Dersim is a region in eastern Turkey predominately populated by Alevi Kurds, which is one of the reasons why it has been otherized by the central state authorities since before the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, the state's efforts to put an end to Dersim's de facto autonomy peaked under the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909). After the founding of the Republic of Turkey, however, the newly established state denied the existence of Kurds as a separate ethnic group regardless of whether they were Sunni Muslim or Alevi. The state of both the Ottoman Empire and its successor Republic of Turkey conducted 11 military operations in Dersim. In the republican era, and in the 1930s in particular, Turkish lawmakers considered Dersim to be the state's largest internal problem, once referred to as "a boil that needs to be extirpated" (White, 2012).
Due to the general political conditions of the time along with other impediments, however, the state was unable to realize its project to "civilize" Dersim until the mid-1930s. The official state discourse to end Dersim's de facto autonomy was to civilize what it called a backward region. During the 1930s, the consolidation of one-party authoritarian power under the CHP and its emphasis on party-state policies based on Turkish nationalism laid the groundwork for the state's so-called civilizing operation in Dersim.
The state project under the CHP to civilize Dersim was to be completed in two stages. Not believing that investing in the region, such as by building hospitals and factories, would ensure the population's loyalty to the state, administrators took the necessary political and legal steps to consolidate the state's power and sovereignty over Dersim. The inspectorate general for the Dersim region was established in 1935. General Abdullah Alpdoğan was appointed as inspector general and given wide-ranging powers. The state then changed the name of the region from Dersim to Tunceli. The new name is composed of the Turkish words tunç, meaning bronze, and el, or hand, thus referring to the proverbial bronze hand of the state that would descend on Dersim, used in a similar way as iron fist in English. This first step meant the declaration of a state of emergency in Dersim. Then with negotiations with the tribes in Dersim inconclusive, the Turkish military launched an operation on the region in 1937, with the official claim being to suppress rebellion. This first operation led to the killing of thousands of people in Dersim as well as the execution of Seyîd Riza, a local religious and political leader. A second operation with support from the air force lasted from December 1937 to August 1938, in which the Turkish military slaughtered thousands of the inhabitants of Dersim. Documents emerged years later that showed the military had used chemical weapons in the massacres in a show of state violence and against insurgents and civilians who had sought refuge in the Dersim mountains. Those who survived the massacres in Dersim were then subjected to forced migration across Anatolia. Exiles were allowed to return three years later, only after the state had installed the necessary infrastructure to ensure its own security. The state's policies to assimilate Alevi Kurds, however, continued apace.
In a speech in 2011, then Prime Minister Erdoğan announced the existence of documents regarding the Dersim massacre and apologized specifically for the CHP's actions in Dersim in the 1930s. One should not underestimate the number of those who consider Erdoğan's apology to be less than sincere, and rather an attempt to politically undermine the current CHP instead of a true effort to confront the Turkish state's large-scale human rights abuses in the past. It was, however, the first time a prime minister had publicly apologized in any way for state crimes and transgressions.
P. White, İlkel İsyancılar mı? Yoksa Devrimci Modernleştiriciler mi? Türkiye’de Kürt Ulusal Hareketi, trans. Mustafa Topal (Vate Yayınevi, 2012).
Following Erdoğan's apology, his AKP government took no tangible steps toward remembrance of the Dersim massacre. While a debate on the Dersim massacre did begin at the end of 2011, numerous demonstrations were held both in Dersim and Turkey's large cities to demand a comprehensive investigation into the massacre and explain exactly what happened in Dersim in the light of state documents. The Mazgirt Municipality took these demands seriously and initiated a remembrance study on the Dersim massacre in 2011.
The purpose of the Dersim Massacre Monument is twofold: to commemorate those who were killed in the massacre and buried in unmarked graves and to raise awareness of the massacre and ensure it is recognized. After the Mazgirt Municipality put forth the idea of building a site of remembrance, architect Dara Kırmızıtoprak undertook the design of the monument at no charge. The Mazgirt Municipality then organized a donation campaign as it did not have the necessary funds for the construction of the monument, which was able to be built with donations from business people from Dersim. The Dersim Massacre Monument is similar to Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin except that its stone blocks are of different sizes and placed irregularly.
The Dersim Massacre Memorial was completed in November of 2012, built on Kırklar Mountain in Dersim, the site where the army brought hundreds of civilians from different regions and shot and killed them during the Dersim massacre, leaving their bodies there for a long time and not allowing them to be buried. This project has attracted a great deal of attention both from those in Dersim and those who think that the construction of the memorial to the Dersim massacre is important in order to confront the country's past through such a site. In addition, the project received considerable attention and support in the mainstream media and on social media. The participation of not only municipal officials but also local people and MPs in the unveiling of the monument was an indicator of this interest.
In January of 2011, the Mazgirt District Governorate filed a lawsuit against the Mazgirt Municipality on the grounds that the municipality had used public land for the Dersim Massacre Monument before it had become municipality property. A demand was made days before the memorial was due to open for all construction activities to cease. The Mazgirt Municipality saw this as no more than a procedural problem that would not be difficult to overcome. One of the challenges experienced throughout the project was securing financing. The population of Dersim that is financially comfortable, however, answered the municipality's call for donations, thus solving the financing problem.