The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38)
[excerpts from: Martin van Bruinessen, "Genocide in Kurdistan? The suppression of the Dersim
rebellion in Turkey (1937-38) and the chemical war against the Iraqi Kurds (1988)", in: George J.
Andreopoulos (ed), Conceptual and historical dimensions of genocide. University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1994, pp. 141-170.
An Almost Forgotten Massacre: Dersim, 1937-38
In 1990 a book was published in Turkey that by its very title accused Turkey's one-
party regime of the 1930s of having committed genocide in the Kurdish district of
The book was immediately banned and did not generate the debate its
author, the sociologist Ismail Be ikçi, had hoped for. Be ikçi was the first, and for a
long time the only, Turkish intellectual to publicly criticize Turkey's official ideology
and policies regarding the Kurds, beginning with his 1969 study of the socioeconomic
conditions of eastern Turkey through a whole series of increasingly polemical works.
He paid a heavy price for his moral and intellectual courage; all his books were
banned, and he spent more than ten years in prison for writing them. Although my
conclusions may be slightly different from his, I wish to acknowledge my
indebtedness to his committed scholarship, and dedicate this chapter to him.
The massacres with which Be ikçi's book deals occurred in the course of Turkey's
pacification of the rebellious Kurdish district of Dersim (presently called Tunceli) in
1937 and 1938. The events represent one of the blackest pages in the history of
Republican Turkey, gracefully passed over in silence or deliberately misrepresented by
most historians, foreign as well as Turkish.
As the campaign against Dersim went on,
the authorities made sure that little information about it reached the outside world.
Diplomatic observers in Ankara were aware that large military operations were taking
place, but had little idea of what was actually going on. After the events, however, the
British consul at Trebizond, the diplomatic post closest to Dersim, spoke of brutal and
indiscriminate violence and made an explicit comparison with the Armenian
massacres of 1915. "Thousands of Kurds," he wrote, "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
1 Ismail Be ikçi, Tunceli Kanunu (1935) ve Dersim Jenosidi [The 1935 law concerning Tunceli and the
genocide of Dersim] (Istanbul: Belge yayinlari,1990).
2 There is not a single word about the events in the two standard texts, Bernard Lewis, The Emergence
of Modern Turkey (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), and Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural
Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and of Modern Turkey, vol. 2, The Rise of Modern Turkey 1808-
1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). Turkish authors referring to the Dersim
campaign prefer to gloss over the massacres. Thus, the retired general Muhsin Batur mentions in his
memoirs that he took part, as a young lieutenant, in the 1938 Dersim campaign but refuses to speak out:
"I beg my readers to be excused, I shall not write this page of my life" (Muhsin Batur, Anilar ve
görü ler: üç dönemin perde arkasi [Memoirs and views: behind the scene in three periods] (Istanbul:
Milliyet, 1985), quoted in Musa Anter, Anilarim [My memoirs] (Istanbul: Doz, 1990), 44.
belongings, were deported to vilayets (provinces) in Central Anatolia. It is now stated
that the Kurdish question no longer exists in Turkey."
I shall first, using the few available sources, attempt to give an impression of the
situation in Dersim prior to the pacification campaign and sketch the events of 1937
and 1938. Then I shall attempt to show that what we are dealing with was not merely
the brutal suppression of an internal rebellion but part of a wider policy directed
against the Kurds as such.
Dersim is an inaccessible district of high, snowcapped mountains, narrow valleys,
and deep ravines in central Eastern Turkey. It was inhabited by a large number of
small tribes, eking out a marginal existence by animal husbandry, horticulture, and
gathering forest products. Their total numbers were, by the mid-1930s, estimated at
65,000 to 70,000.
Dersim was a culturally distinct part of Kurdistan, partly due to
ecological-geographical factors, partly to a combination of linguistic and religious
peculiarities. Some of the tribes spoke Kurdish proper, but most spoke another, related
language known as Zaza. All adhered to the heterodox Alevi sect, which separated
them socially from the Sunni Kurds living to the east and south (among whom there
were both Zaza and Kurdish speakers). Although there are Alevis in many other parts
of Turkey, those of Dersim constitute a distinct group, with different beliefs and
Dersim was, by the mid-1930s, the last part of Turkey that had not been effectively
brought under central government control. The tribes of Dersim had never been
subdued by any previous government; the only law they recognized was traditional
tribal law. Tribal chieftains and religious leaders wielded great authority over the
commoners, whom they often exploited economically. They were not opposed to
government as such, as long as it did not interfere too much in their affairs. Many
chieftains, in fact, strengthened their position by establishing close relations with the
military and police officers appointed to the region. There was a tradition of refusing
to pay taxes — but then there was little that could be taxed, as the district was
desperately poor. Young men evaded military service when they could, but by 1935 a
considerable proportion of them did in fact serve in the Turkish army.
There were perpetual conflicts between the tribes, often taking the form of
protracted feuds. Many of the tribesmen carried arms, and raids against neighboring
3 Report from the Consul in Trabzon, 27 September 1938 (Public Record Office, London, FO 371
files, document E5961/69/44).
4 This figure was given in December 1935 by then minister of the interior gükrü Kaya (quoted in
Be ikçi, Tunceli kanunu (1935), 10). It referred to the province of Tunceli. The historical district of
Dersim was in fact larger than Tunceli, and included parts of neighboring Sivas, Erzincan, and Elazi?
provinces. This may explain why another contemporary author gives the much higher population figure
of 150,000, apparently referring to larger Dersim (Na it Ulu?, Tunceli medeniyete açiliyor [Tunceli is
opened up for civilization] (Istanbul: Cumhuriyet Matbaasi, 1939, 144). The military campaigns were
mainly restricted to the province of Tunceli, and therefore I prefer the former figures.
5 Interestingly (and perhaps of some political significance), many of the Dersim Kurds are partly of
Armenian descent — Dersim used to have a large Armenian population. Even well before the Armenian
massacres, many local Armenians voluntarily assimilated, becoming Alevi Kurds (L. Molyneux-Seel,
"A Journey in Dersim," The Geographical Journal 44, no. 1 : 49-68). This has left traces both in
the local Zaza dialects and in popular belief.
tribes were not uncommon. The local military officials were often drawn into the
tribal conflicts too, as some chieftains accused their enemies of conspiring against the
state. At the same time there was Kurdish nationalist agitation among the tribes,
carried out by the educated sons of leading families.
In 1936 Dersim was placed
under military government, with the express aim of pacifying and "civilizing" it. The
tribes' response to the modernization brought by the state, consisting of roads, bridges,
and police posts, was ambiguous. Some chieftains sought accommodation with the
military authorities, others resented this interference in their former independence. By
early 1937, the authorities believed, or had been led to believe, that a major rebellion
was at hand, a show of resistance against the pacification program, instigated by
nationalists. The person said to be the chief conspirator was a religious leader, Seyyit
Riza. Five tribes (out of around one hundred) were said to be involved in the
The military campaign against Dersim was mounted in response to a relatively
minor incident, and it would seem that the army had been waiting for a direct reason
to punish the tribes. One day in March 1937, a strategic wooden bridge was burned
down and telephone lines cut. Seyyit Riza and the tribes associated with him were
suspected. The army may have believed this to be the beginning of the expected
rebellion. One Turkish source mentions that there was around the same time another
minor incident elsewhere in Kurdistan and suggests coordination by Kurdish
The official history of the military campaign, however, considers the
incident as of a local nature only.
It is hard, in retrospect, to separate intertribal
violence from deliberate rebellion against the state. One pro-Turkish source in fact
suggests that the suspicions against Seyyit Riza were based on denunciations by his
In any case, the army had its warrant for intervention. The first troops,
sent in to arrest the suspects, were stopped by armed tribesmen. The confrontations
soon escalated. When the tribes kept refusing to surrender their leaders, a large
campaign was mounted. Military operations to subdue the region lasted throughout the
summer of 1937. In September, Seyyit Riza and his closest associates surrendered, but
the next spring the operations were resumed with even greater force. They must have
been of unprecedented violence and brutality.
The few existing accounts of the events are necessarily partisan. One important book
was written by a local man, the veterinarian and nationalist activist Nuri Dersimi, who
was involved in the early stages of the rebellion, and who lost many relatives in the
military reprisals. The book he published fourteen years later in Syrian exile is
6 According to a detailed military study of the events, Dersim-born Armenians, who had survived the
Armenian massacres and lived in Syria, returned to the area together with Kurdish nationalists and
successfully incited the tribes to rebellion. Re at Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar (1924-
1938) [Rebellions in the Republic of Turkey, 1924-1938] (Ankara: T. C. Genelkurmay Ba kanli?i Harp
Tarihi Dairesi, 1972), 377.
7 Mahmut Golo?lu, Tek-partili Cumhuriyet, 1931-1938 [The one-party republic, 1931-1938] (Ankara,
8 Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 379.
9 Hidir Öztürk, Tarihimizde Tunceli ve Ermeni mezalimi [The place of Tunceli in our history and the
atrocities by the Armenians] (Ankara: Türk Kültürünü Ara tirma Enstitüsü, 1984), 31-36.
obviously colored by his nationalist views and may contain certain cosmetic
corrections, but seems on the whole reliable.
The best I can do is to quote verbatim
When the Turkish troops began hunting down the rebellious tribes, the men gave
battle, while the women and children hid in deep caves. "Thousands of these women
and children perished," Dersimi writes, "because the army bricked up the entrances of
the caves. These caves are marked with numbers on the military maps of the area. At
the entrances of other caves, the military lit fires to cause those inside to suffocate.
Those who tried to escape from the caves were finished off with bayonets. A large
proportion of the women and girls of the Kureyshan and Bakhtiyar [two rebel tribes]
threw themselves from high cliffs into the Munzur and Parchik ravines, in order not to
fall into the Turks' hands."
The Kirgan, a tribe that had opted for submission to the Turkish army and broken
with the rebels, was not treated with greater clemency: "Because the Kirgan trusted the
Turks they remained in their villages, while the rebel Bakhtiyar withdrew. As a result,
they were destroyed. Their chieftains were tortured and then shot dead. All who tried
to escape or sought refuge with the army were rounded up. The men were shot on the
spot, the women and children were locked into haysheds, that were set fire to."
When winter approached and the army could not continue its operations, it offered
a cease-fire and a peaceful settlement with the rebels, while promising to leave the
other tribes in peace and to give compensation for the damage done.
served to lure the chief rebel leader, Seyyit Riza, into the town of Erzincan (whose
governor he knew and trusted). He was arrested, together with his retinue of some fifty
men. They were summarily tried and eleven of them, including Seyyit Riza, were
In the spring of 1938 military operations resumed on an even larger scale. The
Karabal, Ferhad and Pilvank tribes, which surrendered, were annihilated. Women and
children of these tribes were locked into haysheds and burnt alive. Men and women of
10 M. Nuri Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim [Dersim in the history of Kurdistan] (Aleppo, 1952).
Dersimi left the area when it had become clear that the new military governor of Dersim considered him
to be the major instigator of the rebellion. This was before the military operations proper had begun.
Dersimi was therefore not an eyewitness of the massacres; on the whole his account seems factually
correct, although his figures may be somewhat exaggerated. Possible distortions in the book concern
Dersimi's own role, and his desire to depict the Dersim population as more nationalist than it actually
was. The Dersim rebellion shows more the signs of traditional tribal resistance to government
interference than anything so modern as the wish for a separate state.
11 Translated from Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 285-86. Among the girls who thus committed
suicide was the author's daughter Fato (ibid., 319).
12 Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 286-87.
13 According to Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 288, the army also pretended to acquiesce in the
rebels' demands, but he does not explain what these demands were.
14 The trial and executions were carried out with great haste because all had to be settled before
President Atatürk, who was already on his way, visited the region. The officials in charge did not wish
to embarrass the president by having the local people petition him for mercy. The events are narrated,
with apparent feelings of shame, by the man who was ordered to organize the summary trial and
executions, the later foreign minister Ihsan Sabri Ça?layangil, in his memoirs, Anilarim (Istanbul:
Yilmaz, 1990), 45-55.
the Pilvank and A a?i Abbas tribes, that had always remained loyal to the
government, were lined up in the In and Inciga valleys and shot. The women and girls
in Irgan village were rounded up, sprinkled with kerosine and set alight. Khech, the
chief village of the Sheykh Mehmedan tribe, which had already surrendered, was
attacked at night and all inhabitants were killed by machine gun and artillery fire. The
inhabitants of Hozat town and the Karaca tribe, men, women and children, were
brought near the military camp outside Hozat and killed by machine gun. (...)
Thousands of women and girls threw themselves into the Munzur river. (...) The entire
area was covered by a thick mist caused by the artillery fire and air bombardments
with poisonous gas. (...) Even young men from Dersim who were doing their military
service in the Turkish army were taken from their regiments and shot.
Another Dersim-born Kurdish nationalist, Sait Kirmizitoprak, published in 1970
under the pseudonym of Dr. givan a history of the Kurdish movement, in which he
devotes a few pages to the Dersim massacres.
Though clearly indebted to Dersimi's
book, he adds some information from oral sources. On the 1938 campaign he writes
(in free translation):
In the spring of 1938, the government offered amnesty to all who would
surrender their arms. The Karabal, Ferhad, Pilvank, Sheykh Mehmedan and
Karaca tribes, who responded to this call, were entirely annihilated. In a later
stage, they also killed most of the Kureyshan tribe of Mazgirt district, the
Yusufan and the Bakhtiyar tribes, not sparing women, old men and children.
They were killed en masse, in many cases by the bayonet. Towards the end of
summer, the Hormekan, Kureyshan and .Alan of Nazimiye district, and part of
the Bamasuran of Mazgirt were also annihilated, by poison gas bombs as well
as by bayonets. Their corpses were doused with kerosine and set alight.
Improbable though it may seem, these accounts are to a large extent confirmed by the
documents published in the official military history of the campaign.
Only the claim
that the army used poison gas in the 1938 offensive, made by both Dersimi and givan,
cannot be substantiated. At several instances the reports mention the arrest of women
and children, but elsewhere we read of indiscriminate killing of humans and animals.
15 Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 318-20. Dersimi mentions especially his own brother, who
then had a clerical job at Diyarbakir air base, and who was taken away to be shot, together with two
16 Dr. givan, Kürt millet hareketleri ve Irak'ta Kürdistan ihtilali [Kurdish national movements and the
revolution of Kurdistan in Iraq] (Stockholm, 1975; previously published clandestinely in Turkey in
17 givan, Kürt millet hareketleri, 98.
18 Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 365-480. This important source gives a detailed, day-
by-day account of the military operations, prepared by the War History Department attached to the
Turkish General Staff. The book is not publicly available; it was printed in a very limited edition, and
most of these few copies were moreover requested back and destroyed within a short time after
publication. Friends who prefer to remain anonymous provided me with photocopies of the section on
Dersim. Some of the key passages are also quoted verbatim in Be ikçi, Tunceli kanunu.
With professional pride, reports list how many "bandits" and dependents were
"annihilated," and how many villages and fields were burned. Groups who were
hiding in caves were entirely wiped out. The body count in these reports (in some
engagements a seemingly exact number like 76, in others "the entire band of Haydaran
tribesmen and part of the Demenan") adds up to something between three and seven
thousand, while tens of villages are reported destroyed. In seventeen days of the 1938
offensive alone, 7,954 persons were reported killed or caught alive;
the latter were
definitely a minority. According to these official reports, then, almost 10 percent of
the entire population of Tunceli was killed. The Kurds claim that their losses were
Genocide or Ethnocide?
The killing in Dersim was undoubtedly massive, indiscriminate, and excessively
brutal, but was it genocide? Was the killing done "with intent to destroy, in whole or
in part" the Kurds (or only the people of Dersim) "as such"? Or was it only the
suppression of an armed rebellion, with considerable overkill? I shall try to show that
it was neither. There was never a policy of physically destroying the Kurds or part of
them as such. There was, however, in the Dersim campaign, a deliberate intent to
destroy rebels and potential rebels, and this was part of a general policy directed
toward the Kurds as such. But this policy is more appropriately termed ethnocide, the
destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity.
Intent to destroy may be inferred from the wording of the Secret Decision of the
Council of Ministers on the Punitive Expedition to Dersim of 4 May 1937.
decision envisages a final solution to the perpetual rebellions in Dersim. "This time,"
it reads, "the people in the rebellious districts will be rounded up and deported." But
then it orders the army to "render those who have used arms or are still using them
once and for all harmless on the spot, to completely, destroy their villages and to
remove their families." Given the fact that almost every man in Dersim was known to
carry arms, this reads like a brief to kill all men in the area.
It is not immediately obvious from official sources that the Dersim campaign was
directed against the Kurds as such. There are no explicit references to Kurds, because
the Kurds by that time had already been defined out of existence. The military reports
call all people of Dersim indiscriminately "bandits" (haydut). Interior Minister gükrü
Kaya, however, had found it necessary to inform the National Assembly that the
people of Dersim were "authentic Turks," thereby implicitly mentioning the
unmentionable ethnic dimension of the Dersim question.
The problem was, of
course, that most people in Dersim were not yet aware of their Turkishness. Many did
19 Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 478.
20 Published in Be ikçi, Tunceli kanunu, 67.
21 When presenting a special law for Dersim in 1935, two years before the campaigns, the minister
(quoted in Be ikçi, Tunceli kanunu, 10) declared that the people there were "a group originally
belonging to the Turkish race" (aslen Türk unsuruna mensup bir kitledir). Destruction of Kurdish ethnic
identity was paradoxically legitimated by the denial of its existence (see below).
not know any Turkish at all, and the authorities had to communicate with them
airplanes dropped leaflets "in the local language."
Dersimi and givan, both local men, are at pains to show that the Dersim rebellion
was in fact a Kurdish nationalist rebellion, and that this was the reason for the
brutality of the campaign. But they appear to project too much of their own sentiments
on the rebels, who acted out of narrower interests and loyalties than lofty national
ideals. The rebellion seems to have been primarily a response to government
interference in the tribes' affairs, resistance to what the government saw as its
The regime presented this mission — begun well before the rebellion — as a
determined struggle against backwardness and the oppression of the people by feudal
lords, tribal chieftains, and reactionary religious leaders. One observer close to
government circles enthused, soon after the Dersim campaign, on its civilizing effects:
the tribal chieftains, the mischievous religious leaders and their accomplices
have been caught and deported to the west. The successful military operations
have once and for all uprooted any possibility for a future bandit movement in
Tunceli. Dersim is from now on liberated and saved. There remains no place in
Dersim now where the army has not set foot, where the officers and
commanders have not applied their intelligence and energies. Once again the
army has, in performing this great task, earned the eternal gratitude of the
In practice, however, the thrust of the government effort, including the operations in
Dersim, was not so much directed against "feudalism" and backwardness as against
Kurdish ethnic identity. The brutal Dersim campaign was but the culmination of a
series of measures taken in order to forcibly assimilate the Kurds, as I shall presently
The Kurdish Policies of Republican Turkey
The Republic of Turkey, proclaimed in 1923, owes its existence to the War of
Independence fought by Mustafa Kemal and his associates against the various other
nations claiming parts of the former Ottoman territories in the wake of the First World
War-notably Greeks, Armenians, French, and Italians. A "National Pact" defined the
extent of territory for which the independence movement fought as the former
Ottoman lands inhabited by non-Arab Muslims — in other words, by Turks and
Kurds, for these were the major non-Arab Muslim groups in the Empire. Kurds took
part in this struggle along with the Turks, and the movement's leaders in fact often
22 Ca?layangil, Anilarim, 47.
23 Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 390.
24 Ulu?, Tunceli,159 (slightly abbreviated). Na it Hakki Ulu? was a deputy for the province of Kütahya
in the Grand National Assembly and had earlier written a journalistic account on "feudal" relations in
Dersim and the need for their abolishment. He shows no interest in the human cost of the "civilizing"
process, and mentions not a single killing.
spoke of a Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood, and of the new state as being made up of
Turks and Kurds. In January 1923, Mustafa Kemal still suggested there might be local
autonomy for Kurdish-inhabited areas,
but his policies soon changed drastically.
The very fact that the new republic was called "Turkey" (a borrowing from European
languages) already indicated that some citizens were going to be more equal than
The new republican elite, careful to preserve their hard-won victory, were obsessed
with threats to territorial integrity and with imperialist ploys to sow division. In this
regard, the Kurds were perceived to be a serious risk. There was a Kurdish
independence movement, albeit a weak one, which had initially received some
encouragement from the British. The call for Muslim unity, sounded during the War
of Independence, had been more effective among the Kurds than Kurdish nationalist
agitation, but when Turkey set on a course of secularization the very basis of this unity
disappeared. The Kemalists attempted to replace Islam as the unifying factor by a
Turkey-based nationalism. In so doing, they provoked the Kurdish nationalist response
that they feared.
Some policies caused grievances among much wider circles than those of
committed Kurdish nationalists alone. In the World War, numerous Kurds had fled to
the west when Russian armies occupied eastern Anatolia. As early as 1919, the
government decided to disperse them over the western provinces, in groups not larger
than three hundred each, so that they would not constitute more than 5 percent of the
population in any one locality. Some Kurds who wished to return to Kurdistan were
prevented from doing so.
In the new Turkey, all modern education was henceforth
to be in Turkish; moreover, traditional Islamic schools (medrese) were closed down in
1924. These two radical changes effectively denied the Kurds access to education.
Other secularizing measures (abolition of the caliphate, the office of shaikh al-islam,
and the religious courts; all in 1924) caused much resentment in traditional Muslim
circles. Kurdish nationalist intellectuals and army officers then joined forces with
25 When the Istanbul weekly Gkibin'e Do?ru ("Towards 2000") published in its 6 November 1988 issue
the minutes of a press meeting where Mustafa Kemal had spoken of autonomy, it created a sensation in
Turkey. The magazine was immediately banned for "separatist propaganda," but a court decision later
lifted the ban.
26 At the time of the common struggle for national independence, the territory to be defended was not
called "Turkey" but "Anatolia and Rumeli" (the traditional names for the Asian and European parts of
the present country).
27 British intelligence report on the situation in eastern Turkey after the war, Foreign Office files, series
FO 371, 1919, item 44A/112202/3050 (Public Record Office, London). FO 371, 1919:
44A/112202/3050 (Public Record Office, London); A. Yamulki, Kürdistan ve Kürd ihtilalleri
(Kurdistan and the Kurdish rebellions) (Baghdad, 1946), 70-71. The latter author mentions the case of a
tribal chieftain who wished to collect his tribespeople and return with them to Kurdistan, and was
prevented from doing so. Such cases were later mentioned among the major grievances leading to the
first large Kurdish rebellion; see Martin van Bruinessen, "Vom Osmanismus zum Separatismus:
religiöse und ethnische Hintergründe der Rebellion des Scheich Said," in Islam und Politik in der
Türkei, ed. Jochen Blaschke and Martin van Bruinessen (Berlin: Express Edition,1985),109-65, at 143-
disaffected religious leaders, resulting in the first great Kurdish rebellion, led by
Shaikh Said in 1925.
The rebellion was put down with a great show of military force. The leaders were
caught and hanged, and severe reprisals were taken in those districts which had
participated in the uprising. According to a Kurdish nationalist source, the military
operations resulted in the pillaging of more than two hundred villages, the destruction
of well over eight thousand houses, and fifteen thousand deaths.
rebellion did not pose a serious military threat to Turkey, but it constitutes a watershed
in the history of the republic. It accelerated the trend toward authoritarian government
and ushered in policies which deliberately aimed at destroying Kurdish ethnicity.
Immediately after the outbreak of the rebellion, the relatively liberal prime minister
Fethi Okyar was deposed and replaced with the grim Ismet Inönü. By way of defining
his position on the Kurds, Inönü publicly stated, "We are openly nationalist.
Nationalism is the only cause that keeps us together. Besides the Turkish majority,
none of the other [ethnic] elements shall have any impact. We shall, at any price,
turkicize those who live in our country, and destroy those who rise up against the
Turks and Turkdom."
Several other local rebellions followed, the largest of which took place in 1928-30 in
the area around Mount Ararat. This was the most purely nationalist of all rebellions,
organized and coordinated by a Kurdish political party in exile. In all these rebellions,
however, tribes played the major part, acting under their own aghas (chieftains) and
sometimes coordinated by shaikhs, religious leaders of wide-ranging authority. (Hence
the emphasis, in Turkish public discourse, on the need to abolish "feudalism,"
tribalism, and religious reaction.) The government, perceiving this, responded by
executing some shaikhs and aghas and separating the others from their tribes by
deporting them to other parts of the country. Some entire tribes (notably those that had
taken part in the Ararat rebellion) were deported and dispersed over western Turkey.
The first deportations were simply reprisals against rebellious tribes. In later years,
deportations became part of the concerted effort to assimilate the Kurds. The
turkification program announced by Inönü was embarked upon with characteristic
vigor. The Kurdish language, Kurdish dress, Kurdish folklore, even the very word
"Kurd" were banned. Scholars provided "proof" that the "tribes of the East" were of
pure Turkish stock, and that their language was Turkish, though somewhat corrupted
due to their close proximity to Iran. Henceforth they were to be called "Mountain
Turks." It goes without saying that there was no place for dissenting views in
academic or public life. Another historical theory developed under government
sponsorship in those days held that all great civilizations — Chinese, Indian, Muslim,
even ancient Egyptian and Etruscan — were of Turkish origin. Turkification, even
28 Van Bruinessen, "Vom Osmanismus zum Separatismus"; Robert Olson, The Emergence of Kurdish
Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 1920-1925 (Austin: University of Texas Press,1989).
29 Bletch Chirguh, La question kurde (Le Caire, 1930), 52.
30 Address to the Türk Ocaklari in Ankara, 21 April 1925. Quoted in Güney Aslan, Üniformali
kasaplar (Butchers in uniform) (Istanbul: Pencere Yayinlari, 1990), 14, after the popular history
magazine Yakin Tarihimiz.
when by force, was therefore by definition a civilizing process. The embarrassing
question why it was necessary to turkify people who were said to be Turks already
was never addressed.
Massive population resettlement was one measure by which the authorities hoped to
strengthen the territorial integrity of the country and speed up the process of
assimilation. Kurds were to be deported to western Turkey and widely dispersed,
while Turks were to be settled in their place. The most important policy document, the
Law on Resettlement of 1934, shows quite explicitly that turkification was the primary
objective of resettlement. The law defined three categories of (re)settlement zones:
— one consisting of those districts "whose evacuation is desirable for health,
economic, cultural, political and security reasons and where settlement has been
— the second of districts "designated for transfer and resettlement of the population
whose assimilation to Turkish culture is desired,"
— and the third of "places where an increase of the population of Turkish culture is
In other words, certain Kurdish districts (to be designated later) were to be
depopulated completely, while in the other Kurdish districts the Kurdish element was
to be diluted by the resettlement there of Turks (and possibly deportations of local
Kurds). The deportees were to be resettled in Turkish districts, where they could be
The intent of breaking up Kurdish society so as to assimilate it more rapidly is also
evident from several other passages in the law. Article 11, for instance, precludes
attempts by non-Turkish people to preserve their cultures by sticking together in
ethnically homogeneous villages or trade guilds. "Those whose mother tongue is not
Turkish will not be allowed to establish as a group new villages or wards, workers' or
artisans' associations, nor will such persons be allowed to reserve an existing village,
ward, enterprise or workshop for members of the same race."
This is clearly more
than just legal discrimination; the Law on Resettlement provides the legal framework
for a policy of ethnocide.
It is against the background of this law that the pacification of Dersim has to be
considered. Dersim was one of the first regions where it was to be applied. A year
31 The assignment of specific areas to these three categories (of which I have reversed the order for the
sake of clarity) was to be made by the Ministry of the Interior, in accordance with the spirit of this law.
The law itself, its political context and implications are extensively discussed in Ismail Be ikçi,
Kürtlerin "mecburi iskan"i (The "forced resettlement" of the Kurds) (Ankara: Komal,1977); the quoted
passages from article 2 are at 133. There is a French summary of the law in Rambout, Les Kurdes, 32-
33. The partial translation in Ute Baran, "Deportations: Tunceli Kanunlari," in Documentation of the
International Conference on Human Rights in Kurdistan (Bremen, 1989), 110-16, is unfortunately
marred by serious errors. No serious study of the implementation of the law seems to have been made; a
geographer who visited Kurdistan in the late 1930s, however, observed numerous recent Turkish
settlements in the area (J. Frödin, "Neuere kulturgeografische Wandlungen in der östlichen Türkei,"
Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde 79, no.1-2 [ 1944]:1-20). Many of those settlers, feeling less
than welcome, have migrated back to western Turkey since then.
32 Be ikçi, Kürtlerin "mecburi iskan"i, 142.
after the Law on Resettlement, in December 1935, the Grand National Assembly
passed a special law on Dersim. The district was constituted into a separate province
and placed under a military governor, who was given extraordinary powers to arrest
and deport individuals and families. The Minister of the Interior of the day, gükrü
Kaya, explained the need for this law with references to its backwardness and the
unruliness of the tribes. The district was in a state of lawlessness, caused by ignorance
and poverty. The tribes settled all legal affairs, civil as well as criminal, according to
their own primitive tribal law, with complete disregard of the state. The minister
termed the situation a disease, and added that eleven earlier military campaigns, under
the ancien régime, had failed to cure it. A radical treatment was needed, he said, and
the law was part of a reform program (with "civilized methods," he insisted) that
would make these people also share in the blessings of the republic.
The minister's metaphor of disease and treatment appears to be borrowed from a
report on Dersim that was prepared ten years earlier for the same ministry. This
document was reproduced in the official history of the military campaign, as a
guideline for military policy. The author, Hamdi Bey, called Dersim "an abscess [that)
the Republican government. . . would have to operate upon in order to prevent worse
pain." He was more explicit than gükrü Kaya about the nature of Dersim's malady: it
was the growing Kurdish ethnic awareness.
The treatment began with the construction of roads and bridges, and of police
posts and government mansions in every large village. The unrest resulting from this
imposition of government control provided the direct reason for the pacification
campaign of 1937-38, which at the same time served to carry out the first large-scale
deportations under the 1934 law.
After the Dersim rebellion had been suppressed,
other Kurdish regions being "civilized" from above knew better than to resist.
The Kemalist enterprise was a grandiose attempt to create a new world. Mustafa
Kemal and his associates had created a vigorous new state out of the ruins of the
Ottoman Empire, the Sick Man of Europe. By banning the Arabic script they
destroyed all memory of the past and were free to rewrite history as they felt it should
have been. The Kemalists set out to create a modern, progressive, unitary nation out of
what was once a patchwork of distinct ethnic communities. Whatever appeared to
undermine national unity, be it ethnic or class divisions, was at once denied and
33 Kaya's speech before the Grand National Assembly, 25 December 1935 (quoted in Be ikçi, Tunceli
kanunu, 10, after the parliamentary minutes).
34 Report on the situation in Dersim by Hamdi Bey, inspector of the civil service, dated 2 February
1926, reprinted in Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 375-76. This study speaks of a long-
term policy of the General Staff based on the ideas in the report, suggesting that the military campaign
was not simply a response to an unforeseen incident in 1937. In 1926, when Hamdi Bey wrote his
report, it was still possible to mention Kurds and Kurdish political sentiment; in the 1930s, they could
only be referred to in oblique terms like "tribal," "uncivilized" (i.e., lacking in modern Turkish
civilization) or "originally Turkish."
35 The only figure on deportations from Dersim in the 1930s that I have seen is given by the retired
general Esengin, according to whom, 3,470 persons, belonging to many different tribes, were deported
to western Turkey. See Kenan Esengin, Kürtçülük sorunu (The problem of Kurdish nationalism) (Istan-
bul: Su Yayinlari, 1976), 145. The actual number may well have been higher.
brutally suppressed. In the Kemalists' eyes, this was a process of liberation, an
assertion of human dignity and equality.
"The people of Ankara, Diyarbakir, Trabzon and Macedonia," Mustafa Kemal
proclaimed, "are all children of the same race, jewels cut out of the same precious
stone." Reality often turned out to be less equalitarian. Even today, a person whose
identity card shows that he was born in Tunceli will be treated with suspicion and
antipathy by officials and will not easily find employment, even if he is quite
Another famous saying of Mustafa Kemal, inscribed on official buildings
and statues throughout the country, is subtly ambiguous: "how fortunate is he who
calls himself a Turk!" — implying little good for those who don't. Justice Minister
Mahmut Esat was less subtle but robustly straightforward when he proclaimed in
1930, "The Turks are the only lords of this country, its only owners. Those who are
not of pure Turkish stock have in this country only one right, that of being servants, of
being slaves. Let friend and foe, and even the mountains know this truth!"
The ambivalence, or internal contradiction, inherent in the Kemalist position on
the Kurds has persisted for over half a century. The Kemalist concept of Turkishness
is not based on a biological definition of race. Everyone in Turkey (apart from,
perhaps, the Christian minorities) is a Turk, and many are the Kurds who have made
brilliant political careers once they adopted Turkish identity. Both President Turgut
Özal and opposition leader Erdal Inönü are of (partially) Kurdish descent. But there is
also a sense of Turkish racial superiority that occasionally comes to the surface.
Mutually contradictory though these attitudes are, they have reinforced one another in
the suppression of Kurdish ethnicity.
The democratization of Turkey, which began after World War II, brought a resurgence
of Kurdish ethnic awareness, along with an upsurge of left- and right-wing radicalism.
Military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 sought to restore Kemalist purity, and resulted
in renewed efforts at forced assimilation of the Kurds. Tunceli, the old Dersim, has
come in for more than its share of repression. No longer a "den of ignorance and
primitive tribalism," it has for the past few decades been considered a hotbed of
communism, besides remaining ineradicably Kurdish. A few years ago, new plans
were made to evacuate large parts of Tunceli and to resettle the inhabitants in the
west, ostensibly for the sake of reforestation.
The majority of the people of Dersim
now live in the diaspora, either in western Turkey or abroad. Not much is left of
Dersim's distinctive culture.
36 Cf. Peter Bumke, "Kizilba -Kurden in Dersim (Tunceli, Türkei): Marginalität und Häresie,"
Anthropos 74 (1979): 530-48.
37 Daily Milliyet, 19 September 1930.
38 In January 1987, the inhabitants of 233 villages in Tunceli (out of a total of 434) were notified by the
district forestry department that they had to evacuate their villages and were to be resettled in western or
southwestern Turkey. See the special report in the Istanbul weekly Gkibin'e Do?ru, 15-21 February
1987. Widespread protest occasioned by this report has apparently delayed the implementation of the