Completing What the Ottomans Left Unfinished: Dersim as an Internal Colony across Empire and Nation-State (1877-1938)

Cevat Dargin, Princeton University

When the Young Turks and Kemalists declared new regimes in 1908 and in 1923 respectively, they put forth grand narratives of radical change. This article, by contrast, highlights the continuity across the Hamidian (1876–1908), Young Turks (1908–1923), and Early Republican (1923–1938) eras in the colonization of Dersim, a Kizilbash (Alevi) Kurdish–majority region in Eastern Anatolia. Due to its unusual geographic and demographic profile, Dersim toward the end of the nineteenth century became a domain where the Kurdish, Armenian, and Kizilbash questions came together and clashed with the project of Ottoman and Turkish state building. Subsumed under the banner of Eastern Question in the literature, these interwoven questions placed foundational limits on the late imperial and early republican state in the realms of ethnicity, religion, and geography and turned Dersim into a battlefield for Turkish state making. The article defines Dersim as a nonstate space and considers government policies towards it as internal colonization, thereby challenging the official narrative and the existing historiography foregrounded around the axis of rebellion and suppression. It argues that the Turkish state’s violent transformation of Dersim in 1937–38 marked the completion of a process of state building and centralization that was set in motion in the early nineteenth century and that intensified in Dersim following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. The article puts the argument of continuity in conversation with the idea of Ottoman Orientalism and proposes that an ideational need to sustain and expand the state and colonize nonstate places such as Dersim motivated both late imperial and early republican state actors in their policies towards the periphery.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 116. Regions of State Formation