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In this iconoclastic article that was serialised in Radikal on 20-24 November 2011, the authors attempt to get at the truth behind the Dersim events of the 1930s. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

  • NOTE I do not have access to the original texts of the British reports from which quotes are made, so what appears is my back-translation from Turkish, which will only approximate to the original.

The Upper Echelons of the State in Dersim


There are numerous pieces of information and documents attesting to the role of Ataturk, İnönü, Celal Bayar and Fevzi Çakmak in Dersim. The General Staff archives should be opened so that the full truth may be learned.

Preface Dersim, whose mountainous perch is home to an Alevi and Zaza/Kurdish population, has throughout history had the reputation of being “closed to the state”. Armenians once also lived in Dersim, made up of numerous tribes and clans and forever exhibiting “differentiation” in terms of its ethnic and religious structure. Operations were also staged against Dersim prior to the Republic, in the Ottoman period. There is no precise information as to how many people died, how many were exiled into other regions and how many people were wounded in Dersim as a result of the large-scale military operations conducted here in 1907, 1908, 1909, 1916, 1926, 1930, 1931, 1935, 1937 and 1938. However, one fact is known: innocent people were slaughtered in the operations to suppress the rebels. With debate about the last operation heating up, Radikal has brought certain historical documents and information into the open. We thank Hasan Saltık for his contribution in providing photographs and documents for the series.

Full General Muhsin Batur, who served as an officer in the 1938 bombardment, recounts, in the book that he wrote prior to his death, his Dersim days as follows: “…We set up camp on the Harput foothills some way from Elaziğ and, a while later, set out with Pertek as the first stop and performed special duties for a period of more than two months. I apologise to my readers and refrain from discussing that portion of my life…” Batur’s memoirs, in which he refrained from speaking and held his tongue, say it all. Full knowledge of what happened in Dersim in 1938 will only be attained if the General Staff opens its archives to researchers. There are a great many documents and photographs concerning Dersim in the General Staff archives. It is also known that, in connection with the Dersim operation, there is footage of planes conducting bombing raids. The opening to researchers, at least, in uncensored form of information, documents and images in the General Staff’s possession would help to minimise various speculations and allegations. For whatever reason, the General Staff has until now always steered clear of the Dersim debate. The press at the time was subjected to censorship with reference to this event and news reached the people in a controlled manner.

There are additionally photographs relating to Dersim in the Turkish Historical Society archives. They do not for some reason show much inclination to make these public, either. The TGNA (Turkish Grand National Assembly) is the most transparent establishment in this matter. It is possible to find minutes, debates and decisions taken with reference to Dersim in the TGNA archives. We will, nevertheless, in this series make use of a large number of documents and photographs issued by state establishments. We obtained a portion of these through official channels and procured a portion of them from private collectors. As such, none of them are “secret” or inaccessible. All that it took to access them was a little effort.

Ataturk: The bandits have been liquidated

One of the most controversial questions with reference to Dersim, and one that few people have dared to raise until now, is whether Ataturk and İsmet İnönü had knowledge of the operation. The availiable documents and information show that both of them had knowledge of the military operations. The orders and signatures of both appear in all of the operations that were conducted. This is abundantly clear from an inspection of the records and minutes of Assembly speeches at the TGNA. All of the “decrees” in the Ministerial Archives bear the signatures of both Ataturk and İnönü.

The signatures beneath the operations conducted in Dersim in 1935, 1936 and 1937 are those of Ataturk and İnönü. Ataturk is included among the signatories to the “decree” behind the most forceful and final 1938 Dersim Operation, which began at the start of June. In decree number 8993 bearing the date of 9.6.1938, it is stated that, “The Tunceli campaign, which it is estimated will last more than one month, is of a nature and importance that will necessitate armed conflict and engagement” and it is intimated that, “it has been approved in accordance with Article 1 of law number 881.” The decree, which was signed by Ataturk in his capacity as President, bears the signature of Celal Bayar as Prime Minister.

A further decree signed by Ataturk bearing the date of 9.6.1938 includes the wording that the operation to be conducted by the land and air forces and the gendarmerie against Tunceli was “an important operation of the nature of a campaign.” Ataturk’s signature is also present on decrees concerning locals who were exiled and would be exiled from Dersim to other provinces in various years.

Bravos and applause for Celal Bayar

A further important document situated in the TGNA archives bears the date of 1 November 1938. This speech by Ataturk, who was unable due to sickness to attend the TGNA opening ceremony, was read to deputies by Prime Minister Celal Bayar. In the text read by Bayar, who started with the words, “In accordance with the instruction I have received from our chief, Ataturk, I am reading the speeches pertaining to this year,” the section devoted to Dersim read as follows: “The outbreaks of mass brigandry in Tunceli, which have continued for many years and have occasionally assumed extreme proportions have, as a consequence of efforts within a specific programme, within a short space of time, been liquidated and consigned to history such that events of this nature will never be repeated in that area. (Shouts of bravo and applause)”

A further statesman whose signature is associated with Dersim is, after İnönü, Bayar as Prime Minister. Bayar is one of the signatories, not only to a rehabilitation report in earlier years with reference to the region, but also, as Prime Minister, to the final operation in 1938. Furthermore, we know that the military phase of almost every operation was conducted by Marshall Fevzi Çakmak as Chief of the General Staff. The text of the speech made by Prime Minister İsmet İnönü in the TGNA on 18 September 1937 in connection with the Dersim operation, which was frequently punctuated by applause and shouts of bravo, is one of the most important documents in our possession:

İnönü: All barriers have been removed

    “I now wish to convey to you the current situation in Tunceli. It was six tribes, whose membership is small, that opposed the Republic’s development and rehabilitation programme. Today, however many members there are of these six tribes, these, along wih their chiefs, have been entirely deprived of the opportunity to act. The army, and police, of the Republic have, in operations they have conducted in the course of these events, irrespective of how many precipitous valleys and inaccessible mountains ingrained in minds as superstition there are, taken firm control of all of them just like the streets of Ankara. No place has been left untouched by the law-bringing army, gendarmerie and privates; there is no valley that they have not descended and no hill that they have not ascended. All barriers in opposition to the Republic’s development and rehabilitation programme have been removed and the programme is being advanced without a moment’s pause.

    I wish to bring to your attention that even in the face of the violence and resolve, which has been of lengthy duration and has been kept up so that the laws of the Republic might be implemented come what may, the resulting casualties have been light. The members of the army and the Republic’s gendarmerie that took up arms against the rebels, even though their weaponry was most effective and they displayed no reluctance to resort to arms, acted with extreme compassion to save and protect each single life. All of the tribal chiefs who participated in the rebellion have been brought before the courts. They have been brought before the public courts of justice under whose jurisdiction they fall. The Tunceli event has constituted the latest and most compelling example to testify to the Republic’s administration which is as compassionate and just as it is powerful.”


One of the most serious allegations raised wih respect to Dersim is that poisonous gas was used. Çağlayangil has openly stated that gas was used. British documents provide further confirmation of the gas incident.

British documents bear out the allegation in connection with the Dersim massacre that “gas was used” which was first raised in an interview conducted by CHP (Republican People’s Party) General Secretary Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu with İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil, who was serving at the time with the Malatya Public Security Directorate. In this document, which is in the British archives and was published for the first time in Radikal, it is alleged that the army “used warplanes and gas.” In the three-page report, which bears the date of 17 January 1947 and was sent by the British Embassy in Ankara to the British Foreign Office, it is reported that, “Planes were used, I believe that gas was also used and after the merciless operations the majority of the population that was capable of bearing arms was transported to the other ends of Anatolia…”.

The source of some of the allegations in the report drafted by the Ankara Embassy Press Attaché W.E.D. Allen was Gendarmerie Command Colonel Nazmi Sevgen, who served in the region at the time. The statement in the report with reference to Sevgen - who, following his retirement, was the CHP’s security administrator in Istanbul - that he was “a close friend of the Embassy Information Office” is also noteworthy. In the report, in which mention is also made of a thesis by Sevgen containing topographical information about the region, it is stated that in 1947 the lifting of martial law was accompanied by a call for two thousand Kurdish families to return to the region so that they might engage in pasturage and forestry.

Çağlayangil bears this out

A further important basis for the allegation that gas was used in Dersim is the interview conducted by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, long before he became CHP General Secretary, with Malatya Public Security Director at the time, Çağlayangil. In the section of the interview that was made public, Çağlayangil said, “…I am talking about the result. They did not accept it and took refuge in caves. The army used poisonous gas. They were poisoned like mice inside from the cave entrances. And they butchered those Dersim Kurds, whether aged seven or seventy. There was a bloody operation. Government authority came to the villages and to Dersim. Today you can easily go to Dersim. The gendarmerie can set foot there and so can you.”

That report of 29 January 1947

The covering note signed by Ernest Bevin with the heading “British Embassy, Anakara/ 29 January, 1947” states, “Sir, I have the honour to inform you that the state of emergency which has been in place since the disturbances of 1936 has been lifted as of now by the government. The Tunceli region (the place previously known as Dersim) is situated in the south east of Turkey and is mainly inhabited by Kurds. A statement concerning the region and the region’s recent history compiled by the press attaché are attached”.

The Dersim plan had been completed five years earlier

The action plan compiled by the Gendarmerie General Command a full five years prior to the 1938 military campaign shows that, come what may, the army would march on Dersim and the tribes would be exiled.

What happened in Dersim?

In 1936 General Abdullah Alpdoğan was sent to the region as a “general inspector”, vested with wide powers. Martial law was declared in Dersim, Elazığ and Bingöl. The tension that had existed between tribes since the Sheikh Said rebellion had of late assumed the proportion of supporters of the state versus those who were not. This tension – “the hand extended by the state remaining in the air” – greatly irritated General Alpdoğan. The state could only make inroads into Dersim by reaching agreement with Seyid Rıza, one of the region’s most powerful figures. Alpdoğan offered Seyid Rıza a wide tract of land and a lot of shops and money. Seyid Rıza did not accept this “bribe”. In 1937, concerned that civil war would break out in Dersim, Seyid Rıza sent his son İbrahim to General Alpdoğan to call for an end to the bloodshed. İbrahim, staying as a guest at the village of Sin on his return, was killed on Alpdoğan’s order. Seyid Rıza, accompanied by an armed force one hundred strong, raided the village of Sin and a gendarmerie station and demanded that the killers be delivered to him. This event was deemed to be a rebellion and the operation officially began in April 1937. Planes, having taken off from Diyarbakır, started to bomb Dersim. It is estimated that around fifty thousand Dersimers lost their lives in the military campaign.

In spite of claims that the operation in Dersim was conducted to supress rebellion, the documents and photographs which we have published show that this military campign was in fact planned well in advance. The most important of these documents is the “secret” action plan compiled by the Gendarmerie General Command in 1933, a full five years prior to the 1938 operation. The booklet, of which only one hundred copies were printed and which bore the inscription “secret and confidential”, contains information concerning not only Dersim’s history, geography and demographic features, but also its “disorder”. Six reports that were compiled with reference to Dersim are also contained in the booklet. According to the report by civil service inspector Hamdi Bey, the people of Dersim are extremely intelligent, cunning and full of trickery. At the same time, they are “the head of a boil”. In the booklet, in which Dersim’s public order problems are listed one by one, mention is made of the region’s insubordination. The booklet consists of two main sections: Introducing Dersim and Dersim’s public order situation. In the first section, information is provided on Dersim’s geographical position, roads and drainage, population situation and racial, economic, agricultural, administrative, financial, military and tribal situation. In the second section, on the other hand, in speaking of Dersim’s lack of public order, the rehabilitative principles to be applied and the phases for this task are set out. Plans were also made as to which tribes were to be removed from Dersim. One striking statement in the plan that had been drawn up was:

    “The people of the Dersim region, drawing courage from the way that due to their inaccessible location they for the most part retain the fruits of their endeavours, do not obey the government and do not offer up taxes and soldiers.”

Coming to the measures that must be adopted in order that the people of Dersim may undergo serious rehabilitation:

    “Taking account of all possible resistance, the assigning until this is broken of a force of 4 brigades (20 battalions)…”
Dersim is one huge boil

Various reports are also contained in the booklet. One of these is the report by the Civil Service Inspector, Hamdi Bey. Here are a few extracts from that report:

    “It has not proved possible to confirm or substantiate that Seyid Rıza has formed an alliance with all of the tribes and that they may move into action in February. The results and information of a close audience […], as I shall suggest, Dersim is gradually Kurdifying, becoming idealistic and the danger is increasing…

    Dersim is, for the government and the Republic, a boil.”

The following conclusion that was reached at the end of the report was appended to the booklet:

    “Dersim is a dangerous boil for Turkey, infected with ignorance, limited sources of income, internal and external delusions and an inclination towards Kurdishness. This boil must be operated on decisively…”

At the end of the section starting, “The people of Dersim are ignorant. Along with this, it is the chiefs who are the prime cause of brigandry, aggression and robbery,” the phases of rehabilitation work are set out thus: “Construction of main roads, collection of weapons and the transportation of chiefs, gentry, masters and lords for good to Western Anatolia …”

Reports were also drafted in 1935 and 1936


In the report of 1935 commissioned by İsmet İnönü it was said: “With the Turkish villages in Erzincan, which in their day formed a barrier against the Dersim Kurds, having become dispersed and weakened and the Armenians having departed in their entirety, nothing has remained to prevent Dersimers from pouring in. Villages are rapidly filling with Dersim’s corpulent people. These villages are serving as stopover points so that the columns of marauding Dersimers may advance...Dersim province must be reorgainsed and brought under military administration, and rehabilitation be subjected to a programme. In 1935 and 1936 roads and gendarmerie stations will be made. If these are ready by the spring of 1937, forces in the form of two divisions, ready and mobilised, will be placed at the command of the provincial governorship in the spring of 1937.”


Celal Bayar also, in 1936 when he was Prime Minister, travelled around the region taking in Dersim and compiled an “Eastern Report”. The introduction to the report includes the comments, “Constant work is demanded to break the harmful tendencies of policies that it is attempted to introduce from outside and to bind these citizens to the motherland. If they are also informed through official channels that they are a foreign element, the result that will be obtained for us will take the form of a reaction. Today it is wished to deny education to one section of the citizenry and to prevent them from participating in the affairs of state, on the grounds that they are Kurdish. I consider subjecting this to a system and their being given a clear instruction to be a very fitting and beneficial measure.”

Chronology of the Dersim rebellion

June 1925

The wave of rebellions started with Sheikh Said. This rebellion was supressed in a bloody manner, Sheikh Said was tried before the Independence Tribunal and put to death.The state henceforth began to be regarded with suspicion in the region

January 1936

General Abdullah Alpdoğan was sent to the region, vested with wide powers. Martial law was declared in Dersim, Elazığ and Bingöl. The first thing that he did was to build barracks.

January 1937

Seyid Rıza sent his son İbrahim to Alpdoğan to call for an end to the bloodshed. İbrahim was killed on his return at Alpdoğan’s order. Seyid Rıza raided a gendarmerie station with an armed force one hundred strong.

April 1937

The military campaign officially commenced. An announcement calling on the people of the region to surrender was distributed. In the announcement, it was said, “Surrender. Otherwise, you will be devastated by the Republic’s overpowering armies.”

September 1937

Seyid Rıza, witnessing the extent of the bloodshed, set off to surrender with the words, “You will suffer no harm” and was detained along with his people on 12 September 1937. He was later put to death.

June 1938

A further military campaign was commenced. Official figures put the number of deaths in this bloody of campaigns at 13,000.


Included among units dispatched to Dersim was the Presidential Guard Regiment. The regiment, made up of soldiers who distinguished themselves in the War of Salvation, was headed by İsmail Hakkı Tekçe.

A further previously unnoticed detail has emerged with reference to the military campaign against Dersim. The Presidential Guard Regiment participated in the 1937 campaign out of “perceived necessity”. This is borne out by the correspondence sent on 4 May 1937 by the Ministry of National Defence to the Fourth General Inspectorate. In the correspondence, it is stated, “The expert privates and only the cavalry company and a mountain battery of the guard regiment will be dispatched by train from Ankara to Elazığ.”

Uluğ also confirms this point

CHP Kütahya deputy of the time, Naşit Uluğ also confirms the fact that the Presidential Guard Regiment was sent under the command of Colonel İsmail Hakkı Tekçe into the Dersim campaign. Uluğ, in his book entitled Tunceli opens to civilisation, says, “The forces brought in from the east were joined by the Guard Regiment from Ankara and these forces were assigned the duty of rapidy reaching the Nazımiye, Keçiseken, Sin and Karaoğlan front. Chief of the General Staff, Marshall Fevzi Çakmak, Vice-President Full General Asım Gündüz and their staff went to Dersim to monitor the campaign.” Uluğ, one of Ataturk’s greatest confidants, was at the same time in that period a Cumhuriyet newspaper columnist. It is estimated that the Guard Regiment was in Dersim on 7 June, because it is known that the Regiment Commander, Colonel İsmail Hakkı Tekçe, met on that date at Beyaz Dağ with General Inspector Lieutenant General Abdullah Alpdoğan, 17th Division Commander Brigadier General Kemal Ergüden, 62nd Regiment Commander Colonel Şemsettin and Gendarmerie Regiment Commander Lieutenant Colonel Cevdet and discussed the progress of the campaign.

İnönü, arriving by train on 18 June, conducted a meeting on 21 June into the campaign plan with Minister of Health Refik Saydam, 3rd Army Inspector Full General Kazım Orbay, 4th general Inspector Lieutenant General Abdullah Alpdoğan and 7th Army Corps Commander Lieutenant General Galip Deniz. The name of Colonel İsmail Hakkı Tekçe crops up in connection with a number of critical duties in the final period of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of the Republic. Topal Osman, famed for supressing rebellions, was the first commander of the Guard Regiment protecting Ataturk. When he killed the Trabzon deputy Ali Şükrü Bey by hanging him, he was put to death by Tekçe at the order of Ataturk.

In the words of CHP deputy Naşit Hakkı Uluğ

How Dersim was made civilised!

The book Tunceli opens to civilisation, written by journalist Naşit Hakkı Uluğ, was printed in 1939. In the book, which offers an insight to the mould into which Dersim was cast by official ideology following the operation, Uluğ describes the Dersimers as being “lazy, drug addicts and rebels by nature”, and reveals that “Hands accustomed to pulling triggers will be made calloused and they will be turned into productive people.” Uluğ argues that the 1937 campaign came as salvation for the people whom he describes as “blindly ignorant”. Uluğ confirms that İnönü and Ataturk made visits to Dersim on sequential dates in the chapters İnönü in Dersim, Following the 1937 Campaign and Ataturk in Dersim. The position reached at the end of the operation was summed up in the book as, “This cause will be yet another arena in which the constructive nature of Kemalism will succeed and has even already done so as of today...”

How the child grows up

Under the heading “How the Dersim child grows up” it is stated that, “The child in Dersim grows up like a weed.” The book, with its depiction of a culture in which “Brides mainly become pregnant on the first night,” “Women do not run away from men” and “All the neighbourhood has designs on one another’s property,” sets out the goal which it is expected to achieve in Dersim: “The Dersimers’ strength is in their legs, calves and lungs. They are good runners, but they are not constructive. They cannot forcefully hit a rock with a pick; their shoulders and waists do not take the form, as for instance with the body of a Central Anatolian child, of a “constructive person”’s body. These shoulders, which are incapable of driving a pick into a rock, cannot break off a peice with a strong movement of the waist.” Later in the book there are the stories of girls who are described as “Dersim’s lost girls” and who left home and were sent to institutes. The author, who describes these girls as “Tunceli’s future women educators”, spoke to one of these girls. Development taking place in Tunceli is praised in the book and we are informed that in the wake of the operation five government buildings, ten schools, nine barracks and five township police stations had been constructed. All of this expenditure amounted to three and half million lira. Consideration was also being given at that time to a monument:

    “An eleven metre high monument will be erected. This monument will resemble a bayonet. Martyrs’ names will be engraved on the base. May those who died for the country rest in peace.”
The monument mentioned in the book stands today at the entrance to Mameki sub-province.

He did not write any letter to Britian

It is claimed that Veterinarian Nuri, who made his way to Aleppo via Hatay on 1 July 1938 following the Dersim operation and who was one of the leading intellectuals in Dersim, penned the letter which was written by Seyit Rıza to Britain and was cited as grounds for the operation.

According to the claim made by the proprietor of Kalan Müzik, Hasan Saltık, the letter that led to his being hanged was not written by Seyit Rıza. Saltık says that the person who actually penned the letter was Nuri Dersimi, who went to Syria at that time and attempted there to promote international public awareness of the Dersim issue: “The first books to be written about the Dersim operation were those produced by Nuri Dersimli in Syria. Following the events, Dersimli was barred from entering Turkey. He was forced to flee to Syria. Veterinarian Nuri’s memoirs were later written in Syria. The letter written by Seyit Rıza to Britain is forever kept in the limelight by the state. That letter was written by Nuri Dersimi. Nuri Dersimi wrote that letter and surrendered to the French Squad. It is possible to confirm this from the French State Archives. There is no such letter of Seyit Rıza.” The letter, which is in the British archives and was cited as grounds for Seyit Rıza’s execution, is dated 30 July 1937, is addressed to the “Foreign Office of Great Britain” and includes the words “Seyit Rıza Dersim Chief Commander” at its foot.

Seyit Rıza’s raid that started the campaign

The symbol of the Dersim rebellion, Seyit Rıza, was according to official sources the rebellion’s toughest ringleader. Seyit Rıza in 1937, fearing the outbreak of civil war in Dersim, sent one of his relatives to General Alpdoğan to call for an end to the bloodshed. On his return, the go-between was, while a guest in the village of Sin, killed by two members of the Kırgan tribe at Alpdoğan’s order. The two assassins went to Hozat and took refuge in a military barracks.

Seyid Rıza, accompanied by an armed force one hundred strong, raided the village of Sin and a gendarmerie station and demanded that the killers be delivered to him. It is alleged that 33 soldiers died in this raid. A few monthts later, Seyid Rıza, witnessing the extent of the bloodshed, set off to surrender with the words, “You will suffer no harm” and was detained along with his people on 12 September 1937. He was put to death on 15 November 1937.

Ataturk at the campaign headquarters

The question that attracts the greatest degree of interest and controversy with regard to Dersim is whether Ataturk and İnönü had knowledge of the Dersim campaign. This photograph proves that Ataturk was personally in charge of the Dersim campaign in its entirety. The photograph was taken during Ataturk’s 17 November 1937 visit to the command centre, the Fourth General Inspectorate at Elazığ. At Ataturk’s side is the Dersim campaign commander, Abdullah Alpdoğan. Ataturk proceeded to Pertek, opened the Singeç Bridge over the Murat River and from here passed through Pertek and returned to Elazığ.


The CHP’s Aygün

The AK Party does not wish to take action

The person who sparked of the Dersim debate, CHP Tunceli Deputy Hüseyin Aygün, broke his silence for Radikal. Aygün argues that the AKP has the power to open the Dersim file but the ruling party is not taking any action. Aygün said, “Erdoğan is the leader of the ruling party and the country’s Prime Minister. Since 2009 he has spoken of Dersim purely with the aim of pressurising Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and tearing Alevis away from the CHP. Kamer Genç, at the time when he was an independent candidate, submitted proposals for legislation that would bandage the wounds in Dersim. The AKP does not want to take action. It is not brought onto the agenda, even in parliament. The Prime Minister simply exploits it.”
[İsmail Saymaz/Radikal]

The AKP’s Metiner

Let Tunceli’s name be Dersim

The AK Party’s Adıyaman Deputy Mehmet Metiner, stating that Tunceli’s name should be changed to Dersim, said, “If the CHP shows enthusiasm we can reach agreement.” Metiner, in his written comment, stated that on the previous day, “Two proposals were put forward in connection with the Dersim massacre” and noted that these were for the name of Gökçen Airport to be changed and for a “Dersim Investigation Commission” to be set up in the TGNA. Metiner stated that, if the CHP reacts enthusiastically to these two proposals, “A historical confrontation with Dersim may be brought about.”

Reaction from Toker

The events took place on Bayar’s watch

İsmet İnönü’s daughter, Özden Toker, reacting to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s comments directed towards to her father, arguing that the Dersim incident came after her father’s watch during Celal Bayar’s time as Prime Minister, said, “Like everyone, I, too, am lost for words in the face of lies and misstatements.” Toker, declaring that comments of this nature, which depart from the present and forever take us back to the past, created a huge dilemma for her, said, “I do not know why we constantly dwell on the past and reach a point where we cannot attain reconciliation.”


According to the proprietor of Kalan Müzik, Hasan Saltık, the reason for the Dersim events was ideology’s attempt to create uniformity. Saltık calls on the CHP to concede to the truth and on the AKP to open the archives.

Hasan Saltık, who for decades has studied and collected documents concerning the events in Dersim and has been instrumental in shedding light on important information by opening his archive to researchers, has called on the parties involved to let the state archives be opened. It is Saltık’s contention that the Dersim operation was embarked on in the absence of a rebellion so that “Kızılbaş” culture might be done away with, was a planned act of social engineering and that the CHP was the civilian wing to this affair.

We have for years read about the “Tunceli rebellions” through official history; what is deficient about this history?

    If the sources of books that have appeared about Dersim are checked, these all derive from the Gendarmerie Command’s secret and confidential document that I am now holding, of which only one hundred copies were printed. This is essentially a book that was published by the Chief of the General Staff. However, the Chief of the General Staff has another book called The Rebellions of Turkey. For the most part, books are compiled based on these reports and pieces of evidence. In these books, the Dersim issue is not portrayed as being a rebellion. The depiction of the event as being a rebellion is the work of official ideology. In fact, there was no rebellion at that time. In the current process, the portion that is new in the book written by Hüseyin Aygün is the portion in which the policy of exile also encompassed Erzincan.

Why is an event that took place 73 years ago still so controversial?

    Discussion of the issue was reignited by Onur Öymen’s comments. The Dersim issue has always been known about, but, as with other matters, we were misinformed. Just like the Armenian events, the Bolu-Adapazarı rebellion or the Ethem the Circassian affair. The problem has its root in the misteaching of history to us. Recently, more documents have begun to appear. The prime aim has been to protect the Republic of Turkey state in historical terms. What differentiates this issue from the others is that the history as written is a total lie. What took place in Dersim was not a rebellion, but a dressing down. The republic had now come into being and did not wish for it to be said that the state had been excluded from a free-sprited place like Dersim. The argument that the state had been excluded from there was very wrong and in fact action was taken in a spirit of revenge. Such as the reason that Dersimers did not contribute soldiers towards the Hamidiye Regiments. The Kurds do not like Dersimers, either, because Dersim is “Kızılbaş”. The matter at hand was how we could be made Sunni; how we could be destroyed. Just as the Republic destroyed the Jews of Thrace and reduced the number of Greeks, this was applied to the Dersimers. The Republic of Turkey had no toleration for a “Kızılbaş” town.

You have painted a picture of the targeting of nothing but ethnic roots and cultural identity

    I base this claim on unpublished documents. You will notice that following Onur Öymen’s comments quite a few Dersim books appeared on the market. I have no qualms about saying, on the basis of reports that have yet to be published, that this campaign was a Kızılbaş campaign which was planned well in advance. At the time of the Dersim campaign the Settlement Law had been issued but the operation was conducted on such a date as to make its timing perfect. This is because Japan had occupied China, the Spanish Civil War had just ended, Hitler was in power – there was unbelievable confusion in the world. Dersim was not on the world’s radar screen. It was timed so that it was not reported to any extent in the outside world. The USSR even for a moment inquired of the Turkish Communist Party here about what was going on, to receive the reply that it was “Turkey’s internal affair.”

Can an inquisitive archivist track down the sources you mention?

    I have been collecting these things for twelve years. It has been a bitter affair – we have identified individual families and a lot of photographs were bought from them. I embarked on this endeavour entirely by chance. We were going to make an album of Dersim folk songs and I asked somebody I knew to have records and photographs to share them but they wouldn’t. So I decided to compile an archive devoted to this affair. I have got where I am today by researching away by myself and making one discovery after another. I can’t speak for the state archive, but we have got the next best archive.

You have put your name to quite a few studies into Dersim. How are the effects of 1938 felt there?

    There has been a lot of migration out of Dersim; the population has been in constant decrease. The old people are still afraid. When I speak a little harshly in interviews, my mother immediately cautions me. She escaped the massacre in her mother’s womb and my father took refuge in caves up in the mountains for fifteen days. Even though our village of Sarı Saltuk is a Turkmen village, the first people to be killed were from our family. There were also officers from our family. There is still a graveyard at the foot of the village, a relic from those days. They did not pardon our people, but since they were also state officers, the soldiers came and gave the village advance warning and this is how the children were spared. When we look at the campaign, there is a very interesting state of affairs. Arms were collected before the slaughter took place. There exists a document showing the number collected from each village. Seyit Rıza in any case surrendered and was executed. There was not a single skirmish in the region and construction work on schools had begun but the slaughter started on the excuse that a bridge was demolished. They can find no other reason – there is the story of Sin gendarmerie station being raided and there is the demolition of a bridge. Unfortunately we do not possess a document concerning the gendarmerie station raid; I heard about this from the person who spoke about it but he did not want it to be recorded. He explained that this was a put-up raid. There was no rebellion; there were no arms. There were gendarmerie stations on all sides. A map was compiled showing the prohibited zones where entry was denied. It was all basically a programme that had been planned since 1935. Skirmishes occured in certain places. In fact, Ragıp Gümüşpala, later one of the founders of the Justice Party, was an officer at the time and he fell hostage to a man named Silopıt; they restored him to health and delivered him to his unit. Gümüşpala has had nothing but praise for Dersimers ever since that incident. If we look at the press of the time you will see that it acted as the Chief of the General Staff’s press organ. This approach to journalism also helped to stoke up internecine conflict among the tribes.

There then came the ordeal of exile. Has the attempt at social engineering succeeded?

    Death and exile exerted such a toll that a deep fear took root. It is curious that Dersimers revere the Prophet Ali and Ataturk and immediately extol their virtues. I thnk that, despite the existence of a whole host of books and evidence concerning Dersim, the chief source is the state archive. We were going to publish a book on this subject, but, even though I had collected many documents and photogrphs, we postponed the book. This is because many people are tight lipped on this subject. If the CHP examines the telegrams of the period, they will see that it was Dersimers who, when there was a risk of Ataturk being assassinated following the Erzurum Congress, protected him. Let the state also make this known. The presidential archives and also the prime-ministerial archives provide detailed information that Ataturk knew of what was going on, and that he spoke of how much money needed to be given to those participating in the operation and of “medals being given”. Nevertheless, the Dersimers protected Ataturk.

Let the CHP concede, and the AKP open the archive

    1938 continues to exert an influence over the people. Most Dersimers convince themselves that Ataturk was ill at the time. However, if the Assembly speeches are examined, everyone knew about everything. I find the current debate to be hilarious. There is no need for a song and dance. At that time, the CHP acted as the military’s civilian extension; let them finally concede to this. Let the AKP raise the debate from being a war of words and open the state archive. There are photographs of those who were killed there. Let them make known the location of Seyit Rıza’s grave. Given that the AKP acknowledges the slaughter, let them open the archive with its thousands of photographs and films. Nobody is acting with integrity. It is a staged fight. This was a crime of past administrations; the time has finally come to come to terms with this. Turkey has reached a level at which it can apologise for what has happened.

A comprehensive study has still not been made

    I think that such documentaries and books as have been produced are inadequate. These are studies aimed at making off with the archive. This criticism of mine also applies to studies by Dersimers. A proper study has yet to be made. I am not up to the task of compiling a book, I wish to make that very clear. We wanted to produce a source book, because the attempt is being made to water this business down, but it is a very serious matter. Due to this seriousness, we have not yet been able to publish this book. The proof of this is in the documents, maps and photographs that we have placed in the public domain. I am a music person and the really comical thing is that I am investigating this.

Civlian militias participated in the booty

    I know that the soldiers who took part in the operation feel shame. Most of those I spoke to shut down the camera. I listened to all of them, but very few are recorded. Most of them have gone on pilgrimage, have had psychological problems and have become introverted. They witnessed unbelievable slaughter. The magnitude of the atrocity has been too much for them to cope with. Acording to censuses, there were around 13,000 deaths, about 2,000 people whose fate is unknown and about 13,000 exiles. Most of the dead were women and children. In Dersim, as well as soldiers, there were militia forces. The Dersimers who had protected the Armenians fleeing Harput attracted the wrath of the militias and they joined the operation in quest of booty.


We asked historians about what took place in Dersim. Their first demand in all cases was for the archives to be opened in the interests of reconciling the parties implicated in the affair. As to the Prime Minister’s apology, they underline the fact that, from a historical perspective, this is a first in terms of the state coming to terms with an error on its part.

Historian Dr. Coşkun Yılmaz
Apologising exalts those administering that state

The Dersim Event is, in terms of both its nature and its execution, one of the most dramatic events in Turkey’s history. As such, today’s debate serves as a reminder to decision makers and implementers in contemplating the future. This reminder brings home the fact that there exists a memory known as history, it keeps record and one day without fail both the involved parties and their representatives will be confronted with it. I do not consider it to be correct to approach this event purely as being a cultural, ethnic or sectarian phenomenon. It impinges on a number of issues, in terms of Turkey’s both administrative and also political and social history. Coming to the Prime Minister’s comments, I wish to state that I view this as a promising development in terms of the state, society and administration coming to terms with and meeting history and of a historical settling of accounts, warning, lesson and experience. The state is in the final analysis an entity that exists and should exist for the nation. If there is an injustice here, for the state to apologise for this is a first and a very important development. Today is one of the pages that will go down in history for future generations. For the state, in the face of an injustice or error, to speak of this and to take a step back can only exalt that state and those administering that state. It is the plaster for the foundation that connects and binds the nation to the state. The event must be removed from the realm of political and ideological dispute and accounted for as a historical phenomenon.

MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) Deputy and Former Turkish Historical Society Chair Prof. Yusuf Halaçoğlu
Various unpleasant things happened which were unwanted

What took place in Dersim was not a matter of 1937-1938; there had been a feudal structure there ever since Ottoman times. The Ottoman state had also wished to stage a campaign there but, since it had set out to quell rebellion in Rumelia, could not find the time to concern itself with Dersim. I consider it to be wrong to base the event on ethnic roots. For one thing, it was not an Alevi question; it is stated in Ahmet Cevdet Pasha’s reports that various bands of brigands were in hiding there. The feudal structure was no more acceptable to the Republic of Turkey and it established state authority in those regions, too. In the course of events, various unpleasant acts came about which were unwanted.

Taner Akçam, University of Minnesota
It started in 1917 and ended in 2007

Dersim was the final stage of the policy, which started in 1913 and continued for the entire duration of the Republic, of the homogenisation of Anatolia along Muslim-Turkish lines. I think that the process, having started in 1913, reached its conclusive phase with the extermination of Hrant Dink in 2007. I am speaking of the process that started with the 1913 Balkan defeat and assumed a systematic character in the spring of 1914 with the driving into exile in Greece of the Greeks on the Aegean and Thracian coasts. Dersim is distinguished from the former in that for the first time a non-Christian but also non-Muslim ethnic-religious group was subjected to extermination. The attitude displayed by Dersimers during the 1915 Armenian genocide played a distinct role in their extermination. Prime Minister Erdoğan cannot evade this question by apportioning the blame for the 1938-1939 Dersim massacre to the CHP.

Cemal Taş/Researcher
Oral history confirms the massacre

It is abundantly clear that there was no rebellion in Dersim. I have been conducting studies into the oral history of Dersim for 20 years and it is clear from both what I have heard from witnesses and also from materials and soldiers’ memoirs concerning the matter that a wide-scale massacre was conducted there. In 1937 arms were surrendered in Dersim and trials were staged in Elazığ. In 1938, the clean-up operation was launched. Those to be massacred were taken in convoys and killed on river banks. If they were large in number, they were shot and thrown into the water, while smaller convoys were bayoneted to death. The reason for bayoneting was to save bullets. If there had indeed been a rebellion people would not have fled. Twenty people from my family were taken off and one is alive; the bayonet marks remain on their body. The location of mass graves is also known.

Şükrü Aslan/ Mimar Sinan University
Everything hangs on the Chief of the General Staff archives

The Prime Minister’s comments are, in general terms, positive. The documents that he has today revealed are in fact known documents, but it is significant for these to be revealed by this country’s Prime Minister. In Turkey for the first time a prime minister has said that what took place in Dersim was a massacre conducted by the state and that this was planned stage by stage well in advance. These statements have opened a positive channel in terms of debate of further aspects of the issue. An expectation has been created that the CHP and other parties will face up to the policies and practices of the Republican period that constitute an important part of our history. The responsibility borne by political actors, including today’s political parties, for the Dersim incident will be debated and this responsibility also entails responsibility for the Democrat Party, starting with Fevzi Çakmak, Şükrü Kaya and Celal Bayar, and subsequent political parties. Secondly, with reference to the opening of archives, the basic expectation is for the opening of the Chief of the General Staff archives, because the policies of that period were to a large extent implemented and recorded through the military heirarchy. Thus, the Prime Minister’s comments will attain finality if he ensures that the archives of the Chief of the General Staff, which reports to him, are opened.

Ayşe Hür/Taraf Newspaper
Ataturk headed the operation

Dersim’s status of “head of a boil” for the Republic, as the Republic’s elite put it, stemmed from Dersim’s socio-cultural, ethnic and religious structure. The goal was to create a Turkish nation which spoke Turkish, felt itself to be Turkish, based itself on a Sunni interpretation of Islam as shaped by the state, was modern in the Western sense and came under central administration. Making Dersim fit this bill would not be accomplishable in a brief space of time. Thus, what was needed was for this task to be taken up in a radical manner or, in their words, for “a decisive operation to be performed.” At the time of the first campaign in 1937 İsmet İnönü was Prime Minister. At the time of the second campaign in 1938, on the other hand, Celal Bayar was Prime Minister. During both campaigns, Apdullah Alpdoğan was “Dersim Governor and Martial Law Commander” and Fevzi Çakmak was Chief of the General Staff. Ataturk, on the other hand, was the person who was in direct charge of this team. Contrary to what some claim, Atatruk was at the time in full health, both mentally and physically, and was in power in the full sense. In other words, neither the founding father of our Republic, Ataturk, nor the single party of those years, the CHP, nor the symbol of the CHP’s tradition, İnönü, nor the representative of the right-wing conservative tradition, Celal Bayar, nor the object of Islamic conservatives’ respect, Fevzi Çakmak, can escape responsibility for the terrible events that took place in Dersim. I believe that today the AKP bears the greatest responsibility.


Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton