The Dersim massacre - then and now (part I): Was it genocide?

Last year, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Pervin Buldan denounced the crackdown by the Turkish army in northern Syria against the Kurdish civilian population and accused the Turkish government of genocide against the Kurds.

According to Buldan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to "create a world free from Kurds". In other words, this is genocide.

When it comes to genocide, the city of Dersim plays an important role in the Kurdish collective memory. Dersim, now the Turkish province of Tunceli, was the scene of mass murders between 1937-38 by the Turkish army in which between 20,000 and 30,000 Kurds died.

The massacres are commemorated on November 15 each year. On that day in 1937, the Kurdish leader Seyit Rıza and some of his followers, who had opposed the Turkish government, were hanged.

In a two-part series, a number of experts provide insights into key questions about the massacres, as more information and evidence has come to light in recent years.

How should we interpret this event? Was it indeed a genocide? What is the relationship between the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the events in Dersim 22 years later? How do Turks deal with this dark page in Turkish history? And what role exactly does Dersim play in the Kurdish collective memory, in particular for the Kurds from Dersim?

Triple minority

The Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, was a one-party state during the interwar period. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) of the Republican People's Party (CHP) was omnipotent.

Turkey’s state ideology was Kemalism. According to Dutch-Kurdish historian and genocide researcher Uğur Ümit Üngör, this was a combination of "republicanism, secularism, statism, populism, revolutionism and nationalism".

The Turkish government believed in one people, one language, one religion: their new Turkey was ethnically Turkish, linguistically Turkish, and the faith was Sunni Islam. This ideology was spread from the centre to the periphery. Everywhere CHP party buildings were erected, the new message was proclaimed.

In Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey, Turkish centralisation met with Kurdish resistance. Turkey crushed these uprisings and strengthened the power of its central authority in these areas, which used to be only nominally under Ottoman rule.

One of the most problematic areas was Dersim, located around 400 km east of the capital Ankara. In this mountainous, difficult-to-access area, central government had only nominal authority. The actual rulers were the various Kurdish tribes, who regularly clashed with each other.

The Kurds in Dersim were also a triple minority. They were Kurdish, but spoke a different language to many Kurds: Zaza. In addition, they were Alevis - a religious minority following a syncretic and heterodox Islamic tradition.

According to Üngör, Kurds from Dersim can in a way be compared with the Yazidis, who were victims of a genocide by ISIS in 2014. "Yazidis also formed their own minority group, with their own ethnic and religious identity. And they were also killed for that," he said.

Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen, who has studied Turkish, Kurdish and Zaza cultures, said that the Turkish government compared the Kurds in Dersim with the Native Americans in the "Wild West".

"The Turkish rulers considered Dersim a desolate area where 'civilisation' was not yet ruling. This area had to be civilised. The Kurds in Dersim were barbarians in the eyes of the Turkish rulers. They were dehumanised and it was easy to kill them en masse in 1937-1938," he said. 

Revolt and mass murder

The Kurds in Dersim did not care much for Kemalist efforts at unity. Institutions such as public education, the post and the police only functioned in the provincial towns, the villages were often terra incognita for the Turkish civil service. The central government wanted to permanently establish its power in the area and end local autonomy.

On June 17, 1925, the government established the "Commission for Reform of the East" (Şark Islahat Encümeni). This committee came up with a lengthy report, which among other things proposed that a permanent state of emergency be declared in eastern Turkey. That would make the implementation of Turkification easier.

Six years later, in 1931, Interior Minister Sükrü Kaya (1883-1959) issued a separate report on Dersim.

"It concerned arbitrary violence by chieftains, tax evasion, massive possession of weapons, lawlessness and evasion of military service,” Üngör said.

"Kaya proposed a two-stage plan: in the first year of a future campaign, the aforementioned problems would be violently overcome. In the following years, education and deportations could then complete the Turkification process."

At the end of 1935, the "Tunceli Act" went into effect. Dersim would henceforth be called Tunceli.

Some Kurdish tribes, who viewed the strengthened hold of the central government in the area as a violation of their own power, refused to surrender their weapons. Turkish army violence against the local population and the rape of Kurdish women provoked a violent counter-reaction. Telephone cables were cut, Turkish soldiers were shot, and on the night of March 20-21, 1937, some Kurdish groups fire to a police station and a bridge.

“Nationalist Kurds speak of an uprising against the Turkish state, but many people from Dersim now say that there was no [mass] uprising,” van Bruinessen said.

Bora Çelik, who comes from Dersim and now lives in the Netherlands, agreed. “There were in Dersim all different tribes who fought with each other. There was hardly any unity. Turkey explained the burning of a bridge and the cutting of telephone cables as a mass uprising, but this is nonsense. It was a slaughter," Çelik said.

Whether burning a bridge was the start of an uprising or not, the Turkish government interpreted it as such and was determined to take a firm response.

"The operation, called ‘punishment and deportation’ (tedip ve tenkil), started in the summer of 1937 and intensified in July and August of the same year,” Üngör said.

“The Dersim people, armed with obsolete weaponry, fought hard but were no match for Turkish machine guns and mortar attacks. The Dersim fighters were also powerless over the air strikes carried out by Atatürk's adopted daughter, Sabiha Gökçen," he added.

Defeat was inevitable. Alisjeer, a major Kurdish rebel leader, was ambushed and beheaded. Rebel leader Seyit Rıza then wanted to negotiate with the Turks, but he and his entourage were arrested and hanged on November 15, 1937.

Although the uprising in Dersim was thereby crushed, the Turkish military operation continued.

"Actually, the Turkish operation consisted of two phases, that of 1937, which was mainly military, and that of 1938, which was mainly genocidal in nature," Çelik said.

Ügör said that a large number of villages were attacked, people were gathered and shot or burned alive, and women and children were not spared. He estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 Kurds were murdered in Dersim in 1937-1938. Van Bruinessen has the same estimate.

Ethnocide or genocide?

Almost everyone agrees that the events in Dersim were terrible. But was it a genocide?

In a 1994 scientific article entitled "Genocide in Kurdistan? The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38) and the Chemical War Against the Iraqi Kurds" (1988) van Bruinessen did not describe the mass murder in Dersim as genocide.

"To determine whether a case of mass murder is genocide , two criteria are important: first intention and secondly killing the members of a specific group 'as such'. In other words: simply because they are Jews, Kurds or gypsies,” he said.

“If many people are killed in the context of acts of war, or in suppressing an insurrection, there is no genocide - unless you can argue that suppressing that insurrection was part of a broader plan to destroy a particular group. Roughly speaking, sociologists tend to see ethnocide as a form of genocide, while lawyers look more strictly at the criterion of physical elimination," van Bruinessen said.

In 1994, there was not enough historical evidence to speak of a genocide. However, according to van Bruinessen, there was in any case an ethnocide, because the Turkish state had tried to destroy Kurdish identity.

"Children from Dersim who survived the slaughter were raised as Turks and as Sunni and in the Turkish language, with the aim of extinguishing their former identity," he said.

In this context, Üngör speaks of three hammer blows that the Dersim Kurds had to deal with:

"The first blow was when Turkey decided in 1937-1938 to destroy the pilgrimage sites and to kill the carriers of its own Dersim culture. The second blow came when children from Dersim were raised Turkish and Sunni, and Dersim itself was filled with Sunni mosques. The third blow was the massive exodus of Dersim Kurds from Dersim, who immigrated to Istanbul, Izmir and abroad. New generations no longer learned Zaza. This language is now threatened with extinction. This also had to do with the nationalist education in Turkey after the 1980 coup. At school Zaza was banned."

Yet they are still there, those Kurds who speak Zaza. About fifteen years ago, Üngör ran into a 16-year-old Kurdish boy in Delft who spoke Zaza, as his parents had raised him in the language.

"But this is really an exception," Üngör stressed. "In Dersim itself, the language is slowly but surely dying out."

Much more information on the mass killings has emerged between 1994 and now that shows that the intention of the Turkish state was to kill a significant number of people, van Bruinessen said. More documents have been discovered; a number of memoirs by those directly involved have been published; oral history research has been conducted, involving villagers as well as military and bureaucrats who witnessed the events; and children of the survivors have been interviewed.

Nevertheless, van Bruinessen remains cautious, because genocide is a legal concept and you have to make a genocide accusation well-founded. "The military had instructions to kill anyone who carried weapons. But you will also find in official documents the observation that in Dersim all men carried weapons," van Bruinessen said.

Üngör is less hesitant in calling the mass murders genocide.

"Fifteen years ago, we couldn't say many things with certainty, now we can. It was not only about the destruction of one's own Dersim culture, but also about the destruction of human lives. It was the intention to kill many Kurds. It is also striking that some Turkish dignitaries who played a key role in the mass killings in Dersim were involved in the Armenian Genocide in 1915," he said.

"In 1915, Sükrü Kaya was director of the deportation apparatus. He did the same job in 1938, when he was Interior Minister. There is a lot of continuity. Kemalists in power in Turkey during the interwar period committed the genocide of the Armenians and Assyrians in 1915."

Read the second part of this two-part series: The Dersim massacre - then and now (part II): What is its legacy?

A version of this article was previously published in the Dutch magazine de Kanttekening.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.