Opening to the East at the turn of the century
The depth of the Puszta tradition even four hundred years after the Hungarian conquest is illustrated by the fact that in the 13th century Hungarian knights fighting in western armour using western fighting tactics continued to use the bow, which Czech chroniclers recorded as an unfair advantage.
Opening to the East at the turn of the century
Rhymes in History

Opening to the East at the turn of the century: the Turanian idea

Photo: AFP/Peter Kohalmi
Bálint Somkuti 06/03/2023 16:00

The eastern, nomadic origins of Hungarians have had a significant impact on our national identity. The depth of the Puszta tradition even four hundred years after the Hungarian conquest is illustrated by the fact that in the 13th century Hungarian knights fighting in western armour using western fighting tactics continued to use the bow, which Czech chroniclers recorded as an unfair advantage.

It is not surprising, however, that looking into the question on where we came from has taken its own circuitous path along with and often building upon western development. The debate about Hungary’s geopolitical features, acting as a bridge or frontier, came to the forefront during the time of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy (1867-1918). While proving our ancestors came from the steppe is difficult historically, the ongoing conversation, together with the geographical location of Hungary, guarantees that this debate is reignited again and again, sometimes even in forms and content that are remote from reality.

Turanism, which promotes eastern orientation as opposed to western trends, has played an important role in Hungarian public discourse since the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, this concept fitted perfectly into the cultivation of Estonian and Finnish kinship under Russian rule, the same way as the search for relations with the Turkish and other Turkic peoples did. Later significant tensions arose between the Finno-Ugric and Turkic orientations. For some, the East and “opening to the east” extended only to the Balkans. Others imagined the past and the future in cooperation with the Middle East and the Ottoman Turkish Empire. There were those who envisioned Budapest as the citadel of Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgarian relations and as a kind of cultural centre. The most daring voices spoke of a Turanian race of six hundred million people (including Japanese, Chinese and Koreans), so, alongside the pan-movements of the previous two centuries such as Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism, Pan-Turanic ambitions also emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Back to Asia

The original Turanian idea had motivations of foreign policy in addition to ideological aspects. Considering the power politics of the time, the only possible “direction of expansion” for the Magyars was to the south (the Balkans) and to the east. This should not be interpreted as a classical colonialist intention, but rather as an aspiration to gain cultural influence and thereby some economic control. After the shock of World War I and the Treaty of Trianon, the movement previously characterized by respected politicians and scholars such as Pál Teleki broke up, and  pagan and even racist tendencies started to emerge. After 1945, the Soviet authority not only stamped out the Turanian idea, which had been discredited by the Turanian Association by representing an extremist position, but it also banned all research into this subject. Subsequently, this endeavour emerged only occasionally in certain émigré circles. Nonetheless, the “oriental consciousness” accompanying Hungarian history had always been lurking behind academic prohibitions as well as scornful and contemptuous remarks. The subject was finally able to return to the public sphere as a mature economic and foreign policy concept after 2010. But what is the essence of Turanism? What have been the key ideas behind the theory, who represented them, and what forms has it been expressed?

The term Turan itself appeared in Hungary for the first time in the wake of the 18th to 19th century western research on the rediscovery of Persian literature. In its first meaning, it was the name of eastern Iranian peoples who were hostile to the Persians between the 3rd and 7th centuries. Later the northern nomads came to be known by this name. It is particularly interesting that the comparison of the similar-sounding words ‘Iran’ and ‘Turan’ already appeared in ‘Shahnameh’, the Iranian epic on the subject, where Iran represents the image of civilized, agricultural, state-forming people, whereas Turan is the opposite: a symbol and collective name for nomadic, migrating, destructive forces.

The search for our Hungarian roots started as a private initiative during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Therefore it is not surprising that the first Hungarian expeditions to the East around the end of the 19th century were financed and led by aristocrats who endeavoured to research the geography, fauna, flora, ethnography, archaeological monuments and languages of Asia. The extraordinarily diverse groups of researchers, often assembled on the basis of mutual feeling rather than professional expertise, achieved mixed results. Most significantly, they provided the origins of several important private collections of findings from the East. The main endeavour of the Hungarian eastern approach was to forge new political, economic and cultural relations based on an ethno-relationship to obtain mutual benefits. At the same time, the widespread, yet idealistic, conception set against the declining morale of the West was not negligible either. As the literary scholar Frigyes Riedl wrote: “We overestimated the West. (...) Greater Hungary was on the border of Asia. The Hungarian people is an Asian people. (...) Back to Asia? Would that not be a setback? A shameful decline? No! The moral ideals that originated in Asia are worth more than those of modern Europe. Christ, Buddhism, Confucius... Back to Asia. It is not such a terrible slogan. In fact, it would be progress perhaps in some respects...”

Ármin Vámbéry (Source: AFP/Austrian National Library)

Golden age with government tasks

The Turanian Association, which was supported by the political and economic elite of the Kingdom of Hungary, was founded in December 1910 under an  illustrious leadership. When it was registered, it was also given the illustrious name “The Hungarian Asiatic Society”. The board of chairmen included prominent members such as the honorary chairman Ármin Vámbéry and the later prime minister Pál Teleki, who was an elected chairman. The monthly journal of the association was the Turán. The declared objectives of the association included the strengthening and development of economic relations with the so-called “Eastern” countries (Asia and the Balkans) as well as “achieving a leading role for Hungary in the Turanian family of nations in scientific and economic areas”. The society sought to achieve these objectives through lectures, study trips, scientific expeditions and scholarships while declaring its political and denominational neutrality.

The early years of the Turanian Association were characterized by limited success due to an over-centralized organization, lack of funding and tensions between people with similar interests but different motivations. These years, until the beginning of 1914, included five Hungarian expeditions to Asia Minor and Central Asia, during which ethnographic, geological, geographic and linguistic collections were compiled. After Turkey and Bulgaria entered World War I, the government of István Tisza invested the Turanian Association with real authority.. This is why the 1916-1918 period may to be called the golden age of the association. It’s range of activities grew significantly. Hundreds of young scholars, mainly from Turkey, arrived in Hungary. A Hungarian Scientific Institute was opened in Constantinople and scientific expeditions and businessmen visited the Turanian states. The increasing prestige of the association resulted in a new name: the Hungarian Oriental Economic Centre and allowed it to set up its offices in the upper house of the Parliament building, where it operated until 1945.

Assistance to Turkey

Hungary’s territorial losses laid out in the Treaty of Trianon after World War I extensively reinforced the widely shared views on western decline and betrayal. However, the Turanian idea only had a limited impact in the now independent Kingdom of Hungary. The newly established diplomatic relations mainly focused on the western states since they had decisive influence on Hungary’s status. Almost the only exception was Kemalist Turkey. In parallel, the international relations of the Turanian Alliance were revived. At the same time, the broad concept of embracing too many nations, from the Finnish to the Japanese, was rejected by most of the partners. In the same way, the Finns did not cherish a common past with the Mongols or the Turks for understandable reasons. The Pan-Turkic movement also rejected the idea of Nordic kinship, in fact some of its representatives even considered the Hungarian connection an exaggeration. In terms of foreign policy, one of the most interesting aspects of Turanism was the proclamation of Hungarian-Japanese kinship. This also proved to be a useful instrument for establishing rapprochement between the two states that both considered the Soviet Union as a serious threat.

By 1920, anti-Semitic voices had emerged in the movement. Since its inception it had been apolitical and had been able to operate even under the Hungarian Soviet Republic. However, at this point the whole movement split into several parts. The Orientalists (mainly consisting of scholars) founded the Kőrösi Csoma Society, which was chaired by Pál Teleki who consistently distanced himself from the Turanian Society. The Turanian Association remained and keep its elegant offices in the Parliament building, although it had considerably less influence and received less in state subsidies than previously. Another organization, the Hungarian Turanian Association, which followed extremist ideas was also established. After a strong start, this organization, chaired by Geographer Jenő Cholnoky, was soon weakened by scandals including a general assembly (known as the “ancient assembly”) in 1923 that escalated into violence and required police intervention. Eventually, conflicts of interest caused the dissolution of the entire association later that year.

The position of the Turanian Association improved during the political consolidation of the 1920s, a period associated with the name of Prime Minister István Bethlen. The association helped organize several important events. The most remarkable of these was when the association sent experts to Turkey, then under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to facilitate reconstruction and modernization. The activities of the association were limited to the publication of the journal Turán, which was sometimes published in cooperation with the Kőrösi Csoma Society, the organization of lectures and language courses, and occasional study trips abroad. Despite government support, the organization’s influence remained only moderate. A visible sign of this muted influence was that the various functions were often assumed by councillors and middle managers from high level senior civil servants and ministers. Responding to the changes in the political atmosphere, the association first dropped the name Hungarian Oriental Cultural Centre and finally called itself The Hungarian Ethnic Kinship Association.

The Turanian Association was reestablished at the end of the 1930s. For a while, the word Turan resonated badly following the activities of the actively racist organization. The Turanian Society was reestablished again in August 1945 but, despite the fact that almost all its members were certified, meaning their democratic convictions were beyond doubt, it was finally dissolved less than a year and a half later, . The idea of Turanism was forced underground during the Communist regime and could only survive outside Hungary. However, this is beyond the scope of this article.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

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