Kurdish Massacre and 1938 uprising in Dersim

Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Onur Öymen’s unfortunate comments on the Dersim Rebellion have led Turkish Government, Politicians, Political Power Centers, and Journalists to examine the rebellions years of the republic era from a different perspective.

There are so many articles written with regards to this issue (1938 uprising in Dersim), in the last few days, that the level of expressionism and genuineness published in the Turkish newspapers, on the subject matter, gives validity to the mass massacre (some call genocide) itself.

Two questions of a very delicate nature present themselves on this historical occasion.

1. On what principle did the Turkish Government carried out the forced assimilation and mass massacre and who was behind the the decisions?

2. What are the consequences and lessons to be learned?

The first question can be answered at once by referring to the recurring and repetitive frequency of the case in the Kurdish region, called Dersim, located North Eeast of Turkey. During the 1930s, Turkish government aimed at consolidating the control of the Kurdish areas, including Dersim, and increased their efforts of forced assimilation

  • The Turkish Assembly, in a rush, passed the “Settlement Law”, which allowed the Turkish Government to evacuate and dispalce most of the Kurdish residents.
  • The “Law of Maintenance of Order”, gave government the power to establish a form of oppression never seen before. Thousands of villages were given Turkish names and the word “Kurdistan” was removed from the Turkish vocabulary. Objective was to erase any memory associated with the Kurdishness, the Kurdish land, and the past.
  • Around the same time, Fourth General Governance was established. General Abdullah Alpdogan, with the attributes of being the Governor of Dersim, was appointed.
  • In 1936, General Abdullah Alpdogan, re-named Dersim “Tunç eli (Bronze hand)”, and announced that Kurdish people did not exist as a race.
  • A military court, called “Independence Court”, was established in Dersim. Through this legislation Dersim was declared a “Prohibited Area”.
  • Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in his opening speech of the Assembly in 1936, said the following: “If there is an important phase within our domestic affairs then this is the matter of “Dersim”. This domestic job, the job of ripping off, cleaning up and to radically carve this dreadful boil, this wound, has to be done no matter what the costs associated and hence the government should be granted absolute and extensive authorization so that urgent decisions can be taken on this matter.
  • The Turkish State, staged a military attack with heavy armament. War planes taking off from Diyarbekir bombarded Dersim in 1936.
  • The occupation which had to be interrupted due to winter conditions was resumed in 1937.
  • The civilians took refuge in the mountains in the face of Turkish army’s siege and later invasion.
  • Villages were bombed, burnt down and destroyed.
  • On15 September 1937, the leader of Dersim Uprising, Seyit Rıza, was seized on the Muti bridge on his way to Erzincan.
  • In the indictment prepared for Seyit Riza and his friends the prosecutor, Hatemi Şahamoğlu, had made the following statements: “This case is a case opened by Tunceli against Dersim. The judgment delivered by the High Court shall lead Tunceli to live and Dersim to be thrown on the trash heap of history”.
  • On 10 November 1937, the court deliveres the judgement of death penalty for Seyid Riza, his son and 7 others. On 15 November 1937 Seyid Riza, his son and friends were executed.
  • However, the massacre continued in the aftermath of the executions. Although the army withdrew back to its barracks in the months of winter, with the onset of spring 1938 they attacked once again and implements mass massacres.
  • In Mustafa Kemal’s opening speech of the Assembly, read by Celal Bayar due to his illness and absence, on 1 November 1938 he expressed his pleasure over the “end of banditry and robbery incidents and the procurement of national sovereignty” in Dersim while Ismet Inönü said “We are rid of the difficult problem of Dersim”.

With the historical facts reviewed, second question can be answered with a sense of responsibility and sensibility:

Dersim stands as a mass massacre, for some as a genocide, which is forgotten or wished to be forgotten by official and political power centers.

Solidarity that was shown for Jewish people must be shown with the innocent people of Dersim civilians that were bombarded, massacred, and displaced at the same time. 

Turkish armed forces listed almost 8,000 Dersim residents killed in the last few months of 1938 alone. More than 1 million Kurds were displaced in the conflict. Estimates of the number of Kurds killed in Dersim between 1937 and 1938 run as high as 20,000.

 In the process of displacement, thousand of Kurdish homes were burned, villages permanently depopulated, and civilians massacred. Hundreds of Kurds hidings in caves or barns were buried to death by the Turkish armed forces. There were reports of Kurds suffering from collective suicides. According to historian McDowall, “Turkey was practicing crude social engineering”.

 As presented, with the facts, and consolidating all the debts and engagements of the Turkish Government and obligations of the State to the Kurds, and under the light of recent discussion that took place following Mr. Onur Öymen’s unfortunate comments, a popular insurrection to the dissatisfaction of the government of 1938th was oppressed with a military and political force that reminds us the practices of Germans against the displaced Jewish settlers.

 We can no longer pretend to be the observers of this cruel form of civil democracy dictating its own perspective on historical matters and facts. We must work hard and impatiently to bring about the awareness where archives are made available to the community and this process of transparency and openness shall have a magical effect of dissolving the oppression to its moral obligations, sects, and atoms.

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2 Responses to “Kurdish Massacre and 1938 uprising in Dersim”

  1. Esmere Says:

    Memory is an interesting phenomenon. Even though we do not remember everything, it has been proven that people remember traumatic experiences to a greater extent than joyful moments. This psychological feature cannot go unoticed in a world that tends to become more and more indifferent towards human pain.
    A question arises not so much on knowing the specifics of the power of traumatic experiences but on the relationship between individual and collective trauma. That is when symbols, stories and telling history enters this complex relationship and makes the links between individuals and populations more accessible. Anthropology, not history, tells us how this is performed, how individual stories become national or universal.
    But history tries to record and save human experience in its most objective way. Yet, there are so many different interpretations of an event. Yet, history, which uses scientific methods of research, when told by a single person, becomes a story. For individual lambda, the most important is then not to know exactly what happened, in a scietific way, nor to judge the story teller on the level of scientificity of the story telling process. For a simple human being, common sense is enough to realise how important, traumatic or history creating some events are.
    The genocide of the Kurdish population during the first half of this century was such an event. Beyond the feelings of unfairness and of pity, one can also see a recurrent theme in human history: the conflict between same symbols which borrow different paths to express themselves, the antagonism between an organised and militarised force and civilians, the power of an institutional oppressive structure against unorganised individuals.

    • timetravelblog Says:

      I am glad that you think that way. One can not always blame the oppressor. But, one also have to, objectively, blame the oppressed. For centuries, Kurds were led and ruled by the weak, timid, insecure Sheiks and Aghas. Even the most powerful ones were submissive and were easily ruled by their counterparts, or even influenced and controlled by the Ottoman Valis. I guess that this is the level objectivity that we need to preserve. Yes, independent of which method we utilize to explore the history, one has to first be accountable and accounted for their own actions, in this case, Kurds are being held up to the highest ethical standards for their future actions or inactions.

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