Every year, a number of the great and the good gather at Davos in Switzerland ostensibly to discuss the issues of the day. In 2009 there occurred something truly exceptional. On a platform in front of mass media, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insulted the Israeli president Shimon Peres. Raising his voice, he accused Peres of having a criminal psychology and then said, “When it comes to killing, you know this job very well.” Turkish militants had just tried to run the blockade of Gaza, forcing a clash in which Israeli soldiers killed eight of them. Whether Erdogan was really angry or just thought he had an opportunity to make political capital is beside the point. To dispense with diplomatic convention, it has long been understood, is to dispense with civilization.
Shimon Peres remained silent. He might have replied that the Turks have been famous for killing, and are still at it with Kurds and their own minority Alevis in far greater numbers than just eight. For that matter, Turkey invaded Cyprus, occupies half of it, and is not going to pull out as the Israelis have done from Gaza. Before and during the First War, the Turks killed at least a million Armenians in an early example of genocide. But the writer Orhan Pamuk or the pianist Fazil Say face persecution by the law for calling these things by their proper name.
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is a novel by Franz Werfel about the fate of Armenians at the hands of Turks. A classic in its day, it is more or less forgotten. Erdogan’s outburst made me want to read it, and I can pay him a back-hand compliment for this. Over 600 pages, the novel can be ponderous and there ought to be an up-to-date new translation, but the net impact is magnificent. Born in 1890, Werfel was part of the final intellectual flourish of the Habsburg Empire. He could see that the world was falling apart. In 1930 he went to the Middle East to collect material for this detailed and intimate account of a handful of Armenians who withdraw to a defended position to fight and die as free men should. And in order to be free himself, Werfel fled to California where he died of a heart attack in 1945.
“Who now remembers the Armenians?” Hitler asked in connection with the genocide of Jews. Werfel is prescient. He has Enver Pasha, the master-mind of genocide, say like any Nazi, “There can be no peace between human beings and plague germs,” or again, “either they disappear or we do.” Armenians are unexpectedly victorious at one point, and he writes, “The whole people went mad with the lust of killing.”
Every day now brings evidence of people mad with this lust to kill. In Syria all parties are committing acts of utter barbarity. The al-Shabaab terrorists in Nairobi were sadistic torturers, unimaginably degraded. In Pakistan, Islamist suicide bombers explode themselves to kill Christians as they are worshipping in church. All these monsters and Erdogan too ought to be confronted with Werfel’s final moral truth: “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.”