Demographically, Dersim is a region overwhelmingly populated by Kurdish Alevis (a minority religious group). Due to this ethnic makeup, the people of Dersim have traditionally been perceived as “the other” by central governments with Islamic or nationalist leanings. The Ottoman Empire’s attempts to eradicate the autonomy of the Dersim region through centralization escalated during the Abdulhamid II period (1876-1908). Following the foundation of the Turkish Republic (1923), the state began to deny the existence of Kurds, whether Sunni or Alevi, as a distinct ethno-national group in Turkey. Nevertheless, the overall political situation did not permit the government to carry out a project of “civilizing” Dersim until the mid-1930s (the official Turkish discourse on dismantling Dersim’s political and cultural autonomy relied on the idea of importing civilization to the supposedly “backwards” people of the region). But throughout the 1930s, the Republican People’s Party (RPP)’s authoritarian, one-party rule was consolidated, and the party and state pursued increasingly Turkish nationalist policies, which helped to make the project possible.
The RPP’s “civilizing” program was to be completed in two phases. First, the government created the political and judicial framework necessary to consolidate state power in the Dersim region. An administration of inspectorates-general was established in 1935 that granted extra-judicial and executive powers to a commander-in-chief, Abdullah Alpdogan. This literally meant the introduction of martial law in Dersim. Second, after attempts at negotiations with local tribal leaders failed, the Turkish army began a military campaign against the Dersim region in 1937 to eliminate a supposed insurgency. Thousands of people were killed in the course of the first military operation, while tribal and religious leader Seyid Riza was captured and executed. Another military operation, backed by military aircraft, was carried out between December 1937 and August 1938, killing an estimated 30-60,000 people. The remaining population of Dersim was forced to migrate to the western parts of Anatolia, and the name of the region was changed to Tunceli. Three years later, after the state had established a security infrastructure in Dersim, the deported population was permitted to return. However, the Turkish state has since pursued ongoing assimilation policies targeting Alevi Kurds.
In a speech in 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed the contents of some state documents on the Dersim massacre, and also apologized to the people of Dersim for RPP policies in the 1930s. Some considered this an attempt to discredit Erdogan’s opponents in today’s RPP party rather than a sincere attempt to come to terms with this historical human rights violation. Nevertheless, this was the first public apology ever made by a Turkish leader for a past atrocity committed by Turkish state authorities.
Scope and Purpose
The current AKP government took no concrete steps following the Prime Minister’s revelations about the Dersim massacre. However, when discussions about the massacre became widespread towards the end of 2011, in the wake of the apology, numerous demonstrations were held in both Dersim and major Turkish cities demanding a full investigation into and disclosure of what happened in Dersim in light of state documents. This public response was channeled into a memorialization effort by the Mazgirt municipality, and efforts to create a memorial site began in 2011.
The main purpose of the Dersim Massacre Memorial is twofold. One of the objectives is to commemorate victims of the Dersim massacre who still have no graves. The other is to increase awareness and recognition of the Dersim massacre. After Mazgirt Municipality came up with the idea for a memorial, Dara Kırmızıtoprak, a prominent Turkish architect, offered to design it without charge. Since the municipality could not afford the other costs of the project, it started a donation campaign that succeeded thanks to businesspeople in Dersim. The design of the memorial resembles that of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin designed by Peter Eisenman; however, different sized and large stones were used in a more uneven and scattered manner.
Since the project was only completed in November 2012, there has been little time to analyze its impact. After the Mazgirt municipality announced its intention to create a memorial site dedicated to the Dersim massacre, the project attracted widespread attention from the population of Dersim, as well as from others who believe that memorialization can be a tool for gaining recognition of, and full disclosure about, the Dersim massacre. It also gained broad mainstream media and social media coverage. In addition to officials from the local municipality, members of the Turkish parliament participated in the opening of the memorial, along with a large number of local residents.
In January 2012, the district governorship of Mazgirt sued the municipality, since the memorial site had been constructed on state-owned land and the legal transfer of title to the municipality had not yet been completed. The municipality considered this merely a procedural hurdle that would be overcome without difficulty. Another concern was the financial burden of the project. However, following the public announcement of the donation campaign, businesspeople made significant contributions in order to make the project happen.