Musa Dagh, the Magic Mountain – I

A Mountain of Myths

 97-year-old witness of Musa Dagh resistance sings Armenia’s anthem in Vakifli-1
97-year-old witness of Musa Dagh resistance sings Armenia’s anthem in Vakifli-2
This Musa Dagh is in Adrasan, Antalya, 500km from where the interview was held.

Imagine you’re Frodo the Hobbit setting out on his journey from the Shire to meander into all sorts of unexpected places before reaching Mount Doom. That’s what this series of posts will feel like. The destination of your journey here won’t be as scary as Frodo’s but the meandering part, there’ll be plenty of that.

Our first destination is a physical place: Musa Dagh, somewhere in Turkey. Here’s our first clue: According to this Armenian news agency story, Musa Dagh is a mountain in Hatay, a province of Turkey that was once the Sandjak of Alexandretta before the Turkish dictator Ataturk annexed it and changed its name, something he liked doing a lot, having changed his own name four times [1]. Apparently Armenians lived there and ran into some trouble in 1915, then again in 1939 when they were forced to flee Musa Dagh for good. There’s also something about French warships transporting them in 1915, so this Musa Dagh is probably by the sea.

At the end of the news story, there it is: a photo of mountain by the sea, as billed – except it’s not. That mountain is called Musa Dagh all right but it’s 500 kilometers as the crow flies from Hatay. So what does the Musa Dagh in Hatay look like? Nowhere near as spectacular. The mountain on top of which the elderly gent lives is a low, weathered, rather nondescript mass, not an imposing rocky peak. Honest mistake, right? I mean how is the Armenian news agency that came and interviewed the old man at his home on Musa Dagh supposed to know where Musa Dagh is, especially since it holds such an apparently iconic place in Armenian national history?

Hatay_Musa_Dagh-sThe Mousa Dagh in Hatay

Pardon the sarcasm but there is a point to it: The Armenian news agency didn’t pick that fake photo just because it liked it better. There’s more to it than that. There is a whole myth around that mountain that needs to be preserved and its craggy image is part of the myth. From the Turkish dictator calling Alexandretta Hatay and pretending that Hittites founded it to exiled Armenians pretending that their mountain looked sexier than it does, the place is shrouded in myths and fiction. Let’s start to unshroud it.

Hans Werfel, a man in love

This is where the craggy image of Musa Dagh comes from: An artists’s design for the cover of a novel written by  Czech poet Franz Werfel who never set foot in the place.

Armenian deportees in the desolation of Deir ez-Zor, photographed by Armin T. Wegner

The novel is loosely based on the historical events that took place there in the spring and summer of 1915, as recounted to Werfel by fellow poet and German pro-Armenian activist, Armin T. Wegner, who was a medic under Field Marshall Colmar van der Goltz in Deir ez Zor at the time. Wegner was less interested in the hardships and battles there than in the Armenian deportees who had ended up in the desolation of that arid war zone. He photographed them and got in trouble for doing so, as the Armenian deportation was both approved and backed by his German superiors, the celebrated Field Marshall having said that the Ottoman Empire needed to be cleansed of it “alien elements” the Armenians, for whom he had advocated, long before World War I, a “relocation to the deserts of Mesopotamia.” [2]

When Wegner found out that Werfel had used his material to write a book, he was furious [3] but by the time The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was published, Wegner was in all sorts of new trouble, with the Nazis this time, because of his pacifism and his defense of Jews, so he had no time for Werfel. Anyway, Werfel was Jewish himself so the Nazis banned his book before long.

Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel in 1919

Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka, with whom she broke up in 1918

Although Werfel was a Jew by birth, he was no longer one by faith when Hitler came to power in 1933, having renounced Judaism to marry the love of his life Alma Mahler, the talented, seductive, brilliant, and rich widow of the great Gustav Mahler, and an anti-Semite. One of her first recorded impressions of Werfel was “fat, bow-legged Jew.” Theirs was an anguished but surprisingly enduring relationship of dominant disdain and submissive adoration.

Werfel had long resisted Alma’s demand that he renounce Judaism and suffered the moral guilt of their illegitimate love and child while Alma was married to the famous architect Walter Gropius and having an affair with painter Oscar Kokoschka as well. However Alma was not a woman he or anyone else could give up on. She had lain naked on Mahler’s piano, her ex-lover Kokoschka was so smitten he made a life-size sex doll of her, she was a highly talented composer, and did I mention, quite rich? In 1930, he finally relented and they married, going to the Middle East for their honeymoon.

Child labor exploitation in the carpet trade is well-nigh universal.

In Damascus, they visited a carpet-weaving workshop where Alma got emotional over the exploited child laborers, prized for the fine knots that their little fingers could weave. The carpet trader told them a story about their having been orphaned by the evil Turks and how he took them in out of the kindness of his heart.

Musa Daghians back at their homes under the French protectorate flag in the 1930s during a memorial service for the 18 who died fighting in 1915.

Alma was aghast at the Dickensian scene: “Werfel and I left the place, nothing from now on seemed to be of importance or beauty…” It never occurred to the couple that those children were not even born in 1915, let alone orphaned, and that Armenians had now returned to nearby Cilicia, which was a French protectorate. Alma’s emotions for the exploited children, the tale of the carpet-trader exploiting them, and their travelling companion Armin T. Wegner’s account of the desperate Armenian deportees whose plight he had personally witnessed, convinced Werfel to write a book about them.


Musa Dagh refugees in Port Said being trained for the French Foreign Legion.
Newly-built Armenian neighborhood in Aleppo in the early 1930’s, financed by wealthy Armenian benefactors. An even larger neighborhood was built in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut, as well as a village in the Bekaa Valley 50 km from Damascus. More new housing and infrastructure was built in Greece and in the French Cilicia protectorate.

When the Werfels returned to Vienna, Franz went to his friend the French Ambassador Count Clauzel to inquire further about the Armenians of Mousa Dagh, whose plight he thought he had witnessed in the Damascus carpet workshop. France had of course recruited the Musa Dagh Armenians into the Foreign Legion and sent them to fight against the Ottomans and to occupy Cilicia, so it was hardly an objective third party. The count gave Werfel access to French naval records, which should have revealed to Werfel, had he cared to look, France’s aggressive designs in the region (the Picot part of Sykes-Picot carve-up of the Ottoman lands) of which the hapless rural Armenians were clearly made the pawns. But Werfel was only interested in seeing France as an uninterested protector of the Armenians, certainly not as the power that got them into trouble. He also got material from an Armenian catholic order but none whatsoever from the other side, i.e. the Germans and the Turks.

One document influenced Werfel enormously: Pro-Armenian activist Pastor Johannes Lepsius’s tell-all conversation with Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha (unconfirmed by anyone else) that was published in chapter 28 of U.S. Ambasador Morgenthau’s 1918 book Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, where Enver allegedly tells Lepsius quite candidly that he massacred many Armenians and will continue to do so unless they simmer down and foreign powers stop helping them. Werfel tore that chapter out (metaphorically), sexed it up a bit, and pasted it into his own book under the heading “Interlude of the Gods.”

The three heavies of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief: From left to right, 1) Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, the commander of the U.S.’s army of consuls in the Armenian-populated provinces, 2) the J.P. Morgan partner and copper magnate Cleveland H. Dodge who ran the whole show as well as Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy, and 3) American Board Secretary James Barton, the leading proponent of an autonomous Armenia. Dodge was also the president of Robert College, from where all pro-Armenian missionary activity was orchestrated. [4]

While Lepsius’s account rings true and jibes with everything else we know about the CUP leadership and its German sponsors, there’s no getting past the fact that Lepsius was no more an objective observer than Wegner was and in fact was in close collaboration with US “diplomatic” missions and US missionaires, whose reports form the backbone of his work The Massacres of Armenia (1919), and who were all employed by US financial and copper magnates seeking to obtain propaganda material against the Turks, Germany’s allies. They intended to use this material to persuade the public that US troops needed to go to Europe to defeat Germany. The extensive network of US diplomatic and Evangelist missions catering to Armenians in Anatolia had no other purpose than to fabricate the pretext for Woodrow Wilson, who got elected on an isolationist ticket, to declare war on Germany, but more about that later.

Franz Werfel as a “historian”

All of this renders Franz Werfel’s novel’s claim to be “historical” highly dubious. Granted, Werfel researched his subject extensively but not exhaustively, completely neglecting to research opposing sources on the matter. He didn’t speak Turkish or Armenian but claimed to present an accurate picture of both Turkish and Armenian parties of the Musa Dagh events, while totaly neglecting the German, American, and British actors, although German was his mother tongue and he spoke English fluently.

Werfel was also hampered by his utter submission to the opinions of his dominating wife, who was Catholic, royalist, reactionary, and utterly anti-Muslim. When he first met Alma, Werfel was something of a communist in 1918, hanging out with the “Red Guard” in Vienna, until one November night when he made a fiery speech and came home drunk to face Alma’s cold disdain, after which he immediately lost all interest in the revolution of the proletariat. Worse still, he gave up his Jewishness to please his mistress. Werfel was simply incapable of saying or writing anything that displeased his reactionary, anti-Semitic, and racist domina. Therefore, we have to think that whatever duty of accuracy he may have felt during the writing of 40 Days, would have fallen by the wayside if it got in Alma’s way.

Finally, Franz Werfel was not a substantive author. He was interested in fame and success, not literary or academic excellence. After having abandoned Judaism and even signed an oath of allegiance to the Nazis at the Prussian Academy of Literature of which he was a proud member (but was kicked out of for being a Jew anyway), he wrote The Song of Bernadette about the miracle at Lourdes, which was an instant hit with all bible-thumpers and not only stayed on the New York Times list for 13 weeks but became an even worse Fox movie. Thomas Mann called it “a well made bad book.” 40 Days wasn’t even well made.

His characters rant interminably about his confused and reactionary political and religious ideas. Even that wasn’t enough for Werfel so he added pages of his own commentary on the virtues of spirituality and the evils of materialism and nationalism. His Gabriel Bagradian bears no resemblance to the actual leader of the Musa Dagh insurgents, who was a Dashnag militant from Yoghunoluk village, Moses Der Kaloustian, not some dispora Armenian with an identity crisis and an Alma-like bourgeouis wife who slept around. Nor did Der Kaloustian oversleep and miss the rescue boat, where no one inexplicably noticed the valorous leader’s absence so that he could get himself tragicomically killed. The real Musa Dagh leader lived a long and prosperous life.

In fact, unless you read 40 Days as some sort of act of homage to the Musa Daghians, it’s just a boring, annoying, and downright silly book, in the image of the silly man who wrote it.

Now that both Werfel and his book are desecrated as they should be, it’s time to pass from fiction – even if it pretends to be “historical” – to facts.

[1] His real name is Mustafa. He changed it to Kemal, meaning “perfection” when he was a schoolboy. Later during his military career “perfection” started sounding a bit too pretentious so he changed it to Kamal, which isn’t even a word. Finally, he went back to pretentious and decided to call himself “Father of the Turks,” i.e. Ataturk. [Back]

[2] The Armenian Genocide: Evidence from the German Foreign Office archives 1915-1916, edited by Wolgang Gust, 2014 [Back]

[3] Werfel’s biographical details are from the books Understanding Franz Werfel by Hans Wegener, 1993 and Franz Werfel: The faith of an exile by  Lionel B. Steiman, 1985. [Back]

[4] Protestant Diplomacy and the Near East: Missionary Influence on American Foreign Policy 1810-1927 by  Joseph L. Grabill, 1971, pp. 80-105 [Back]


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