On Dersim and the Banality of Evil: The Diary of Yusuf Kenan Akım
By Zeynep Türkyilmaz
I was enjoying my moment of silence and respite after a busy day by idly surfing in the newly released digital sources of the Ataturk Library of the Istanbul Municipality. Entering my usual keywords randomly to see what is out there in my areas of interest, I came across a diary of a Turkish soldier kept during the year 1938, while he was doing his compulsory military service. Ego-documents are a rare source in Ottoman-Turkish studies in general, but the content of this particular diary made it unique and almost unreal beyond my wildest expectations, on an issue that I have studied since 1999. This soldier served for two months in the sweeping stage of the genocidal military operation carried out by the Turkish republic with the intent to resolve the “perennial Dersim Question” between 1937-1938.
Stretching over the eastern highlands of the Taurus Mountains, Dersim was the sacred center of, and almost a signifier for, the Kurdish-Alevi communities, and in that capacity, had been targeted for “civilizing”, disciplining and assimilation at least since the rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909). The parliament had enacted a special law in 1935 renaming Dersim as Tunceli. This law did not only impose a new identity on the region, but also separated Dersim and its inhabitants legally from the rest of the citizens of the republic in terms of their right and duties, as a statement of the determination of the republican elite to realize the solution that had been imagined by the political center for decades.
Reports and policy documents have been widely available on the Dersim Question. Similarly, anecdotes and statements by bureaucrats, politicians and high-ranking military personnel have been accessible. Recently, many survivor accounts detailing the terror, and many fewer testimonies of individual soldiers who narrated their acts with regret, and always in tears, have circulated. Yet as a historian who has spent countless days conducting interviews, working at the archives, and chasing documents, this discovery, which came rather easily for me, has proven to be not only the least expected but also the most challenging, emotionally and intellectually.
The diary introduces its readers to a rather ordinary or even mediocre young man named Yusuf Kenan Akım, who diligently registered his every day, writing about his obsessive love for a woman, hang-outs with his pals, letter exchanges with family and friends, and his boredom, hopes, worries, longing, anger and jealousy, both before he reported to the military station in April and during his service until his arrival in Dersim in late July. After his troop deployment however, these entries also contained short and dry notes about his fellow soldiers decapitating “rebels”, burning villages, and rivers filled with dead bodies, all written alongside his passion for his unresponsive love, a letter from a friend or his aching feet. Tracing a genocide expressed in the most mundane and casual language puzzles the mind. Unlike what I have read in the analytical yet racist reports proposing radical solutions to the Question, the silence or passionate defense of the high-ranking perpetuators, or the shattering cries of the survivors, there were no emotions expressed in the diary’s text other than self-pity and pain caused by physical hardships. There was no political statement, no confusion, no curiosity, no questioning the hows and whys of the operation or the orders he was carrying out with his fellow soldiers, often competing against the other troops. He did not seem to know much about the people he was killing, chasing to chasms or mountain caves, or whose houses he was burning. And what was more challenging was to realize that he did not care to know, as can be seen in entries from the 3rd and the 10th of September 1938, respectively:
We have reached the outskirts of the town of Cevizli. At midnight we packed our tents, left, and stopped by the banks of a river at 7 am. We almost died of thirst, but could not drink the river water because of the dead bodies that had contaminated it. My legs were almost broken, as we had come a long way. Oh God, please get me out of here. Enough with all the pain and suffering that I have endured.
Our units brought with them the heads of the rebels. A soldier in our unit named Ruşen is in charge of the beheadings. He beheads anyone when ordered to do so.
After the heat of the sweeping operations, Akım returned to his normal life, first to the earlier place of deployment and then to his hometown where he served the rest of the military service as a scribe. Based on his entries, Dersim remained on his radar at least until the end of 1938. The shattering story of an ordinary man becoming a killer, and his jarring and total indifference when describing decapitations and how the troops were celebrated for the actions, sat heavily on me for months before I decided to write a short piece that was published in the weekly bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos.
Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s ground-breaking work on Eichmann, I put the emphasis on the ordinary perpetuators, on those who carried out the orders, not on the form or nature of the violence, orders or the decision processes themselves, and framed it as the “banality of evil”. My short essay received incredible attention, and was read and shared immensely on social media, turning eyes once again to what happened in 1938-Dersim. Not only did several media outlets interview me, but Alican Önlü, an MP of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party HDP, submitted a probe in the parliament on the beheadings and other forms of violence executed by the army in Dersim – citing both my work on the diary and me.
After a year, I still get inquiries from journalists to comment on the diary. I should note that beheadings and village burnings were both mentioned repeatedly in survivors’ narratives. Even photos of soldiers in uniform holding heads separated from bodies had circulated a couple of years ago, without arousing much curiosity about them. As a historian who has worked on different aspects of the Dersim Question for two decades, I have written and talked about it extensively, and I often find myself wondering about the overwhelming public reaction given to this particular document and its narrative. I have a few tentative points to make on this issue.
Scholarship on mass violence has demonstrated that ordinary people perpetuating unutterable crimes and going back their normal lives are more common than individuals and societies are willing to accept. Almost always carried out in company and within ties of comradeship, such crimes, however, are expected to remain non-verbalized, even if they are public secrets. In this case, the diary has not only broken this pact even after decades, but also bore witness to the crimes committed as a part of the operation. Not unlike Eichmann, the dry language was perhaps more revolting than any emotional and repenting testimony has been. It exposed not only what happened in Dersim in 1938, but also, more importantly, how it was carried out and what made such mass murder possible. Debates around the Dersim question have often revolved around identifying “the perpetuator”, singling out the mastermind, yet this diary diversified not only the identity and the roles of perpetuators but also their acts. While, without a doubt, the primary responsibility remains with the decision makers, Akım’s entries exposed that it was the participation of the masses of – even if, often unthinking – armed men obeying their orders that made destruction and violence on this scale possible.
The second issue that needs to be considered is the impact of this diary on the image of the enlightened republic. An epitome of the 1930s Zeitgeist, the newly established Turkish nation-state presented itself as a phoenix born out of its ashes, and promoted the image of the modern, civilized, and erudite in the midst of the backward, ignorant and treacherous. Such dichotomies have proven to be lethal in the Dersim question, whereby the civilized republic versus backward Dersim, the enlightened Turks versus the feudal Kurds, and the high-tech and disciplined Turkish army versus a handful of ignorant bandits that needed to be tamed and subdued justified the radical measures that were taken, as in the case of the operation in 1937-8. These dichotomies continued to frame the discourse on the Question even in academic circles. The destruction was often attributed to the aerial bombings, some of which were carried out by one of the adopted daughters of Mustafa Kemal, Sabiha Gokcen, who acquired the world’s first female fighter pilot title and became the face of the operation. Aerial bombings were cherished as proof of the new Turk, who had the might to create as well as destroy and outdid the feudal, violent, barbaric and ignorant other in Dersim. This diary confirmed the centrality of the bombardments but it also exposed the systematic use of decapitations, plundering, pillaging, and village burnings, not only to break the resistance but to punish the Dersimlis (its inhabitants) and desacralize the land. These methods with medieval connotations debunked the republican dichotomies and severed its image as the enlightened, almighty, and yet moral, entity.
As a final point, I would like to emphasize that as notes taken during bombardments and the aftermath of killings and village burnings, this diary has re-affirmed what the Dersimlis narrated for decades – yet from the opposing moral, political and emotional position. While these entries give the reader the feeling of receiving blow after blow, they ironically also had a liberating impact on the survivors. Not only carrying the physical and emotional marks of 1938, but also suffering from the trauma of denial and indifference, many of these survivors lived their lives with the burden of having witnessed and being boxed into 1938. They could not get out of it, as one of them eloquently stated in his testimony. Shifting the narrative from the survivor to the perpetuator had the potential of relieving them of this life-long burden, and the potential of opening up public and personal spaces to deal with their trauma. It also enabled, as brief as it was, a conversation on past crimes, and the involvement of the wider public beyond decision makers. Yet, this space is now closed again – and perhaps will be until a new shattering document is found, on this same, or another, horrific incident.
 Since Christopher R. Browning’s seminal work, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992), there has been much debate about and interest towards the question of perpetuators. James Waller’s Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Murder (2007) and Thomas Kühne’s The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2017) also provide insights on the enigma of ordinary men becoming mass killers.
Zeynep Türkyilmaz received her PhD from the Department of History at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2009. Her dissertation, “Anxieties of Conversion: Missionaries, State and Heterodox Communities in the Late Ottoman Empire,” is based on intensive research conducted in Ottoman, British, and several American missionary archives. Her research and teaching interests include state-formation, gender, nationalism, colonialism, and religion with a focus on heterodoxy and missionary work in the Middle East from 1800 to the present. In 2010/11, she was a postdoctoral Fellow of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe at the Forum Transregionale Studien. She returned as a EUME Fellow for the academic year of 2017/18 and continues to be with EUME in the academic years 2018-21 as a Fellow of the Forum Transregionale Studien associated with the Center for Global History at Freie Universität Berlin.
Citation: Zeynep Türkyilmaz, On Dersim and the Banality of Evil: The Diary of Yusuf Kenan Akım, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.01.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26069.