Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week apologized on behalf of the Turkish Republic for the 1937-38 Dersim massacres. In his speech, Erdogan showed documents dated August 1939 that stated the Turkish government had organized military operations resulting in the deaths of more than 13,000 civilians in the province of Dersim. Erdogan further defined these events “as the most tragic events of our near past,” adding, “this disaster should now be questioned with courage.”
Dersim is an eastern province of Turkey, bordered by the Erzincan, Elazig, and Bingol provinces. During Ottoman times, the Dersim region formed part of the Harput province, adjacent to the Erzurum province. Its population is comprised of mainly Kurds of the Alawi sect, Shiite Muslims often persecuted by the majority Sunni Muslim Turks.
In the Ottoman period and, later, the Turkish Republic, the central government had difficulty establishing authority in this region, controlled mostly by Kurdish feudal lords and tribal chieftains. The killings took place when the Kurdish population of the region resisted the efforts of the newly formed Turkish Republic to exert its authority there. After disarming the local population and arresting its leaders, the Turkish Army attacked the entire region, killing indiscriminately. Women and children trying to hide in caves were either smoked out or burned alive by sealing the cave entrances. Army planes dropped bombs and poison gas on the fleeing civilians. One of the bomber pilots was Sabiha Gokcen, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s adopted daughter and a war hero in Turkey, whose name was later given to one of the two Istanbul airports. All arrested Kurdish leaders were hanged. The number of dead ranged from 13,000 according to Turkish sources—40,000 to U.S. and 80,000 to Kurdish sources. One fact remains clear: Dersim was de-populated, with most of the remaining population forcefully deported to western Turkey “in order to accelerate the Turkification of this rebellious group.” Decades later, these people were allowed to return to Dersim, which was renamed the Tunceli province. For the past two decades, it has become one of the hotbeds of the Kurdish resistance movement.
Many interesting twists of events led Erdogan to issue the official apology about the Dersim massacres. Two years ago, when Erdogan first attempted to end the Kurdish resistance peacefully, one of the leaders of the strongly nationalistic main opposition party, the CHP, roared that the correct way to deal with the Kurdish Question was not through peaceful means, but through tried and true methods used in Dersim in the 1930’s. Ironically, the main opposition party is now headed by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an Alawite from Dersim. (One of his party members recently demanded that Turkey face its past and apologize for the Dersim massacres; for this outburst, he now faces party discipline hearings.) The main motive behind Erdogan’s apology seems to be to put the blame of the Dersim massacres squarely on the CHP opposition party, which was in full control of the government in the 1930’s—in the era of Ataturk, Ismet Inonu, and Celal Bayar—as well as to attempt to lure the votes of the ethnic Kurdish population. Another opposition official from Diyarbakir praised Erdogan and criticized his own party for not issuing the apology, and was immediately expelled from the CHP. A member of of Erdogan’s governing party proposed to delete Sabiha Gokcen’s name from the Isanbul Airport, and was promptly silenced by Erdogan. In the meantime, Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of treason and said he wouldn’t be surprised if Erdogan apologizes to the Armenians next. Erdogan responded: “How dare you compare me to the Armenian Diaspora!”
There are several Armenian connections to the Dersim story, both ironic and tragic. During the height of the 1915 deportation and massacres, several Armenian groups from neighboring provinces sought refuge in Dersim. An estimated 25,000 Armenians from Erzurum and Erzincan survived under the protection of the Dersim Kurds, and most of these Armenians converted to the Alawite religion. It is said that one of the reasons for the fury of the violent attacks by the Turkish army in the 1930’s was vengeance toward these Kurds who saved the Armenians in 1915. It is also said that a significant portion of the Dersim massacre victims were converted Armenian women and children.
In stark contrast, the war hero and pilot Sabiha Gokcen was in fact an Armenian girl from Bursa, adopted by Ataturk after being orphaned during the genocide. We cannot help but wonder ironically: What did Sabiha Gokcen think when bombing the people below? That she was a Turk bombing the Kurds? Or did she know that she was an Armenian bombing Armenians? The revelation of Sabiha Gokcen being Armenian was exposed with documentation by Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2004, which started the ball rolling toward his targeted assassination by the “Deep State” in 2007.
The hidden Armenians of Dersim have recently “come out” and officially formed the Dersim Armenians Union, some even changing their names and religion from Islam to Christianity. Their leader has recently stated that nearly three quarters of Dersim villages are inhabited by hidden Armenians, but many are scared to reveal their real identities.
All these interrelated facts lead toward Turkey’s inevitable need to face its past—and not only the selective good heroic deeds of its forefathers. Prime Minister Erdogan has taken a first step by acknowledging and apologizing for the Dersim massacres. Other events that Turkey must face include the 1942 Wealth Tax imposed on minorities, which resulted in the total transfer of their wealth to the Turks, and the violent Sept. 6-7, 1955 events, which resulted in the minority Greek population fleeing Turkey. But the biggest elephant in the room remains: facing the truth about the 1915 genocide.