The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – Genocide, Resistance, and Revelations for Today

Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field

Written by: Yicheng Zhang, Tufts University ’21

The novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was written by the Austrian-Jewish writer Franz Werfel in 1933. It tells the experience of the Musa Dagh Armenian community during the Armenian Genocide and their successful resistance against the Ottoman authority. It is very easy today to find a literature work on the topic of genocide, be it academic studies or memoirs from witnesses. So, what has distinguished The Forty Days of Musa Dagh from similar literatures and made it worthy to read in the twenty-first century?

The novel is a fictional rendition of the Musa Dagh uprising against the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide. The local Armenian population rose up against the Turkish authority and managed to hold up until being evacuated by the Allies navy. The successful resistance at Musa Dagh was an atypical chapter of the Armenian Genocide; but precisely because of that, the event held a significant position in Armenian national history. Werfel dramatized the uprising and his characters, all of whom were based on true historical figures. The main character of the story is Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy Armenian living in France. By a twist of fate, when he visited his native village of Yoghonoluk, the Great War erupted and trapped him and his family in the Ottoman Empire. After it had become evident that the Ottoman government was deporting and exterminating ethnic Armenians across the empire, Bagradian refused to let his community to suffer the same fate. He persuaded the villagers from the region to abandon their homes and form an armed resistance, based on the nearby Musa Dagh (Mount Moses). Bagradian and his band of rebels fended off several Turkish military attacks, but it was clear that the odds were too great and they could not hold for much longer. During that period, Bagradian, who was brought up in French culture, also had to struggle with his identity and the war’s toll on his family: Bagradian’s French wife was estranged from him and his son was killed in a mission to reach out to the American consulate. Just before the Turks mounted their final assault, the defenders of Musa Dagh were discovered and evacuated by the French navy. With his people now in safety, Bagradian chose to stay behind to led further resistance and was killed by the Ottomans in a skirmish.

When the novel was first published in the 1930s, historical evidence and records of the Armenian genocide were not readily available to the public and historians were yet to reach a conclusion on the issue. The new Republic of Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire, strenuously denied any policy of systematic ethnic cleansing and the scale of the genocide were still unclear to the public. Thus, the novel played an important part in raising the world’s awareness of the Armenian genocide. Reading the suffering of individual Armenian families presents readers with a new and more personal perspective of the event. It reminds the readers that the genocide is more than just a casualty number or a historical event. The gruesome details of the forced marches and other Ottoman atrocities also allow readers to gain a deeper and more direct recognition of the genocide’s horror. Today’s Turkish government continues its stance of denial and actively uses diplomatic tools to silence overseas debates of the topic. Therefore, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh will continue to be a must-read text for anyone interested in that period of history.

To his credit, Werfel constructed a realistic recount of the genocide and the uprising. To create faithful background settings, he conducted detailed research on Armenian and Turkish cultures, traditions, religious practices, Ottoman military and government, geography and climate of the region. Any reader can attest to the lively and convincing Eastern Mediterranean world that was presented in the book. Werfel also extensively consulted historical records and interviews, so that the novel can accurately reflect historical events. For instance, the talk between Enver Pasha and German Missionary Johannes Lepsius was based on the pastor’s real-life interview of the Turkish warlord; Werfel also consulted French official diplomatic archive to recreate the naval evacuation of Musa Dagh villagers at the end of the novel. 

It is worth noting how the author attempts to include Turkish interpretations of the genocide in the book. In the novel, one of the subplot focuses on the German Missionary Johannes Lepsius, a real historical figure, and his attempt to interview the Turkish military leader Enver Pasha in the hope of changing Enver’s mind on the deportation policy. As mentioned above, although Werfel’s depiction of the conversation was partly fictional, it was based on Lepsius’s real-life interview of the Pasha, which the missionary later published in Germany. During the interview, Enver Pasha argued that measures against the Armenians were justified wartime exigencies to forestall their cooperation with the enemies and were necessary to create a strong and stable Turkish nation state. Werfel deliberately presented the Enver’s case for his deportation policy so that readers can not only understand his motives, but also recognize their ridiculousness. Equally worthy noticing is Werfel’s incrimination of the Allies in the genocide through the debate between Lepius and a dervish sheik. Werfel argues that European countries’ forceful introduction of modernization and imperialist policy had disrupted the traditional Middle Eastern socioeconomic order and sowed the seeds of ethnic nationalism, which eventually led to the Armenian genocide. Thus, the West, in Werfel’s view, was equally guilty in the Armenians’ suffering. Werfel skillfully adds complexity to the novel. It becomes more than just a simple imputation of the Ottoman state and this allows readers to more profoundly reflect on the deeper causes of the genocide.

However, the book is more than just a story of the Musa Dagh resistance and the Armenian genocide. Critics have pointed out the novel, published amid Hitler’s rise to power, can be read as “a not-so-veiled warning about the virulent racialism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, and amoral realpolitik that were about to be unleashed by the Nazi.” [1] The parallels between the Young Turks, the ruling Ottoman party during the genocide, and the Nazis are impossible for any reader to miss: both ideologies were obsessed with the idea of establishing living space for the “master race” and would not shy from any means to achieve such goal, the pogroms targeting Armenian shops seem eerily similar to Kristallnacht, and the Ottoman deportation camps were as hellish as the Nazi concentration camps. It’s therefore even more remarkable that the book was written before the Holocaust. Whether or not Werfel deliberately shaped the novel as a wake-up call to the European Jews is still subjected to debate. But it’s certainly true that Werfel possesses a penetrating understanding of the nature of genocide and modern state violence, which makes his work a true masterpiece and relevant for today. Throughout Musa Dagh, Werfel posed his readers many perceptive questions and explored the various topics and themes of state violence. One of the most conspicuous themes examined by the novel was the issue of morality in politics. In one of the later chapters, Lepius confronts the German privy councilor for not intervening on behalf of the Armenians. The German official shows little sympathy for his Turkish allies and is disgusted by their atrocities. Yet he made it clear to Lepius that any intervention would be against German national interests and Lepius’ humanitarian activism was not desirable for the state. The official also argued that Germany was powerless to stop the massacre: any forceful German intervention only would push the Ottomans to switch side and, if that were to happen, the Allies would equally ignore Turkish atrocities for their own interests. Was the German official correct or were his words merely an excuse? Can moralities really play a meaningful role in shaping foreign policy? Should a government cooperate with human rights violators for its own national interests? How can a state reconcile human rights and its geopolitical goals? Werfel hasn’t offered a clear answer in the novel and readers are still struggling to find that answer today. 

Another theme explored in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is the nature of modern state violence and what distinguishes it from traditional violence. Werfel inserted many details in the novel that would emphasize the “professional” and “organized” nature of the Armenian genocide. If pogroms of the old times were messy disordered murders from which the lucky victims could escape, the deportation was a systematic campaign that aimed to completely wipe out the Armenian population. Those who carried out the murders were no longer rag-tag mobs of the old days filled with religious fanaticism, but instead professional uniformed soldiers with “cold, steady…national hatred.” [2] While, in the past, the state was not organized enough to stop pogroms against ethnic minorities (or at least did not explicitly support them), now the entire modern state machine was mobilized to support the atrocities against the Armenians. It was ironic that, even though the empire was under siege on four fronts and its military resources were stretched thin, the Ottoman bureaucracy was still able to squeeze out troops to carry out the deportation order and to organize trains that would transport their passengers to their deaths. The same seeming contradiction also happened twenty years later in Nazi-occupied Europe: the Nazi regime managed to devote enough resources to carry out its systematic mass murder, even in 1944 and 1945 when the military situation was dire for the Axis. Another characteristic (and contradiction) of modern state violence is the state’s obsession with procedures and bureaucracies: orders and procedures that are seemingly-civilized must be maintained, even when they are used to carry out the most barbaric and sadistic violence. The best example of this can be found in Chapter 7 of Book 1. The regional government, with its full murderous intention, still insisted on finding the receipt that would prove the village guilty of possessing firearms. Similarly, the Turkish deportation squad tried to put up a veneer of authority by reading out the deportation order to the villagers. Earlier than most of his contemporaries, Werfel grasped the essence of modern state violence and how it differentiates from conventional violence.

Werfel depicted a diverse group of characters who participated in the genocide, from the low-ranking Ottoman infantrymen, mid-level officers who enforced the deportation, to the masterminds of genocide in the Young Turks’ leadership. Horrible their deeds were, these figures were not simplistic bloodthirsty men; many of them, in fact, were quite ordinary people. One might argue that Werfel already understood Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” and applied it to his characters. The orchestrators of the Armenian genocide were not psychopathic maniacs indoctrinated by the Young Turks’ twisted ideology. Many of them displayed neither guilt for their actions nor particular hatred against the ethnic Armenians. Some of them were merely banal bureaucrats who, while they might support the policy of ethnic cleansing, did not possess any taste for real violence. The Young Turk official in Chapter 7, Book 1, is portrayed as a “zealous advocate of extermination”; but, not desiring to see blood, he immediately turned away when his men beat up an Armenian priest.[3] Similarly, Enver Pasha, one of the masterminds behind the genocide, was an intelligent and quiet man and could be easily mistaken for an ordinary officer. The Pasha was neither perverted nor sadistic and he did not harbor hysterical hatred against the Armenians. Enver saw the deportation purely as a means to achieve his political goal and he probably did not have anything personal against the Armenians. Werfel’s fictional depiction of Enver Pasha fit in Arendt’s characterization of the “banality of evil.” These mid-or-high-level bureaucrat murderers with seemingly inconsistent personalities played a key role in the organization of genocides. Werfel portrayal of these characters is convincing and credible and reading them will help readers to fully comprehend the many contradictions in modern state violence.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is a faithful and vivid recount of the Armenian genocide and the Musa Dagh community’s resistance. But it is more than just a story recounting that particular chapter of history. Before genocide became conceptualized by post-war academics, Werfel first captured the essences of modern state violence with his penetrating perception, and he was able to put his keen observation in the novel. Reading the book will allow readers to gain a more profound understanding of modern state violence and its nature. This timeless classic will retain its relevancy as long as the world is shadowed by the threat of genocide.


[1] Franz Werfel, The Forty Days in Musa Dagh, trans. Geoffrey Dunlop and James Reidel (Boston: Verdi Mundi, 2012), 14.

[2] Ibid., 125.

[3] Ibid., 504.