A Young Turk from Lehistan: Seyfeddin Thadée Gasztowtt (1881 – 1936) and Poland’s Independence in the post-1908 Young Turk Revolution Istanbul
Author: Paulina D. Dominik
7 January 2022
For over a century the Ottoman Empire and subsequently the Republic of Turkey played an important role in the geopolitical imagination of Polish independence activists and statesmen. Even before the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a sovereign state in 1795, one can observe Polish-Ottoman attempts to cooperate against the Russian Empire’s expansionist ambitions in Eastern Europe.
The end of the Commonwealth opened a new chapter in this history of interaction. Following the failure of the 1830 November Uprising against Tsarist Russia, Poles fled to Istanbul in the hope of securing Ottoman support for efforts to regain national independence. The warm welcome they received made Istanbul a key centre of Polish national activities, alongside Paris. While Polish activities on the Bosphorus came to an end in the late 1870s, the Empire continued to play a role in the plans of the next generation of Polish independence activists.
One of them was a third generation Paris-born Thadée Gasztowtt (1881 – 1936), who following his conversion to Islam adopted the name Seyfeddin.
Like for many of his compatriots, the issue of Poland’s independence was at the centre of Gasztowtt’s activism and during his lifetime he became a roving activist for this cause. This prolific journalist set the first steps of his career in the fin de siècle Paris, which at the time was the space where the paths of Polish and Ottoman political emigrations crossed and where mutual sympathies were openly manifested.
Inspired by the recent history of the nineteenth century Polish-Ottoman cooperation, encouraged by the pro-Polish attitudes of the Young Turk opposition in Paris, and disillusioned with Europe’s inertia, in particular that of France, towards the Polish question, Gasztowtt tied the issue of Poland’s independence to the Ottoman Empire and more broadly, to the Muslim world. In the first decade of the twentieth century, he set out on a lifelong journey through the territories of today’s Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Turkey. As a self-appointed roving emissary for the Ottoman Empire, Pan-Islamic agitator, and advocate of Poland’s independence, he promoted a project of a Muslim-Polish political alliance as a counterweight to the Eurocentric world order and championed the Ottoman Empire as the only ally of the Polish cause.
Following an escapade across North Africa, Gasztowtt arrived in Istanbul shortly before the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. In the Ottoman capital that became the centre of his activism following the Young Turk takeover, he benefited from the relations that he had developed with the leading figures of the movement in Paris.
Seyfeddin Thadée Gasztowtt wearing fez (Source: Świat 35 (28.08.1909))
In Istanbul, his role was twofold. On the one hand, he was a representative of the Polish émigré institutions, and his goal was to draw the attention of the Ottoman statesmen and public opinion to the question of Poland’s independence. On the other, as a Pan-Islamic agitator and a recent convert to Islam, he hoped to mobilize his connections from North Africa and forge new ones in favour of Muslim unity. In the first years following the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, Istanbul emerged for Gasztowtt as a key centre for the championing Poland’s independence and the expression of his anti-imperialist critique. The main channels that he used was through the organization of events and prolific journalism. Just to give a few examples.
Thanks to Gasztowtt’s close relations with the Ottoman government, on his initiative on 17 August 1909 the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) organized celebrations commemorating the Polish soldiers who had fought on the Ottoman side in the Crimean War (1853-56) and the chief Polish Romantic poet and a leading political activist in exile, Adam Mickiewicz, who had died during his political mission in Istanbul in 1855. The celebration consisted of two parts. First, a mass in the Church of St Mary Draperis was celebrated. Then, the participants walked down towards Tarlabaşı waving Polish and Ottoman flags together. Next, the commemorative plaque on Adam Mickiewicz’s house in Tarlabaşı was unveiled. The house where the poet spent the last days of his life perished in the great fire of Pera in 1870 and the present building was erected shortly after by Istanbul’s Polish community. In 1955, this modest building was converted into the poet’s museum.
The event was attended by several distinguished personalities, who lived in the Ottoman capital or were passing by the city at the time. Among the guests on the Ottoman side were the future last Ottoman caliph Abdülmecid Efendi; a delegation of the CUP, which consisted of Dr Nâzım, Dr Rıza Tevfik (Bölükbaşı) and Selahaddin Bey; a group of combatants of the Crimean War; an Ottoman army colonel, Halil Sami Bey, as well as a prominent journalist and Gasztowtt’s close friend, Celâl Nuri (İleri). The event also gathered Muslim émigrés who were present in the Ottoman capital, among them: the representative of the Khedive of Egypt, Fazıl Bey; the son of Emir ʿAbd al-Qādir of Algeria, Abdurrahman Pasha; the grandson of Imam Shamil of the Caucasus, Ziya Ahmed Bey; the descendant of the last Crimean Khan Şahin Giray, Mustafa Hasan Bey; some members of the Persian Committee that gathered the political dissidents of the 1906 revolution in Iran and of the Universal Association of Russian Muslims. Among those attending was also the secretary general of the World Zionist Congress, Nahum Sokolow. The Polish side was represented by the secretary of the Polish Committee in Istanbul Michał Grabowski, Leon Ostroróg, a delegation from Adampol and the owner of Mickiewicz’s house, Marcin Ratyński.
Gasztowtt speaking in front of Adam Mickiewicz’s house on 17 August 1909 in Istanbul (Source: The Polish National Archive of New Records in Warsaw)
Selahaddin Bey in his speech admonished the partition of Poland as a “sacrilegous act” and stressed that the Ottoman Empire had never recognized it. He assured the guests of the CUP’s solidarity with the Polish independence cause. In response, Gasztowtt called for the reinforcement of the centuries long Polish-Ottoman friendship. The Paris-based Bulletin Polonais concluded that the event was “a real lesson of tolerance” as numerous Muslims, an imam included, attended the mass and a lamb was sacrificed in front of the building in the memory of fallen Polish soldiers. Celebrations were an opportunity for the Tanin newspaper to commemorate thousands of Poles who not only had fought in the Crimean War in the Ottoman army, but had for decades rendered their services to the Ottoman Empire in various fields, and to stress the historical basis for the Ottoman-Polish cooperation. The leading Warsaw weekly Tygodnik Ilustrowany concluded that since the demise of Poland from the map of Europe “no one had seen a similar celebration for Poland”.
Gasztowtt’s attempts to bring together various émigré groups in Istanbul were not limited to singular solidarity events. One of the outcomes of these initiatives was the newspaper Kürsî-i Milel/La Tribune des Peuples, which he launched in April 1910 jointly with a member of the Egyptian National Party, Hüseyin Hasib. It was a bi-weekly that appeared in French and Ottoman Turkish. The title “The People’s Tribune” was a clear reference to a newspaper with the same title published in 1849 in Paris by Adam Mickiewicz. Like its Paris counterpart, in which Mickiewicz had gathered liberal activists and commentators of different nationalities who belonged to the émigré communities of 1848 revolutionaries and in their writings propagated ideas of international solidarity, Gasztowtt’s newspaper brought together Muslim political émigrés from Egypt, Tunisia, the Caucasus, Crimea and Iran, who were all dissatisfied with the Great Powers’ policies towards their own territories as well as towards the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul, the seat of the sultan/caliph and now also a centre of constitutionalism and parliamentarism, emerged for them as a hub for the exchange of information, ideas, discontents, and aspirations. “The Peoples’ Tribune” became for them one of the channels of expression.
The main objective of the newspaper was to inform the Ottoman public of the plight of the Muslims who lived under colonial rule, to show proof of allegiance and support for the Ottoman Empire among these populations, and to advise on the international affairs of the empire. Gasztowtt defined the line of the newspaper and in each issue penned the longest and most politically outspoken pieces. He used the publication to further his cause of a Polish-Muslim union by advocating the liberation of both the Polish nation and various colonized Muslim peoples across the world. In his editorial line, he blurred the later intellectual boundaries between Eastern Europe and the Middle East and fused the constitutionalist discourse of the Young Turk era, the tenor of Polish Romantic nationalism and Pan-Islamism.
In the years directly following the 1908 Young Turk takeover, Istanbul emerged for Gasztowtt as a unique space for the exchange of ideas; a contact zone to forge transnational solidarity against the existing Eurocentric world order and a potentially fertile ground for bringing the issue of Polish independence to the attention of an Ottoman and international public opinion.
In the following years, Gasztowtt gave further proofs of his attachment to the Ottoman Empire and loyalty to its political leaders. He joined the 1911-1912 Italo-Ottoman War as a volunteer and at the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912 he was a key figure of a pro-Ottoman campaign among the Polish community in Paris that he carried out with a direct support of the closest collaborators of the leader of the Polish Socialist Party – Józef Piłsudski – the future first Head of State and the First Marshal of an independent Poland. Once Poland regained independence in 1918, Gasztowtt became one of the figureheads of a political rapprochement between the newly established Polish state and the nascent Republic of Turkey. An ardent Turcophile, he died in Istanbul in 1936 after his years-long employment in the Polish diplomatic service. In this respect, Gasztowtt’s activities not only mark the last chapter of the presence of stateless Polish émigrés in the Ottoman Empire but also the opening chapter of diplomatic relations between an independent Poland and the Republic of Turkey.
Cited literature, further reading
Gasztowtt’s gravestone at the Feriköy Latin Catholic Cemetery in Istanbul. The description reads: “Tadeusz Gasztoft. Employee of the Polish Embassy in Turkey. [Died on] 22 January 1936. May his memory be honoured.” (Photo: Paulina Dominik)
Dominik, Paulina, “A Young Turk from Lehistan: Tadeusz Gasztowtt aka Seyfeddin Bey (1881- 1936) and his Activities During the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1918),” Occasional Papers in Ottoman Biographies, OPUS, Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg, 02/2014, 1 – 20.
—, “From the Polish Times of Pera: Late Ottoman Istanbul through the Lens of Polish Emigration.” In: Hofmann, Anna & Öncü, Ayşe (eds.), History Takes Place: Istanbul. Dynamics of Urban Change, (Berlin: Jovis, 2016), 92 – 103.
Dopierała, Kazimierz, Emigracja Polska w Turcji w XIX i XX wieku (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Polonia, 1988).
Lewak, Adam, Dzieje emigracji polskiej w Turcji 1831-1878 (Warsaw: Instytut Wschodni, 1935).
Łątka, Jerzy S., Odaliski, poturczeńcy i uchodźcy: z dziejów Polaków w Turcji (Cracow: Universitas, 2001).
Paulina Dominik defended her PhD dissertation in global history entitled “For our freedom and yours: a global biography of Seyfeddin Thadée Gasztowtt (1881-1936)” at the Freie Universität Berlin in May 2021. Between April 2017 and July 2021, she was a doctoral fellow at the Graduate School “Global Intellectual History” of the Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. In 2013-2014, she was based at the Orient-Institut Istanbul where she held a scholarship and since has occasionally contributed to the ‘Istanbul Memories: Personal Narratives of the Late Ottoman Period’ project.