The Armenian Genocide in German-Language Literature

It was nothing less than to “snatch the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian people from the Hell of all that had taken place” that motivated Franz Werfel to write his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. What other literary representations of the “aghet” can be found in German-language literature?

Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh  
“Ghosts… But not the ghosts of human beings ... the ghosts of apes … It takes them a long time to die because they chew grass, and can sometimes get hold of a piece of bread… But the worst thing is that they’re all too weak to bury their tens of thousands of corpses … Deir ez Zor is a horrible sewer of death...” [1]

History, according to the Jewish historian Yerushalmi, is “shaped, not at the historian’s anvil, but in the novelist’s crucible.” [2] What contribution could literature – and especially the historical novel – make to remembering the Armenian genocide? In his preface to The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Franz Werfel – a member of the Prague circle around Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Egon Erwin Kisch – explicitly talks about his aim to “snatch the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian people from the Hell of all that had taken place.” [3]

Both victims and heroes at the same time

Werfel’s epic presents the events through a kind of double exposure technique: On the one hand, the Armenians are portrayed as victims of a collective, systematically organized genocide; on the other hand, the author succeeds, through his choice of perspective on the events on Musa Dagh (Mount Moses), to also depict the Armenians as political agents and masters of their own fate. Rising up to 4,500 feet, the mountain massif of Musa Dagh south of today’s Iskenderun on the Mediterranean coast became the scene of a story that was highly unusual, especially in the context of the Armenians’ impotence in the face of the widespread killings: the authentic story of six Armenian villages, whose 5,000 inhabitants fled to the summit of Musa Dagh to resist the approaching troops of the Young Turks. The story is also exceptional, since it concludes with a happy ending – the resistance fighters are rescued by a French ship. In the 1940s, some of these survivors built a kind of ark on the summit of Musa Dagh in commemoration of their (self-)rescue – a memorial that was immediately taken down by the generals leading the Turkish coup d’état in 1980. It is this heroic narrative of a scattered group of fighters and their near-futile resistance to a superior (state) power that is at the hot heart of Franz Werfel’s huge, 1000+-page novel.

Gabriel Bagradian, the novel’s protagonist, for twenty years has led a fully assimilated life in France, before his return to his native Anatolia makes him become an unwitting hero. Bagradian is gradually turning into a Moses-like figure, a leader of his people: Like Moses, Bagradian comes from a foreign land; just like in the story of the Old Testament, his stay on the mountain lasts forty days; and Bagradian, too, dies envisioning a promising future that he will not live to see.

Franz Werfel 1890 – 1945. © Public DomainIn 1929/1930, Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler traveled to the Levant: they visited Egypt, then Palestine, and from Jerusalem went on to Syria and Lebanon. At the time, such a trip was quite an adventure, and they were accompanied by a heavily armed guide. In crumbling Damascus – the images of the city then may have been similar to those we see of it today – the guide takes them to a carpet factory where gaunt teenagers squatted under the looms. In her diary, Alma Mahler-Werfel vividly recollects the scene: “In passing the rows of looms we saw emaciated children with El Greco faces and enormous eyes roll around the floors, pick up spools and threads, and wield a broom now and then.” [4] The fate of these people – who, they were told by the factory owner, were survivors of a genocide – moved Werfel so much that, en route to Beirut and Haifa via Baalbek, he started to take notes for an Armenian novel whose many battle and canyon scenes also incorporate suspense elements of the adventure story.

Historical authenticity

Upon his return to Paris, Werfel asked to have papers and files delivered from the French War Ministry to read up on the historical facts about the fate of the Armenians. The text, which he began to write down in 1932 with all the creative and physical energy he could muster, is repeatedly interrupted by documentary sequences that are lifted almost verbatim from court transcripts, consular and eyewitness reports. The authenticity is also established by notes taken by the theologian Johannes Lepsius, which Werfel discovered in the Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna and included in his novel. This is especially evident in the fifth chapter of Book One, the “Interlude of the Gods,” in a conversation between Lepsius and the Turkish general Enver Pasha at the Turkish Ministry of the Interior in Istanbul:

“It isn’t a question of Morgenthau, Excellency, but of the facts. And you neither will, nor can, deny them. A hundred thousand people are already on their way into exile. The officials talk of nothing but resettlement. But I suggest to you that, frankly, that’s a misnomer. How can a people of peasant mountaineers, craftsmen, townsfolk, professional people, be resettled by a stroke of the pen in Mesopotamian deserts – empty plains? In waste country, hundreds of miles away from their homes, which even bedouin tribes refuse to inhabit? And that object is simply a blind. The district officials are conducting these deportations in such a way that, in the first eight days’ march, these wretched people either collapse or go mad of hunger, thirst, disease, so that helpless boys and defenseless men get slaughtered by Kurds and bandits, if not by the military – and young girls and women are literally being raped and abducted by force ...”
The attentive general listened scrupulously, though his languid pose most clearly indicated: This is the same song and dance I hear twelve times a day. The cuff, extending from the sleeve with his white feminine hand, seemed relevant to him. [5]

While writing the book, Werfel kept telling himself not to ascribe only evil attributes to the Turks and only good ones to the Armenians. “Somewhere Enver Pasha has to be in the right,” he scribbled in the margins of his manuscript. [6]

Double exposure

Shortly before the Reichstag elections of March 5, 1933, Werfel, like his fellow members of the Prussian Academy of Poetry, was asked to explicitly declare his loyalty to the new National Socialist rulers in light of the “changed historical situation.” While Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, and Jakob Wassermann rejected this gesture of submission, Werfel eventually signed the declaration in order not to risk the publication of his novel. To no avail, however: Shortly after its publication, his books were banned in 1934 based on article 7 of the Presidential Decree for the Protection of the German People, for posing a “threat to public security and order.”

Werfel’s novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which was published just seventeen years after the Armenian genocide, used the means of a Zeitroman to describe an event which at the time was almost totally suppressed or marginalized. With striking clairvoyance, the novel anticipated the destruction of German and European Jewry by the National Socialists. This is why this book about this indomitable group of “righteous” people in the face of a hostile superior power was read like no other by Jews under Nazi persecution. It even circulated clandestinely in the Warsaw ghetto until the well-thumbed copies literally fell apart in the hands of their conspiring readers.

For decades, Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was considered to be the most important work about the Armenian genocide. The novel achieved great international success. At the recommendation of Stefan Zweig, the American Viking Press published The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in the United States as early as the fall of 1934, where it topped the bestseller lists for weeks.

Franz Werfel 1890 – 1945. © Public DomainWhen Werfel travelled to New York in November 1935, the city’s Armenian community gave him a tumultuous welcome. [7] A similar response awaited him in Paris, as Alma Mahler-Werfel recalled: “In Paris we were received by ... a crowd of young Armenians, who sang a hymn as the train pulled into the station. .... ‘Where is Franz Werfel?’ the crowd roared, stampeding into the car.” [8] One of the guests at one of the many dinners given in Werfel’s honor was the French Admiral Dartige du Fournet, the commander of the Jeanne d’Arc – the very ship that had rescued the some five thousand men, women, and children of Musa Dagh. For many Armenians all over the world, Werfel’s novel became an Armenian national epic. “We were a nation, but Franz Werfel gave us a soul.” [9]

Edgar Hilsenrath, The Story of the Last Thought  
“They all witnessed the death marches and yet still they refuse to see. ... – They don’t believe that you are capable of exterminating an entire people, I say. – No, says the uniformed figure. ... And they don’t realize that this is just a taste of what really lies in store. – Do you mean the final solution? – I do.” [10]

For German readers, it seems obvious that this quote refers to the Jewish people, because what other people had ever become the target of total eradication? And yet, unlike his other famous works, Nacht (Night, 1964) and The Nazi and the Barber (1977), Edgar Hilsenrath’s great epic The Story of the Last Thought (1989) is about the mass killings of the Armenians. Hilsenrath, born in 1926 in Leipzig as the son of a Jewish merchant, fled the Nazis in 1938 with his mother and brother, taking refuge with his grandparents in the Bukovina. In his “fairy tale” [The original German title is Das Märchen vom letzten Gedanken, “Märchen” meaning “fairy tale” – Transl.] he devotes himself to the fate of the Armenians ca. 1915, when the nationalist movement of the Young Turks tried at all cost to make the former multi-ethnic Ottoman empire into an ethnically homogenous Turkish nation-state fired by a Pan-Turkish ideology. In a radio feature, Edgar Hilsenrath described the central concern of his novel as follows:

  • Much has been written about the crimes of the Germans during the Nazi Reich. But nothing has been written about thecrimes of the Turks during the First World War. During the First World War, they exterminated an entire people: the Armenians. This is fairly unknown. To this day, Turkey is denying that this ever happened. It is the hushed-up genocide.
  • Edgar Hilsenrath is signing his book during his 80th birthday celebration, CC BY 2.5As Holocaust survivor, Edgar Hilsenrath first had to overcome his own speechlessness. The stark realism of his novel Nacht, in which the great outsider of German post-war literature described his experiences of being deported to a Jewish ghetto in Ukraine in 1941, troubled some of his German readers, as did his dark, frequently grotesque tone, which was why his most famous novel, The Nazi and the Barber, for decades found no publisher in Germany. The Story of the Last Thought, too, is a way of telling that which cannot be told in a highly idiosyncratic form: that of a fairy tale.

    The starting point for Hilsenrath’s research was Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. For almost twenty years, he studied the Armenian sources in San Francisco and at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. It was after a long period of gestation that Hilsenrath’s first notes for an Armenian novel – which date back to his time in New York around 1970 – became the almost 600-page novel that he would write within a year in 1988. The novel tells the story of Thovma Khatisian, who – in the book’s construction – survives the massacre as a newborn, is saved by a Turkish woman and put into an orphanage before being sent abroad by the Red Cross. Growing up in Switzerland, Thovma has no memory of where he is from. It is only much later, when he is an adult, that somebody is telling him about the Armenian genocide, and Thovma starts to do research, just like Hilsenrath himself: “For almost sixty long years, so this Thovma Khatisian claimed, he had gone in search of traces of the past. And he said he would carry on searching until he had pieced together a new story for he, so he said, was an orphan, one that was born on a country road during the massacres of 1915. He would never stop searching.” [11]

    The Story of the Last Thought became a full-blown novel about Armenian life, about East Anatolia, the ancestral homeland of the Armenians, and the history of a family in an idyllic mountain village on the eve of the First World War and the genocide. On hundreds of pages, the novel is teeming with (a) life, which ultimately evaporates in a single instant: “Once upon a time there was a Last Thought. It lay inside a cry of fear where it had concealed itself. ...The thought concealed itself there so it could break free together with the final cry of fear...through your gaping mouth.” [12]

    A fact-studded fairy tale

    After its publication in 1989, the literary critic Alexander von Bormann compared the novel to Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, but thought Hilsenrath’s novel to be significantly superior to Werfel’s novel. [13] Hilsenrath himself called the “fairy tale” his best book. He said that he had been fully absorbed in the writing, sometimes writing in a trance-like state, as though he was literally living with his figures in Armenia, as if their suffering was his own: “While I wrote, I felt like an Armenian.” Hilsenrath is not just an expert for the lost worlds of Eastern European shtetls and Eastern Anatolian villages; in his “fairy tale,” he literally conjures up an entire world in all its detail, a gossamer world where the reader almost hears Armenian spoken and sees Armenian faces. His desire to write against forgetting the Armenian fate obviously gave him the opportunity to reveal things about himself that he may not have been able to reveal in the name of his own, Jewish fate.

    Until this day, many readers in Armenia as well as in the Armenian diaspora around the world are deeply stirred by reading Hilsenrath’s masterpiece. In early October 2001, Hilsenrath and his wife Marianne received an invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia. At the airport in Yerevan, they were welcomed with flowers, and Hilsenrath was awarded the National Prize for Literature from the President of the Republic of Armenia and a honorary doctorate from Yerevan State University.

    Seen from the perspective of the “Armenian Yad Vashem,” Hilsenrath’s search for the lost Armenia in Eastern Anatolia may also be read as his desire to create solidarity rather than competition among the different communities of victims. During a reading from The Story of the Last Thought, Hilsenrath said: “The Holocaust, the annihilation of the European Jews, has been seen as a unique historical event. But is this really the case? Wasn’t the murder of the Armenians a Holocaust, too? True, a smaller one in numerical terms, but still a Holocaust.” [14]

    The way Hilsenrath’s novel stresses the parallels to the Holocaust, literally superimposing Jewish Shoah memories onto the fate of the Armenians, is not without problems, however. This mix-up, this anachronism becomes most apparent when he puts Hitler’s notorious January 30, 1939 Reichstag speech about the “Destruction of the Jewish Race in Europe” in the mouth of a Turkish figure: “If the international Armenian community should succeed in inciting the whole world against us, then the result will be the annihilation of this race.”

    To be true, the Holocaust had different dimensions, not just in terms of the number of the people killed but also in light of the fact that the killing was a technological, quasi-industrial process. Still, certain historical parallels are striking, even uncanny: The Armenians, too, were pronounced treacherous enemies of the state, the Armenian deportees, too, were driven on death marches, across Anatolia. In his introduction to Wolfgang Gust’s documentary volume Der Völkermord an den Armeniern 1915/16 (The Armenian Genocide, 1915/16), the Armenian genocide researcher Vahakn N. Dadrian describes the aghet as “a test case for the Shoah,” with “a direct line” leading to the mass annihilation of the Jews. If one were to put Wolfgang Gust’s documentation of the genocide next to Hilsenrath’s The Story of the Last Thought, even the most horrible figments of a storyteller’s imagination would turn out to be strictly factual. Writer Elie Wiesel called the “aghet” a “holocaust before the holocaust”; those looking for proof may be well advised to read Hilsenrath’s fact-studded story of the last thought.

    1.Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, based on the translation from the German by Geoffrey Dunlop, revised and expanded by James Reidel, with a preface by Vartan Gregorian (Boston: A Verba Mundi Book, 2012), 604.

    2.Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1989), 98.

    3.Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, 3.

    4.Alma Mahler Werfel, And the Bridge Is Love: Memories of a Lifetime, in collaboration with E. B. Ashton (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), 200.

    5.Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, 140.

    6.Peter Stephan Jungk, „Vortrag zu Franz Werfels Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, gehalten im Johannes-Lepsius-Haus, Potsdam, am 9. September 2011.“

    7.Edward Minasian, Musa Dagh: A Chronicle of the Armenian Genocide Factor in the Subsequent Suppression, by the Intervention of the United States Government, of the Movie based on Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (n.p., 2007), 29, 30.

    8.Mahler Werfel, And the Bridge Is Love, 230.

    9.Ibid., 229.

    10.Edgar Hilsenrath, The Story of the Last Thought, trans. Nivene Raafat (Berlin: Barber Press, 2015), 497.

    11.Hilsenrath, The Story of the Last Thought, 615.

    12.Ibid., 7.

    13.Alexander von Bormann, “Dokumentarische Phantastik,” Deutschlandfunk, November 5, 1989.

    14.Edgar Hilsenrath at a reading in Mönchengladbach, November 8, 1989, broadcast by WDR Hörfunk (Budengasse, WDR 5).

    by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ Author: Manuel Gogos für

    Translated by Dr. Manuela Thurner

      Manuel Gogos

      Dr. phil, born 1970 in Gummersbach. He is an author and curator. His agency "Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit" is located in Bonn.  »«