The Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany in the First World War, and surrendered to the Allies in October 1918. This allowed the Allies to occupy Constantinople and begin plans to carve up the Ottoman territories. In 1920, the Ottomans and the Allies signed the Treaty of Sèvres, which left part of Anatolia to the Ottoman Empire, but ceded parts of the western empire to Greece, and parcelled out areas into “zones” to be controlled by Italy, France, and Britain. It recognised an independent Armenian state, and made vague plans for a referendum to be held on Kurdish independence, centred around the city of Mosul in modern-day Iraq.
This referendum would not come. Whilst these negotiations were taking place in occupied Constantinople, the Ottoman general Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) had established a provisional government in Anatolia of the Turkish nationalist movement, fighting the invading Greek army in the west and the Sèvres-created Republic of Armenia in the east. The nationalists won those wars, and nullified the Treaty of Sèvres. In 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne acknowledged this fact, and the Turkish Republic was declared in the same year.
Once in power, Mustafa Kemal carried out extensive reforms with the aim of consolidating Turkey’s independence, and transforming it into a modern and advanced nation-state of the Turkish people. Two of the chief targets of the reforms were Islamic “reaction” and national minorities which might threaten the integrity of the new Turkish state. Those two worries made the government especially hostile towards the Kurdish population in southeast Turkey, who were mostly Sunni Muslims or Alevis.
The Caliphate [the post, notionally, of hereditary supreme ruler of the Muslim world] was abolished in 1924, and non-Turkish minorities were designated for either expulsion or cultural assimilation. The Kurds were in the latter category: to be “Turkified”. On that, the Republic continued the war policy of the late Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish attitude to the Kurds was worsened by the British Empire. Despite maintaining Turkey, the Turkish Republic did not keep the Ottoman Empire’s Arab possessions after the war, and Iraq was governed under a British mandate. The British installed King Faisal I as a British-friendly ruler, but retained control over the area around Mosul, which had extensive oil fields. 60% of the population in the region were Kurds. They wanted an independent state. Faisal’s British backers used the Kurds to keep Faisal in check, as they were sympathetic to the British mandate, and the Sunni Faisal needed them demographically to offset the Shia population.
The Turkish Republic wanted Mosul for itself, both out of irredentism and for its oil. The Kurds were generally seen as strategically allied with British imperialism, and more importantly Turkey feared that British encouragement of Kurdish national ambitions in Iraq would spread to Kurds in southeast Turkey. The Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Turkey also associated the Kurds with British imperialism, and saw Mustafa Kemal as wavering between a principled anti-imperialist alliance with Russia or a pragmatic concession to the British Empire.
In 1925, thousands of Kurds rose up in Eastern Anatolia under the leadership of Sheikh Said, calling for an independent Kurdistan and the restoration of the Caliphate. The Turkish state responded with a brutal campaign of bombing and burning villages, and after the rebellion carried out extensive political repression. Indiscriminate killings and mass executions were carried out by the army, and many Kurds fled to the French Mandate of Syria. The rebellion also prompted the state to expand the programme of “Turkification” against the Kurds, restarting the wartime deportations of Kurds in order to weaken their national cohesion.
The traditional Kemalist historical interpretation of this rebellion in Turkey is that it was a tribal and theocratic affair, centrally concerned with protecting the interests of feudal and religiously reactionary landlords against Mustafa Kemal’s modernising reforms. This denial of Kurdish national identity in the revolt is emblematic of the Turkish state’s standard approach to the “Kurdish question”: to deny or downplay its existence and characterise strife in the southeast as resulting from cultural or economic backwardness.
These claims of traditional Turkish historiography are not strictly false. Sheikh Said was leading a class struggle of the Kurdish aghas (feudal lords) against the Turkish state, and the rebellion was promoted on explicit religious grounds. Such aspects are part and parcel of the contradictions in national liberation struggles, which can often have seriously reactionary elements despite responding to a real oppression. Many anti-colonial struggles have taken on popular Islamism, such as the Mahdist War against the British Empire in Sudan, or Imam Shamyl’s resistance to the Tsarist Empire in the Caucasus.
Many of Mustafa Kemal’s broader modernising reforms also targeted the Kurds. In 1934 the Surname Law was passed, requiring all citizens to pick a Western-style family surname. As part of the Turkification policy, these surnames had to be Turkish, and references to or grammatical forms from other languages such as Kurdish were expressly forbidden. This even extended to the use of the letters ‘Q’, ‘W’, or ‘X’, as they are present in the Kurdish alphabet but not Turkish. Many non-Turks chose heavily Turkish names in order to more easily assimilate, so the surname Türkoğlu (son of Turks) is common amongst Kurdish people today.
There were a number of Kurdish revolts in the 1920s and 1930s. Alongside the Sheikh Said rebellion, there were the two Dersim rebellions in 1937 and 1938, sometimes known as the “Dersim massacre”, due to the hyperviolent Turkish response. The rebellions were prompted by Turkish assimilationist policies. The 1934 Turkish Resettlement Law extended the deportations of Kurds with the aim of creating a Turkish cultural homogeneity, and Dersim’s name was changed to Tunceli.
Civilians and combatants alike were massacred: the government’s own report claimed that 13,160 civilians were killed by the army, but other estimates of the death count have been much higher.
Throughout Atatürk’s rule (1923-1938) the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) was broadly supportive of the Turkish government, with some guarded criticisms and occasional reversals. They saw Atatürk as a progressive anti-imperialist who was dragging Turkey out of its feudal Ottoman past, and crucially they saw him as a potential ally for the Soviet Union. This was not merely the result of obedience to the Comintern: there was real sincerity in their overenthusiastic assessment of the Turkish state, and they understandably saw an anti-British alliance between Turkey and Russia as important to Soviet survival. The TKP denounced the Sheikh Said rebellion as tribalism and banditry, and called on readers to support the government against this “black power”.
Later in the 1930s some dissidents within the TKP would argue that a separate Kurdish nation existed and was a colony of Turkey, but that view was unpopular within the party, and the communists assessed the Dersim rebellion as merely a feudal revolt. It would be decades until the Turkish left began to grapple with this legacy, and start to acknowledge and fight against the colonial oppression of Kurdistan.