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Universal Ideology in the Great War: Germany's Role in the Formation of Iranian Nationalism

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

An often referred to occasion when discussing Iran’s[1] relation to Nazi Germany is the 1939 establishment of a scientific German library consisting of 7,500 books in Tehran. The books were a gift from Nazi Germany as a building block in a continuing collaboration between Iran and Germany. This Deutsche Wissenschaftliche Bibliothek, as it was called, contained a variety of selections ranging from the works of the great German philosophers to books of technological nature. More telling than the choice of books provided is the preface to the library catalog ordered by one of the Nazi’s chief racial ideologues, Alfred Rosenberg. In this text he writes: “National Socialist Germany is consciously devoted to the facilitation of Aryan culture and history and sees in Iran’s efforts a striving towards mutual goals, that are to further the spiritual affinity of both nations” (Vorwort, DWB).[2] This “spiritual affinity” (geistige Verwandschaft) has to be viewed as part of a continuation of successful German cultural work, or Kulturarbeit, in Iran, which is precisely what needs to be explored to understand how this point was reached. However, we need to look at a part of Germany’s robust cultural efforts in the earlier decades of the 1900s, especially throughout the First World War, to allow us to better comprehend the roots of this spiritual alliance between Germany and Iran.

It is my contention that a carefully crafted cultural association between Germany and Persia, starting at the onset of the First World War, has to be considered as a first step in Germany’s transitioning from cultural understanding and strategic support for Iranian national independence to an ideological alignment with the National Socialists in the 1930s.

The often controversial and politically exploited relationship between Germany and Iran started taking shape around the beginning of the twentieth century. Before the First World War, the Russians and Great Britain controlled much of Persia as part of their imperialist policies. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s (1888–1918) aggressive politics were accompanied by efforts to secure “economic allies” and to maintain Germany’s control. Germany’s Orientpolitik, or its policies toward the East, were connected to its general plan of engaging Turkey and India in order to agitate forces against England. Persia’s shift away from czarist Russia in 1909 had created a vacuum and an opportunity for Germany. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Germany formed a strategic alliance with the Ottoman Empire in order to gain the support of the Islamic world. An often referenced point in Germany’s connection to Persia is the agitation of Shi’ite forces within Persia that were meant to rise against Great Britain and Russia.[3] Yet, Germany’s presumed support for Persia’s quest towards independence from Russia and Great Britain offers a more complex and lasting understanding of Germany’s efforts in courting Persia at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Persia, under Mozaffar-e-din-Shah Qajar’s reign (1896–1907) was struggling to find a way towards a Parliamentary democracy after numerous failed attempts. The historian Ali Gheissari identifies an “arbitrary structure of political power in Qajar Iran” (25) as the main impediment to reform. An unhappy Persian population believed that their country was being sold out to Russia and England through long-term loans with unfavorable conditions. These economic concessions were in turn seen as blocking Persia’s quest for political autonomy. These very conditions fueled the Constitutional Revolution that culminated on December 31, 1906, in the formation of a legislative assembly with representation from among secular reformists as well as the ulama (Muslim scholars). Under Mozaffar-e-din Shah the movement against a despotic form of government achieved its first climax. The reigning monarch, Mozaffar e-din Shah, who reluctantly signed the decree for the creation of a representative assembly, like other individuals and groups invested in reverting to absolutist monarchy, looked to Russia and/or Britain for support. The “victory” of the constitutionalists and nationalists did not last long. Through the support of a “Russian led Persian Cossack Brigade the newly installed Mohammad Ali Shah ordered the destruction of the recently created Persian parliament on June 23rd, 1908 while simultaneously annulling the constitution” (Gehrke 8).

To situate the often discussed pro-German sentiments in Persia, it is vital to look at Germany’s efforts at the time of the First World War. A campaign to control the influx of information into Persia resulted in fifteen out of seventeen newspapers in Persia being under German influence from 1915 to 1917. Germany’s continuing efforts to influence the influx of information into Persia was brought to a whole new level with the formation of the “Persian Committee” in Berlin in 1915. For this committee the influential Iranian politician and intellectual Sayyed Hassan Taqizadeh (1878–1970) was recruited to work closely with the German government “in developing a policy program for Persia,” opposing an Anglo-Russian intervention in Persia.[4] The purpose of this committee was to “steer the information flow into Persia and to influence the political organizations of Iranian nationalists abroad.”[5] The reach and influence of the Persian Committee is best exemplified in the Persian language journal entitled Kaveh.

The journal Kaveh (1917–22) was created in 1917 on the Persian Committee’s request to the German foreign ministry to establish a well financed Persian language paper with a wide reach. The journal continued to be published long after the First World War and had profound influence in the realm of culture. Whereas in the first years of its publication Kaveh focused mainly on politics, especially endorsing the German–Ottoman alliance against Russia and England, in later years it included important literary contributions by Iranian writers. Beyond its political function orchestrated by Germany, Kaveh took a central role by publishing “bold and provocative essays and articles on the causes of Iran’s cultural stagnation” and “it influenced more than one generation of Iranian thinkers and left its mark on the intellectual discourse of the time.”[6] Gholamreza Vatandoust describes the role of Kaveh and its editor Taqizadeh’s goals as threefold:

. . . first, to rid Iran of Russian and British influence by allying themselves with Germany; second, to educate Iranians by pointing out the social and political ailments of the country; third, to assist in bringing Iran to the threshold of the twentieth century by introducing the society to the advancements of European science, technology and civilization.[7]

Yet Kaveh cannot be viewed as a mere propaganda tool for Germany. Its focus and makeup is inextricably tied to its editor, Hassan Taqizadeh, who oversaw two cycles of its publication. Overall 59 issues of Kaveh were published, 35 issues from 1916 to 1919 and 24 issues from 1920 to 1921.[8] What Vatandoust calls the “War Series,” was clearly “political in nature,” while another goal of Kaveh was to “cultivate and educate the Iranian society” (34). Kaveh‘s function as a journal cannot be grasped in this short paper. But its influence on the shaping of Iranian nationalism remains undisputed. As noted by Afshin Marashi, “In an important sense the history of Iranian nationalism began with the publication of Kaveh, which combined political commitment . . . with the promotion of an ‘organic’ cultural conception of Iranian identity.”[9]

In addition to the Persian Committee and its publication of Kaveh, it is the Deutsch Persische Gesellschaft (DPG), created in Berlin in 1918, that has to be recognized as a central propagator of Germany’s involvement with Iran. Beyond organizing various events and establishing commissions, the DPG also published its own memorandum that was useful to businessmen interested in the Persian economy while it also contained information on Persia and its mutual cultural affinity with Germany.[10] The rise in importance of the DPG as a central point of contact between Germany and Iran is reflected in its number of members that rose from 48 in 1918 to 321 in 1919 to 483 by 1921.[11] In the first issue of the DPG publication, Persia is geographically depicted as the “seat of Aryan folks” with its central location in the “middle of Asia.” Further, a glorious past is stressed, while it is being noted that Persia has fallen victim to the “imperial politics” of Russia and England. Here the past enmity between Germany and Persia and Russia and England comes to the foreground again. In a later paragraph, the authors note that there is a need for the utilization of Persian natural resources as a condition for Persia to regain its old statue. Lastly, and most importantly, this writing declares that Persia will need “peace” and beyond that “moral and material” support, which it can expect foremost from Germany. Upon restating an old affinity between Germany and Persia, there is a clear message in this invocation to actively involve Germany into the internal affairs of Persia, in order to help Persia to its “old glory.”

Recognizing Germany’s efforts in building a favorable reputation in Persia throughout the Great War, by using newspapers, journals, and organizations, to promote Germany’s role as a friend and ally of Iran, is integral to acquiring a more complete view of the German–Iranian relationship. This paper is meant to supplement existing scholarship that looks at Germany’s campaigning to support Islamists within the Ottoman Empire and Persia. After the First World War, Germany became “the center of a renaissance of Persian culture,” leaving lasting impressions on generations of Iranians who had a favorable view of Germany.[12] The consequences of German Kulturarbeit went far beyond it becoming Iran’s third most important trading partner throughout the Weimar republic. After Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the political and ideological efforts moved to the foreground. Germany’s decade-long involvement in Iran assisted the resurrection of Iranian nationalism and pride after humiliating encounters with Russia and England. What might have been viewed as prosaic efforts to serve Germany’s own interest resulted in a consistently favorable reputation in the eye of Iranians.

Yet it is undeniable that the Nazis’ highlighting of a racial connection between Iran and Germany, even exempting Iranians from the restraints of the Nuremberg Racial Laws designating them as pure “Aryans,” built on decades of prior German Kulturarbeit. Here we have to acknowledge the nuanced difference between propaganda and Kulturarbeit, the latter demonstrating the ability to enter and profoundly saturate various layers of society, including the intelligentsia.

The rise in Iranian nationalism and its relations to Germany has to be situated within the complex history of World War One that led to this point. The gift of the extensive library from the Nazis is part of German efforts in the first half of the twentieth century to consolidate an alliance based on a mutual disdain for England and Russia. In turn this led to a relationship between Germany and Iran that has not only outlived various forms of government, but also incited intellectual discourses, precisely because of its ideological underpinnings that have shaped its contours. Germany’s Kulturarbeit in Persia not only assisted but also affirmed Iranian nationalism and its claim to exceptionality in the world.


1. In 1935 Reza Shah asked for Persia to be addressed as Iran; both terms can and will be used here interchangeably.

2. Original document acquired at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

3. Küntzel, Die Deutschen und der Iran, p. 34.

4. Rashid Khatib-Shahidi, German Foreign Policy Towards Iran Before World War II: Political Relations, Economic Influence and the National Bank of Perisa (London: I. B Tauris, 2013), p. 18.

5. Ahmad Mahrad, Die deutsche Penetration pacifique des iranischen Pressewesens, 1909-1936(Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1983), p. 31.

6. Iran Nameh. Volume XXI. Hossein Bahmanyar.

7. Vatandoust, Sayyid Hasan Taqizadeh & Kaveh: Modernism in Post-Constitutional Iran (1916-1921), dissertation, University of Washington, 1977.

8. Compare to ibid., p. 32.

9. Afshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran (London, University of Washington Press, 2008)

10. Mahrad, Die deutsche Penetration, p. 53.

11. Compare to Nirumand and Yonan, Iraner in Berlin (Berlin: Die Ausländerbeauftragte des Senats, 1994), p. . 71.

12. Ahmad Mahrad, Die deutsch-persichen Beziehungen von 1918-1933 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1974), p. 405.

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