ON THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE: FRANZ WERFEL’S THE FORTY DAYS OF MUSA DAGH

These days the Armenian genocide is back on the news thanks to the law passed by the French Senate criminalising its denial (see, for instance, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16677986). This law, proposed by Sarkozy’s party and sanctioned by him as President, is quite similar to the corresponding German law that makes it a criminal offence to deny the Jewish Holocaust. Sarkozy is himself of Jewish descent, which might have something to do with the passing of this law; the Turkish government, however, attributes it to the electoral interests vested on the 500,000 million French citizens of Armenian descent living now in France. The Turks have threatened to sever their many business and political ties with France, and have angrily argued that France should acknowledge the genocide committed in Algeria before accusing innocent nations of false crimes.

As happens, I’m supervising a PhD dissertation in Comparative Literature on the literary representations of the Armenian genocide in novels written in three different languages: Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933, German); Antonia Arslan’s Skylark Farm (2004, Italian) and Gonzalo Hernández Guarch’s El árbol armenio (2002, no English translation). As a result of doing research connected with the First World War, I realised the Holocaust had much to do with it, particularly as regards the implementation of technology to eliminate great masses of human bodies and the rise of Nazism (marked partly by Hitler’s experiences in the trenches). I spent quite a while reading and reading about the Jewish Holocaust –I still do– in particular in relation to its representation in popular American texts (like the film Schindler’s List or the TV series Holocaust). When, out of the blue, this Armenian doctoral student, Anna Manukyan, emailed the Department asking for help I volunteered. I’m learning so much more than she…

My position on the Armenian genocide is very simple: it happened, it must be acknowledged. Just like the Jewish Holocaust it was carried out under cover of a major world war but it was not part of the war. Those responsible for it in Turkey are NOT all the Turks and I believe that the drama of its denial will only end when the Turkey Government realises that they should draw a very clear line separating modern Turkey from the excesses committed by the Young Turks’ party almost a 100 years ago. The Germans did that and although the whole nation asked for forgiveness, it’s clear to everyone (I hope) that the Nazis were to blame, not every single German down until our days. Likewise, Spain has much to atone for in relation to the multiple genocides committed in South America and I think it’s about time we ask publicly for pardon. The genocide committed by Franco’s regime on the Civil War’s Red losers is, of course, so impossible to acknowledge that Judge Garzón is now being tried for attempting to investigate it. I do understand Turkey’s chagrin, fear and mistrust at being asked to declare their guilt over such horror but it must be acknowledged. Same regarding the French and Algeria, and a long, sad etc. all over the world.

Read The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, please. Werfel was an Austro-Bohemian Jew –a colleague of another illustrious Franz, Kafka– who found in the Armenian genocide the perfect example to warn all European Jews of what might soon happen. 1933, when the book was published, was the year of Hitler’s rise to power; 1935 saw the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. Fancy Werfel touring Germany, as he did, to unmask the already forgotten reality of the Armenian tragedy, which he knew first hand from a journey to the Middle East in which he met a handful of survivors. He had to flee Europe, sure enough, chased by the Nazis, and find refuge in the USA. His novel was at the time an immense best-seller –criticised as anti-Turkish propaganda. It’s an immense work, not only because of its length (800 to 900 pages, depending on the edition), but also because of the intensity of the events it narrates. I was really astonished by its classic literary quality and disappointed that a novel like this one is not hailed as a major work. Excuse my ignorance, but I had never heard of it. Ironically, Amazon.co.uk has no copies available of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh but it still offers Werfel’s other best-seller, written after an emotional visit to Lourdes, The Song of Bernadette (1941). The excellent Spanish translation (Losada, 2003), which I read, is, fortunately, available.

I forgot to say that the Armenian genocide was so savage that the German military officers working then in Turkey (Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies during World War I), were appalled. The motivation, by the way, was partly ethnic and partly religious, as the Armenians are Christians. I never thought I would write this but the Jewish Holocaust was more humane (my God!), with the Nazis struggling to find the fastest, most effective method to eliminate the victims (hence Zyklon-B). In contrast, the Armenians were rounded up by paramilitary forces of dubious composition, forced to leave their homes taking roads leading nowhere, and left to die after being abused and starved. Most Armenian women were, besides, raped.

I always wonder where the genocide deniers of any kind think the missing millions have gone to. 2015, just around the corner, marks the hundredth anniversary of the violent vanishing of 1,5 million human beings. Let’s hope that by then this loss is no longer denied for the sake of the Armenian nation and for all our sakes.

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