oxford: Berghan Books, 2017), and Florence Hellot-Bellier, Chroniques de massacres annoncés: Les Assyro-Chaldéens d’Iran en du Hakkari face aux ambition des empire, 1896-1920 (Paris: Geuthner, 2014). On humanitarian assistance, see Keith David Watenpaugh, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Oakland, CA: CUP, 2015).

[ix] Jungk, Franz Werfel, 216-8.

[x] Johannes Lepsius, Deutschland und Armenien, 1914-1918: Sammlung diplomatischer Aktenstücke (Potsdam: Der Tempelverlag, 1919); Steiman, Franz Werfel, 81-3; see further Herman Golz, ‘Interferenz zwischen Humanität und Genozid: Der Disput zwischen Johannes Lepsius und Enver Pascha, Konstantinopel, 10. August 1915’, in Martin Tamcke, Orientalische Christen und Europa: Kulturbegegnung zwischen Interferenz, Partizipation und Antizipation (Göttinger Orientforschungen: Syriaca Band 41; Harrasowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden, 2012), 71-91, and in the same volume, Martin Tamcke, Sven Grebenstein, ‘‘Vor den letzten Spuren eines untergegangenen Volkes’, Armin T. Wegners Kriegstagebuch vom 23. September bis 31. Oktober 1916’, 241-66 en Tigrin Sarukhanyan, ‘Armin T. Wegner’s WWI Media Testimonies and the Armenian Genocide’, 267-79.

[xi] VTMD 14, ‘Der Entfremdete’ who had been sympathetic to the Young Turk’s ideal of the Ottoman Empire, where ‘die Rassen friedlich und ohne Entehrung nebeneinander leben.’

[xii] VTMD 989: ‘Mit unbeschreiblicher Sicherheit erfüllt ihn das Einzig-Mögliche. Er hat das Schicksal seines Blutes geteilt. Er hat den Kampf seines Heimatvolkes geführt. Ist aber der neue Gabriel nicht mehr als Blut? Ist der neue Gabriel nicht mehr als ein Armenier? Früher hat er sich zu Unrecht als «abstrakter Mensch» als «Mensch an sich» gefühlt. Er mußte zuerst durch jenen Pferch der Gemeinschaft hindurch, um es wahrhaft zu werden.’; Steiman (86-7), who sees Bagradian as very close to Werfel himself, suggests that in the end Werfel made different choices from his heroic alter ego Bagradian. I tend to think that precisely the position of the ‘Mensch an sich’, who ultimately makes his own choices, is very close to Werfel’s own position. On this theme, see Reidel’s introduction (2012) and Rachel Kirby, The Culturally Complex Individual: Franz Werfel’s Reflections on Minority Identity and Historical Depiction in the Forty Days of Musa Dagh (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1999).

[xiii] Here ‘identity’ mostly in the third meaning as distinguished by Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper in ‘Beyond ‘Identity’,’ Theory and Society (2000), 29:1-47, p. 7. Werfel, not so different from the emphases of recent research, avoids to describe this type of ‘identity’ as essentialist, primoridal and unchanging.

[xiv] VTMD 24: ‘Hat er ihm seine Frage auch Armenisch gestellt? Für gewöhnlich reden sie französisch miteinander. Die armenischen Worte des Sohnes berühren den Vater seltsam. Er wird sich dessen bewußt, daß er in Stephan weit öfter einen französischen als einen armenischen Jungen gesehn hat.’; on the relationship between language and religion Werfel wrote in 1925 (after his first visit to the Middle East): ‘Aber letzten Ende macht der Sprache ein Volk. Und Sprache ist die Gesamtheid des Ausdrucks, also auch Miene, Tonfall, Gebärde – Ausdrucksrasse.’ See Andreas Meijer, ‘Frans Werfel und Armin T. Wegner in Palästina,’ in Knocke, Treß (eds), Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern, 60-61, quoting from Zwischen oben und unten, 709. Werfel is extremely critical about the nationalism of his time, he sees it as one of the main causes of genocidal practices.

[xv] So in the final chapter, but see also VTMD 398; after the first successful battle against the Turks, Werfel writes about ‘einen dritten Bagradian, den eigentliche und wahren. Dieser aber wankte ohne Körper und ohne Heimat zwischen den beiden anderen.‘

[xvi] The term seems to have different nuances, depending on the context; sometimes it is the ‘Oriental’ interpreation of kismet that should be resisted (VTMD 145-6), sometimes the term refers to divine providence (148), sometimes to geopolitical decisions that decide the fate of subservient people (154); most often it refers to the fate of the ‘blood’, of the Armenian people (641, 962, 989).

[xvii] Werfels describes the rapid modernization process, in combination with rising nationalisms as one of the main reasons for genocide, see Oliver Kohns, ‘Tragödie der Modernisierung: Zu Franz Werfels Interpretation des Genozids in seinem Roman „Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh’,’ Literarkritik.de: Rezensionsforum, 7/4/15.

[xviii] VTMD 354, ‘eine Aufschrift in franzözischer und englischer Sprache’.

[xix] Jungk, Franz Werfel, 31-5. See also Hans Dieter Zimmerman, ‘Franz Werfel und die Prager deutsche Literatur’, in Knocke, Treß (eds), Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern, 23-33.

[xx] Spring 1933, see Jungk, Franz Werfel, 208-209.

[xxi] Thomas en Heinrich Mann, Alfred Döblin, Bertolt Brecht en Arnold Schönberg lived close to the Werfels, see (Jungk, Franz Werfel, 287-8). Werfel and his wife fled together with Heinrich Mann, his wife Nelly Kröger and their nephew Golo Mann (Jungk 279ff).

[xxii] Das Lied von Bernadette: Historischer Roman (1941) / Song of Bernadette (1942); the movie came out in 1943, see Jungk, Franz Werfel, 297, 305.

[xxiii] ‘Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?’ Werfel was not the only German-language author writing about the Armenians, see Wolf Gruner, ‘‘Peregrinations into the Void?’ German Jews and their Knowledge about the Armenian Genocide during the Third Reich’, Central European History 45,1 (2012), pp. 1-26; Richard Albrecht, ‘Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?’- Kommentierte Wiederveröffentlichung der Erstpublikation von Adolf Hitlers Geheimrede am 22. August 1939; Zeitschrift für Weltgeschichte 9 (2008) 2, 115–132. Another important author was Armin T. Wegner, see note 10;

[xxiv] Jungk, Franz Werfel, 215-6, Februari 1934; This was not his first novel to be banned; Werfel wrote at the time: ‘In Deutschland  werde ich aus dem Buch und aus den Büchern der Lebendigen gestrichen, und da ich doch schließlich ein deutscher Autor bin, hänge ich im leeren Weltraum.’ See also Steiman’s precise analysis (Franz Werfel, 76-7); he emphasizes how the novel is mostly about Werfel’s struggle with his identity ‘as a central-European Jew’, more than about the future of the Jews in Nazi-dominated Germany.

[xxv] See the introduction by Knocke and Treß, Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern, 1; they refer to the posthumously published volume of essays by Arcadius Kahan, Essays in Jewish Social and Economic History (Ed. Roger Weiss; Chicago 1986, 180ff). See also Edna S. Friedberg, ‘How Novel About Armenian Genocide Became Bestseller in Warsaw Ghetto’, Forward (17/4/15). The exchange is ongoing, see Yiddishkayt.

[xxvi] See note 6; Vienna features an Armenian monument for Werfel (Ohan Petrosian, Schillerplatz, Vienna: ‘In Dankbarkeit und Hochachtung das Armenische Volk’).

[xxvii] Steiman (Franz Werfel, 77) suggests that the relationship between Gabriel Bagradian and his wife Juliette is mostly based on Franz Werfel’s marriage with Alma, although Werfel’s marriage withstood the test of pressure and flight. Note, by the way, Werfel’s highly gendered notions of heroism and resistance, active for men, passive for women and some men.

[xxviii] Olga Koller, ‘Judentum und Christentum im Leben und Werk Franz Werfels’ in Knocke en Treß (eds), Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern, 34-43, Jungk, Franz Werfel, 306-8. Werfel further elaborates on the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism in his last futuristic novel, Stern der Ungeborenen (1945). He finished this novel days before he died, and in it he portrays Catholicism as the only surviving and still-being practiced religion in the distant future, while Judaism, the only other religion around, survived as the religion of one family of which only a father and his son have remained.

[xxix] See the discussion in the European parliament (Christian Post, 5/2/16), the US (Newsweek 17/3/16; ), and the UK (The Guardian, 20/4/16).

[xxx] These are the central questions in our research program, support by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NOW): Arabic and its Alternatives: Religious Minorities in the Formative Years of the Modern Middle East (1920-1950) (2012-2017); see S.R. Goldstein-Sabbah, H.L Murre-van den Berg (eds), Modernity, Minority, and the Public Sphere: Jews and Christians in the Middle East (Leiden Studies in Islam and Society 4, Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[xxxi] For some early discussions of the short and especially long-term consequences of the current crisis, see Najib George Awad, And Freedom Became a Public-Square: Political, Sociological and Religious Overviews on the Arab Christians and the Arabic Spring (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012) and Matthew Barber, ‘They That Remain: Syrian and Iraqi Christian Communities amid the Syria Conflict and the Rise of the Islamic State’, in Allen D. Hertzke, Timothy Samuel Shah (eds), Christianity and Freedom: Contemporary Perspectives II (Cambridge Studies in Law and Christianity; Cambridge University Press, 2016), 453-88.

[xxxii] For the Dutch context, see A.J. Schukkink, De Suryoye: een verborgen gemeenschap; een historisch-antropologische studie van een Enschedese vluchtelingengemeenschap afkomstig uit het Midden-Oosten (Diss. VU, 2003), Naures Atto, Hostages in the Homeland, Orphans in the Diaspora: Identity Discourses Among the Assyrian/Syriac Elites in the European Diaspora (Diss. Leiden, 2011; Leiden University Press), and Sarah Bakker, Fragments of a Liturgical World: Syriac Christianity and the Dutch Multicultural Debates (Diss. University of California, Santa Cruz, 2013).

[xxxiii] Put differently, in relation to historical research, the novel may function at two different levels: first as a reflection of the time in which it was written, and thus as a primary source for understanding that period (in this case: mostly Austria in the early thirties), and second, as an instrument to describe, analyze and understand the world, in a way parallel to academic historic writing, often with similar implicit or explicit aims to change it for the better. For the second aspect, see also H.G. Wells, ‘The Contemporary Novel’, An Englishman Looks at the World: Being a Series of Unrestrained Remarks upon Contemporary Matters (London 1914), esp. 148, 167-8 (I thank Leiden colleague prof. Ernestine van der Wall for this reference): ‘it [the novel] is to be the social mediator, the vehicle of understanding, the instrument of self-examination, the parade of morals and the exchange of manners, the factory of customs, the criticism of laws and institutions and of social dogmas and ideas. It is to be the home confessional, the initiator of knowledge, the seed of fruitful self-questioning.’

[xxxiv] Parliamentary recognition was decided on at June 1, 2016; see Fabian Nitschmann und Annett Meiritz in Spiegel Online, 31/5/2016; See also the theater play ‘Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh’ door regisseur Nuran David Calis in het Münchner Residenztheater (mei 2016); Anke Dürr, Spiegel Online, 14/5/2016. For the scholarly contribution, see Knocke and Treß (2015).

[xxxv] Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton/Oxford: PUP, 2016).

4 thoughts on “#23 Franz Werfel’s Musa Dagh (1933) and the Christians of the Middle East

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