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The General Ottoman and Turkish Contexts, From the Tanzimat (1838) to the Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion (1938)

Last modified: 1 April 2008
Hamit Bozarslan

March 2008

Cite this item

Hamit Bozarslan, The General Ottoman and Turkish Contexts, From the Tanzimat (1838) to the Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion (1938), Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 15 March 2008, accessed 17 April 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/fr/The-General-Ottoman-and-Turkish-Contexts-From-the-Tanzimat, ISSN 1961-9898

 A New War: 1919-1922

The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist after the debacle of World War I. Great Britain and France occupied the Arab provinces of the country. Parts of Anatolia were occupied by France and Italy for a short while. In 1919, the Greek army occupied Izmir. Aiming to implement the Megali Idea (literally, “Great Idea”; this was the irredentist Greek nationalist project for a Greater Greece which would include Constantinople and parts of Anatolia), it continued to advance deep into Anatolia. Finally, Istanbul, where the former Unionists were still very active in spite of the departure of the main leaders of the Committee (Talaat, Enver, and Cemal), was occupied by British troops in March 1920. Different resistance movements which started in various parts of Anatolia were gradually centralized under the leadership of a Turkish general, Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk). From 1920, Mustafa Kemal organized a new, centralized army and declared war against the foreign (mostly Greek) troops.

This war later became known as the War of Independence. But although it was mainly waged against foreign occupiers, violence was also used against the Armenians (both in Cilice, where Armenian detachments had collaborated with the French troops, and in the Caucasus, where an Armenian Republic had been formed), as well as against the Greeks of Pontus. Likewise, the occupation of Izmir by Turkish troops lead to the total destruction of the Greek community of this important city.

To some extent, the Kemalist forces considered the War of Independence as military resistance of the Turkish/Muslim populations against the other ethnic communities of Anatolia. Thus, it was no wonder that the Republic of Turkey, which was proclaimed one year after the end of the war (on October 29, 1923) adopted an exclusive form of Turkish nationalism as the State’s official doctrine and tried to continue the religious/ethnic homogenization of Anatolia by other means. In 1924, a vast movement of population exchange took place between Turkey and Greece: while some 400,000 Muslims were forced to leave Greece, 900,000 Greeks residing in the former Ottoman Empire also had to leave their birthplace in order to join a new country.

In 1914, almost 20% of the population of Turkey (Turkish Thrace and Anatolia) was composed of non-Muslims. By 1924, this proportion was under 2% (today it is less than 1%).

 The Kurdish Issue

The new Kemalist power, which had already evolved into a single-party regime by 1925, considered itself as the incarnation of Turkish nationalism, the Turkish revolution, and “civilization” (later on, this concept was gradually defined as genuinely Turkish). Thus, the Kurds, who rejected these categories, were necessarily becoming the internal enemies of the new regime.

During the War of Independence, many Kurdish dignitaries who were opposed to the prospect of the creation of an Armenian state in Anatolia actively supported Mustafa Kemal. Moreover, during the war years, Mustafa Kemal promised them that he would liberate southern Kurdistan, which was occupied by Great Britain at the time (and was later incorporated into the new Iraqi state), establish Kurdish-Turkish fraternity and preserve the Caliphate (which was in fact abolished in 1924). None of these promises was kept. On the contrary, Kemalism treated the Kurds both as human raw material to be assimilated in order to create the Turkish nation, and as an ethnic threat. Like its predecessor Unionism, Kemalism was in fact a social-Darwinist movement and considered the Kurds as a feudal ethnic group and class, which, through the centuries, had oppressed the “pure Turks” and compelled them to assimilate to “Kurdishness.” While the Turks were considered as the bearers of positive atavism, characterized by civilization, the spirit of independence, and progressivism, the Kurds were seen as the incarnation of darkness, enslavement, brutal force and religious reaction. Thus, the destruction of the Kurds as a “feudal” ethnic group and class was seen as a necessity for the emancipation of the Turks as an oppressed ethnic group and class.

Moreover, Kurdish nationalism was the last non-Turkish nationalism of the late Ottoman Empire still alive in the Turkish Republic. As a State judge reminded in 1925 following an important Kurdish rebellion, the nationalism of this Muslim community ought to be punished – in the Kemalist view – not only for what it was, i.e. a separatist movement, but also as the last of a series of separatist “betrayals” by sections of the non-Turkish Muslim group, including the Albanians, Bosnians and Arabs.

As a result of this new stage of State nationalism, a series of Kurdish revolts took place between 1925 and 1938, among them the Sheikh Said (1925), Ararat (1927-1930) and Dersim (1936-1938) rebellions. The repression of these rebellions involved massive destructions of villages and mass executions. According to Martin van Bruinessen, a well-known specialist of the Kurdish issue, the repression of the Dersim rebellion, presented as the “opening-up of Dersim to civilization,” can be defined as an act of genocide.

Encyclopédie des violences de masse® - ISSN 1961-9898