Armeno-Turkish platform

Each month a new theme
Viewpoints from Turkey, Armenia and the Diaspora
Full translations into Turkish, Armenian, English and French


Turkish Nationalism and the Invention of History – Part 1

  Other point of view

Turkish Nationalism and the Invention of History – Part 1

Etienne Copeaux


Etienne Copeaux

Historian, PhD in geopolitics and expert on Turkey

This text entitled “The Invention of History” was originally written in 1994 to summarize my thesis, as I was completing it for  submission in December of that year. It was the first time that I was trying to present the result of my studies to a general public, namely the editors of the publisher Autrement. There was no feedback, not the slightest expression of interest. The “history thesis” of Turkish nationalists was so extravagant that perhaps it was thought that I was exaggerating. Other people showed surprise that I could be so involved in such an obscure topic. Indeed, of all the reforms made by Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s-30s, this one was often disregarded by historians.

However, this “invention of history” is not a subsidiary issue in the history of Kemalism. After the Genocide of Armenians, followed by  the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey (in reality a double mass expulsion), the people of Anatolia were utterly distressed, exhausted and ruined by years of wars and violence. The move from Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic is often commented on in terms of loss of territory, but there was more to it: for nearly every inhabitant of Anatolia, it meant the loss of the house, the field, the garden, of their beloved environment; and symmetrically for Muslim Turks, the loss of a neighbor, a friend, the local craftsman or shopkeeper, of the Armenian or the Greek, branded as the enemy, and either eliminated or expelled. Only too late came the realization that this Other was a part of oneself and his loss was like an amputation.

Some form of accounting (or recounting) for that loss was needed. Kemalists thus promptly dug up an already existing historical account thought up by the first Nationalists, and used it as a reassuring rationale. They thus provided the remaining Anatolians with some direction, some sense to all this, although not by pointing towards a future, but towards a new past, which was supposed to permanently set a monolithic and deeply rooted Turkish identity.

However, there is a point I much too slickly alluded to in 1994 –  that of the genocide. I mentioned in a non-committal way that “the question of Armenians had been dispatched with the brutality we know”, as I was then trying to study the Turkish historical account as a whole, its evolution over more than six decades. Although it was clear in my eyes, I had not yet worded what now seems essential to me: the fact that this particular account was, and still is, entirely conditioned by the existence of the genocide. You could even broaden that statement by saying that the entire 20th century Turkish life has been conditioned by that original crime and its denial.

So, what is the account that I describe in this article but an alibi story fabricated by criminals to conceal their crimes? After eliminating the Armenians and then the Orthodox from the Anatolian lands, the State was now erasing their history and laying down its own blanket story. The whole “ethnic cleansing” policy of Anatolia during the first half of the 20th century is contained in that account and is proof of the reality of the crime. Indeed, in the same way as a psychoanalyst relies on his patient's story to understand his predicament, you could use the tools of psychoanalysis to understand the unsaid, the denial, the rejection of the Other, the building of an ego. And also a sense of guilt, a destructive unease which have probably later contributed to the elaboration of the cult of Kemal Atatürk, that reassuring and protecting father figure.

The Kemalist historiography and its genesis

In July 1932, a solemn convention took place in Ankara, the first Congress of Turkish history, in the presence of the highest dignitaries of the Republic and of Mustafa Kemal himself, who attended almost every discussion. If it is customary for a statesman to open a convention, it is  unusual that he should attend it for a week, and that in itself is revealing of the prominence of historical issues in Turkey in the early days of the Republic.

That congress, which was almost entirely devoted to the prehistory and ancient history, illustrates the radical change in perspective brought about in Turkish historiography. Until the early 20th century, a Turk would define himself by his belonging to Islam: “Thank God I am a Muslim”. This identity mark was all the stronger in Ottoman times when the Sultan was also  a Calif, the religious head of the Muslim community. Indeed, the multi-ethnic character of the Ottoman Empire did not lend itself at all to the definition of a “nationality” in the current meaning of the word, and the past was not viewed as a past of Turks, but as a past of Muslims – i.e. in large part the past of Arabs.

Under the Republican regime proclaimed in 1923, the teaching of history had to adapt to and answer several needs. First, it had to stress the value of Turkish culture, which was scorned by the victors of 1918, and elicit a Turkish pride to counter the disastrous image of Turkey abroad. That image started to improve in the 1920s, precisely thanks to the reforms conducted by Kemal – a modernist, Republican, secular leader presented as an heir to European rationalism and positivism.

Then, since a nation had to be built, it became no longer acceptable to keep on teaching foreign history, the history of Islam or that of Europe. A national past had to be found, but which one? Turks had been living in Anatolia for nine centuries; they had  their own story as a people, and lived on a land which also had its history. Coming from Central Asia, Turks had married the land of Anatolia when settling there for good. In order for the children of that marriage (today's Turks) to be valiant descendants, the “in-law” family had to be remarkable too. Therefore, the celebration of the Asian ancestry would go together with a similar focus on the ancient Anatolian civilizations that had just been discovered – Ionian, Achean, Urartian, and above all Hittite.

The “discovery of Asia” 

That trend of historiographical rediscovery resulted from an exceptional conjunction of circumstances, among which Russia played a key role.

First, the seizing by Russians of Central Asia khanates – and in particular, of the Khanate of Khiva, south of the Aral Sea in 1873 – caused a flurry of inter-Muslim solidarity calls in the 19th century directed to the Caliph Sultan of Constantinople. Turkish intellectuals became aware of the existence of “racial fellowmen” North of the Black Sea and East of the Caspian Sea. It was the starting point of the pan-Turk sentiment, in its first meaning of sense of belonging no longer to the Muslim umma,  but to an ethnic community spread over lands that do not coincide with the Ottoman Empire. One of the first expressions of this sentiment appeared that same year in Paris, in the work of Ottoman author Ali Suavi, about the situation of the Khanate of Shiva1.

Still in 1873, during the first international Convention of Orientalists held in Paris, a travel writer, Leon Cahun, delivered a lecture entitled “Habitat and migrations of so-called Turanian prehistoric races”. He presented a map which featured a landlocked sea in the heart of Eurasia. Long arrows pointing out of it indicated the migrations of those Turanians towards the periphery of that continent. This was essential to what was discussed sixty years later at the Ankara Convention. The very Turkophile Leon Cahun connected with Ottoman intellectuals in Paris, thanks to whom his ideas on Turkish history had a very lasting influence – to the point that variants of that map can still be found in today's schoolbooks.

At the same time that colonial conquests were drawing to an end, Russian Turkology was developing and gave a decisive boost to the Turks' awareness of their past. It was a time when a transnational network of academics transcended the borders between the Russian and the Ottoman Empires (mostly in Kazan, the Crimea and Baku on the one hand, and Constantinople on the other). It included intellectuals, either political refugees fleeing the regime of Sultan Abdul Hamid II or students in Saint Petersburg, Berlin and Paris. They had deeply absorbed the 19th century archaeological and linguistic discoveries concerning the Turkish realm, and some were themselves brilliant researchers. They bonded with Russian, Finnish, French and German academics, as well as with researchers and students from other regions of the Turkish world. Fruitful meetings took place between those young Ottomans and turkologists, often turcophile as well, among whom was Leon Cahun.

The Orkhon inscriptions: the memory of Turks

That particular context needs to be known to understand the magnitude of the discovery and deciphering of the numerous stone inscriptions in the Orkhon Valley, South of Lake Baikal, in Mongolia. In 1893, these texts dating back to the early 8th century were identified as the first known example of written Turkic language. They are solemn announcements, in elaborate literary writing, of Turkish khans to their people, in which many modern Turks, in their enthusiasm, have seen as some form national sentiment. The context of the times was ripe for a rapid dissemination and interpretation of the Orkhon stone engravings, in which was quickly found proof of the ancestral roots of the Turks' literary language, of their state organization, of their monotheistic faith, and above all of their central Asian origins. Suddenly, in a pivotal period in their history, the Turks were put face to face with their true past, their cultural personality, their originality – in short, with their own identity.

Thereafter, things unfolded quickly: Vilhelm Thomsen's findings served as the basis for a history book by Cahun3 , which was promptly translated into Turkish. There already was a historiographic bloom in Turkey at the end of the 19th century, and Necip Asım, Süleyman Pasha and the famous sociologist Ziya Gökalp were fascinated by Cahun's book. Around 1910-14, Gökalp published many poems inspired by that “new past”.

The Russian political upheavals of 1905 and 1917 caused the arrival in Constantinople f new Turkish-speaking political exiles, most often Tatar or Azeri intellectuals, who became the vectors of dissemination of Russian Turkologic studies. Often former leaders of the short-lived Republics of Azerbaijan, Crimea, Kazan, Bashkiria or Turkestan, they had a modernist approach in relation to Islam and a vigorous Turkish national consciousness5; among them, Bashkir Sadri Maksudi Arsal (or Maksudov), Tatar Zeki Velidi Togan, historians who arrived in the 1920s, were players in the Kemalian cultural reforms.

The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 reinforced Turkish awareness. Then, as in Germany, the humiliation of the 1918 defeat caused a new surge of pride. Some years later, after the extraordinary military overhaul and foundation of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal decided to give Turkey a new history, a Turkish history, and a new language, stripped of its Arabic and Persian additions. The undoing of the Caliphate and the secularization of the Republic also meant a move away from a Muslim towards a nationalist identity rhetoric, as would later be the case in Arab countries with Ba'athist and then Nasserian models.

A similar cultural process took place in Russia. Perhaps in part due to the rejecting stance of Western Europe, there also was a move towards Asian values: it was the (re)birth of the so-called “Eurasian” movement8, which granted added weight to the Asian past in Russian history. That movement actually reconnected with the purely historiographic advances of the previous decades, and Eurasianism was bolstered by the earlier “discovery of Asia”. All those movements converged, although some rivalry formed between Baku and Ankara.

Ankara or Baku?

In January 1926, Ayaz Ishaki, a Tatar refugee living in Turkey, recommended the development of a common culture for Turko-Tatar people, the need to unify the language and “the need to transfer the intellectual center of Turkism to Angora, Sivas or Arzerum”9. In March 1926, however, the growing interest in the Asian past resulted in the launch of the first Convention of turkology in Baku10,, the goal being to turn Baku into the intellectual beacon of the Turkish-speaking world. This was a setback for Turkish turkologists and for Tatars from Kazan, who were influential in Istanbul. The intellectual center of Turkism was now outside Anatolia. In Baku was discussed what would become the agenda of Kemalist cultural reforms in the 1930s. An exhibition on the Orkhon inscriptions was on show. A proposal was made to publish the sources of ancient Turkish history in a readily understandable language, and Baku was to become a large center of turkology and ethnology, materialized by a studies museum. Some participants did toast to Mustafa Kemal, but Kemal had been clearly outrun by Stalin: in Baku, a transcription system between all the Turkish languages was being elaborated. The return to Turkey of delegates Fuat Kö,prülü and Hüseyinzade Ali, who had taken part in the Convention was eagerly awaited, and it was expected that their reports would carry weight with the government's decisions.

In Baku, there was a Turkist cultural fervor, an eagerness to reconnect with the pas, a wish to “go back to the people” in order to recapture the “true” Turkish language – all things that Ankara experienced from 1928 to 1932. The same questions were posed: which alphabet should be used? And what will be the cultural effects of that choice11?

It was in Azerbaijan, and not in Turkey, that the alphabet issue was raised for the first time, as early as in 1863, and it was in Baku that before the Convention, a commitee for the dissemination of the Latin alphabet was at work. The alphabet suggested by the Convention was an example of Baku's advance on Ankara, where the latin alphabet was only adopted in 1928.

Later on, Kemalism managed to persuade people that Turkey was the first secular Muslim Republic, but the intellectuals in Kazan, Baku and Crimea had been several steps ahead and imported those ideas to Turkey. What is more, Azerbaijan had not been alone in that pioneering role: the constitution of the short-lived Tatar Republic of Crimea (1918) declared voting equality between men and women. Therefore, the Baku Convention was a sort of challenge for Turkey, and the Soviet state was further along in its support of Turkish studies.

Was Adam Turkish?

Turks in Kemalist times could have just relayed the work of Western academics, furthered their studies and given turkology a “national” twist which, in those days of search for a new – and real – identity would have been perfectly understandable. Was it the result of the rivalry with Baku? Was there one-upping on the part of Turks? The fact is that Kemalists were not satisfied by the outcome and promises of archaeology and history. The years following the Baku Convention saw, on the one hand, the emergence of state-organized historical research in Turkey, and on the other a popular surge of Gökalp's romantic musings fueled by Leon Cahun's books.

Turkish historiography would not just make use of discoveries, of what was known (such as the Orkhon inscriptions), but would also cleverly exploit the unknown, the uncertainties of archaeology and history. The origins of some civilizations, such as Sumerians, Etruscans, Cretans, and the newly discovered Hittites remained problematic. More broadly, how the “neolithic revolution” happened – the decisive progress of man in India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Europe around 4,000 B.C. – was still a mystery.

There was much passion in scientific societies about subjects at the confines of geology and prehistory, as shown by J.-H. Rosny aînés popularizing novels. Following in Leon Cahun's footsteps, people were trying to draw the contours of a vast inner sea that had supposedly covered much of central Asia after the last glaciation. Various popularizers proposed maps, and famous writer H.G. Wells made a  mention of this in his  (Short History of Mankind1925). The work was translated into Turkish as early as in 1927 by the Ministry of Education.

In effect, Turkish turkologists imagine a blooming proto-Turkish civilization along the shores of that sea, very advanced compared to all the others. The drying up of that sea, thousands of years ago, would explain large-scale migrations of Turkish peoples. Kemalist historians thus began to to dream of a sort of Atlantis of the sands. National enthusiasm carried their fantasies beyond what was reasonably conceivable. Leon Cahun's ideas, developed in 1873, were called up again: Turks – belonging to the brachycephalic race – went far and wide carrying their language and civilization, to the very limits of the continent. These “historical theses” were also thought to solve the problem of the origins of the Sumerians and even an explanation to the progress made by the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, and all the Europeans in the neolithic age.

Already Cahun thought he could bring linguistic proof of that. Turks took up his ideas with the intention of bringing them further: they would prove that Turkish and Indo-European languages stemmed from a common root, and show all the world languages to be derived from a Turkic root. This was the Sun Language theory as developed in the mid-1930s. History theses and Sun Language theory mobilized Kemalist intellectuals of the era. Prehistory, ancient history, linguistics, and anthropology became prominent sciences.

The explanation of the world through Turkish origins also resolved the problem of the history of Anatolia, the “in-law family”. Turks had been living in Anatolia for nine centuries, but it was also peopled with Armenians and Greeks. The question of Armenians had been dispatched with the brutality that we know, but Greece was claiming lands and initiated a military occupation of Western territories in 1919.  Still, Atatürk was not satisfied with Turkey's military victory in 1922 and the population exchanges that followed. After vanquishing, booting out and expelling the hereditary enemy, he insisted on taking away from the Greek any historical ground to their national claims, and to prove that Anatolia had been Turkish long before the arrival of the Greeks.

Turkish nationalism would then make use of archeology: in 1930, the Hittites were starting to be better known as excavations in Boğazköy had started in 1906. But the language remained obscure and academics of the times could not find any correspondence with known ancient languages. Turkish linguists rushed into that breach: it was too tempting to claim that Hittites were old Turks who had migrated from Central Asia, even though linguistics was about to prove that Hittites were Indo-Europeans. In 1936-37, the Sun Language theory was put forward to “prove” that all languages proceeded from Turkish!

By exploiting both the breakthroughs and the gaps in scientific knowledge, Kemalist historians forged a “new past” in response to their all-important need to restore the Turks' glorious past – and no longer the Ottomans' glory. The breakup with the Islamic past was definitely complete.  



Subscribe to our newsletter

Partners on the “Repair” project: