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Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938

 

Hans-Lukas KIESER

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).

Devami için......
http://www.massviolence.org/Dersim-Massacre-1937-1938
 

 

 
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