Turkey bought poison gas from Nazi Germany to kill Kurdish Alevis and Armenians in 1938

On March 31, 2023, Dr. Taner Akcam of UCLA wrote a revealing article in Turkish for Istanbul’s Armenian Agos newspaper, regarding the Turkish government’s brutal massacre of tens of thousands of minorities in Dersim, an Eastern province of Turkey, in 1938. The article was titled: “[President] Mustafa Kemal and [Prime Minister] Ismet Inonu ordered the use of poison gas during the Dersim massacre.”

While this is not the first time this information has been revealed, Prof. Akcam uncovered additional Turkish documents that confirm the details of this horrible massacre ordered by Ataturk and Inonu. The two Turkish leaders issued a secret decree in 1937 for the purchase of 20 tons of poisonous mustard gas and 24 twin-engine airplanes from Germany to exterminate through aerial spraying and bombing of Kurdish Alevis and Armenians who were living in hiding in the mountainous caves of Dersim. The thousands of Armenian inhabitants of Dersim were Genocide survivors who had fled and converted to Alevism to save their lives.

Many articles and books documenting Hitler’s admiration of Ataturk have been published in recent years. The cooperation between the Turkish government and Nazi Germany is another indication of the criminal partnership of these two states. Even today, the Turkish military continues to use poisonous gas purchased from Germany in recent years, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to exterminate Kurds in Turkey and allegedly in Northern Iraq and Syria.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his adopted daughter Sabiha Gökçen visiting the Pertek People’s House, Dersim (Tunceli), 17 November 1937 (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the ironic twists of the Dersim massacre is the participation of Sabiha Gokcen, an Armenian girl orphaned during the Armenian Genocide and subsequently adopted by Ataturk as his daughter. She became the first female pilot in Turkey and participated in the bombing of Dersim, renamed Tunceli. It is not known if she was aware that she was taking part in killing her fellow Armenians who were survivors of the Genocide, just like her. One of the two Istanbul airports is named after her, as a ‘War Hero.’

In March 2011, a Turkish court ruled that the Turkish government’s massacre in Dersim could not be considered genocide according to the law because they were not directed systematically against an ethnic group. However, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued an apology for the 1938 Dersim massacre. Erdogan’s apology was viewed with suspicion as an opportunistic move to win the votes of the large Kurdish population in Turkey from the government’s main opposition political party, CHP, which is a continuation of Ataturk’s Republican Party. Erdogan described the Dersim massacre “as the most tragic event in our recent history.” He added that, while some sought to justify the killings as a legitimate response to events on the ground, it was in reality “an operation which was planned step by step… It is a disaster that should now be questioned with courage. The party that should confront this incident is not the ruling Justice and Development Party. It is the CHP, which is behind this bloody disaster, who should face up to this incident.” These comments were pointedly directed at opposition leader Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, who in fact is from Tunceli and Erdogan’s main opponent in the May 2023 presidential election. One wonders if Erdogan would have also apologized for the Armenian Genocide if there were millions of Armenian voters living in Turkey now.

In one of the article’s footnotes, Dr. Akcam referenced a document of the German Parliament where several members asked the German government in 2019 for the details of the Turkish purchase of poisonous gas and airplanes from Nazi Germany. German chemical weapons experts were also brought to Turkey in 1938 to train the military in the use of the poisonous gas. In its reply, the German government acknowledged “the suffering of the [Dersim] victims and their descendants” and added: “the federal [German] government is ready if the events of that time are processed by Turkey to examine German participation.”

While these mass killings cannot be justified under any circumstance, the Turkish government was trying in the 1930s to suppress domestic opposition and impose its rule in the Dersim region. During a speech in parliament on November 1, 1936, Ataturk described Dersim as “Turkey’s most important interior problem.” Pursuing a policy of Turkification of ethnic and religious minorities, the Turkish government adopted in 1936 the “Law on the Administration of the Tunceli Province” which aimed to resettle the local population to other parts of Turkey. Over 50,000 Turkish soldiers were dispatched to Dersim. They captured and hanged the ringleaders of the local rebellion and indiscriminately bombed and killed thousands of people. Even though the Turkish government admitted that 13,806 inhabitants of Dersim were killed, some put the casualties much higher at 70,000 or more. Many survivors were moved to other parts of the country, and Kurdish girls were given to Turkish families for adoption.

Turkey is still in denial about its past mass crimes. The Dersim massacre is just one example of the exterminations of various minorities beginning in the Ottoman Empire and continuing in the Republic of Turkey era.

Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh one billion dollars of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

3 Comments

  1. Intriguing as Kemal is on record for denouncing mein kampf as garbled and that the author of this book is probably mad. Although perhaps this was kept confidential at the time. It’s worth noting that Turkey was wrongly awarded Hatay as a sop by France to keep them on the right side of neutrality with impending war in 1938. At the time Czechoslovakia was Turkey’s main foreign supplier of weapons until it’s conquest by Germany led to the supplies being stopped and relations between Turkey and Germany being strained by this.

  2. I am Israeli and I would like to apologize for my own idiotic government that refused for generations to accept the truth of the Turkish crimes against Armenia. I promise you that after this war, when we send our politicians home and replace them with someone better, that one of the first orders of business would be to correct this historic wrong and recognize reality and truth.

    I recognize the Armenian Holocaust carried out by the Turkish.

    • My name is Eylem , I was born in tiny village near Nazimiye / Kizilkilise / redchurch an armenian Dersim Alevi town. My great-grand mother was Armenian. We always were told Ataturk was sick and did not ordered such tragedy to take place. But I am recently getting older found out I might be even a Armenian because many Armenians left behind became Alevi and acted as Zazaki – Turks since we were Neighbours like. Kurds says Zazaki are kurds. My ancestors comes fro Khorasan it makes me also most likely Oguz Alevi turk. So main thing is not where we come from but we put it right. In this case Israel gets involves first they can stop genocide taking place in Gaza. Dersim people were like Gazans poor, hungry and trapped! Ataturks mistakes were not taboo to talk in Turkiye. Sincerely I can tell you because of Ottoman Sultan left and it was mainly religous men trying to rule into dark place. If Sultan respected Ataturk he did a lot of stuff correct too. What happened to us is a tragedy needs to be accepted and I want my Armenian cousins to come back their homes. But the region is already in painful wars so no more war because it is only serving Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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