Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938

27 July, 2011
KIESER Hans-Lukas

A - Context

In 1937-38, a military campaign took place against parts of the province of Tunceli, formerly Dersim, Turkey, that had not been brought under the control of the state. It lasted from March 1937 to September 1938 and resulted in a particularly high death toll: many thousands of civilian victims. Contemporary officers called it a “disciplinary campaign” (tedip harekâtı, a term also used by the official military historian, Reşat Halli, in his 1972 account); politicians and press, a Kemalist civilising mission (Uluğ 2007 [1939]). Prime Minister Tayip Erdoğan, however, in a November 2009 speech referred to it as a “massacre”, which can be considered an historically appropriate term. It took place when the Republic of Turkey was consolidated – in contrast with the repression of the Kurdish Sheikh Saïd rebellion in 1925 or the Koçgiri uprising in 1921. The campaign of Dersim was prepared well in advance and therefore was not a short-term reaction to a concrete uprising. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the state president, stood personally behind it and died shortly after its end.

After the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne had recognised the Turkish nationalist movement as the sole legitimate representative of Turkey and admitted its victory in Asia Minor, the Republic of Turkey was founded. It implemented revolutionary changes from above, such as the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, and the introduction of the Swiss Civil Code in 1926 and the Latin alphabet in 1928. Broadly acclaimed as a successful modern Turkish nation-state, the Republic rebuilt its international relations in the 1930s and succeeded, in a deal with France and the League of Nations (of which it became a member in 1932), in incorporating the Syrian region of Alexandretta into its national territory in 1938-39. However, radical Turkism (Turkish ethno-nationalism) with racist undertones marked the ideological climate of the 1930s, while cosmopolitan Ottomanism and Islam were radically evacuated from the political sphere and intellectual life. Kemalist Turkism – the ideology of the new political élite tied to the single-party régime – albeit triumphalist, expressed the need for a connection to deeper roots and made a huge effort to legitimise Anatolia as the national home of the Turks by means of historical physical anthropology.

The region of Dersim, renamed Tunceli in 1935, stood markedly at odds with the politico-cultural landscape of 1930s Turkey. Hamdi Bey, a senior official, in a report of 1926, called the area an abscess that needed an urgent surgeon from the Republic (Halli 1972: 375). Journalist and (in 1931-35) deputy Naşit Uluğ published in 1932 a booklet under the title The Feudal Lords and Dersim; it asked at the end how a “Dersim system” marked by feudalism and banditry could be destroyed. After Hamdi, General Inspector Ibrahim Tali, Marshal Fevzi Çakmak and Minister of the Interior Şükrü Kaya all collected information on the ground and wrote reports concluding the necessity of introducing “reforms” in the region (Kalman 1995: 135-68; Aygün 2009: 57-89). The need for reforms for Dersim, together with military campaigns to effect them, had been a postulate since the Ottoman reforms, the Tanzimat, of the 19th century. Several military campaigns had taken place but had brought only limited successes. In parts of Dersim and other eastern parts of the Ottoman Empire, in which Kurdish lords had reigned autonomously since the 16th century, the central state had established its direct central rule in the second third of the 19th century, though it depended still in the republican era on the co-option of local lords to maintain its rule. The central parts of Dersim, by contrast, resisted both co-option and direct rule until the 1930s. Dersim nevertheless had been represented by a few deputies in the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul and, since 1920, the National Assembly in Ankara.

Dersim is a mountainous region between Sivas, Erzincan and Elazığ (renamed from Elaziz in 1937; Turkification of local names began during World War I). It covers an area of 90 km east-west and 70 km north-south and had, according to official estimates in the 1930s, a total population of nearly 80,000, of which one-fifth were considered men able to bear arms (Jandarma Umum Kumandanlığı Raporu 2010 [1932]: 59). Dersim’s topography allowed cattle breeding but only little agriculture. It offered many places for refuge and hiding: valleys, caves, forests and mountains. These had been vital for the survival of Dersim’s Alevi population. The Alevis venerated Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. They refused the Sharia and remained attached to unorthodox Sufi beliefs and practices widespread in Anatolia before the 16th century, when the Ottoman state embraced Sunnite orthodoxy; the beliefs were mostly linked to Anatolian saint Hacı Bektash (13th century). Since many of the Alevis had sympathised with Safavid Persia in the 16th century, they were lastingly stigmatised as heretics and traitors.

The first language of the Dersim Kurds, as they were called by contemporary observers, was not Turkish but Zaza (the main language) or Kurmanji. Kurdish nationalism had had its impact on a few of its leaders and intellectuals since the early 20th century. These reclaimed President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination after World War I and linked an articulated ideology to Kurdist activism, as General Fevzi Çakmak complained in his report of 1930. Çakmak therefore demanded the removal of functionaries of “Kurdish race” in Erzincan (Halli 1971: 351-52). The Koçgiri uprising in 1921 had been the first rebellion marked by open Kurdish nationalism; it, too, had taken place in an Alevi region, called Koçgiri, at the western boundary of Dersim.

Though the declaration of a secular republic and the abolition of the Caliphate in early 1924 won over many Anatolian Alevis, most Alevis in Eastern Anatolia remained distrustful. This divide coincided by and large with that of Turkish- and/or Kurdish-speaking “Eastern Alevis” outside the organisation of the Bektashis, on the one hand, and “Western Alevis” reached by the reformed Bektashi order of the 16th century and thus domesticated by the Ottoman state, on the other. Dersim had important places of religious pilgrimage, partly shared with local Armenians. Its “Seyyids” claimed descent from Ali and entertained a network of dependant communities in and outside Dersim (Gezik 2000: 141-76, Kieser 2007: 166). The Young Turks and the leaders of the Turkish national movement after 1918 had both co-opted the Bektashiye, of which a leader had in vain tried to win over the chiefs of Dersim to fight side-by-side with the Ottoman army against the invading Russians in 1916. Two limited rebellions then broke out, and armed groups harassed the Ottoman army. Dersim was the only place more or less safe for Armenian refugees during and after the genocide of 1915, which mainly took place in the eastern provinces (Dersimi 1952: 100-103; Halli 1972; 373-74; Kieser 2000: 396; Küçük 2001: 212–23).

After the establishment of the new state in Ankara and the repression of the Kurdish uprisings of the 1920s, the attention of Ankara turned more and more to Dersim, described as a place of reactionary evil forces, of interior and exterior intrigues and hostage to tribal chiefs and religious leaders. Dersim could, in fact, be described as a pre-modern, tribally split society; it became growingly isolated after 1920. At the same time, according to Hamdi Bey, who visited Dersim in 1926, it was growingly politicised  to the point of adopting openly anti-Kemalist Kurdish positions. Sustained contacts with Kurdo-Armenian organisation Hoybun, founded in Syria in 1927, were not, however, possible. Economic problems and correlated banditry had a long history; they became more acute due to the region’s isolation and the generally bad economic conditions after World War I. Yet, in the late Ottoman era, new currents had begun to permeate Dersim’s neighbourhood. These included labour migration, emulation of quickly modernising Armenian neighbours, the desire for education and attendance at new – Armenian, missionary, or state – schools, as well as the spread of medical services in the region. Compared with the situation in the early Republic, late Ottoman Eastern Anatolia had been pluralist, and culturally and economically much more dynamic.

A Law of Settlement of 21 June 1934 legitimised in general terms the depopulation of regions in Turkey for cultural, political or military reasons, with the intent to create, as Minister of the Interior Kaya stated, “a country with one language, one mentality, and unity of feelings” (Ülker 2008: 8). This law was conceived in order to complete the Turkification of Anatolia in the context of the new focus on Dersim in interior politics.

B - Decision-Makers, Organisers and Actors

In October 1935, Italy began a brutal invasion of Ethiopia, in which it used chemical weapons and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. For the prominent theorist of Kemalism of those years, deputy and former minister Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, Mussolini’s fascism was nothing other than a version of Kemalism, even though Turkey’s and Italy’s foreign policies contrasted. In 1930, Bozkurt had spoken of a war between two races, Kurds and Turks, and had gone so far as to say, “All, friends, enemies and the mountains, shall know that the Turk is the master of this country. All those who are not pure Turks have only one right in the Turkish homeland: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves” (Son Posta 20 September 1930).

These elements formed the context when, in December 1935, Minister of the Interior Kaya presented a draft law, commonly known as Tunceli Law, that once more labelled the region a zone of illness that needed surgery (Beşikçi 1990: 17, Ülker 2008: 8). In terms of national security, there was no urgency; non-military officials of the state were not molested on entering Dersim, e.g., for the population census of every village in 1935 (Aslan 2010: 411). The law passed without opposition in parliament and press, both being controlled by the Kemalist party, the PRP. Dersim, formerly part of the province of Elazığ, was established as a separate province, renamed Tunceli and ruled in a state of emergency by the military governor, Abdullah Alpdoğan, the head of the Fourth General Inspectorate. Three former General Inspectorates had served to “pacify” other regions in Turkey judged to be a risk. Alpdoğan was the son-in-law of Nurettin Pasha, the general who had led the repression of the Koçgiri uprising in 1921. He had previously called for the “pacification” of Dersim in 1921. Roads, schools, police stations, military bases and a railway to Elazığ were established and considered a threat by many Dersimis. The reports by Alpdoğan of 1936 emphasise the progress in establishing a military infrastructure in the region, including gendarmerie stations (Akgül 1992: 37-40, 63-68).

The report of Hamdi Bey (1926) had already called for strong measures and labelled the attempt at a peaceful penetration of Dersim by schools, infrastructure and industry an illusion (Halli 1972: 375). Against this background, actors on both sides were separated by a rift and unable to find a common language, albeit in an unbalanced dialogue. Seyyid Rıza, perhaps the most important tribal chief, in addition to being a religious figure, insisted on autonomy and the revocation of the Tunceli Law of 1935. He seemed to have believed initially that Dersim could not be subdued militarily. He had worked for years, partly successfully, to unite the tribes (Akgül 1992: 124-25, Dersimi 1952: 237-39, report of Vali Tevfik Sırrı of 28 November 1933, BCA Yer No: 30 10 00. 110.741.21).

After several incidents, culminating on the nights of 20/21 and 26/27 March 1937, tribal attacks against the new infrastructure in Pah and a police station in Sin in eastern central Dersim, the military campaign was launched. With 8,623 men, artillery and an air force in early May, it was largely superior in numbers and materiel to the forces of the insurgents. On 4 May 1937, the Council of Ministers, including Atatürk and Fevzi Çakmak, the Chief of General Staff, decided secretly on a forceful attack against western-central Dersim, to kill all who used or had used arms and to remove the population settled between Nazimiye and Sin. The same day, planes dropped pamphlets saying that in the case of surrender, “no harm at all would be done to you, dear compatriots. If not, entirely against our will, the [military] forces will act and destroy you. One must obey the state” (Halli 1972: 390-91 and 491).

In the following months, the army successfully advanced against fierce resistance and changing tribal coalitions led by Rıza, allied tribal chiefs and Alişer, a talented poet and activist. Unity of the rebels was far from achieved; only a few tribes formed the hard core of the resistance. On 9 July, Alişer and his wife were killed by their own people, their heads sent to Alpdoğan. In July, Rıza sent a letter to the prime minister in which he vividly described what he saw as anti-Kurdish politics of assimilation, removal and finally a war of destruction. Via his friend Nuri Dersimi, who had gone into exile in Syria in September 1937, he also sent a despairing letter to the League of Nations and the foreign ministries of the United Kingdom, France and the United States, none of which answered. On 10 September, he surrendered to the army in Erzincan. Messages of congratulation were sent to Alpdoğan by Atatürk, Minister of the Interior Şükrü Kaya and Prime Minister Inönü, who had visited Elazığ in June. Shortly before Atatürk’s visit there, Rıza was executed in Elazığ, together with his son Resik Hüseyin, tribal leader Seyit Haso and a few sons of tribal chiefs. The execution was hastily organised by Ihsan Sabri Çağlayangil, later a foreign minister (Çağlayangil 2007: 69-73, Kieser 2007: 249-51).

Despite the setbacks of 1937, Dersimi groups resumed attacks against the security forces in early 1938, saying that they all would perish if they did not resist (Halli 1972: 412). The military campaign took on a new and comprehensive character as the government embarked on a general cleansing in order “to eradicate once and for all this [Dersim] problem,” in the words of Prime Minister Celal Bayar in parliament on 29 June 1938 (Akgül 1992: 155). In June 1938, units began to penetrate those parts of Dersim that did not surrender between Pülür (Ovacık), Danzik and Pah in central Dersim. On 10 August, a large campaign of cleansing and scouring (tarama) started. It ended in early September and cost the lives of many thousands of men, women and children, even of tribes that cooperated with the government.

C - Victims

According to the official statements, the military campaign of 1937 targeted bandits and reactionary tribal and religious leaders who misled innocent people. On a secret level, however, right from the beginning  in particular, with the decision of the Council of Ministers of 4 May 1937  parts of the Dersim people as a whole were targeted, at least for relocation pursuant to the 1934 Law of Settlement. Those targeted feared, as in Koçgiri in 1921, that they would all perish like the Armenians if they did not resist (Aygün 2009: 72). The campaign in spring 1937 concerned the regions in which most clashes occurred, between Pah and Hozat. Villages were to be disarmed and people removed, but the main violence targeted armed groups. Halli, who amply cites military documents, scarcely uses the word imha (annihilation) for this period. This changed with the campaign of summer 1938, which employed massive violence against the whole population, even beyond the parts of Dersim that did not surrender and that had been declared prohibited zones under the Law of Settlement. The Council of Ministers decided on 6 August 1938 that 5,000-7,000 Dersimis had to be removed from the prohibited zones to the west. “Thousands of persons, whose names the Fourth General Inspectorate [under Alpdoğan] had listed, were arrested and sent in convoys to the regions where they were ordered to go” (Halli 1972: 463).

Also targeted for relocation were numerous families living outside these zones or in the neighbourhood of Dersim, if they were considered to be members of Dersimi tribes. Notables living outside Dersim were killed in summer 1938, as were some young Dersimis doing service in the army. For the killing of surviving “bandits”, an order by the prime minister, the Minister of the Interior, the Minister of Defence and the Military Inspectorate proposed to use the Special Organisation, known for its role in the mass killing of Armenians in 1915-16 and, particularly, of targeted personalities (Halli 1972: 465).

According to the official military historian Halli, “thousands of bandits” were annihilated in the first week of cleansing alone, from 10-17 August 1938 (Halli 1972: 463). Halli mentions no comprehensive number for the whole campaign. From his detailed narrative, however, which gives precise numbers or mentions a “big number” of killed persons for dozens of incidents, deaths likely totalled considerably higher than 10,000. An unpublished report by Alpdoğan’s Inspectorate, recently quoted in Turkish newspapers, mentions 13,160 civilian dead and 11,818 deportees (Radikal 20 November 2009). The high number of deaths and ample evidence prove that the killings were not limited to the insurgent tribes. A comparison of the censuses of 1935 and 1940 shows that the district of Hozat, with a loss of more than 10,000 people, was the most seriously impacted (Aslan 2010: 411). A proposed number of 40,000 victims seems, however, implausibly high (McDowall 2000: 209).

According to Çağlayangil, the army used poison gas to kill people who hid in caves (NTV Tarih December 2009: 61). Many others were burned alive, whether in houses or by spraying individuals with fuel. Even if people surrendered, they were annihilated. In order “not to fall into the hands of the Turks,” girls and women jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915 (Dersimi 1952: 318-320). The suspicion of having lodged “bandits” or, according to witness accounts of soldiers, military units’ desire for vengeance sufficed as justification to kill whole villages. Soldiers confirm that they were ordered to kill women and children. One has to bear in mind that the Dersimis were seen – and declared so by officers – as Alevi heretics, some times as crypto-Armenians. When gendarmerie posts were established in the 1930, gendarmes even exercised control over whether local young men were circumcised. “Was he perhaps a giavour, an Armenian?” (Algör 2010: 159; Bulut 1991: 299-301).

D - Witnesses

“It is understood from various sources that in clearing the area occupied by the Kurds, the military authorities have used methods similar to those used against the Armenians during the Great War: thousands of Kurds including women and children were slain; others, mostly children were thrown into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to vilayets in Central Anatolia”, reported the British Vice Consul in Trabzon on 27 September 1938. His report is the exception to the rule that there exist no reports by foreign observers in or near the theatre of events, because Dersim and whole of Eastern Asia Minor was generally closed to foreigners.

Documents and testimonies do exist  military, governmental and by Dersimis themselves. The relevant documents in the military archives in Ankara (ATASE) were still closed to independent research in 2011. This is true also for the relevant documents of the civil offices, which have remained in the respective ministries and have not been transferred to the Republican Archives (BCA). A few official reports that have been leaked are available, as are the military history by Halli, personal testimony by soldiers and witness accounts from survivors. They all agree that systematic massacres took place; testifying soldiers and survivors add that targets included civilians, women and children (Bulut 1991: 183-206, 299-304; “Dersim Katliamı’ndaki askerler konuştu,” CNN Turk of 3 May 2011).

Accustomed to looking up to the state and army as omnipotent entities, most soldiers feared even decades afterwards to speak about their experiences. “When we came to the headquarters, we learnt that discussions had taken place between the officers. A few said that that these people [women and children in Hozat who had not given information on the whereabouts of the men] had to be annihilated, others said that this was a sin. […] They [finally] ordered us: ‘Annihilate all you can apprehend.’ […] And that day we soldiers, in a horrific savageness and craziness, gathered the women, girls and children in a mosque – it was in fact not like a mosque but rather like a church – closed it, sprayed kerosene and easily burnt them alive” (soldier Halil Çolak, Bulut 1991: 300f.).

Dersimis themselves have collected an important number of private documents, conducted interviews and built up Internet sites (Algör 2010; Kalman 1995; Bulut 1991). Recent work has added important material (Aygün 2009 and 2010; Taş 2010; and others: see bibliography). A scholarly “1937-38 Dersim Oral History Project” was launched in 2010 (contact: Prof. Taner Akçam, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University). A main archive or centre of documentation of the Dersim massacre, however, does not yet exist. The only nearly contemporary Kurdish history of the event is a chapter in Nuri Dersimi’s book of 1952, which includes testimonies; the author himself had left Dersim before the campaign.

Documentary novels and memoirs of this period have been written since the 1980s, e.g., by Şükrü Laçin, a founder of the Turkish Workers’ Party in 1963 and not a sympathiser with Rıza and Kurdish nationalism. He recounts in a book published in 1992 how he and people close to him lived during 1937-38. Laçin was born in 1924 in a non-rebellious village of the district of Mazgirt, south of Pah, but was nevertheless removed. His family was allowed to return in 1947. In his sober retrospective, he describes how in summer 1938 the villagers had to surrender all weapons – some old sabres and knifes – they possessed, gather before a lieutenant and listen to a talk on the unity of Turkey. Then the lieutenant selected nine young men, pretended that they still had weapons and took them with him. All were shot except one man named Ahmed Korkmaz, a former soldier, who was saved at the last moment. Several functionaries, including Ahmed’s former teacher, had spoken in his favour. Laçin confirms that the campaign of 1938 and the forced removal of populations covered parts of Dersim, such as Mazgirt, Pertek and Nazimiye, that did not refuse to pay taxes or enlist people in the army. He confirms that villages of the province of Erzincan in the districts of Refahiye, Çayırlı, Üzümlü, Kemah and Tercan, where relatives of Laçin lived, were also targeted, because their inhabitants were Alevi Kurds and were said to have relations with Dersim (Laçin 1992: 26-29, 41-42).

E - Memories

In the years after 1938, the single-party state and its press continued to maintain the image and memory of a necessary and fully successful campaign of pacification, followed by sustained efforts at reconstruction. This is also the content of the book entitled Tunceli is made accessible to civilisation, published in 1939, by Naşit Uluğ, then the director of Ulus, a daily newspaper. He evoked the punishment of “bandits”, but made no reference to mass killing, presenting a panegyric to the Turkish army, to which the Turkish nation had again to be infinitely thankful. He also emphasised the work of reconstruction, which he illustrated with photos and a plan of mostly military buildings. In his words, the success, including a positive memory of the Dersim campaign, was achieved once and for all; the Dersimis had been “made into human beings” (Uluğ 2007). Many Dersimis themselves adopted the Kemalist view or were, as orphans in state institutions, taught to do so. They often exonerated Atatürk, now venerated, and put the blame for the dark side of the campaign on ministers and officers. The Western and the Soviet press largely followed the Kemalist narrative of a civilising mission against reactionary conservatives. Only the U.S. press seems to have voiced criticism of both the violent campaign and its undemocratic political framework; like the European press, however, it lacked independent sources (Sarıkoyuncu 2010).

Heroic reports that recounted Kurdish exploits, resistance and the foundation of an independent Kurdish government appeared in the Armenian press in 1937. A simultaneously tragic and heroic memory of Dersim 1937-38 is to be found in the 1952 book and the memoirs of the Kurdish nationalist Nuri Dersimi, who was in contact with Armenians since the beginning of his exile. Dersimi’s texts, which underlined the barbaric aspects of the campaign, were seminal for the memory of the Kurdish nationalists, but he was also criticised by Dersimis as an instigator who left the country when it became dangerous (Dersimi 1986, Kârerli Mehmed 2007: 333-38, Kieser 2007: 245-55, Taş 2010: 36–37, BCA 030.10 0 0.111.745.11).

The single-party regime met its end in the years after 1945. In 1947, the government repealed the Tunceli Law, and relocated people were allowed to return to their villages. The state of emergency was lifted in 1948. Henceforth, memories dissenting from that promoted by the former single-party regime as well as ongoing realities in Tunceli – poverty, absence of schools and health services, etc. – could be acknowledged, though not freely. The army, the main actor on the ground, as well as the state and its founder, Atatürk, who had stood behind the Tunceli campaign, could never be openly criticised. The memory of the Dersim campaign as at least partly ruthless and misguided can also be found in letters of pious soldiers to the spiritual father of the Nurculuk, Said-i Nursi (Badıllı 1990: 1134, according to Zaman 4 December 2008).

After 1945, Turkey stood under the shadow of the Cold War. Right and left claimed Atatürk’s heritage and did not question dark sides of the Kemalist “civilising mission”. In 1937 at the Komintern in Moscow, Ismail Bilen, a member of the outlawed Turkey Communist Party, had fully backed the Kemalist regime in its “politics against feudalism” in Dersim, though himself imprisoned and exiled (Laçin 1992: 37, cf. Beşikçi 1992: 256-64). Barbaros Baykara’s novels on Tunceli/Dersim 1937-38, widely read in the 1970s and 1980s, were still informed by this kind of state-centred, progressive narrative. The memory of the Dersim campaign as mass violence by the state and its army was nevertheless articulate in leftist circles, in particular among the members from Tunceli (of which Laçin is again an example) but also more generally among those with Alevi and Kurdish backgrounds.

The military putsch of 1980 crushed the Turkish left. After this experience, the leftist or ex-left-wing circles critical of the state began to be more open to the Kurdish perspective that the Turkish nation-state had always reacted with mass violence and denial (imha ve inkar) against even moderate Kurdish claims (Göktaş 1991: 5). More detailed memories, detached from the Kemalist state and ideologies of progress and civilisation, have been recounted since the late 20th century. A “renaissance” of long-suppressed ethnic and religious identities and histories took place at the dawn of the post-Cold War era. Turkey’s EU candidature in 1999 and the AKP government since 2002 contributed to a more liberal context in which the military, the main actor of the campaign of 1937-38, partly lost for the first time its hitherto sacrosanct, unchecked position at the top of the state.

During the so-called Kurdish or democratic opening of autumn 2009, on 17 November, Prime Minister Erdoğan called the events of 1937-38 a massacre. For the first time, the long-term memory of the Tunceli campaign as one of pacification and a mission of civilisation was publicly challenged on the governmental level, whereas the Republican People’s Party, the former single party, had trouble in defending what for 70 years had been the official version of history. The latter version is nowadays widely seen as unacceptable, as is evident in media discussions from autumn 2009 onwards. It appears today as the position of ultranationalists (see, e.g., the foreword to Uluğ’s book of 1939 in the re-edition of publisher Kaynak, close to the ultranationalist, formerly leftist, agitator Doğu Perinçek).

F - General and Legal Interpretation of the Facts

In contrast with the aftermath of the Koçgiri revolt in 1921-22, there were neither critical discussions in the Turkish parliament nor legal claims that officers responsible for brutality and mass killing of civilians should be put on trial. This is even less the case for Dersim, as the legal(istic) framework for the campaign and the removal of the Dersimis had been prepared in advance by the Law of Settlement and the Tunceli Law, which was only repealed in 1947. This law gave Alpdoğan the authority to carry out death penalties without a vote by the parliament, as the Constitution prescribed. Other basic requirements of penal law also were lacking, such as interrogation, communication of the indictment to the indicted or the possibility of appeal (A. Civi in Zaman İsviçre 27 November 2009). Legalism disguised the breach of law against citizens, as in other authoritarian or fascist regimes of the 1930s.

Recently, lawyer Hüseyin Aygün filed a complaint for crimes against humanity in Dersim, where his relatives were killed in 1938 in the village of Çamurek. “The family members were totally annihilated”, says an official document of 1955 upon which the lawyer bases his complaint; the document allowed surviving family members to return from their exile in Kütahya (Hürriyet Daily News, 27 April 2010). In early 2011, the court dismissed the complaint, arguing that it fell outside the statute of limitations.

Historical sociologist Ismail Beşikçi was the first scholar to research the Dersim campaign; to emphasise the legalist but illegitimate, anti-constitutional framework in which it took place; and to call it, in a book of 1990, a genocide. Anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen proposed, in an article of 1994, the label “ethnocide”, arguing that the destruction of Dersim’s autonomous ethnic culture, not of its population, had been the campaign’s main intention. Though declared as a Turkifying mission of civilisation, the intent “to destroy, in whole or in part” – according to article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – the Dersimis, as a distinct ethno-religious group, then labelled as Alevi Kurd and partly as crypto-Armenian, and of “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is manifest. This is well documented. In a comparative legal perspective, Beşikçi’s position may be supported by later jurisdiction based on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

A restrictive historiographical use may, however, reserve the term genocide for mass killings of the 20th century, in which a higher proportion of a larger ethno-religious group was killed and the future of the whole group in its habitat was destroyed, as in the case of the Ottoman Armenians or the European Jews. In both latter cases, those responsible considered the targeted groups to be inassimilable to the nation. The Dersim massacre concerned parts of the Dersim population, whereas other parts were removed and the main part could remain in place. As a result, the area’s informal autonomy and, in part, its ethno-religious habitat were suppressed. Extermination in 1938 had targeted first those whose tribes and families were involved in the resistance. But it also included others, among them relatives who were not in the resistance, and even people living outside Dersim. Principally, however, the Kemalists who were responsible for the campaign, considered that the Dersimis could be assimilated into the nation-state.

In studies on Turkey across all disciplines, the Dersim campaign remained under-researched until the late 20th century. One scarcely finds mention of it in the major university textbooks on Turkish history. To this day, there still do not exist monographs or detailed research articles in Western languages, except the translation of Beşikçi’s book and a few articles or book chapters (Bruinessen 1994; Watts 2000). Richer is the recent Turkish production. The dark sides of Turkey’s foundation, from the Young Turks’ single-party regime to the Dersim campaign and later pogroms against non-Muslims, have long been under-researched both inside and outside Turkey for political reasons and because of simplistic notions of progress versus religious reaction in Western scholarship on Turkey.

In recent years, a fresh look at these topics and the Dersim campaign has finally emerged. It also includes the particularly silenced Armenian aspects of Dersim – a dimension that Western scholarship long failed to grasp. The lack of access to the military archives, however, said to be in the process of classification (tasnif), seriously hampers comprehensive research on the Dersim campaign. The military archives could answer questions such as the hierarchical level at which the order was given to massacre people, including women and children; to what extent poison gas was used against people in caves; and whether there were, as it seems, absolutely no orders against or punishments for such widespread brutalities as burning alive, slashing open pregnant women, and stabbing babies.

In contrast to state-centred rightist or leftist traditions – which explained the high number of civilian dead to be collateral damage of a necessary campaign against reactionary rebels – recent scholarship elaborates on the problematic aspects and the victims of the Dersim campaign. It puts it in the context of the single party’s suppression of any opposition (Zürcher 2004: 176). It frames it as an ethnocide, the “deliberate destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity by forced assimilation” (Bruinessen 1994: 143). It sees it as a genocide committed against the backdrop of a colonialist enterprise, bearing in mind that the Turkish political élite did not know “Kurdistan” any better than 19th-century European élites had known their overseas colonies (Beşikçi 1992). A further interpretation stresses the logical and chronological coincidence with the Turkish History thesis that claimed Anatolia to have been for thousands of years the home of the Turks – a racial speculation that revealed an aporia of legitimacy and a dead-end of ultra-Turkist Kemalism. It implied the wish to make disappear all remaining vestiges of non-Turkish presence and heterogeneous Ottoman coexistence. These vestiges reminded state-centred elites of a period for which they felt distress and shame; a period marked by the tedious Oriental Question, in particular the Armenian Question, and by the lack of governmental sovereignty. It involved a deep-seated fear of de-legitimisation (Kieser 2000: 411-12, Kieser 2007: 400-410).

G. Maps :

Map N°1 : Turkey, source : Wikipedia


Map N°2 : Province of Dersim : source : Harita Dosyası, Yurt Ansiklopedisi (Istanbul: Anadolu Yay., 1981.

Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938

The map shows Dersim (the province of Tunceli) including the area between Hozat and Nazimiye tha was mainly targeted by the campaign. Among the places mentioned in the article are Nazimiye (here Nazmiye), Sin (today's Geyiksuyu, between Hozat and Tunceli, not on the map), and Pah (renamed Kocakoç, but on this map Karakoç -- the massive Turkist renaming of toponyms led to many confusions).

H - Bibliography

AKGÜL, Suat, 1992, Yakın tarihimizde Dersim isyanları ve gerçekler, Istanbul: Boğaziçi Yay.

ALGÖR, İlhami, 2010, Ma sekerdo kardaş? “Dersim 38” tanıklıkları, Istanbul: Doğan.

ASLAN, Şükrü (ed.), 2010, Herkesin bildiği sır: Dersim, Istanbul: İletişim.

AYGÜN, Hüseyin, 2009, Dersim 1938 ve zorunlu iskân, Telgraflar, dilekçeler, mektuplar, Ankara: Dipnot.

AYGÜN, Hüseyin, 2010, Dersim 1938. Resmiyet ve hakikat, Ankara: Dipnot.

BADILLI, Abdülkadir, 1990, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Mufassal Tarihçe-i Hayatı, İstanbul: Timaş.

BARBAROS, Baykara, 1974, Dersim 1937, Istanbul: Aykar.

BARBAROS, Baykara, 1975, Tunceli 1938, Istanbul: Aykar.

BEŞİKÇİ, İsmail, 1992, Tunceli kanunu (1935) ve Dersim jenosidi, Ankara: Yurt Kitap-Yayın (first ed. 1990).

BRUINESSEN, Martin van, 1994, “Genocide in Kurdistan? The suppression of the Dersim rebellion in Turkey (1937-1938) and the chemical war against the Iraqi Kurds (1988),” in G. Andreopoulos (ed.), Genocide – Conceptual and historical dimensions, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 141–170.

BULUT, Faik, 1991, Belgerle Dersim raporları, Istanbul: Yön.

ÇAGLAYANGİL, İhsan Sabri, 2007,“Kader bizi una değil, üne itti,” Çağlayangil’in anıları, haz. Tanju Cilizoğlu, Istanbul: Bilgi Yayınevi (first ed. 1990).

ÇALIŞLAR, İzzeddin, 2010, Dersim raporu, Istanbul: Iletisim (written in 1933-34).

DERSIMI, Nuri, 1986, Hatıratım, Stockholm: Roja Nû (first ed.1952).

DERSIMI, Nuri, 1990, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, Köln: Komkar.

GÖKTAŞ, HIdır, 1991, Kürtler. İsyan - tenkil, Istanbul: Alan.

HALLİ, Reşat, 1972, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar (1924–1938), ed. by the Directorate of the General Staff for Military History, Ankara: Genelkurmay Basımevi.

JANDARMA UMUM KUMANDANLIĞI, 2010, Dersim. Jandarma Umum Kumandanlığı raporu, Istanbul: Kaynak (first ed. 1932).

KÂRERLİ MEHMED, Efendi, 2007, Yazılmayan tarih ve anılarım (1915-1958), ed. by Ali R. Erenler, Ankara: Kalan.

KIESER, Hans-Lukas, 2000, Der verpasste Friede. Mission, Ethnie und Staat in den Ostprovinzen der Türkei (1839-1938), Zürich: Chronos.

KIESER, Hans-Lukas, 2007, A quest for belonging. Anatolia beyond empire and nation, Istanbul: Isis.

KÜÇÜK, Hülya, 2001, The role of the Bektashis in Turkey’s national struggle, Leiden: Brill.

MCDOWALL, David, 2000, A modern history of the Kurds, London: I.B.Tauris.

SARIKOYUNCU DEĞERLİ, Esra, “Amerikan basınında doğu isyanları 1925-1938,” Akademik Bakış 3 (Summer 2010): 97-121.

TAŞ, Cemal, 2010, Dağların kayıp anahtarı. Dersim 1938 anlatıları, Istanbul: Iletisim.

ÜLKER, Erol, 2008, “Assimilation, Security and Geographical Nationalization in Interwar Turkey: The Settlement Law of 1934,” European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 7 | 2008, Online since 11 December 2008,, visited 27 August 2008.

ULUĞ, Naşit H., 2007, Tunceli Medeniyete açılıyor, Istanbul: Kaynak (first ed. 1939).

ULUĞ, Naşit H., 2009, Derebeyi ve Dersim, Istanbul: Kaynak (first ed. 1932).

WATTS, Nicole, 2000, “Relocating Dersim: Turkish State-Building and Kurdish Resistance, 1931-1938,” New Perspectives on Turkey 23 (Fall 2000): 5-30.

Cite this item

KIESER Hans-Lukas, Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 27 July, 2011, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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