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Persia and Germany

In the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century, there emerged a special relationship between Persia and Germany. Persian interest in Germany began with the signing of the treaties of Golestan and Torkmanchai, which demoted Iran from a great-power to a regional actor. Faced with the looming prospect of direct colonization, Persias increasingly saw Germany as a third force that could challenge British and Russian ambitions in Persia. Though the Qajar court benefited from dispensing concessions to British, Russian, and French companies, the Persian intelligentsia criticized these royal excesses and championed rapprochement with Germany, both as an anti-monarchical and anticolonial stance.

With the success of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Persia's relation with Germany deepened. The Russians resisted, shelling the building of the Persian parliament in 1911. The British pushed a new Anglo-Persian Agreement, which if signed by the Persian government would have turned Persia into a British protectorate. Following the occupation of Persia during the Great War by British, Russian, and Ottoman armies, these events confirmed the reformists' worst fears of British and Russian imperialism.

Encouraged by Persian enthusiasm, the German foreign ministry financed the creation of the Nationalist Committees of Iran and Germany, under the leadership of Seyyed Hassan Taqizadeh, the eminent scholar of ancient Iran. The group's main aim was to propagate cultural and economic ties between the two countries, while discouraging cooperation with the Allies. By 1918, the Deutsch-Persische Gesellschaft, created by German interest groups, pushed for further ties.

In the decades prior to the 1941 Allied invasion of Iran, Reza Shah's government sought and often found in Germany an ideological and technological partner. The architect of Reza Shah's foreign policy, first Pahlavi Court Minister Teymurtash, regarded Germany as an evenhanded mediator between Iran, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. Domestically, the largest infrastructure projects were undertaken by German firms, including Junkers, Siemens, Ferrostaal, and Julius Berger. With loans from German banks, the Trans-Iranian Railroad, along with bridges, roads, factories, and governmental buildings, were constructed by German engineers and architects.

Three influential Iranian journals that echoed the reformists' vision of a modernized Iran were produced in Berlin: Taqizadeh's Kaveh (Kaveh is the mythical ancient hero who revolted against unfair rule in Ferdawsi's Shahnameh [Book of Kings]), from 1916 to 1921; Hosayn Kazemzadeh's Iranshahr (Country of Iran), from 1922 to 1927; and Mushfeq Kazemi's Farangestan (Europe), from 1924 to 1926. Unlike its first series of 1916 to 1919, the second set of Kaveh's articles between 1920 and 1921 were entirely devoted to issues addressing Iran's history, literature, and culture and focus mostly on the pre-Islamic dynasties. In many editorials, Taqizadeh claimed that Iran's political salvation was to be found in revalorizing its Aryan culture and history, revealing its superior qualities not only to the Iranian Volk but also to the "civilized world."

Based on evidence gathered in his archaeological digs, the German Orientalist Ernest Herzfeld hypothesized that Achaemenid inscriptions had revealed that the name Iranian corresponded to the ancient term Aryanam Khshathram, the Empire of the Aryans. Soon after, in November 1934, the king of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1926-41), decreed that the country's official name, Persia, be permanently changed to Iran, signifying the Land of Aryans. While most political historians and social scientists ascribe this highly symbolic shift to the king's chauvinistic nationalism and despotic rule, they overlook the fact that four decades earlier, the matter had already been raised and fervendy argued by European art historians. Described as "one of the most heated controversies of modern scholarship," the "Orient or Rome" debate was inflamed by the simultaneous publication of two books in 1901.1 On the one hand, the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Teresio Rivoira, in Le origini dell'architetturalombarda, argued that the origin of all Western, especially Gothic, architecture is to be found in Roman ingenuity. On the other hand, in Orient oder Rom, the Austrian art historian Josef Strzygowski contended that Western artistic sources ought to be traced to the IndoGermanic.

On the eve of World War II, Germany was Iran's largest trading partner, and by the beginning of World War II, Iran was a potential Axis member. After the country's 1934 name change, Reza Shah's foreign ministry declared, "Iran is the birthplace of Aryans, therefore we take advantage of this name," adding, "the world's great powers esteem the Aryan race; this only points to the greatness of the race and civilization of ancient Iran." The Irano-German tie culminated with the state visit of Nazi Foreign Minister Dr. Schacht to Tehran, where he informed the reformists that Hitler had excluded Iranians from the provisions of the Nuremberg race law, since Persians were now categorized as pure Aryans.

At the outbreak of World War II, Iran declared its neutrality, but the country was soon invaded by both Britain and the Soviet Union. Britain had been annoyed when Iran refused Allied demands that it expel all German nationals from the country. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Allies urgently needed to transport war matériel across Iran to the Soviet Union, an operation that would have violated Iranian neutrality. As a result, Britain and the Soviet Union simultaneously invaded Iran on August 26, 1941, the Soviets from the northwest and the British across the Iraqi frontier from the west and at the head of the Persian Gulf in the south. Resistance quickly collapsed. Reza Shah knew the Allies would not permit him to remain in power, so he abdicated on September 16 in favor of his son, who ascended the throne as Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Reza Shah and several members of his family were taken by the British first to Mauritius and then to Johannesburg, South Africa, where Reza Shah died in July 1944.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:23 ZULU