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When History Goes Mad: Rewriting the History of State Violence in Dersim

Upon entering the city of Dersim (Tunceli), set on the steep hillsides above the Munzur River, one is greeted – as is true for any other Turkish city – by statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the "founding father" of modern Turkey. Walking down a few lanes from the main square, however, one encounters a peculiar and rare sight: it is again a statue, but this time of a "madman" who seems lost in contemplation.The statue of the "madman" Seyid Hüseyin serves as a tangible starting point for my project’s attempt to analyze contradictory dynamics of memorial culture. Using ethnographic research methods and oral history, my dissertation seeks to understand the multilayered configuration of conflicting memory regimes and the ways in which they manifest themselves materially in the landscape of Dersim. These material forms range from ruins to monuments, weaving complex layers of presence and remembering, but also of silencing and forgetting with regard to the region’s Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and Alevi history.

The province of Dersim embodies many aspects of modern Turkey's conflictual and complex history, thus constituting a privileged site for analyzing how subjects have been violently formed by Turkey's state secularism and racism in the context of an ethnically and religiously diverse landscape. Looking at the numerous attempts to destroy existing moral economies in Dersim since 1915, this historical ethnography follows the depiction of madness in written and oral sources in order to grasp the emerging system of values in the aftermath of waves of state violence. 

My project thus seeks to analyze how the effects of violence contributed to the formation of new regimes of values and emotions, in which experiences of loss and lack emerge as central elements. Researching madness as a reaction to continuous state-sponsored violence also allows for a reassessment of the historical events that became landmarks in the collective memory of this contested space: the genocidal violence experienced in 1915 and in 1938, the coup d’état of 1980 and the civil war between Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) and the Turkish army that began in 1984.

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Supervisor

Prof. Stefanie Schüler-Springorum