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  • Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern ed. by Roy Knocke and Werner Treß
  • Francis Michael Sharp
Roy Knocke and Werner Treß, eds., Franz Werfel und der Genozid an den Armeniern. Europäisch-jüdische Studien Beiträge 22. Oldenbourg: De Gruyter, 2015. 178pp.

The essays collected in this volume were first given as papers in 2013 at the conference “Genozid und Literatur: Franz Werfel aus armenisch-jüdischtürkisch-deutscher Perspektive” in Potsdam. At the very beginning of the introductory chapter, the editors bring the historical significance of the assembled scholarship into focus. They take a first step in this direction by citing the description of a scene in the Warsaw Ghetto observed by a resistance fighter in which the internees scramble to get their hands on the book “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel about the Turkish massacre of the Armeniens. This is the most popular novel among the adults in the ghetto. They’ll read it aloud this evening, if there is electricity.” Following this evocative tableau that conjures up the perilous situation for the internees themselves, the editors then give concise summations of each of the individual essays. [End Page 162] Together with the suggestive pictorial image, the summations foreshadow the multiple political, historical, and literary strands woven together by the following twelve essays, all tied together by Werfel’s novel, a novel about the first and less well-known of twentieth-century genocides.

Several of these are basically biographical in nature but always accentuate his life story against the political and historical background.

Peter Stefan Jungk, author of the still-authoritative Werfel biography published in 1987, provides the broadest sketch of Werfel’s life and accomplishments from its beginnings as an expressionist poet with the publication of Der Weltfreund in 1911 to his own defamation of these beginnings at the very end of his life in exile in 1944. Other biographical contributions follow with emphasis on various tensions in his life and writing, such as those between his origins as the offspring of a Jewish family in Prague and a German-language author of the first rank in literary history. A deep affinity for Christianity was also at times in conflict with his inherited religious affiliation, a tension that took on deeper and more troubling aspects against the background of the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

In his contribution to the volume, titled “Franz Werfel als Kulturkritiker: Individualismus, Kollektivismus und die moralisch-ästhetische Stellung des Dichters,” co-editor Roy Knocke attempts to counter Walter Benjamin’s placement of Werfel among the “besonderen reaktionären Autoren” of the times by referencing a series of lectures he gave in the 1930s. In one of these Werfel distinguishes between what he calls the “Motorenmensch” and the “geistigseelischen Menschen.” Among those he assigns to the latter category are not only artists but also those whose lives center around religion and science. Knocke’s further comments about Werfel’s concept of the “Orphic” poet, his admiration of Rilke, and Rilke’s relationship to Nietzsche are fascinating but seem to have wandered far from the volume’s central concerns.

Andreas Meier’s article, subtitled “Zur Entdeckung des Armenienthemas in der deutschen Literatur” brings these concerns back into focus. Traveling with his wife Alma Mahler on a second trip through the Middle East in 1930, Werfel saw with his own eyes in Damascus the consequences of the genocidal actions in 1915 of the Turkish government against its Armenian population. During a visit to a large carpet-weaving mill, he observed a number of emaciated children working the machines who had been orphaned by these actions and thrown into a state of permanent poverty and homelessness. This experience [End Page 163] became the relentless driving force, Alma noted in her diary, in the genesis of Werfel’s novel (64). In his essay, Martin Tamcke explores and compares Werfel’s fictional approach to the subject matter with the never-realized plans of Armin T. Wegner for a more realistic portrayal.

The subtitles of two of the final six essays focus on the fate of both author—“ein verfemter und...


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