Sunday, April 25, 2021

Commemorating the Armenian Genocide of 1915

This weekend, President Biden named the Armenian genocide of 1915 correctly: a genocide. The Washington Post today published a background article on the subject. It begins: “The word genocide was coined in 1944 by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin, who lost 49 members of his Jewish family in the Holocaust.” And continues with a history of the horrifying events that began in April, 1915. From the article:

On April 24, 1915, the government arrested about 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals. This is seen by many as the beginning of the massacre, and April 24 now marks Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. In the following months, most of those Armenian leaders were killed. The military forced Armenian villagers from their homes and on long, cruel marches to concentrations camps in what is now northern Syria and Iraq. Many of them died along the way; others died in the camps of starvation and thirst. Meanwhile, irregular forces and locals rounded up Armenians in their villages and slaughtered them. Historians estimate that between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died.” (source)
A few years ago, I wrote about the most famous book about the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, written in 1933. Today I decided to republish this blog post to celebrate the long-overdue recognition of this horror story. The Turkish government has succeeded in pretending that these events never happened, and in pressuring every American president to go along with their pretense. Now this is no longer the case.

 The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

“The most horrible thing that had been done was not that a whole people had been exterminated, but that a whole people, God’s children, had been dehumanized.” –  The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, 2012 edition, p. 727)

I found The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – which I had never before read in any form -- amazing in a number of ways. I devoured the dense, nearly 900 page novel in just a few days, unable to put it down. I read the newly-published translation of Franz Werfel’s 1933 masterpiece, which includes about 25% more narrative than the previous English version.

I should write a long review, including some research into Werfel himself, but right now I only want to cover a few generalities about the wonderful quality of the book.

First, I admired Werfel’s research into the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks. I think the history of these events was already being suppressed by the late 1920s when Werfel began writing. His description of the ragged, starving, perishing Armenian masses of men, women, and children from the village of Zeitun was vivid. His descriptions of the Turkish authorities and their rationale for the genocide (not yet given a name) were overwhelming.

The day-by-day description of the people of seven Armenian villages near the Syrian coast who hid in the woods on the mountain Musa Dagh and resisted the deportation to nowhere being inflicted by the Turks is powerfully drawn. Each episode is based on true stories, particularly the survival of a few thousand villagers on Musa Dagh and their rescue by French troop ships.

Werfel maintained a remarkable balance between descriptions of collective suffering and of individual agony, so that the reader’s consciousness is drawn in both directions. He occasionally mentions acts of mercy by non-Armenians, but clearly shows that the moral bankruptcy of the Turkish leaders (quite a few directly taken from history) corrupted the common people, who are mostly depicted as looting and then resettling the villages whose inhabitants have been forced out. Also corrupted: the military, civil, and police authorities who directly deprived the Armenians of life and property.

On the political side, I kept thinking: how could Werfel write a Holocaust analogy before the Holocaust began? But I know the tragic answer: he was trying to warn of the terrible future that somehow he saw so clearly. Although he clearly admires the German Pastor Johannes Lepsius, another of the historical characters depicted in the book, he had no illusions about the meaning of the events to the mainstream German observers. While Lepsius begs everyone who will listen to act to save the Armenians, almost no one will listen to him; what aid he musters is too little too late. My very sad reaction to Werfel’s attempted warning was that the main learners who took a lesson from the massacre of the Armenians were the Nazis, not the humanitarians and not any future victims.

On the novelistic side, I was also impressed by the author’s choice of central characters, the French-educated Gabriel Bagradian. While the history is powerful, I thin Werfel keeps the reader’s attention through the depiction of Bagradian, his family, his determination to save his fellow Armenians, and his close relationships. Bagradian’s conflicts between his self-interest and his loyalty to his people, his developing identity from identification with France and Europe to embracing of an Armenian identity, his developing leadership in military and political affairs, and his tragic ending create a perfect story against which Werfel presents the historical themes.
Blog post and review © 2012 and 2021 mae sander.


My name is Erika. said...

I haven't heard of this book. It sounds like one of those good, disappear into reads. I'm going to check it out on Amazon. Thanks for sharing Mae.

Divers and Sundry said...

I was pleased by Biden's statement. It seemed carefully phrased in such a way as to avoid offending the current government of Turkey, a country that didn't even exist when the genocide took place. Why they continue to object to recognizing this genocide is something I still don't understand, when they could more easily take a "we overthrew the Ottomans who did this" stand.

DVArtist said...

Great post. I too will look for this book.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

Such a sad story and one that is all too true in Europe. I've been watching the story of the Norwegians as they tried to battle Hitler. It's definitely a sad outcome. I'm really glad Biden called it for what it is. Unlike our previous president who tried to rewrite history. Thanks for sharing this. I learned a lot from your post, Mae.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I never knew the history of the word genocide. This must have been a very powerful read for you to not put the book down.

Iris Flavia said...

I´ll never ever understand why people went and go at each other for color or beliefs.
I hope my German Nieces do not have to say the words I was supposed to say (I am sorry for what I did to the Jewish people (I did not a thing, nor my entire family)).
Can´t we have peace? Hahahaha... Bitter laugh.

We should never forget. And never repeat (another sarcastic laugh).