In a move designed to keep the image of an understanding and ready-to-face-the-past Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has today apologised for the 1937 Dersim massacre. It is interesting to note how "selective" are the public apologies of the PM. Indeed no question of an apology over the Armenian genocide. And indeed over Cyprus the Turkish government’s stance has been one of reclaiming its right to occupy and to keep North Cyprus from the South despite any international law. No question then to even deal with the Kurdish question in a different way from repression, detentions, criminalisation.

Yet Erdogan is keen to present himself as the prime minister ready to deal with the heavy and often controversial past of the Republic. Indeed it is not a coincidence that he has chosen to apologise for the Dersim massacre. He has done so in the days of a big rift within the CHP (Republican’s People Party), the only party at the time (the party founded by the father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) has erupted precisely over the responsibility of the party in the Dersim genocide.

In his apology Erdogan said that “Dersim is among the most tragic event in near history. It is a disaster that should be now questioned with courage. The party that should confront this incident is not the ruling Justice and Development Party [AK Party]. It is the CHP, which is behind this bloody disaster, who should face this incident and its chairman from Tunceli.” And he added "“Is it me who should apologise or you [referring to CHP leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu]? If there should be an apology on behalf of the state and if there is such an opportunity, I can do it and I am apologising. But if there is someone who should apologise on behalf of the CHP, it is you as you are from Dersim. You were saying you felt honored to be from Dersim. Now, save your honour.”

In the widening debate, Erdogan said at his party’s group meeting in Parliament on Tuesday that he planned to release a number of state documents about the incident on Wednesday. He then read excerpts from archive documents related to the massacre on Wednesday, saying thousands of people, including women and children, were killed during the Dersim operation and that the CHP was the part of the single-party government of the time.

Referring to a document dated 1939, Erdogan said a total of 13,806 people were killed in Dersim between 1936 and 1939. He said the document bears the signature of then-Interior Minister Faik Öztrak. Another document Erdogan revealed related to the Dersim events was a Cabinet decree dated Dec. 23, 1938, which said 11,683 people were deported from Dersim and that 2,000 more were to be deported from Dersim.

“All of t these documents have the signatures of Ismet Inönü,” Erdogan said.

The CHP is in a middle of a controversy over the Dersim genocide since the region MP, Hüseyin Aygün had stated the 1937 Dersim massacre took place with the consent of the state and the ruling CHP and that it is just a “myth” that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was not aware of it. Interestingly but not surprisingly, the leader of the CHP, Kemal Kiliçdroglu, who is from Dersim and of Kurdish origins and lost many of his relatives in this massacre, did not stand behind Aygün. Of course the people of Dersim will know only too well that once again the genocide and the sufferance are being exploited for political games. Certainly by the Prime Minister who sees this as an opportunity to lash out to the main opposition party much more than a real chance to come to terms and deal with the Republic history of violence and repression. Likewise in the CHP the issue has come out – coincidentally ? – at a time where Kiliçdroglu is not enjoy big support among his people nor popularity.


The Dersim rebellion in the summer of 1937 and the spring of 1938 by the local population of Dersim, now called Tunceli was crashed in blood. Tens of thousands of Alevi Kurds were killed and thousands more forced into exile, depopulating the province. A key component of the Turkification process was the policy of massive population resettlement, a result of the 1934 Law on Resettlement (‘Iskân Kanunu’ Law No.2510, 13 June 1934) , a policy targeting the region of Dersim as one of its first test cases with disastrous consequences for the local population. Three types of resettlement zones were defined in the resettlement law as follows:

– districts to be evacuated for health, economic, cultural, political and security reasons and where settlement was forbidden;

– districts where the population was to be transferred and resettled for the purposes of assimilation to Turkish culture and,

– districts where an increase of the population having ‘Turkish culture’ was recommended.