For those of us Iranians who went through the 1979 revolution, expropriation is a familiar concept. Right after the revolution, on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini, the state began to requisition the properties of those close to the Shah, of ex-military men, of religious minorities, actors, musicians, singers, other artists, capitalists and industrialists. Their possessions were taken from them, the government took over private banks, factories and large industrial units, and a new phase of state-operated economy began.
The Iranian left thought it had realized its dream: the destruction of industrialism and capitalism. The Foundation of the Oppressed now took over the properties of families such as Lajevardis, Khosrowshahis, Sabets, Elqanians, Khayamis and others.
Notably, the expropriation of properties also took place in Nazi Germany. Before the ‘Final Solution’ brought about the actual mass murder of Jews, they had been harassed and diminished by Hitler’s policies, which left them bereft of their properties.
The order to do this came in 1938, and based on it, Jews had to register everything they owned: paintings, furniture, insurance, stocks. Over the next three months, 700,000 Jews registered their properties. Unlike what the Nazi Party claimed, they actually mostly belonged to the German middle class, not the upper classes. Based on Nazi ideology, Jews were “parasites” enriching themselves at the expense of the German economy. Hitler wanted to use Jewish assets to keep his supporters and other parts of the German populace onside. Taking Jewish properties and wealth was also useful since it could feed the budget of entities such as the German military.
Jews then lost access to their properties in few successive stages. They lost the right to ownership and even to having children, and were taxed heavily. These policies were intended to give Jews no option but to leave Germany. But leaving wasn’t easy either. Many couldn’t pay the heavy exit tax imposed on them, and those who couldn’t leave were sent to camps during the “final solution” and in many cases, perished there.
An important stage in expropriation happened right after the arrests and transfers began. As Edna Friedberg, a historian of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, explained in the ‘Final Solution’ webinar, an array of documents found in the museum show commercial adverts which advertised the rapid sales of furniture taken from Jewish houses. Neighbors and other German citizens were invited to go to a specific address to pick them up. Almost anyone who saw such adverts knew that this meant the family members had been taken away.
Some of the pictures of the era show piles of furniture were left in large halls, like showrooms. All of it was stolen from Jewish homes. These were not the spoils of war, but evidence of the Nazis’ will to destroy their own compatriots.
For the Nazi Party, expropriation wasn’t just a tool of punishment and restriction of Jews but a means to encourage and reward others. They could attain valuable returns on the cheap. For instance, when Nazis went to attack Jewish families in a given village, they’d give their home and belongings to other people in the same village. Ordinary people would witness this and conclude that eliminating Jews was ultimately in their favor. When a Jewish-owned company or factory was expropriated, its rivals would see an opening. When a Jewish manager was dismissed, his or her underlings would spy a new opportunity. A family could acquire an expensive dining set, for free, from a Jewish house. This was how the Nazi party would gradually find favor with the people and gain complicity, if not legitimacy.
This system of reward-via-expropriation also worked after the Iranian revolution. Years later, many seized mansions are still owned by the government and individual officials. Overnight, those working in the system came to own houses and factories they couldn’t have dreamt of before. The dictatorial regime allowed them to attain their most unthinkable goals. They paid for this with loyalty to the dictator and the totalitarian government.
In addition to all the state-sponsored expropriations, middle-class families in Tehran and other large cities still remember the rapid sale adverts on the boards of grocery stores, and the posters on the sides of public pay phones. In those years, families would sell all they had to flee a country ravaged by revolution and war; alongside their children, with just a few suitcases, they’d go off toother lands. They’d flog their paintings, carpets and china at low prices, just so their lives wouldn’t meet the same fate.
Thanks to totalitarian governments, even inanimate objects are full of stories of pain.