The Origins and Objectives of Pan-Turkism: An Anti-Iranian Policy and Geo-Political Tool Originating From Europe

 By Dr. Kaveh Farrokh* 

Iranian-Azari Author of Shadows in the Desert

Special to

Dr. Kaveh Farrokh

Dr. Kaveh Farrokh

First let me mention one important fact before undertaking this discussion: the greatest misconception of pan-Turkism is that the movement originated amongst the Ottoman Turks and/or the Turkic-speaking peoples of Czarist Russia. This is not historically true.

Pan-Turkism as a political philosophy first appeared among European statesmen, writers and scholars. Paksoy noted that “Pan-Turanianism or pan-Turkism” was formulated and initiated in Europe about the time of the Russian occupation of Tashkent in 1865. From the outset European sponsored pan-Turkism was anti-Persian. Recall in our past discussion of the Ikenci newspaper, published by Czarist sponsors in 1875-1877. Recall once more that this paper was virulently racist against the Persian language and culture.

Thus far we have noted in detail of the role of Russia in inventing pan-Turkism. In practice Russia was not the only European power involved in the genesis of pan-Turkism.  The first European book on a comprehensive history of the Turks was written in France in the 17th century by De Guignes entitled “Histoire Generale des Huns, Turcs, des Mongols [General History of the Huns, Turks, Mongols]” (Paris, 1763-1768). It was this book that introduced the notion that Huns, Turks and Mongols were somehow one single race. This is strictly speaking untrue and a vast over-simplification at best. It resembles the silly arguments of the pan-Aryanists of the 1930s and 1940s who argued that Iranians and Germans were one race due to a common Indo-European origin.  [Editor’s Note: The way Iranians and Germans of the World War II era used the term “Aryan” is not the same: the word ‘Aryan’ to an Iranian generally means Iranic tribal, cultural and linguistic groups inhabiting the Iranian plateau while Germans misused the word “Aryan” as a synonym for “master race.”]

More significant was the European introduction of a pan-Turkic state. This was first suggested by the German general Count Helmuth Von Moltke (1800-1891) in 1842 who recommended to the Ottoman Turks that their empire, “…shift its attention from Europe to Asia, where millions of people of Turkish stock lived under foreign rules, and to unite them in a vast empire” (Zarewand, 1926, p.20.)  This “suggestion” was clearly aimed against the Iranians and the Russians. This is interesting as the Russians were to promote their own brand of anti-Persian pan-Turkism in the Caucasus.

PanTurkist "Activist" propagating a confused and racist ideology.

PanTurkist Activists propagating a confused and racist ideology.

Count Helmuth Von Moltke (1800-1891) was the first to suggest to the Turks that they turn their gaze “to Asia” (meaning Iran and Russia). The Count was encouraging the Turks to conquer Iran and the Turkic-speaking regions of Russia.

The idea of forming a pan-Turk empire was also proposed by Arminius (Hermann) Vambery (1832-1913), a Hungarian Professor, philologist and traveler who worked an as advisor to the Ottoman Sultan in 1857-1863. It was Vambery who formally proposed the notion of a pan-Turk superstate to his Turkish hosts and the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul. Vambery specifically stated to the Sultan that, “…they [the Turks] could form a political entity stretching from the Altai Mountains in Eastern Asia to the Bosphorus…” (As cited in Paksoy, 1991, p.11.)  Arminius (Hermann) Vambery (1832-1913) was a Hungarian professor, philologist and traveler working as an advisor to the Ottoman Sultan in 1857-1863. Vambery is one of the leading founders of pan-Turkism which is essentially a European invention.  Vambery’s proposal was in essence this: Turkic-speakers in Central Asia (except Persian speaking Tajikestan), the Caucasus, Iran and Anatolia were to be molded into a Turkic superstate with its capital in Istanbul, Ottoman Turkey.  Vambery also introduced his Turkish hosts to Central Asia and the Caucasus through a series of lectures and books. His aim was to encourage his hosts to adopt his philosophy of pan-Turkism. Vambery retired as a professor of eastern languages at the University of Budapest where he worked in 1865-1905. He wrote many books on his travels to Turkey, Armenia, Iran and Central Asia.

Thus far we have seen the role of the Russian Czars, De Guignes, Count Helmuth Von Moltke and Arminius (Hermann) Vambery. Two textbooks also appeared that greatly helped promote pan-Turkism.

The first writer was Poland’s Konstanty Borzecki (1826-1876) who had emigrated from Poland to Turkey and assumed the name of Mustafa Jellaledin Pasha. Borzecki wrote a book entitled “Les Turcs Anciens et Modernes [The Ancient and Modern Turks]”. Borzecki made the following claims:

(1) The sources of modern civilization are traced to the Turks.

(2) The Turks have had a major influence on the development of European history and languages.

Konstanty Borzecki (1826-1876) of Poland who converted to Islam and took the name Mustafa Jallaledin Pasha. Borzeki proposed that the world’s civilization (including Europe and its languages) was fundamentally founded by the Turks. In reality Turks and Iranians have worked together over the centuries to create what is known as Turco-Persian or Persianate civilizations. Pan-Turkism as defined by its European founders, sought to create distance between Turkic and Iranic peoples.

The second book that made the greatest impact was by David Leon Cahun (1841-1900) entitled: “Introduction a l’Histoire de l’Asie, Turcs, et Mongols, des Origines a 1405 [History of the Turks and Mongols]”, published in 1896. This was published just 2 years after 1894, the same year in which the Franco-Russian Treaty was signed.   Cahun’s book became a popular (if not standard) comprehensive western publication of the history of the Mongols and Turks.  Cahun glorified Turco-Mongol conquerors such as Tamerlane and Ghengis Khan as “supermen” and characterized the Mongols and Turks as members of a “racial aristocracy.”  According to Cahun, the Turks, Mongols and Huns were a superior race.  In a sense, Cahun is (like Vamberry and Borzecki) one of the European ancestors of Pan-Turkism. Note Hussein Nihal Atsiz who in 1950 defined a pan-Turkist as “a Turk who believes in the superiority of the Turkish race” (as cited by Landau, 1995. p.130).  David Leon Cahun (1841-1900) proposed that the Turks were a superior race or more specifically “supermen.” The notion of racial superiority is an alien concept among the Turks who have always been (and remain) warm, open, friendly and hospitable to all who visit or settle in Turkey. Racism has never existed among Turks or Turkic-speakers – the importation of this concept can be traced to European thinkers such as Cahun and Borzecki. Cahun placed a heavy emphasis on promoting pan-Turkism as an anti-Islamic philosophy.

Muslims in the Republic of Azerbaijan, which are the majority, protesting against Pan-Turkist discrimination against their faith.

Muslims in the Republic of Azerbaijan, which are the majority, protesting against Pan-Turkist discrimination against their faith.

A more recent example is Muhsu Yazicioglu of the MHP (Milli Hereket Parti [Nationalist Action Party]) of Turkey who wrote in 1996 that, “We firmly believe in the theory of superior race….  Turkishness is an essence (cevher) comprised of religion and race…. The Turkish race is more precious than all others.”

What is also highly significant is the emphasis on the anti-Islamic aspect of the pan-Turk racialist concept. Cahun proposed that the Arabs, “…had poisoned them [the Turks] with their hypocritical Quran, denationalized and weakened them, and thus prevented the building of a great Turkish world empire.” (See Hostler, 1957, p.141.)

Little do Atsiz and Yazicioglu realize that much of the violent and racist nature of their beliefs have been born out of the minds of non-Turkish thinkers.  But Cahun’s book went much further. He concluded that the Turks are the major proponents of culture, arts and sciences in world civilization. This is especially interesting as for the first time a European writer deliberately omits mention of the role of ancient Iranian or later Islamic civilization and attributes their achievements to a mythical pan-Turk race.

Other European (French) writings of note were Alphons de Lamartine’s (1790-1869) “Histoire de la Turquie [History of Turkey]” (Paris, 1854) and Pierre Loti’s (1850-1923) novel “Aziyade”  (Paris, 1913). ‘Pierre Loti’ was the pseudonym of Louis Marie Julien Viaud. Loti is recognized by French scholarship today as having been “le pere de la Turcophilie Francaise” [the father of French Turcophilism].

This point must again be emphasized: the notion of the Turks being a superior race never originated among the Turks or Turkic speakers but among European writers and statesmen. This was not out of love or admiration for the Turks – pan-Turkism was (and is) a political and geopolitical tool.

This fact is so transparent that even the late pan-Turk activist, Ziya Gokalp (1876-1924 – he was a Kurd born in Diyarbakir, Eastern Turkey), is on record as having admitted that Cahun’s book was written, “…as if to encourage the ideal of pan-Turkism.”  This was corroborated by Ostrorog in 1927 and Hertz in 1945 both of whom noted that Cahun’s historical perspectives made a major intellectual impression upon the Turkish elites of the Ottoman Empire and laid the basis of pan-Turk philosophy.

What is especially important to note is that Czarist Russia widely spread Cahun’s work in their popular and academic literature – this had a major impact in the former Iranian territories of Aran/Albania or the Caucasian khanates (Shirvan, Baku, Sheki, Nakhchevan, etc.). We have already discussed Russia’s Persophobic policies in the Caucasus and Kurdistan and their promotion of pan-Turkism.

Britain also produced texts introducing pan-Turk ideology. Sir Denison Ross of the intelligence Department of the British Naval Staff published, “A Manual on the Turanians and Pan-Turanianism” in Oxford in 1918. This was mainly based on Vambery’s German text “Turkenvolk [Turkish Peoples]” which had been printed in Leipzig in 1885.

Of special interest is the understanding by British thinkers in using pan-Turkism to dismember and destroy Iran. This was observed by E.J.W. Gibb who openly wrote in the early 1900s that: “It is much regretted that [the Ottoman sultan] Suleiman and his successors…did not turn their serious attention to …gathering under their wing those large bodies of their fellow-Turks who still remained subjects of the Shahs of Persia…” (Gibb, 1904, p.75.)

It is now very clear that both the Czarist Russians and Imperial Britain had realized the powerful potential of using pan-Turkism to challenge the existence of the Iran, and to attack Iranian cultural legacy in the Caucasus and Central Asia.


 * NOTE:  Adapted from an interview with Dr. Farrokh.  Editor: Sasan Ferdowsi and addition of images.