The reign of Reza Shah was the era of German presence in Iran. Waßmuß's intentions in the south of Iran and the desires of the exiled Iranian intellectuals working in the Berlin Kaveh editorial office would be honoured by the Weimar Republic, the Nazis, and the Federal Republic of Germany.

More than cars and trains

In contrast to other great powers, the Germans did not arrive in Iran with army units. Nevertheless, they arguably contributed more than others – for better or for worse: railways and cars, but also the Fascist bacillus, Communist ideas and even freemasonry.

Reza Shah visiting Mustafa Kemal in Turkey (photo: Wikipedia)
Modernist change along the lines of Ataturk: Reza Shah pushed ahead with the modernisation of Iran, restricting the power of the clergy and trying to remain neutral in foreign policy

This aspect of Iranian-German relations was still to be felt on German streets in the latter half of the twentieth century: on 2 June 1967, for example, when Iranian and German leftists protested together in Berlin against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, son of the Shah who had once been driven into exile. The German student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and the 1968 movement took a new turn. The concept of what is Left, the sayings of Karl Marx and why one should fight for Communism were all imported by the Iranians from Germany.

Taghi Arani, forefather of Iranian Communism and founder of the Communist Tudeh Party, studied chemistry in Berlin. By the time he presented his doctoral thesis on pyrophosphoric acid to his Berlin professors in 1928, Arani had learnt a lot more besides from the Weimar Republic. It was he who, after his return to Iran, translated Marxist books into Persian and founded a cadre party based on the German model. The majority of the party's central committee had also attended German universities. And when the party was banned in Iran, the party leadership fled – to Leipzig.

The macabre side of love

But there is another macabre, even murderous side to this relationship. David Ali S., the German–Iranian and confirmed right-wing extremist who shot nine people in Munich on 22 July 2016, epitomises this eerie interpretation of the relationship that unites many Germans and Iranians. S. considered himself to be an Aryan and felt bullied if his surroundings didn't want to see him like that.

After all, the Nazis in Iran were not only very active propagandists, but in some cases also very successful. Until recently, a swastika hung over the entrance to Tehran's main railway station, and a well-known district of the Iranian capital bears the name "Nazi-Abad" – in other words: urbanised by the Nazis.

In the thirties and forties of the last century there were well-known and influential Iranians who worked for the NSDAP both in Germany and in Iran. The majority of them were not paid agents, but perpetrators by conviction who, after the Second World War, forged careers in Iran similar to those they had pursued in Germany. They were and still are of the opinion that Iran is the country of origin of the Aryans. The overthrown Shah officially called himself "آریا مهر", "the sun of the Aryans".

One of the more bizarre aspects of the German–Iranian relationship is probably freemasonry, which today brings together many an exiled Iranian from Los Angeles to Paris. It is also a phenomenon that the Iranians owe to the graduates of German universities. It was Jafar Sharif-Emami, who studied railway engineering in Germany and later became Iranian Minister and Senate President, who brought this new idea to Iran. In 1969, the influential politician founded a grand lodge in Tehran, to which 43 lodges belonged and which was very active until the fall of the monarchy.

Last but not least there is love: the thousands of bi-national marriages between Germans and Iranians over the last hundred years have certainly helped to keep the relationship between the two countries alive.

Ali Sadrzadeh

© Iran Journal 2018

This article is part of a project of the association "Transparency for Iran e.V.", supported by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education.

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