Book review: Yalçın Doğan's "Savrulanlar" Dersim 1937 - 1939

It's been a while since I have read a book which has forced me to re-consider my own narrative of Turkish Republican history. Yalçın Doğan's book on the Dersim genocide of the late 1930s succeeds in this. There are, inevitably, some important asides which are not explored radically or vigourously enough, and a conclusion which is somewhat incomplete, but the book does much to add to the cannon of work now being developed on the subject and is a valuable history.

I have very much to praise Doğan's vigour in research. He has done very well to refine my knowledge of the political backdrop from the state perspective, writing much about the inner wrangling and competition taking place within the Atatürk's regime towards the end of his death. The book is rich in glorious details from both state archives and detailed first-hand accounts, and catch me out on a number of assumptions I had made about the event. 

Some of the accounts are deeply unsettling. What's more, equal attention is given to the fate of those young children were, whilst being spared the fate of gas, bombs and bayonets, were forced to endure being adopted by Turkish state officials and forcibly assimilated. They forgot their language, were forced to marry Turks and were especially forced not to recall where they were from and what they had seen as children. What's more, the book documents through witness accounts and government meeting minutes how those most enthusiastically brought under the protection of the state were girls - Dersim's 'kayıp kızlar'.

It is almost a cliche to talk about Turkey as a nation suffering constant amnesia. The degree of success to which these girl's fate was sealed by the state lies can say as much about the Kurdish question as it can about many aspects of Turkish social and political history. 

More unsettling still, is when witnesses talk of later having found their families, fathers and mothers, yet were unable to communicate with them having lost their mother tongues. On one occassion it is documented that a girl's father appeared before her but then turned away and said 'these are not my children', failing to even recognise them. In other examples, when communication was possible with a long lost relative, women unknowingly brought about disapproval of their families by announcing that they had participated in the hajj with their Turkish husbands, unaware of traditional Alevi contempt for participation in Sunni practices.

It is eye-opening to see other aspects in Turkish history assessed in the light of the state's actions in Dersim. In the preface, Doğan himself, states this intention: 

What I am trying to do, is bring together firstly, the political realities of the time, with how it was before and after". He does this with finesse in various parts of the book. One particular aspect I like, was an aside into the anti-Alevi nature of the 1925 "Law Relating to the Removal and Ban of Certain Titles and the Closure of Lodges and Holy Tombs with Zawiyas." (Tekke ve Zaviyelerle Türbelerin Kapatılmasına ve Birtakım Unvanların Yasaklanması ve Kaldırılmasına İlişkin Yasa). 

Those roles forbidden under the law were "Sheikh, dervish, Mürit, Dede, Said, Çelebi, Baba, Emir, Nakib, Caliph, Fortune-teller, Magician, Healer".

According the Doğan, it is no small coincidence that half of these titles were specific to the Alevi tradition, commenting that although "official history describes this law as being a Laicist measure... Alevism was a target. The Republic desired the creation of a Sunni, Turk society. The Dersim operation also had this objetive."

Celal Bayar
In interviews following the publication of Savrulanlar, Doğan sought to present a more sympathetic view of İnönü against Celal Bayer. This is very interesting given Ismet İnönü, the second president who took over after Mustafa Kemal's death, is often at the butt of cross-party criticism for the fascist tendencies of his rule. This does have a basis, but I would argue no more so, than the former ten years of Atatürk's regime - however, any historian who has suggested such has often received the attention of public prosecutors, getting paid handsomely for every successful case they make using Turkey's anti-free speech laws. What makes Doğan's view even more suprising, is that Bayar's legacy is one of being a moderate, no doubt helped by his particpation in Adnan Menderes' Democrat Party government, the latter gaining martyr status thanks to an army coup.

The reason for Doğan's view is very interesting. The clan leaders of Dersim, despite many having had good relationships with the regime early on, and not participated in the earlier Sheikh Said revolt, were none-the-less adament that they did not want to participate in active military service, pay taxes or receive new schools and roads, especially given the new Republic was not living up to its promises. He posits that during İsmet's Premiereship, Mustafa Kemal's had the perception that İsmet was not eager enough to break Dersim's spirit and thus, in a surprise move, decided it was time for Celal Bayar to become Prime Minister. Bayar's enthusiasm in organising the massacres, albeit euthemistically, is documented heavily throughout the book, along with the participation of İnterior Minister Şükrü ("if it wasn't for the Turks, perhaps history would not have begun") Kaya, and the various Valis and administrators of the Easti, whose compliance was machine-like. 

Another celebrated figure who doesn't emerge smelling of roses is Marshall Fevzi Çakmak, the Independence War hero. In Fevzi's estimations:

"You cannot win over Dersim with tenderness. The armed forces can exert better control over the Dersimis. Dersim has to be taken over lişke a colony and from here, a colonial administration was be set up in order to govern it"

This view has deep ramifications for the way the East of Turkey is governed up to the present day. 

Mustafa Kemal's daughter, pilot Sabiha Gökçen, appears as a comic Marie Antoinette, excidedly relaying anecdotes of having bombed unarmed villages like a teenage girl come back from a school trip. 

The Turkish media are equally given a tough time, but Doğan explains their inability in the nature of the laws of the time. Indeed, it was basically a means of publishing whatever the government wanted to be published. In some of the meetings who's minutes are featured in the book, conversations about how the concept 'Kurdish' should be rejected and should thus no longer appear in the press is discussed by prominent Minister, seemingly coming to these conclusions themselves throughout the course of the meetings in a bizarre insight into the depth of the ideological shift experienced in the upper echelons of power.

Indeed, the book makes several damning observations about the nature of the regime, including a very funny series of letters between a school and the local administration, when the school realised a toilet had not been included in the design of the building. The reply from the state was to simply tell the children to go to the nearest forest for 'abdest'. In this way, Doğan explains how even in the smallest of decisions the state could not be by-passed despite all its absurdity.

However, the conclusion is unfortunately weak. Indeed, this may be an indication of how the whole business of Dersim is a case yet to be closed, but a small chapter on how Dersim folk songs were translated and became Turkish Anatolian classics is too wishy-washy an ending considering the events of the book. 

An altogether important book from which many more interesting conclusions can be drawn. It will provide even more questions for future researchers on the subject.