In early March, I took part in a webinar on propaganda in Nazi Germany and the attempt to brainwash the youth of the “Aryan” race to put them in unconditional service of the state. The event was organized by IranWire and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Despite the many historical and identity differences between the Nazi Germany and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the two regimes hold many similarities when it comes to strategic promotion of propaganda in the classroom. These might well be found with other authoritarian governments too.
It must be noted here that while taking a comparative look at this particular aspect of Nazi Germany and the Iranian regime, I don’t intend to compare the two governments with one another. Quite the opposite. Such a comparison, without considering the specific historical complexities and other features of each, could lead to over-simplification and error
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis went on to ‘restructure’ German society. In other words, the authoritarian government that orchestrated the catastrophe of the Holocaust first attempted to assume total control of people’s lives. Organizations were purged based on a national-socialist worldview. Under the so-called Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service only people trusted by the Nazis were allowed to hold public office. The education system met a similar fate.
Schools were required to teach the ‘superiority of the Aryan race’ and the subjugation of Jews. It was also in 1933, under the same law, that schoolteachers who were Jewish or considered ‘politically untrustworthy’ by the Nazis were expelled. Ultimately, most teacher chose to join the Nazi Party and remained in their profession.
German children were brought up to pledge their allegiance to Hitler, and to commit to serving the nation and its leader as the soldiers of the future. Students were raised to be enamored with Hitler, with his portraits hung on the walls of schools and universities. Textbooks were systematically excised from the curriculum, censored and/or re-written so that they espoused the Nazis’ devotion to Hitler, obedience to the state, militarism, racism and antisemitism. The Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were both established to push teenagers and young people toward the same belief system. Ultimately in 1936, membership in Nazi youth groups became mandatory for German girls and boys aged 10 to 17.
Listening to the USHMM historian, and through my own brief study of the Nazis’ ideological indoctrination of people into antisemitism and hatred of minorities, and of how they molded the ‘Aryan’ youth to participate in the crime of the Holocaust, something painful occurred to me. Much of what went on in Nazi German schools would sound very familiar to those of us who grew up and went to school in Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, after the Islamic Revolution.
As I listened to people talk about Nazi Germany, I was reminded of the bleak atmosphere of our school in the ‘80s and ‘90s, recently stricken by revolution and war. I was reminded of the stories of people a little older than me, who had experienced the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the Iran-Iraq War as young and terrified students, often from counter-revolutionary or leftist families who belonged to religious or ethnic minority groups. My generation in Tehran, coming slightly later, got to experience what was perhaps a slightly softened-up face of the Islamic Republic and the ideology of political Islam and Shiism. It was something that probably couldn’t be compared to life as it had been, on the margins of cities and the provinces, for the generations before us.
Still, for someone like me who came from a family that, to use the then-rhetoric of the Islamic Republic, was ‘Not one of us’, ‘Non-believer, ‘Corrupt on Earth’ and ‘West-toxicated’, school was a place where you had to always be cautious: where you always had to lie.
We learnt to lie from childhood. We’d say we never drank alcohol at home, that we all prayed, that we all fasted. Even if any of us had known about the massacres of the 1980s and the repression that followed, we’d have stayed dead silent on the subject. We learned the Quran and religious teachings better than the kids from religious families. We’d win in school-wide, regional and provincial competitions for Quran memorization and recital. We girls had learnt how to wear our hijab tight on our head: it was to be both fashionable and Islamic.
The pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei everywhere were so normalized that we stopped noticing them. Forced to wear dark, long and loose cloaks and full-on hijab, we’d learnt to secretly add a pair of colorful socks or a hand-woven, colorful wristband, out of sight.
We knew that Martyr Fahmideh, an Iranian child soldier in the paramilitary Basij who was said to have blown himself with grenades to defeat the Iraqis, had to have been a hero. We were used to the school inspector bursting into class, along with two or three others, to tell us: “Girls, get up and put your bags on the table. Don’t touch the bags.” They’d then go through all our bags, one by one, to look for photos without hijab, foreign magazines or cosmetics. If they found something, we’d beg them not to send us to the school office.
We’d also learn that Ms. School Inspector probably had many hijab-less photos and foreign magazines in her home. We had childishly accepted the contradictions. We’d learnt to say “Death to Israel” without knowing where Israel was on the map. I remember crying a few times in the schoolyard on the days when we had to gather out there and shout “Death to America”. That was always on the Day of the Occupation of the Den of Espionage, School Students Day, ie the anniversary of the 1979 overrunning of the US Embassy. The principal called on me later and asked why I was crying. Terrified, I said: “Miss, my sister is in the US and I don’t want her to die.” She laughed and said: “My daughter! My relatives are in the US too. We mean their government, not the people.” But the ‘Death’ slogans were still scary for me. Sometimes, on February 11, the anniversary of the revolution, they’d bring out ugly dolls of the Shah and burn them in the schoolyard. We’d sing the hymn “Khomeini, Our Imam” and they’d dole out sweets.
Now, years after my school days ended, things are sure to be different in the Iranian schools, based on the changing times and strategic priorities of the Islamic Republic. But as far as I can gather from a distance, the censorship continues, as does the falsification of history and literature in textbooks, and the promotion of intolerance against minorities, as well as gender and political discrimination. At particular moments, like when Ghasem Soleimani was killed, we see that promotion in action, and the direct indoctrination of a kind of extremist nationalism, together with political Shiism, both of which actually appear to have been internalized to a point amongst some groups in Iranian society and even abroad.
Despite the endless attempts of the Islamic Republic to spread the School of Khomeini, it’s never been as successful as the Nazis in its brainwashing of Iranian children, teens and youth, nor in bringing them fully onboard with its violent worldview. But in the quest to revive Shia nationalism the Islamic Republic has unfortunately enjoyed some success. This has come together with the deepening of discrimination and racism, and the hero-worshipping of people like Ghasem Soleimani, who for the likes of me, are reminder of the Iranian regime’s systematic massacres inside and outside our borders.
What I’ve pointed out in this short article merits far greater study and discussion elsewhere. Perhaps new studies and approaches, aimed at self-knowledge and self-reflection, could help Iranians understand what has gone to us throughout the decades. We must work every day to lessen the effects of this sick education system, and to not fall into the dogmatic and oppressive worldview of this authoritarian regime, filled as it is with discrimination and violence.