The Dersim massacre - then and now (part II): What is its legacy?

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

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

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

The first part of the series recounted the events and asked whether they could be considered to be genocide.

The second part, below, looks at accusations that poison gas was used by the Turkish state during the killings and asks what the legacy of the Dersim massacre means for Kurds and Turkey today.  

Poison gas

The Kurds in Dersim, including rebel leader Seyit Rıza, accused the Turkish air force of using poison gas. Mustaf Kemal Atatürk’s adopted daughter Sabiha Gökcen - who became Turkey’s first female fighter pilot and took part in operations in Dersim - later denied in her memoirs that she had bombed the Kurds with gas.

Dutch-Kurdish historian and genocide researcher Uğur Ümit Üngör said that he read in the Turkish archives that Zyklon B. had been ordered from Nazi Germany, the same gas with which the Jews were gassed in Auschwitz in World War Two.

Bora Çelik, who comes from Dersim and now lives in the Netherlands, said he had obtained Turkish documents about Dersim concerning poison gas. They do not state that Zyklon B. was used, but former Turkish Prime Minister Refik İbrahim Saydam wrote on February 19, 1942, four years after the events:

"With an earlier letter I informed you that we are reporting on the consequences of operation ‘punishment and deportation’ (referring to operations in Dersim)…I would like to emphasise that, as a doctor, I am against the use of burning and suffocating gases, even when used against enemy soldiers. I am preparing a bill so that these gases used in Tunceli can no longer be used. As stated in the preliminary report, it can be seen that these gases used on our people cause massive civilian casualties. I have to express my shame as a doctor and as a person. I would like to let you know that I have initiated the necessary bills to prevent this from repeating."

Matching the testimony of the events from his grandfather with information online led Çelik to believe that the Turkish air force used Zyklon B.

"I went to check his description via the internet, and it led me to Wikipedia's page on Zyklon B," he said.

According to Çelik, the Turkish soldiers had also used Zyklon B., or another gas, to kill women and children. They are said to have been confined in caves, the entrances of which were then closed.

The legacy of the killings

The mass murder of the Kurds in Dersim of 1937-1938 certainly plays an important role in the Kurdish collective memory. Human rights activist Mila Hewleri*, who is from Northern Iraq, first learned about the mass killings that took place in Iraq: the Halabja genocide, the Barzani genocide, the Anfal genocide, and - more recently - the Yazidi genocide.

"Other genocides, such as the Armenian Genocide, the Assyrian Genocide and the Dersim Genocide, I only learned about in my teens, because we did not consciously experience them," Hewleri said.

Hewleri believes that the Armenian Genocide is even more important than Dersim to many Kurds, because the pattern of this genocide is now being repeated:

"Although the Kurds were not the victims here, and even the perpetrators along with the Turks, this genocide has much more comparative material. Killing people and putting other peoples in its place, removing cultural elements, deportation of peoples - we all see it again in northern Syria. For many Kurds, the genocides against them start with the Armenian Genocide, because it set a precedent: it became clear that you can get away with genocide in the Middle East by throwing in an Islamic element. The Armenians were Christians, the Kurds in Dersim as Alevis were not ‘real’ Muslims. Now mosques in Turkey are declaring a jihad against the "infidel" Kurds in Rojava (northern Syria). That Kurds would like to see the Armenian Genocide recognised, is because if we do not learn anything from this genocide, genocides will continue to occur."

Among the Dersim Kurds, the events of 1937-1938 are of course much more alive, but Çelik says there is a difference of opinion within the community:

“People from Dersim who vote for the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) are of course very aware of major atrocities committed by Turkey, but I also have relatives in Turkey who - because of a bizarre form of self-hatred - have embraced the CHP (Republican People’s Party) position. ‘The Turks brought us civilisation,’ they say. There were many more uncivilised Kurdish areas in Turkey, with more crime, but people weren't massacred there on that massive scale."

Çelik’s grandfather had two brothers who were executed by the Turkish authorities. A son of one of those brothers told Çelik that his father was not a saint. Çelik then said to him, "Your father and your uncle were not murdered because of their mischievous deeds, but because they were Kurdish, Alevi and Zaza."

Çelik is also annoyed by the Turks who acknowledge the mass murder of Dersim, but acquit Atatürk of all blame:

"Atatürk is a saint in Turkey. He cannot do anything wrong. If something goes wrong, it is because of his bad subordinates. It is the myth of the good king and his bad counsellors. But according to Atatürk, prime minister İsmet İnönü was too soft. İnönü was replaced by hardliner Celal Bayar, who acted without compassion against unarmed women and children in 1938."

The fact that Atatürk and the CHP were responsible for the Dersim massacre made it easier for current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to apologise, said Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen, who has studied Turkish, Kurdish and Zaza cultures:

"Erdoğan is the only Turkish politician who has openly expressed his disgust at the way in which the Turkish government used massive violence against Dersim. Erdoğan wanted to show that he, unlike the secular Kemalist CHP, did want to reconcile with the Kurds. However, now everything has changed, because since 2015 the Kurds have been the enemy of Erdoğan, after he formed an alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party).”

Üngör said that it is easier for Erdoğan to criticise the Dersim massacre than the Armenian Genocide. “Dersim was the responsibility of the Kemalists opposed by Islamists. The Armenian Genocide took place during the Ottoman Empire, the empire he admires,” he said.

Çelik places little value on what Erdoğan has said about Dersim. Nonetheless, he thinks that minorities in Turkey should not "wail" about what has been done to them, but rather join forces to denounce the Turkish state’s actions in Dersim and its current oppression.

"You are strong together. Turkey must be condemned in a joint statement. And in addition, Turkey should simply stop ethnically cleansing. Because it goes on,” Çelik said, referencing recent Turkish incursions into Kurdish areas of northern Syria.

“In 1938, for example, a survivor from the killings in Dersim fled to the Syrian region Afrin to build a new life there. Unfortunately, now his grandchildren and great-grandchildren have had to flee the Turkish army," he said.

Hewleri likewise believes that acknowledgments and apologies are not enough. 

"Education is important. There must be places of remembrance, people must practice genocide prevention," Hewleri said. "People must learn to live together. People have to stop believing that one population group is better than another."

*This name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.

Read the first part of this two-part series: "The Dersim massacre - then and now (part I): Was it genocide?"

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

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