2015 marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, the first of the many genocides in the 20th century. Between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians died, mostly through exhaustion and disease, after they were forced out of their homes and sent on death marches into the Syrian desert.

This tragedy has its literary monument, its War and Peace, in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel by the Austrian writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) which was published in 1933.

Musa Dagh, or Mount Moses, is the Armenian name for a low mountain overlooking the Mediterranean near the border with Syria and not far from Cyprus. It was there that the residents of several Armenian villages fled in 1915 in the hope of resisting the Turks until French or British help arrived. The Turks mounted three attacks and each time were repulsed. Eventually, after a 56-day siege, French warships appeared and evacuated about 5,000 men, women and children. In his novel, Werfel compressed the action into 40 days to heighten the religious symbolism of the villagers’ heroic resistance.

The Armenian genocide was just one of many tragedies in World War I. Despite its enormity, it was quickly forgotten by war-weary Europeans and Americans. A week before the invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler is said to have told his Wehrmacht commanders “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The man who kept memories alive, however, was not even an Armenian. Franz Werfel, an Austrian-Czech Jew, was one of the best-known novelists writing in German between the wars. In 1929 he was travelling in Syria where he saw “maimed and famished-looking refugee children working in a carpet factory”. He was told that these were Armenian orphans whose parents had perished in the massacres and deportations. This inspired him to explore the complex background to the Armenians’ fate and to write the meticulously-researched book which became his masterpiece.

The novel was controversial from the day of its publication in November 1933. That was the year that Hitler had come to power in Germany and Forty Days could easily be read as a veiled critique of Nazi fanaticism and racism. The Young Turks’ dream of racially pure Turkey paralleled Hitler’s talk of a pure Aryan Reich. Its message to Jews was clear: what the Turks did to the Armenians, the Germans could do to you.

By February 1934 the book was banned in Germany and then in Turkey. However, it became a best-seller in an English translation. MGM bought the film rights; Clark Gable was to play Gabriel Bagradian, the leader of the Armenians. But the Turkish government was outraged and applied immense pressure on the US State Department and MGM. The project was scrapped.

For many years The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was out of print in English. But a couple of years ago it was reissued in a revised 900-page translation, expanded with passages which had been expurgated from the original edition. (A few passages must have been quite harrowing for naive readers of the 1930s.)

To learn about the tragedy of the Armenians, there is no better introduction than The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Werfel is regarded as a hero in Armenia. He worked hard to make the novel a faithful reflection of the political and social movements of the day.

But his novel transcends the historical circumstances and becomes a tale of heroic resistance against all evil and oppression. Back in 1934 the New York Times described it as a story “story which must rouse the emotions of all human beings… a story of men accepting the fate of heroes… It gives us the lasting sense of participation in a stirring episode of history.” Apparently it was one of the most popular books in the Warsaw Ghetto, and it inspired the Jews in their doomed uprising in 1943.

I suspect that J.R.R. Tolkien may have read it, too, as some episodes in The Lord of the Rings, another novel about a seemingly hopeless but heroic struggle against a cruel oppressor, echo scenes in Forty Days. Tolkien’s orcs are like the bestial Turks and Frodo’s journey through the Dead Marshes of Mordor resembles a desperate attempt by two youths to seek help from an American consul in a nearby city.

The central character is Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy Armenian who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years. He is married to an elegant French woman and they have a son, Stephan, who speaks not a word of Armenian. They are paying a visit to his forefathers’ village when word filters through of the deportations and the slaughter, rape, starvation, disease and death that followed.

The residents of the villages scattered around Musa Dagh, inspired by Bagradian and an imposing priest, Ter Haigasun, flee to a plateau at the top of the mountain. Bagradian had served loyally in Turkish campaigns in the Balkans as an artillery officer. Now he uses his military skills to defend his people. Ter Haigasun’s iron will and piety bind the squabbling villagers together.

The Turks are repelled three times with brilliant tactics, but there is no defense against starvation. Just as the Armenians are about to collapse, the French navy arrives, almost miraculously. The exhausted Bagradian stays behind and is killed over his son’s grave as Turkish troops storm the empty camp.

Forty Days is also a psychological and moral drama about the clash of cultures – not just Armenians against Turks and Christianity against Islam, but also Western secularism against the mysticism of the East, and urban decadence against the robust health of village life.

Werfel is far from being a foe of the Turks or of Islam. In some incidents, compassionate Turks protect Armenians. A Sufi leader even tries to bring the starving villagers food. There were many “righteous” Muslims who did what they could to save the Armenians.

Instead, Werfel lays the blame clearly on three men, Enver Pasha, the War Minister, Talaat Pasha and Djemal Pasha, the triumvirate that ruled the wartime Ottoman Empire. Werfel’s account of Enver Pasha’s interview with a Protestant Germany missionary gives a chilling insight into the mind of a totalitarian ruler. Lepsius, the missionary, says that he would renounce his homeland if it ground its citizens into the dust. And Enver replies, “Sad for Germany if many other people think as you do there. A sign that your people lack the strength to enforce its national will relentlessly.” Apparently this is a faithful report of a real conversation.

In some respects The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is a novel of its time, filled with vague mysticism, racial and social stereotypes, and stereotyped characters, especially women. But in ways that not even its author imagined, it was prophetic, not just of the Jewish Holocaust, but of the horrors of all the totalitarian ideologies which have emerged since World War I. Only a few months ago, a few thousand inoffensive Yazidis sought refuge on a mountain in Iraq while Islamic State troops below schemed to slaughter the men and sell the women into slavery. As long as the world honours heroes, this is not a book that will go out of date. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.