Regular readers of IranWire will be familiar with our long-standing commitment to promoting Holocaust education in Iran. This is no idle pursuit but a sincere mission with the aim of correcting – or at least, mitigating – the effects of distorted public information campaigns on this global event issued and endorsed by the ruling class in Tehran.
The horrors of the Holocaust birthed a new understanding of international justice and human rights. These embedded principles, for perhaps obvious reasons, are viewed as a threat by Iran’s current leadership. For 42 years and up until this moment, when the Baha'is of Iran are being subjected to a fresh campaign of state brutality for peacefully practising their faith, the Islamic Republic has cleaved to policies of ethnocentrism, pseudo-science, the exclusion of“undesirable” elements, land-grabs and property seizures, and the promotion of conspiracy theories, to consolidate its shaky grip on power. This includes the state-sponsored minimization, even outright denial, of the genocide enacted by the Nazis during World War II.
In December 2020 we launched the Sardari Project: a ground-breaking partnership between an Iranian news website and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. In an exclusive series of in-depth articles and short films, the project shone a light on lesser-known aspects of our common history: instances of solidarity between Arabs and Jews, the development of antisemitic propaganda in East and West, and how Iran sheltered thousands of Polish-Jewish refugees who came to be known as the “Tehran Children”.
Over the past few months, in response to feedback on the original Sardari Project and questions from our Persian readers, IranWire and USHMM co-produced a series of informative Persian-language articles that laid out the backdrop and events of World War II and the Holocaust, for the benefit of those who were never taught about it in their youth.
At the same time, we organized a series of unique online webinars, chaired by IranWire founder Maziar Bahari, with USHMM’s in-house historians on topics related to the rise of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and its implications for the modern world. Iranian-born scholars, activists and journalists were invited to discuss their impressions and ask questions of the experts.
Four of the panel discussions, conducted in English with Persian titles and subtitles, are available to watch below:
Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice, a senior historian at USHMM with a particular focus on eugenics policies under the Nazis, took part in two of the webinars. “I found the project compelling,” she said, “because this is also Iranian history. Iran is a hero of the Holocaust. This country saved more Jewish people than the Danes did, probably more than the Italians did, and now the government is peddling Holocaust denial."
“Our center produces cutting-edge knowledge about this particular period, and I hope to present that granular perspective in a way that’s interesting and enlightening to a public not exposed to it before,” she added.
During the talks, USHMM experts were able to counter some oft-held misconceptions about the Holocaust: for instance, that the killings only targeted Jewish people rather than a far broader spectrum of groups portrayed by the Nazis as “enemies”; that Persian people were the idealized “Aryans” of Nazi mythology; and that only avowed Nazis and officers were involved in the Holocaust, whereas in reality it took the direct and indirect collaboration of millions of ordinary citizens, businesses and tacit bystanders in Germany and German-occupied countries to allow this to happen.
Dr. William Meinecke, a historian for USHMM’s leadership development programs, told IranWire: “People often think Hitler was this spider who sat in the web and dictated everything. They’re often shocked to find out it wasn’t all one person, or one party. Humans are great at rationalizing their decisions. Some people [who assented to the genocide] thought of themselves as law-abiding.
“That was something the students of this project really grabbed hold of. They asked, ‘How are people being socialized in a particular direction in Iran?’.”
Sarah McIntosh, a lawyer and USHMM contributor with a background in helping victims and civil society groups advance justice in different countries around the world, also took part in the panel discussion about the legacy of the Nuremberg tribunals. “Appreciating where these laws come from is important,” she said. “It helps ground people’s experiences in a broader narrative."
McIntosh added: “History can shed really valuable light on how we understand things that are 'unspeakable', things that are 'unimaginable', and on what can be done to grapple with them. It can also be incredibly affirming to victims to understand what recourse and tools might be available.”
Feedback from Participants
After the live discussions, Iranian participants were invited to share their reflections on what they had learned in a series of blog posts for IranWire. Though the two societies are far from analogous, many identified shared features between Germany under the Third Reich and the Islamic Republic today. You can read some of their reflections below.
“Listening to the USHMM historian, 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.”
“During our discussion on wilful miscarriages of justice, on the re-molding of a justice system to serve Nazi ideology, I thought of the struggles of many lawyers who still stand for justice and human rights in contemporary Iran.”
“To insist that it is a duty to stand in all-in readiness for fighting the enemy is akin to claiming a citizenry is in a war that never ends.”
“The webinar reawakened in me a perpetual fear: that a government like the Islamic Republic can be always more violent, more murderous.”
“Not only do totalitarian regimes commit the most terrible crimes, of sometimes indescribable proportions, but they can entice a large part of society to join in their efforts.”
“A similarity between the Nazi regime and the IRI lies in the efforts of both to expand their control over society by creating a captive language.”
“There are undeniable similarities between the propaganda of Nazi Germany and the Islamic Republic. But there are also differences. These are rooted in the two states’ divergent approach to humanity, life, and the wider world in which they operate.”
“These ‘governments’ deploy a series of policies, laws, and persuasive and coercive methods to encroach upon the privacy of ordinary people and re-route their daily existence toward the dominant ideology. An obvious example is totalitarian regimes’ uniform, obsessive and aggressive quest for control of women’s bodies, fertility and childbearing.”
“Perhaps when we hear medical analogies, such as ‘germs’ or ‘infection’, being used to describe human beings, we should pause for a moment. When we know of the terrible fate that befell ‘others’ in Nazi Germany, we must recognize this ominous terminology.”
“For the Nazi Party, expropriation wasn’t just a tool of punishment and restriction but a means to encourage and reward others. They could attain valuable returns on the cheap. This system also worked after the Iranian revolution.”
“This enormous killing apparatus could not have functioned without those tiny cogs, each with their own place and function inside the system, driving it forward.”
“When I asked of the two historians from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ‘How did Nazis justify these groups’ being enemies? How did they convince the public?’, I did not expect to hear that, in the case of the Roma for example, it ‘didn’t actually seem to require much’.”