Genie out of bottle on facing up the past
BARÇIN YİNANÇ ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
For the past 20 years, academics have done brilliant work to unearth the reality of Dersim, Ahmet Demirel (R) tells the Daily News at Marmara University, where he teaches about Turkey’s political culture. DAILY NEWS photos, Emrah GÜREL
The prime minister’s apology for the mass killings in Dersim is the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) most important act in its near-decade of rule regardless of the motives behind the move, according to a leading historian.
Despite the apology, however, Associate Professor Ahmet Demirel criticized Prime Minister Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for using the incident, in which thousands were killed in a military operation in the Dersim region in the late 1930s, to target the opposition. “Dersim should not be used for political gains,” Demirel told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview this week.
Q: What happened in Dersim?
A: There were 16 uprisings in the Republican era from 1921 to 1938. Fifteen of them can clearly be identified as Kurdish uprisings. What separates Dersim is that it is not an uprising. Even in the documents of the military, all are listed as uprising but Dersim is called an “operation.”
Q: Why were the Kurds were revolting?
A: During the first parliament between 1920 and 1924, there was emphasis on both Turks and Kurds as the essential elements of the nation-state. But during the period of the second parliament, the Turkish element came to the forefront. The 1925 uprising of Şeyh Sait [in Southeast Anatolia] is a breaking point. I have scanned all the deliberations in the Parliament from 1924 to the mid-1940s. The word Kurd is absent. In the 1930s, the mentality of “there is no Kurd” starts to prevail and the politics of “Turkification” starts. These uprisings were against the denial of Kurdish identity.
Q: Uprisings against the Republic have usually been described as a religious backlash, as resistance to modernization efforts.
A: If you claim there are no Kurds, how can you claim there is a Kurdish uprising? So you immediately claim that it is a religious backlash. The state always looked on the Kurdish uprisings as a religious backlash, as a movement that was provoked by outside forces or as resistance from the tribal order in the east. These perspectives made the state see it as a military problem and thus try to solve it through military measures. But obviously you can not solve it like that and the problem turned gangrenous.
In 1931 the Kurdish uprisings ended. But by the late 1930s, Dersim still remained a geographically remote area with a tribal order. The state, for instance, could not extract taxes from there. So the state decided to establish its authority there by establishing guard posts, building roads and bridges. These efforts were objected to by local rulers. [During this time,] the name Dersim was changed to Tunçeli [Turkish for bronze hand].
Q: Why was there a need to change the name?
A: Many names of villages were changed at that time. It is part of the Turkification campaign. When you read the media of the time, there was talk of “bringing modernity” to a “primitive area.”
Q: But isn’t it normal for a state to build roads and bridges to reach a remote area?
A: Of course it is normal. You are building a state and there is this remote area where you basically cannot even enter. But behind it also lay the aim to reach the area as soon as possible in case of turmoil. This was because the people of Dersim had been seen as potential criminals since Ottoman times. Some of them were, because there were some groups of bandits among them. But the problem is that the state saw all the local population as potential criminals. When some tribes started attacking the posts, the army besieged the city. In the winter of 1936-37, clashes intensified. Following serious losses among the army ranks, the aerial bombings started. By the summer, the situation was taken under control.
Q: Some argue that there was no resistance. What you are telling us is that it was normal for a state to launch a military campaign to stop the resistance of the locals to the state’s wish to establish its control over the region.
A: Obviously the state was right to launch the operation. But what is unacceptable is the way the operation was conducted. Disproportionate force was used when you compare it to the small dimension of the resistance shown. The operation not only targeted those who had shown resistance but to all the civilians in the region. In the summer of 1937, the whole situation had been taken under control but the state started using excessive force. People in the villages were gathered and executed. The Munzur River was said to have turned red because of the mass executions. The caves where people were hiding were gassed. Women were raped.
Q: Do we know the death toll? Some have the tendency to call it a genocide or ethnic cleansing.
A: The document that was revealed for the first time by the prime minister put the number around 13,000. Researchers put it at around 40,000. We are not talking about annihilating a race but annihilating the locals of a certain region. Following the hanging of local leaders in the summer of 1937, the state declared two forbidden zones in the region in 1938 and nearly everyone in these zones was killed. In 1938, however, nothing was being done to the Kurds in Diyarbakır – although we should not forget that there was a Turkification campaign.
In 1934, a law was enacted meaning that some regions in the east were declared no-go zones and people were forced to emigrate to the west. The instructions were [to ensure that there were no regions where] Turks or those who spoke Turkish remained in the minority.
Q: Why was the state so ruthless in Dersim?
A: It is about the mentality of that period. These are the years of one-party rule. The party [Republican People’s Party (CHP)] was swallowed up by the state, which could not even tolerate the party’s relative autonomy. In one city, the CHP’s provincial head was forced to resign and the governor became the CHP’s city representative out of fear that the two could speak differently. The president was equal to the CHP’s leader.
Q: Why was it so authoritarian?
A: The whole world was like that. The West that the new Republic was taking as a model mostly consisted of countries ruled by dictatorships.
Q: Why has it taken such a long time to discuss past incidents like Dersim?
A: All opponents of one-party rule were stigmatized as traitors and reactionaries. We realized very lately that there could have been a different history than what we were told. The breaking point was the publishing in 1981 of a book written by Mete Tunçay; [the book] got its author into serious trouble. This was followed by a new generation of academics who produced brilliant works. There were serious studies done by historians.
Most of what the prime minister talked about are known facts. But these studies were known to a small group and did not reach the larger public. Our reaction is generally to first deny, and then to say, “We should not rake over the coals. What good will it do to dig up the past?” Actually, it was former CHP MP Onur Öymen’s statement that led to a widespread discussion of the issue in the larger public. [In 2009, Öymen made a statement that appeared to justify the Dersim killings, sparking a debate within the CHP.] The genie is now out of the bottle.
Q: Do you think the genie is out for all the dark periods in Turkish history?
A: It is possible. For the first time … a prime minister has apologized for something for which he is not personally responsible. This is not something we are used to. I believe this is the most important act of the 10-year rule of the AKP. Independent of the state’s apology, the CHP has to apologize as well. Today’s CHP is endorsing everything that has been done in the past.
Q: Why does the CHP need to apologize? You said it yourself; the state had swallowed the CHP.
A: Still, the CHP’s leadership was at the top of the state. The CHP ruled Turkey from 1923 to 1946 and never tried to face its actions during that period. The CHP has conducting self-censorship. To make a differentiation between the old CHP and the new one, the one-party era needs to re-evaluated. Apologizing for the past will not devastate the CHP; it will have an opposite effect.
Q: Some are saying that the prime minister was not genuine it his apology and that he is using the issue to humiliate the CHP.
A: This is possible. In fact, it is obvious that this has a political dimension. This issue should not be used for daily political gains – to target the opposition. But whatever the intention, it was good that he offered an apology. He took the first step, now he should take the second step and give back the name Dersim. And archives that have so far not been open to public, especially military ones, should be open to public.
History books need a rewrite
Knowing the past is important to understand the current issues, said Associate Professor Ahmet Demirel.
“Facing the reality of Dersim can contribute to the solution of the Kurdish problem,” he said. “We have always looked at the issue as a public security issue and with that perspective it was impossible to solve it. On the contrary, this outlook made us come to the point of offering an apology. So we need to take a lesson from history not to repeat the mistakes that made us come to the point of apologizing.”
Turkey will start facing other dark periods of its history, he said. The so called “Liberty Courts,” established while the liberation war was going on, will be next to come under scrutiny, according to Demirel. “Many innocent people were hanged during that period,” he said.
While he believes history textbooks need to be rewritten, he said there will be resistance to include Dersim in the curriculum. “Turkey is not yet ready for that,” he said.
Who is Ahmet Demirel?
Associate Professor Ahmet Demirel is a graduate of Bosphorus University’s administrative sciences department. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the same university’s social sciences institute. His research area focuses on the early stages of the Republic era.
His book “Opposition in the First Parliament: the Second Group” (1994) is said to have changed the whole paradigm on the opposition during the single party rule in the early Republic era. He is also the author of “Survey of the First Parliament: the Expectations for the Future of the Parliamentarians of the First Period.”
He is currently teaching the Turkish constitutional process and Turkish political culture and institutions at Marmara University’s international relations department.