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Turkish Nationalism and the Invention of History – Part 2

  Other point of view

Turkish Nationalism and the Invention of History – Part 2

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.


A putsch in history studies

In order to prove Neolithic migrations, Kemalists called up the concept of race, which was a major paradigm of that period. Racial anthropology was then very much in fashion in Europe, with the consequences we know, and Turkish intellectuals were fascinated. The “Turkish Society” (Türk Dernegi, 1908), and then the “Turkish Hearths” (1912) – whose goal was “to promote national education as well as the social and scientific standards of Turks, who are the most advanced people of Islam, and to work towards improving the Turkish race and language” – started disseminating “Turkist” ideas. These may be read in a little opus by Reşit Safvet [Atabinen], Les Türk-Odjaghis, which is strongly reminiscent of Leon Cahun. These ideas are centered on Turkish ethnic awareness – the pride of origins, pride of race, language purity which preserves from a loss of identity. The movement's theorist, Zyya Gökalp, died in 1924, but the members of Turkish Hearths actively perpetuated his ideas beyond the war and the crumbling of the Empire down to the Kemalist era. In 1930, all of them were between 40 and 60 years old, and they were followed by a generation of young Kemalists born around 1900. A younger historian played a crucial part in this perpetuation: Afet Inan (1908-1985), the adoptive daughter of Atatürk, the prototype of an emancipated intellectual woman and embodiment of the new Turkey.

In 1930, Afet Inan, who may be considered as Atatürk's spokesperson about history, obtained the creation of the “Committee of the Turkish Hearths for Historic Research”. The Committee was tightly controlled by the Presidency of the Republic and all the Kemalist intelligentsia belonged to it, in particular the “Russians” Yusuf Akçura (who presided the History Convention of 1932) and Sadri Maksudi (Arsal). In record time, the team wrote a rather unusual work, the Guidelines of Turkish History, which is a 600-page presentation of the so-called Turkish History Thesis.

These ideas, however, were already shared by the Kemalist intelligentsia; the great goal now was to disseminate them among the wider population, and the instrument would be education. An abstract of the Guidelines was thus published as a thin booklet for the use of teachers. Its reading must have caused a stir because, for the first time ever, there was no mention of Islam in the Turkish past... Also included was the translation of a lecture given by Leon Cahun in 1873 on the antecedence of Turanian languages in Europe.

In April 1931, a further step was taken in the control of history: Turkish Hearths, that had been created outside and before Kemalism, were terminated and replaced by the Society for Turkish Historical Research (Türk Tarih Tetkik Cemiyeti) which as a Kemalian institution was easier to manipulate. The first undertaking of the Society was to write – again in great haste – four hefty history books for high schools. By July 1931, they were already completed and submitted to Atatürk, who personally touched ups the text in places. And in the fall of 1931, the textbook collection was sent to all the schools.

So, the volumes were published almost a year before the first Turkish History Convention was held (in July 1932), placing its participants in front of a fait accompli: the “putsch in history studies” had already happened.

World history as seen by Turks in 1931-34

These long-used Kemalist schoolbooks passed on the ideas of the Turkish History Thesis to a generation who were 15 to 20 years old between 1931 and 1945 and formed the Turkish intelligentsia of the 1960s to 1980s. If we agree that school and college teaching plays an important part in the development of personality, here is an important key to the understanding of the dominant political and historical culture of contemporary Turkey.

The Kemalist schoolbooks introduced a radical change: chapters on prehistory and ancient history, almost copied from the Guidelines, are given great prominence; the role of Turks in the history of Islam is enhanced and, at the same time, the book language is secularized. All in all, everything is done to glorify the ancient Turkish culture and, more subtly, to present Kemalism as the natural legacy of the true Turkish civilization. That rhetoric was the outcome of all the trends mentioned above. Strong emphasis was put on Turkish personality, as Cahun, Gökalp and Atabinen had done before:

“The Turkish race, the creator of the greatest changes in History, has retained its personality better than all others (…) It has widely extended and mixed with neighboring races in other countries or along its borders. However (…) the Turkish race has not lost its distinctive characters. In the course of Prehistory and History, the children of this great race which has founded societies, civilizations and States have always efficiently maintained their union with their common language and culture.”

This text could just as well be taken from a 1980s textbook, except for the word “race” which is no longer in use. The theme of conservation of Turkishness throughout centuries is still professed after decades. And it is largely present outside the school world, in the nationalist political speech and press and even in mosques.

The second key theme is the central-Asian origin of those migrations. The chapter presenting the “Turkish History Thesis” opens on a photograph of Kemal Atatürk with two other people and a child looking at a world map together. Their eyes are all clearly turned towards Central Asia, Türk Anayurdu, the motherland of Turks. In the following pages, the existence of the sea of Central Asia, of a brilliant prehistoric Turkish civilization, of migrations that would come to civilize the whole world are taken for granted as an undisputed historical truth. A full-page map features the Eurasian continent,  with the “Motherland”  in its middle and a complex network of arrows representing the migrations of Turks – towards China, India, the Middle East, Egypt and Europe, up to Ireland. This map, which can be traced back to Cahun, still has an important posterity today.

Chapters concerning ancient civilizations are very repetitive: the miserable and backward existence of local people (Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Europeans...) is described; then, the arrival of Turkish migrants brings civilizing techniques (irrigation, agriculture, animal domestication, urban life) and an advanced culture (the idea of an organized state system, writing, literature...). Thanks to the Turkish civilizing yeast, indigenous people enter civilization.

“When the Turks arrived in Mesopotamia, the (river)banks were complete swamps; … thanks to them, a brilliant civilization could be founded by developing irrigation through narrow canals. They had brought these techniques with them from the motherland.”

“The Turks who arrived in Egypt peopled the Nile delta, which was then deserted. The indigenous people lving along the Nile had hardly reached the Stone Age. After the arrival of Turks, it is observed that life in Egypt suddenly bounds forward to the Iron Age.”

'The similarity between the oldest vestiges in Crete and Troy and those of the Turkish people living East of the Caspian Sea is enough to confirm the sources that founded the Aegean civilization.”

“[The Turks] taught the Europeans agriculture, domestication of wild animals, pottery. Much more advanced in the intellectual field, in the arts and in general knowledge, these invaders pulled the Europeans out of the cave age and started them on the way to civilization.”

The purpose of this historic discourse is not just to restore the pride of the Turks but also to legitimize the Kemalist revolution. Indeed, if it is largely inspired by 19th century European positivist ideas, that revolution must also be a distinctive expression of the Turkish genius. And in that frame of thought, secularism, gender equality, the parliamentary Republican regime must find their roots in the central Asia and Hittite civilizations. Thus, in an example of inductive reasoning, those ancient peoples were attributed all the virtues proclaimed by modern Turks, and their social organization was idealized. This was particularly true of the status of women: about Hittites, Kemalist history insists that there was equality between man and woman among Hittites because, in 1934, gender equality had to be presented as a return to the old Turkish tradition.

“The Hittite people... is a Turkish people. Hittites, like Sumerians and the people of Elam, have Turkish as their original language and are brachycephalic.”

“Men and women are equal. Women have access to government, they go to war like men... Among the artworks by Hittites that reached out times is the statue of a woman commander.

 All these exaggerations seem rather innocuous because of their very brazenness. But we should not forget that these assertions were directed at young impressionable minds who were also steeped similar intense propaganda outside school. These examples give us an idea of the national pride that Atatürk wanted to instill. This curious interpretation of history was later abandoned, but its presence lingers in today's schoolbooks, its most conspicuous remnant being the map of prehistoric migrations of Turks which is still found in some schoolbooks and historical atlases.

Anthropology, linguistics and Kemalism

The Turkish History Thesis materialized in schoolbooks in 1931 and, at the 1932 History Convention, it still needed to be backed by “scientific research”. Many speakers at the academic convention had focused their scholarly communication on the “Turkish race”, trying to provide a “scientific” anthropological definition of that notion. They referred to European theoreticians such as Gobineau, as well as to Deniker and his The Races of Man: an Outline of Anthropology and Ethnography [1889 in French, 1900 in English]. Afet Inan also showed interest in the works by Georges Montandon who later brought active support to the anti-Semitic ideology. But the person who was considered at the time as the top expert on the Turkish “race” was Swiss anthropologist Eugène Pittard. He had carried out research on the Balkans and Anatolia and acquired great prestige by writing Races and History (Les races et l'Histoire, in “L'évolution de l'humanité” collection, 1924). A Professor at, then Dean of the University of Geneva, he fought for racial anthropology to be considered outside the academe and be properly taught as the other disciplines. His arguments are sometimes worrying, for instance when he wishes that anthropology be used as a base for a eugenic policy. Although he was not himself a theoretician of racism, some isolated passages in his writings may be quoted in support of racist theories.

Eugène Pittard and the champions of the Turkish History Thesis were meant to connect. The first contacts with Afet Inan seem to have taken place in 1935. Pittard soon became a mentor, being made Honorary President of the second Convention of Turkish History in 1937, and it was under his supervision that Afet Inan conducted her thesis (Anatolia, cuntry of the Turkish Race, presented in Geneva in 1939).

Already in 1928, in the Revue turque d'anthropologie, Pittard encouraged researchers in trying to prove the Turkish origin of Etruscans (and likewise of Sumerians, Hittites, etc.). And in the wake of the first Turkish History Convention, Afet Inan obtained powerful support from her stepfather Atatürk and the Turkish state to make a vast cranial survey in 1937-39 of 64,000 cases based on Pittard's research methods. Naturally, Inan's study did not deliver any valid scientific results but other people were inspired by that racial rhetoric, which was very much in the spirit of the times.

Previously, in 1873, Leon Cahun had pointed to the possibility of proving the existence of prehistoric Turkish invasions by means of linguistics. In 1935, the “Sun Language Theory”, which asserted that all the languages in the Eurasian continent were derived from the Turkic, came as a perfect cap to the edifice of the “Turkish History thesis”. The Sun Language Theory appeared rather late in a debate on the origin of language that had fascinated Europe in the middle of the 19th century, but official turkology found in it a new tool, with methods and discoveries even more disputable than those of the Turkish History Thesis. The Sun Language Theory spawned countless books, articles, and colloquiums, totally absorbing Turkish linguists before being officially abandoned after the death of Kemal Atatürk (1938).

Remnants of the Turkish History Thesis

After 1938, part of the Turkish scientific world distanced itself from the Kemalist methods and rhetoric. However, the Nationalist and pan-Turkist right and extreme right, that became more visible in Turkey after Atatürk's death, entertained relations with Germany, in particular through Turkish-speaking emigrants from Russia who took refuge in Europe. Their publications and some of their slogans were openly racist. Among the youngest of their militants was Alparslan Türkes, the current leader of Nationalists. By using anthropology, Kemalists had opened a Pandora's box that fed racism, and the ideology of the Nationalist right took root in the fertile ground of Kemalist rhetoric.

How could the anthropological discourse on the Turkish race, asserting its superiority, could possibly not freeze the understanding of ethnic issues by successive governments? That racialist rhetoric led straight to the dogma of the ethnic unicity of Turkey, and consequently to the denial of the existence of a Kurdish otherness. Although today, the racial theory is abandoned, one of its corollaries remains active in the efforts developed in the last sixty years to prove that Kurds are Turks. Hence the unsurprising come back of  the Turkish History Thesis in 1982: an impressive number of books came out to state that Kurds are a Turkish people who have come from Central Asia, and above all that their language is a Turkish dialect. Because why not put the Sun Language Theory to good use as well? Its “method”, which consists in comparing words and even mere phonemes from different languages to find similarities, was still used at least until 1985 to try and prove that the Kurdish language did not exist.  This time, old tools were dug out to prove that was no Kurdish problem. Even if those books are little read now, they show how the historical ideology of the 1930s has survived in some influential circles. Semi-official organizations, such as the Research Institute on Turkish Culture (TKAE) and some universities in Eastern Turkey have specialized in that sort of theorizing. The Turkish History Thesis nebula is thus not dead.

Beyond these remnants which, at least until 1985, were used to negate the Kurdish identity, it must be acknowledged that the effect of the Turkish History Thesis were much deeper and durable.

In all the history schoolbooks since Atatürk came to power, Central Asia is presented as the historic and mythic originating point of Turkish history, which therefore acquire a fundamental bi-centered character in collective memory. Since Kemalist days, several authors of schoolbooks have been using the terms anavatan or anayurt (motherland) to refer to Central Asia: in that world view, the motherland is thus distinct from the current homeland. And in books, maps of Central Asia are as numerous as those of Anatolia.

The Central-Asian past is more than idealized: it has become the past of the Kemalist ideology itself. Indeed, according to the official Turkish History Thesis, great reforms were not imitations of the West but originated but from unwritten laws (töre) of Central-Asian Turks and, in a lesser way, from Hittite codes. Secularism, gender equality, parliamentary democracy – all this supposedly already existed on the banks of the Orkhon River in the 8th century – not to mention a full-fledged literary language with a practical alphabet “when most of the European languages did not yet exist”. Mustafa Kemal's rejection of the Arabic alphabet may thus be viewed as a sort of return to the roots. And finally, schoolbooks insist on the similarities between the religion of  ancient Turks and Islam, turning their conversion into a predestined event, and leading to today's assertion that you cannot be a true Turk if you are not Muslim.

By stressing real facts but also giving them a twist, Central Asia was successfully given a very emotional value. The Orkhon transcriptions are now one of the most important elements in the historic discourse, on a par with the victory of Seljuk Turk Alp Arslan against Byzantium in 1071, which opened Anatolia to the Turks. In schoolbooks, both elements are always directly connected to Atatürk, who has successfully aggrandized the culture from the Steppes and continued the military work of Alp Arslan. However, this Central-Asian facet of the past is mostly endorsed, claimed and proclaimed by the Nationalist right, as shown by its political rhetoric, the themes of its publications and its symbols, such as the grey wolf. For Turkish Nationalists, the glorious, heroic past is the past of Central Asia. By contrast, the brilliant Hittite past is hardly mentioned in their speeches.

No wonder therefore that the rediscovery of Central Asia should be of great interest today to the Turkish nationalist right who has continued, unfailingly and on its own, to study the past and the condition of Turks in the Soviet Union and China. The left rejected that Asian past rather early, putting more emphasis on the Anatolian past. To a certain extent, taking an interest in Asian Turks has long been associated to being a Nationalist or Pan-Turkist. The left, who largely followed the Soviet or Chinese doctrine, could not or would not produce views on these Asian peoples. This is why in Turkey and among Turkish-speaking exiles from URSS and China, that anti-imperialist discourse was monopolized by the right. At his stage, the Turkish left will probably need time to devise a policy and a discourse in relation to the new independent Turkish republics.

The Turkish History Thesis should not be seen as a mere curiosity. That aspect of cultural Kemalism shows us how far nationalism can go in making use of history and how much the Turkish view of history is – to this day – influenced by Turkish-speaking nationalists from the Russian Empire. Turkish awareness has largely been brought in from abroad. And of course, the excesses of the times may be the effect of enthusiasm and eagerness to change things quickly, so they should be put In perspective. The nationalist rhetoric of French Third Republic schoolbooks, for instance, contain similar elements.



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