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An Old Predilection Based on an Aryan Myth and its Resurrection in Virtual Space: Iran’s Historical Affinity for Germany

This paper was presented at the 2012 Telos Conference, “Space: Virtuality, Territoriality, Relationality,” held on January 14–15, in New York City.

In 2004 the German national football team was invited to Azadi Stadium in Teheran for a friendly game against Iran’s national team. While the German anthem was being played before the game, a large number of Iranians collectively greeted their German guests by performing the Nazi salute. Although this display of naiveté came as a shock to millions of viewers on live German TV, it should not come as a surprise in light of Nazi Germany’s historical propagandist involvement in Iran. Whereas the history of the relations between the two nations dates back to 1873, an affinity was reinforced in the Weimar years and strengthened through the propagation of an Aryan myth during the Nazi reign. I will discuss two pivotal historical associations between Germany and Iran, one based on the Aryan myth grounded in racist ideology, the other connection concerns intellectual influences of German anti-modernists on Iranian thinkers. Both points serve to shed light on a relationship that demands awareness, especially now that tensions between the West and Iran are continuously increasing.

This paper does not aim to reinforce the reductive idea that Islam and fascism are synonymous but is interested in filling in certain gaps that have been created by a lack of consideration for the far-reaching German influence on Iran. Further, the consideration of Nazi propaganda in Iran and modernist influence on Iranian intellectuals of the 1979 revolution is valuable for the study of modern-day Iran. First, this paper will delineate the well-received Nazi propaganda in Iran, which beyond obvious economic and geopolitical strategic reason centered on a romanticized notion of being part of an Aryan race. Second, I assert that Iran’s pre-revolutionary repudiation of modernism is firmly rooted in German reactionary modernist thought. German conservative revolutionaries like Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger left an impact on Iranian intellectual figures like Jalal-Al-e-Ahmad and Ali Shariati, both seminal figures of the 1979 revolution. I argue that both Iran’s reception of Nazi propaganda and Iran’s receptiveness to anti-Modernists thought are critical in understanding the anti-liberalism of modern-day Iran.

The influx of ideas from Germany to Iran was limited due to the lack of translations of German into Persian. Nevertheless there is a history of strong ties between Germany and Iran that dates back to the nineteenth century. Beginning with an observation by Johann Gottfried Herder that Germans and Iranians originate from the same region, followed a wave of enthusiasm for the orient in the nineteenth-century through German writers like Friedrich Schlegel and Goethe.[1] In the twentieth century, the German conservative revolutionaries, amongst others, Ernst Jünger, produced radical nationalist writings that were vital predecessors to the subsequent Nazi state. Anti-modernists like Jünger and Heidegger also left their mark on Iranian intellectuals who set the foundation for the 1979 Islamic revolution. This bond only intensified during Hitler’s reign. The Nazis recognized not merely the geographic importance of Iran in the Middle East, but also formed an ideological alliance based on cultural exchange and racial identity.

To begin with, it is important to consider the difference between “ariya—the self-designation used by ancient Iranians—and ‘Aryan,’ the nineteenth-century racial category.”[2] The Aryan myth referred to in this paper has a history that begins in the nineteenth century. While the notion of a superior race climaxed under the Nazi reign, its impact did not end after World War II. The idea of an Aryan race originally referred to as Indo-European, legitimized by scientist, was initially used as a “device” in order to “explain similarities between European, Iranian, and Indian languages” but soon took on a very political note, turning it into the racist ideology as we understand it today. Iranian scholar Zia-Ebrahimi argues that the notion of an Aryan race in Iran is fundamentally romantic in nature and was imported from Europe.[3] It is further significant to point out that “in the entire corpus of Iranian literature there is no trace of the today ubiquitous Aryan race until the twentieth century.”[4]

The politicization of the term did not happen until later. After the First World War, Germany became the center for a re-birth of Iranian culture. A celebration of Iranian art and culture was sponsored by numerous German organizations that advocated this relationship.[5] The most prominent example being the “highly influential politico-cultural newspaper Kaveh,” which was “supported by German propagandists and published in Berlin from 1916 through 1922” that would “occasionally . . . refer to the ‘pure Iranian race.'”[6]

The identification of Iranians as part of an Aryan race, distinctively different from Arabs and Mongols, gained a foothold when it was adapted into the schoolbooks for children under the first Pahlavi monarch in the 1920s and 30s. “This message was deeply ingrained in the mind of the first generation of Iranians educated by the Pahlavi state, making them particularly receptive to the Aryanist propaganda which would soon emanate from Berlin.” The Nazis disseminated the bulk of Aryanist propaganda in Iran, but the groundwork was laid before that in the aftermath of the First World War. Another example of the pre-Nazi groundwork is the schools established by Germans in Iran in the early 1930s. These schools were financed by the Persians and acted as a powerful tool for an exchange of cultural politics and propaganda from which the Nazis reaped benefits.[8]

Once the Nazis took over in Germany, their propaganda advocating a brotherhood between Germany and Iran became much more pointed. A structured example of efforts on behalf of Germany is the creation of a German-Persian society (Deutsch-Persische Gesellschaft) in 1934, which “sponsored various publications, organized lecture tours, and generally facilitated cultural exchanges between the two countries.” This predilection became official in 1936 when the Reichs cabinet exempted Iranians from the restraints of the Nuremberg Racial Laws and designated them as pure “Aryans.” Yet another very telling detail is a gift made by Nazi Germany to Iran in the form of a collection of 7,500 volumes of books sent to Teheran in 1939. The purpose of this collection was to bring Iranians closer to Germany and convince them of their presumed Aryan racial unity. The foreword to the “German Scientific Library” is especially revealing in stating that national socialist Germany is consciously dedicated to cultivating Aryan culture and history while following common goals that support the spiritual alliance of both nations.[10]

The fruitfulness of Nazi propaganda was not the only form of influence on Iran that had developed a trusting relationship with the Germans. This trust stood in opposition to wariness for other Western nations, like the British whose exploitation of Iranian oil had left deep marks on the national psyche. The United States was also viewed very suspiciously after the only democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, was overthrown in 1953 by a coup-d’état organized in collaboration between the British and American intelligence agencies. The re-installment of a pro-Western Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his rapid attempt at Iranian modernization was countered by a general dislike of the West. The Shah’s disavowal of Iran’s Islamic legacy produced strong resentment among Iranians who identified with Islam. His attempt to modernize Iran, while emulating Western nations, did not resonate with the majority of Iranians.

The most compelling illustration of this conflicted relationship with the West is the prominent Iranian writer Jalal Al-e-Ahmad. His 1962 monograph Gharbzadegi (Weststruckness) proposes an asymmetrical relationship between Iran and the West characterized by an inauthentic western influence on domestic Iranian politics and culture. Al-e Ahmad’s critique is pivotal to the discourse in the pre-revolutionary 1960s and 70s. Iran’s most prominent Heideggerian philosopher Ahmad Fardid coined the term Gharbzadegi after he read Heidegger’s existential philosophy and adapted Heidegger’s concept of the authentic. Gharbzadegi or being struck-by-the-West was widely discussed within Iranian intellectual circles that formed against the despotic Shah. Al-e-Ahmad popularized this term with his treatise that outlined a disease, that is to say, Gharbzadegi that also gets translated as “Westoxification.” Al-e-Ahmad’s thesis reads “we’ve [Iranians] not been able to retain our own cultural/historical personality during our encounter with machines and in the face of their inevitable assault.” Weststruckness ignited a crucial debate on modernism and Iran’s national identity and is generally regarded as the initiation of an intellectual movement that opposed monarchic Iran and its Western influences.

It was not only Heidegger’s philosophy that left traceable marks on Iranian intellectual writers such as Ahmad Fardid, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, and Ali Shariati, the latter has been frequently referred to as the main ideologue of the Iranian Revolution. One of Heidegger’s contemporaries, the prolific (anti-)modernist writer Ernst Jünger had a direct influence on Al-e-Ahmad, as explicitly stated in the preface to Gharbzadegi:

I would like to thank Dr. Mahamud Human, who urged me to see one of the works of the German, Ernst Jünger, a work on nihilism entitled Über die Linie. As Dr. Human pointed out, Jünger and I were both exploring more or less the same subject, but from two viewpoints. We were addressing the same question, but in two languages.

Al-e-Ahmad refers specifically to Jünger’s essay Über die Linie (1950) written after the Second World War, which is a systematic consideration of nihilism and its compatibility with various organized societies, as part of a Festschrift for Heidegger’s 60th birthday. Jünger’s ideas on our relationship with the “machine”, the consequences of technology, and nihilism are major points of discussion in Al-e-Ahmad’s Gharbzadegi.

When we consider the Nazi propaganda in Iran, and (anti-)modernist influences on Iranian ideologues of the revolution, the Nazi salute of Iranian spectators can be situated within a specific historical context. A different display of Iranian sympathies for Germany is the disturbing trend of pro-Nazi websites emerging in virtual space. These sites celebrate an illusory bond between Germans and Iranians, precisely because of a false premise of the Aryan myth, which still echoes after so many decades. Iran’s tainted experience with Western nations such as Great Britain and the United States certainly does not fully explain this bond with Germany, but it provides an alternative understanding for a fundamental rejection of Western influences while displaying affection for Germany through modern outlets.

Germany’s commercial trade with Iran stands in stark contrast to Chancellor Merkel’s loyalty to the United States and Israel. An Iran that functions as a liberal state is not imaginable in the near future and Teheran’s theocratic government does not seem to be interested in a dialogue with the West, as recent events such as the attack on the British embassy last year have shown. The history of Iran’s relationship with the West and Germany is extremely complicated and cannot be fully explored in this short paper. Yet, the alarming rise of pro Aryan brotherhood web pages demonstrates the abundance of misinformation. A video on YouTube, labeled “Iran and Germany brotherhood” has more than 100,000 hits and is not the only case of this distorted celebration of a brotherhood in virtual space. Given the current threat of an escalation in the conflict over Iran’s nuclear capability, it is time to confront other aspects of Iran’s cultural history, come to terms with some of the origins of Iran’s vexed relationship with the West, and avoid potential disastrous consequences.

Notes

1. As observed by Matthias Küntzel in Die Deutschen und der Iran (Berlin: Wolf Jobst Siedler, Jr., 2009), p. 48.

2. Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, “Self-Orientalization and Dislocation: The Uses and Abuses of the “Aryan” Discourse in Iran,” Iranian Studies 44 (2011): 447.

3. Ibid., p. 450.

4. Ibid., p. 454.

5. “Nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg war Deutschland ein Zentrum der ‘Wiedergeburt’ der persischen Kunst und Kultur.” Ahamd Mahrad, Die deutsch-persischen Beziehungen von 1918-1933 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1974), p. 405.

6. Zia-Ebrahimi, “Self-Orientalization and Dislocation,” p. 455.

7. Ibid., p. 457.

8. “Die Schule war ein wichtiges Instrument der deutschen Kulturpolitik und Propaganda… Die Früchte dieser Politik ernteten spatter die Nationalsozialisten.” Mahrad,Die deutsch-persischen Beziehungen, p. 393.

9. George Lenczowski, Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1948: A Study in Big-Power Rivalry (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), p. 159.

10. “Das nationalsozialistische Deutschland widmet sich bewußt der Förderung arischer Kultur und Geschichte und erblickt in den Bestrebungen Irans gemeinsame Ziele, die den Gedanken der geistigen Verwandschaft beider Völker in erfreulichem Maße ständig gefördert habe.” Deutsche Wissenschaftliche Bibliothek (1939), document found at the Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

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