Many Iranians wrongly believe that the Nazis considered Iranians “Aryans.” The belief that the Nazis considered Iranians “Aryans” is commonplace. This long held but inaccurate belief laid the basis for myths and Iranian Nazi convictions which persist today. This article will also discuss the history of antisemitic agitation in Iran from the 19th century through to the 1930s and 40s, based largely on that key misconception, as well as the germination of postwar Iranian Nazism in the 1950s.
The aim of this article is to furnish the reader with an understanding of the complex and singular nature of Iranian Nazism, and how it interacted with Nazism. A key theme is the use and abuse of words, particularly the term “Aryan”: a discursive keystone used by Iranian Nazis to link themselves to both Nazi ideology in general and European “Aryan” pretences specifically, which the Third Reich used to justify its world mission and ultimately, the Holocaust.
One of the problems of researching this subject is that it is sometimes difficult to make out the occasionally extreme end point of Iranian nationalism – still very much relevant and alive today, and which has been an intellectually constructive force – and the starting point of Iranian Nazism. The latter is also still alive, albeit in more disguised or muted ways.
As the historian David Motadel told me in a discussion for this article, Iran was almost unique in the 1930s for not having its own Nazi party, or other organised iteration of Nazism. This came, and came strongly, later. But even so, the ideological foundations had sprouted long before the First World War. Iranian Nazism germinated within a unique context, and its propagation was not unilateral. Rather, Iran had a role to play in the European development of Aryanist ideas, which were then imported back into Iran.
“Ariya”: Not a Myth, but a Word
The idea of “Aryanism” still holds some currency in Iranian culture, both at home and in parts of the diaspora. It pervades in cultural and academic circles and crops up occasionally in unexpected places, such as the names of coffee shops or restaurants. It even crops up in the name of Iranian-American WWE fighter Ariya Daivari (5,10”, 180 lbs, signature move: the “frog splash”); Iran’s first post-Islamic Revolution mixed-sex pop band was named Arian (I heartily recommend their single with Chris de Burgh, The Words I Love You). The pop group’s name illustrates the distinction between the Iranian understanding of the term and the connotative weight it carries today in the West.
But just because the Iranian definition infers something else, this doesn’t mean the local abstraction is benign. Today, footage of Team Melli fans singing the Deutschlandlied at a home game on October 9, 2004 is still available on YouTube, as is the dismay with which German players and fans observed Iranian spectators giving the Nazi salute. At least some Iranian fans were clearly under the impression that the German visitors were their fellow “Aryans” and should be greeted in the proper spirit. In the minds of some of those present that day, at least, Germany/Germans, Nazism and “Aryanism” were inextricably linked. The gesture also couldn’t be put down to Iranian hospitality; the historian Dr Reza Zia-Ebrahimi notes that Irish footballers had bottles and rotten fruit thrown at them on stepping onto the pitch at Azadi Stadium. Clearly, if the Germans received a “triumphal welcome” complete with Hitler salutes and posters of Nietzsche brandished at the airport, it came from a genuine admiration and feeling of sympathetic affinity with the Germans. As Zia-Ebrahimi writes, the fact that this happened at all “indicates… the so-called Aryan brotherhood inculcated by German propaganda decades ago still finds an echo in Iran.”
So, where did this sense of affinity stem from? One of the first issues is that “Aryan” is a valid descriptive term as well as a separate, discredited designation. Users of the term in its “original” dress are to be afforded a modicum of sympathy. But distilling the “true” meaning is vital if we are to understand some Iranians’ pride in, and continued use of, the term in describing themselves.
We start with what for some may be a surprising fact. However unhelpful it may be, Iranians can in a way quite legitimately claim to be “Aryans”. During the Great Nationalist project under Reza Shah in the last century, wordsmiths were mobilized to re-furnish Iran with a “pure” language free of Arabic/Semitic and French loan-words, and historians to re-map a history of Iran worthy of its present-day successor state. One claimed that an “Iran” had existed for precisely 10, 001,010,908,314 years.
Thankfully, we need not go back that far to locate the entry-point of “Aryanism” in Iranian socio-political discourse. In 615 BC, the Median King Cyarxes led a conglomeration of tribes to the great capital of Assyria. With the crepitation of “numberless steeds” and the slashing of retributive acinaces, Tom Holland writes these “horse-taming nomads from the eastern plateau” razed Nineveh. This invasion was as ambitious as it was punitive; the tribes had suffered from raids over the Zagros and occupation by the Assyrians, and as such had banded together in previously unprecedented ways. These tribes, Holland writes, had a dazzling array of names and were by nature “a mishmash of different peoples”: the Medes, (“ancestors of many Iranians, particularly the Kurds”), the Persians [Parsuans], the Hyrcanians, the Parthians, the Choresmians, the Scythians, the Sogdians, the Bactrians, the Drangians, the Heratians, the Arachosians, the Gandharans and the Sattagydians. But together, the tribes who thundered into Nineveh identifying their common tongues and cultures, called themselves Arya – or, as we would render it nowadays, Aryan.
This triumph transformed the Medean tribal chieftains, as well as the other “Aryans” and non-“Aryans” brethren, from cattle-herding mountain dwellers into Kings. And the new, ambitious, meddlesome, and hubristic Median King, Astyages, sent expeditions up into the wilds of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate with sanguine efficiency who, indeed, was King. He built a palace too: Ecbatana constituted his new court from which to run his own Empire and “subordinate” chieftains. This took place in despotic fashion. Following an intermarriage Astyages’s grandson Cyrus ended up as heir to both the Median throne and the Persian throne and was crowned in 559 BC having survived various botched assassination attempts on Astyages's orders. Troubled by dreams of his daughter’s progeny casting a shadow over all Asia, Astyages sent his cavalry south to rid himself of those turbulent Persians but failed. With no small degree of magnanimity on the part of Cyrus, two great thrones of the Aryan tribes were unified.
Out of the Aryans, then, the first Persian Empire, and the first great World Empire, had sprung. An acknowledgement of the concept of “Aryan” peoples and the “Aryan polity” had entered the “Iranian story” millennia before it would that of the Germans’. For more on this foundational era and its resonance today, read Tom Holland’s Persian Fire.
By the 20th Century, the reasoning went, if Iranians could consider themselves inheritors of the Achaemenids, why then should they not also consider themselves Aryan? Both claims are obviously far-fetched, but the Empire forms the nationalist lifeblood of the country and arguably, the claim is just as much so as any other nation’s claim to prehistoric roots. Mohammed Reza Shah, who led the 2500th anniversary celebration of the Persian Empire in 1971, certainly thought so. He went so far as to title himself “Ariyámehr”: Light of the Aryans.
But as Zia-Ebrahimi points out, the story is not so clear-cut. The term “Aryan” “is the modernized and Europeanized version of [Ariya]… [but] they are far from relaying the same meaning… the antique incidences of ariya can in no way be used to support the claims of Aryanism.” Elsewhere, the Persian archaeologist Alireza Shapour Shahbazi compared the word “Ariya” and the Greek word “Aristos” – as in “aristocracy”, denoting the supposedly noblest in rank and birth, which crops up in countless ancient sources. In the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, certain events are located as taking place at Airyanem Vaejah (the Ariya Plain). Kings such as Kay Khosrow are described as “the most swift-arrowed of all the Ariyas”. Herodotus hailed the Medes as Ariori, and Hellanicus used it as just another term for Persia. The name ‘Iran’ is an etymological descendent of Ariya. Zia-Ebrahimi notes that “By Sasanian times, eran came to mean ‘of the Ariyas’ broadly “of the Iranians,” while Eranshahr (or the even more telling Parthian version, Ariyanshahr) was the official appellation of the Sasanian empire [224 AD-651 AD].”
Today, scholars are in broad agreement that the settled meaning of Ariya became, quite simply, “land of the Iranians”. The country is named after that original union of tribes who rode to Nineveh and the peoples that joined them afterwards. But, as Achaemenid Iran is too far distant in history for any of us to be able to say much else with great certainty, the material evidence is of course limited. This lack of scientific certainty created a void that the Nazis filled with Aryanist speculation, claiming instead that Iran meant “land of the Aryans”.
One final appearance of “Arya” that warrants attention, if only because of how far it has been co-opted by “pro-Aryanists” to bolster their beliefs, is in the rock inscriptions of Naghsh-e Rostam, the famous Achaemenid necropolis in Fars province. The tomb of Darius the Great bears the words: “Aryan of Aryan stock”.
Many centuries later, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s chief ideologist, later executed for his crimes against humanity at Nuremberg, was captivated by the inscription. Rosenberg could claim credit for such ideas as replacing crosses in German churches with swastikas and the Bible with Mein Kampf, as well as wholesale looting and destruction of European properties, libraries and artifacts that transgressed Nazi ideology or undermined its vaunted “superiority,” (or that the Nazis wanted for profit, or all three). He was also briefly head of the Reich Ministry for the Eastern Occupied Territories.
Rosenberg’s appraisal of the rock faces at Naqsh-e Rustam in his seminal Nazi tract, Mythus des Zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (1930) ran as follows:
“Once, the Persian king gave order to cut into the rock face of Behistun [Bisotun] the following words: “I, Darius the Great King, King of Kings, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage[…]” Today the Persian muleteer pulls ahead soullessly by the wall: he represents thousands- culture and personality are born together with race and also die with it.”
These rock inscriptions, Rosenberg declared, were conclusive: the Achaemenids were originally Aryans, and Iran was the country from which they had expanded through the Caucasus and into Northern Europe, taking seed in Germany, giving rise to the Aryan Nordic civilizations. This is not dissimilar to the pseudo-logic followed by certain daytime TV programmes like Ancient Aliens, and as qualified scholars have lined up to point out, was lacking in evidence. But the purpose of the statement meant that lack of evidence did not trouble its users, besides, they believed it whether there was evidence for it or not.
Putting aside the non-veracity of the claim itself, however, Rosenberg also dismissed the idea that modern Iranians could be included within the present-day “Aryan” polity. Iran today, he wrote, stood as an example of Bastardierung, “miscegenation”, and Überfremdung, “infiltration”, by so-called “lower races”. Iran might have been the ancient seat of the Aryans, Rosenberg and his acolytes decided, and the Reich could claim racial affinity with these great “forebears”, but today’s “soulless Persian muleteers” stood as a lesson not to integrate insidious racial inferiors into the new Empire. The idea clung. During the war, as David Motadel writes, Hitler remarked that “Nations which did not rid themselves of Jews, perished. One of the most famous examples of this was the downfall of a people who were once so proud: the Persians.”
It is not difficult and it is a duty to draw a causal line from these fallacious but pervasive ideas to the “Aktionen” which culminated in ghettoes, pits and gas chambers such as Krakow, Babi Yar and Auschwitz.
Naqsh-e Rustam, then, stands as a lesson not in the dangers of “miscegenation” but the dangers of perverting antiquity and selectively misreading words. The ancient designation Ariya was stenciled onto the modern, racial term Aryan. They do not equate. The term simply stated that Darius was and should be considered as “Iranian, of Iranian lineage”. More incriminating still, Rosenberg’s reading missed a critical section. A newer, better-informed translation of the inscription reads (with my underlining):
“I (am) Darius the great King, King of Kings, King of countries possessing all kinds of people, King of this great Earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, the son of a Persian, an Aryan [Iranian], of Aryan [Iranian] lineage.”
In fact, the inscription places Darius not as monarch of a single, homogenous people, but as a King of Kings, ruling over the many peoples, communities and nations of Iran. If “Aryanism” stipulates racial and demographic uniformity, there was nothing of the kind to be found here.
We see similar sentiment in the royal title of King Shapur I [240 to 270], the second Sasanian sovereign: Shàhanshàh Eràn ud Aneràn, or King of Kings of Iran, Ariyas and non-Ariyas. Like the inscription on Darius’s tomb, Shapur’s title positively makes a virtue of the fact that he ruled over a constellation of diverse peoples. Iran lies, and remember the Iranian Empire was much bigger even than Iran is today, at the very centre of the inhabited world: a veritable crossroads for trading routes, a basin fought over by empires, and a civilisation lodged between the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasian countries. The idea that its population would be homogenised is absurd.
Finally, the idea that these ancient Iranian inscriptions were ever intended to include German or European Aryans in their “net” is even more derisory. The notion that Iranians would have more to do with “Aryan” Europeans than their “Semitic” neighbours holds no water, geographically, socio-politically or otherwise. The political myth-making of the Pahlavi state, which used Aryanism as a nationalistic unifying edifice, and the French Republic as its aspirational lodestar has much to answer for in terms of this.
“Aryan”: European Appropriation, Iranian Co-Option
It was in the 19th Century that the first vitriolic European texts began to proliferate, variously claiming that “Aryan” constituted a racial category, that the race had originated in Persia, and that it had by now come home to roost in Europe. Many “discoveries” fuelled this false creed. Among them were Sir William Jones’s declaration that Persian came from the same linguistic roots as Latin and Greek, and French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil du Perron’s (re)discovery that the ancient term “Aryan” referred to Iran. These two strands of thought conjoined to excite scholarly minds of the early 19th century. The thought of common ancestry with Iranians animated them, giving rise to ideas of – as Motadel puts it – a “volkish relationship” of cultural and psychological affinity. It was the German poet August Wilhelm Schlegel who, in 1808, made the logical leap of asserting that Germans were in fact the descendants of “Aryans”. This idea was also attractive, and just a few decades hence scholars were presenting “the Aryans” as talented and physically perfect, in contrast with the “Semitic” peoples. The German-born orientalist Friedrich Max Müller helped popularise the view of Aryan supremacy in the UK, and the noisome Ernest Renan, Adolphe Pictet and the wholly detestable Arthur Comte de Gobineau popularised it in France, highlighting the Jews’ “distinct inferiority.” Gobineau in particular, who as a diplomat was well-acquainted with the real history of Persia, went to lengths that would be almost comical if their outcomes were not so horrific. He claimed that the last bastions of Aryanism were the Germanics – and the French aristocracy, and specifically his own family.
By the 20th century the definition had trickled down and acquired a racial-biological definition that does not need repeating here. One especially heinous British academic, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was the darling of the Nazis, wrote that King Cyrus “with the naivety of the little shrewd Indo-European” had freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon and thus been responsible for the creation of Ancient Israel. Again, this was fantastical.
By now the “Aryan” designation had run a veritable marble run of meanings, including “Germanic”, “Nordic” and crucially, “non-Jewish.” It entered European law for the first time in 1933, in paragraph 3 of The Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service in Hitler’s new Germany. Proof of “Aryan” ancestry was now required for those entering government jobs.
Eventually, however, the meaninglessness of the term affected even the Nazis themselves. Hans Siegert advocated dropping it as it was too broad to suit their purposes; “non-Jewish” vs “Jewish” would be clearer. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 accordingly referred not to Aryans and non-Aryans but to “German or kindred blood” and “Jews and other non-kindred people”. As Motadel notes, by this point in time, “the legal experiment with the term “Aryan” had failed.”
These discussions in Europe in turn warped political discourse in Iran. The term “Aryan” was gaining currency in Europe at a time when Iran under the Qajar dynasty was racked by internal revolts, revolutions and diplomatic difficulties. In very broad strokes, Iranians were coming to realise that theirs was an empire in decline. But at the same time, traumatic encounters with the West had seeded Western pseudo-intellectual ideas into Iranian nationalist development.
Even in the early days, the historian Ali Ansari notes, there was some pushback by Iranian intellectuals against this redefinition of “Ariya”, with Jamal al-Din al Afghan (1839-1897) railing against the apparent contempt for Arab and Islamic influence on Iran, and the jurist and constitutionalist Hasan Taqizadeh (1878-1970) expressing fury at least in part at the presumption. But in the main, at a time when Iranian national fortune was at its nadir, the “Aryan” idea was comforting to Iranian thinkers. Other public intellectuals such as Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani in his Three Writings (date unknown) and Mirza Fathali Akhundzadah in his Letters of Kamal al-Dawlah and Jalal al-Dawlah (1868) drew heavily on European and Aryanist language in new diatribes against the Semitic “others.” The idea was compelling, Zia-Ebrahimi suggests, for three reasons: firstly, Iranians could claim that though they were victims of misfortune now, they had an innate superiority “up their sleeve.” Secondly, they were encouraged to hark back to the Achaemenids for pre-Islamic nationalist glory. Thirdly, it appealed to secular nationalists who could claim the current malaise could be attributed to the detrimental effects of Islam, brought to Iran by the Arabs, Iran’s Semitic “other” of choice. Many nationalists felt that the clergy, the Qajar monarchy, or both were an obstacle to Iranian progress. This idea offered another string to their discursive bow.
Reza Shah Pahlavi then personally utilised the Aryan myth for his nationalist project. The aim, as Hassan Taqizadeh observed, was to create an Iran in which the Iranian people were invested, and national feeling adopted, “from within”. The Aryan myth was a compelling binding force and quickly incorporated into one of Reza Shah’s main projects, which – apart from railways, hospitals, bridges, the National Army, centralising power and limiting the power of the ulema – was the nationwide provision of state education. A curriculum established for the purpose of “developing and encouraging a national ethos.”
Some of the very first elementary and middle school textbooks produced by the Ministry of Education included chapters on race. In Hasan Pirniya (1871-1935)’s Iran-e Qadim (Ancient Iran), for example, the world was categorised by the supposed predominant races. Iranians were envisaged as in the “white-skinned” category, thanks to their Indo-European i.e. “Aryan” ancestry. A 1931 textbook for ages nine to ten declared: “The people of Iran are part of the Aryan race, and their current language is Persian”.
High school pupils were introduced to a more toxic realm of racial classification. One textbook explained to pupils that “the black race” was “the least talented people” and “the white race” (which again, included Iranians) possessed “the highest intellectual capabilities”. These ideas were at ground zero of Iran’s educational and thus future development. No small wonder that, as IranWire has previously shown, they went on to become an ideological cornerstone of the Islamic Republic too.
The idea of Aryanism pervaded in other sectors too. The Farhangistan (language academy) was established in Tehran in 1935 with the stated aim of whittling Persian down to its Indo-European roots, freeing it from the perceived ravages of Arabic (Semitic) and Turkish loanwords. Linguists set about ridding Persian loanwords and encouraging the use of what Jalal al-Din Mirza Qajar called Farsi-yi sarah: “pure” Persian. The void left by these loanwords resulted in the agglutinative practice of fusing words together to replace them: the Arabic-origin word for “University”, for example, was reclaimed as “Daneshgah” or “Knowledge-place”. The south-west corner of Iran, previously known as Arabistan, was replaced by the more Persian sounding Khuzestan. The idea that language was inextricably linked to race, proved one of the main entry points for the Aryanist view to work its way into the intellectual lives of Iranians. This despite the fact that as the widely respected Taqizadeh pointed out, “Persians are not an ethnic group… language and religion are not important… everyone is 100% Iranian even when speaking other languages.” This apparent plea to reason fell on deaf ears.
The most overt paean to the Aryan ideal came in 1935. That year, Reza Shah insisted that in all diplomatic correspondence, the Western-sounding “Persia” should no longer be used and in future, the correct term would be “Iran.” The official memorandum listed four reasons for the name change, the third of which began with the words “From the racial standpoint”. It went on to proclaim: “Iran (Persia) was the birthplace and cradle of the Aryan race” and use of the term “Iran” was therefore “natural… particularly today, when some of the great countries of the world are making claims for the Aryan race which are significant of the grandeur of the race and the civilisation of old Persia.”
As an addendum, the fourth point also made it clear that the name change intended to separate Pahlavi-era Iran from any association with the Qajar era and praised the progress “brought about under the care and guidance of his Imperial majesty”: a soft echo of the praise European Aryanists lavished on Hitler for overseeing Germany’s “rebirth”. It may therefore be of note that it was diplomatic personnel at the Iranian Embassy in Berlin that first suggested the name change – and of course, it was enthusiastically endorsed by newspapers in Germany. One German academic even openly proclaimed that Reza Shah “meant” for Iran what Hitler “meant” for Germany.
The name change therefore stands as a unique example, at least in part, of Iran playing up to Nazi German political rationale. In addition to the ideological purpose it served, for the nationalist project to succeed in Iran, and for Iran to escape the influence of Great Britain and Russia, German investment had to be encouraged – and undoubtedly this was one of the ways of getting the Reich’s attention.
By means of a caveat, the above should not be taken to suggest – as others have asserted – that Reza Shah was a Nazi or that he was avowedly pro-Reich and pro-Hitler: he wasn’t. But both Reza Shah and Hitler were dictators with military pretensions who saw utility both in one another, and in declaring themselves respectively to be “Aryan”.
Indeed, it appears that at least initially, the racism of Iranian Aryanism was meant to empower Iranians and foster a sense of cohesion rather than oppress minorities within the population. Reza Shah wanted people to feel Iranian “from the inside out”. The worst crime one could commit was “betrayal” of Iran and/or the Shah. Indeed, one of the insults regularly levelled at “traitors” under the Shah was “fascist”, and one such “traitor” sentenced to death was a Kurdish army officer called Jahanusz, who apart from being amazingly accused of spying for both Britain and Russia is credited with producing a Persian translation of Mein Kampf. Loyalty to the country and the Shah was paramount, not the alienation or eradication of racial “enemies”.
In addition, although Iran was never a “safe haven” for Jews or even close to it, it was at that time a comparatively safe place for Jews to be. The Shah was vehemently opposed to Zionism but had relaxed discriminatory laws so Jews were able to leave their ghettoes (mahalla), take on government jobs – up to and including as representatives in the Majles, first achieved by the Jewish Iranian Solomon Chayyim – and open shops in the bazaar. Many Iranian Jews were even encouraged by the new emphasis on “Aryan” history, foregrounding as it did a distant past in which they themselves had been present and played a part.
But Jews in Iran remained de facto second-class citizens and scapegoats of the state. An assassination attempt on Reza Shah provoked the customary rounding-up of suspects, and Chayyim, already under observation by the authorities, was executed without trial. As Walter J. Fischel writes, “The golden era of liberty and freedom was still far from being theirs”. Meanwhile, some Iranian Aryanists had swallowed the anti-Jewish sentiments of European texts, and this undoubtedly had an impact on Jews’ ability to operate freely and unmolested in public life.
Elsewhere, the implications of Aryanism notwithstanding, Ali Ansari reminded me that Reza Shah allowed the Crown Prince to marry Princess Fawzia of Egypt in 1939. She was an Arabic princess and therefore, based on the ideas then being expounded in school textbooks, a “Semite”. As Motadel says, “The common belief that Nazi Germany enjoyed an outstanding reputation in Iran and kept strong relations with the Pahlavi government is hardly accurate.”
Even so, the Aryan myth played an important role in the building of the modern Iranian state, which the Islamic Republic inherited in 1979 and relies upon today. There were also elements of the Iranian intelligentsia and wider public who had outright Nazi sympathies, and who helped to lay the foundations for what was to become the Iranian Nazi movement in the 1950s.
Interwar Iranian Nazism: The Case of Iran-e Bastan
The National Archives at Kew in West London holds a file entitled “(Sheikh) Abdul Rahman Saif Azad”. Long since declassified and stamped “File Closed”, it contains the information gathered by the British Security Services on this little-known individual. Bespectacled, hairline receding, with heavy, hooded eyes and a prominent nose, Azad appears an unlikely subject for British Intelligence scrutiny at first glance. But he had an exceptionally colourful career. Born in 1891, he began his career in the seminary at Najaf, and ended it at the extremities of Nazi ideology.
With the failure of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, to say nothing of the occupation during the First World War, many Iranians developed strong anti-Russian and anti-British feelings. In 1915 two German agents, Niedermayer and Hentig, had begun recruiting local couriers to help them traverse Persia and cross the border into Afghanistan. Azad was one of them. In service of the Kaiser, he made at least one solo trip between Afghanistan and the German Legation in Isfahan, dodging British patrols, carrying secret messages sewn into his tunic. After the war he spent some time in Berlin, associating with those who wanted to end British colonial rule in India and the Middle East and engaging in a brief but tactical association with the Bolsheviks.
Azad was “primarily a rogue figure who was an opportunist more than anything else”, says the historian Ibrahim al-Marashi. Notably, after the final editions of Hassan Taqizadeh’s newspaper Kaveh were published, Azad took over the exact same printing press and used it to oversee the production of a new magazine called Freiheit des Ostens, which pushed for the liberation of the Middle East from British influence. He then took up editorship of the glossy magazine Iran-e Bastan from 1933 to 1935.
The magazine promoted “kindred” bonds between Iranians and Zoroastrian emigres to India (the Parsis), whose distant ancestors had fled during the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th Century. Iran-e Bastan sought to encourage the Parsis’ return, and its argument hinged on their faith, which it held rendered them part of the “original” Aryan community and joint victims of the “Semitic assault”. Gradually, the tone of Azad’s invocations moved from “liberal ideal[s] of cultural repatriation” (Marashi) to “racialized and antisemitic” tirades. The paper started to disseminate bilious propaganda about Jews, “seekers of wealth and money, and… embodiments of racial mongrelisation.” The swastika began making appearances on the front cover. By the close, Iran-e Bastan was praising the Shah and Hitler in tandem. According to the scholar Timothy Doner, the paper even “began mimicking the Nazi fascination with athletics” and included photos of “Sieg Heiling teenagers” throwing javelins.
Inevitably the Parsis lost interest, as the paper addressed very few of their concerns. But by its second year of publication, Iran-e Bastan had a then not-insubstantial circulation of 16,000 issues per month, and a new audience. One article sought to marry Zoroastrian traditions with Nazism, reporting on a Nazi event in Berlin that had involved burning torches: “Igniting the holy fire has been renewed… and not long will pass before all ancient Aryan customs, which are the same as those of ancient Iran, be revived in Germany.” The magazine was quoted in public by the German legation in Iran, and even Alfred Rosenberg contributed an article, suggesting the replacement of “Roman and Greek law” in Iran with “Aryan and Iranian law”. The success prompted the British Embassy to enquire of the German Foreign Ministry in 1936 as to whether the magazine “had anything to do with them.” The response was curt: “It is an Iranian paper… Heil Hitler!”(KV2/3857, National Archives).
The saga of Iran-e Bastan was just the beginning. Once it dried up at the end of 1935, Saif Azad left for India, where he dedicated himself to backing Indian independence from British rule. There he was, this time without any doubt, in the pay of local German envoys. Within 48 hours of the Second World War starting, he had been arrested by the British security services. The magazine, though, stood as a portent for what was to come: post-war organised Nazism in Iran.
Sumka: Naziism Takes Root in Iran
In his later life Saif Azad became an active early member of Sumka, the Iranian Nazi Party. Founded in 1951, Sumka took advantage of the early propagation of Nazi ideals in Iran by publications like Iran-e Bastan. Previously Iranians might only have been able to subscribe to a magazine; now they could join an organised manifestation of Nazi ideology on their doorstep.
One of Iran-e Bastan’s contributors in the 1930s had been a young man who signed his articles “DM”. This was one Davud Monshizadeh, who founded and was the self-styled “Rahbar” (Führer) of Sumka. He came of age during the tumult of the First World War and the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran. His father had established the “Punishment Committee”, an obscure organization that led the murders of so-called “Anglophiles and traitors of the homeland” for which he was executed. During the Second World War, in 1940, according to German Foreign Office files, Monshizadeh was studying for a PhD in Iranology at the University of Munich. His time there coincided with that of Walther Wüst, a high-ranking SS officer who also oversaw the university’s “Seminar for Aryan Cultural and Linguistic Studies” alongside the SS Ahnenerbe: a proto-Aryan “think-tank” in Nazi Germany which ran expeditions to the Himalayas to “prove” the existence of Aryan civilisations, and elsewhere sought to “prove” Atlantis theory as the foundation of the Aryans. While marshalling these Indiana Jones villains of Nazi archaeology, Wust also found time to push comparisons between Reza Shah and Hitler, petition Himmler for funded “expeditions” to Iran, and call for Reza Shah to “undo” the effects of “miscegenation” in his country.
Nazi Germany had courted Iranians in other ways within its own borders. To mark the thousandth birthday of the great poet Ferdowsi in 1934, a street in Berlin was renamed Persische Straẞe. The Mayor of Berlin used the occasion to declare the Shahnameh’s “surprising similarity with the German heroic sagas” (in 1935, the street was diligently renamed Iranische Straẞe). Libraries of carefully groomed books were donated to Iran by the state, and Persian-language radio broadcasts encouraged the “right” sort of thinking.
That said, Iranians were never considered “honorary” Aryans by the Reich or in any way worthy of exception, under the Nuremberg Laws or elsewhere. The definition was always "German or kindred blood”. The non-inclusion of Iranians under this banner caused a diplomatic spat in 1936, in which the Iranian Ambassador to Germany was reminded that the term “Aryan” could be applied only on a case-by-case basis. The story of Abdol Hossein Sardari, covered by IranWire in the past, is a rare example of how that admission and others like it could also be exploited for good during the Holocaust.
It was in this febrile environment that Monshizadeh studied for his PhD. He graduated in the inter-war years and in his memoirs, claimed to have fought in the Battle of Berlin as an SS “Attack Guard” (which gave him licence to carry a walking stick when he led Sumka, though Doner has since proven that he acquired his wounds not in any vainglorious last stand against the Russians but from a freak tank shell while sheltering in a village over 100 km away from the capital). German archival sources also show Monshizadeh was on the freelance payroll of the Informationsabteilung, as a speaker on Persian-language radio from February to October 1941 alongside Schah Baran Barokh, another pro-Nazi Persian agitator. But more sinisterly and more revealingly, he is listed as receiving a monthly stipend from the SS. Grimmer still has his appearance in a report named “Juden in Iran”, in which he is listed as an “expert” on the subject of Jews and racial policy in Iran. This was linked to the establishment of the Hohe Schule, colleges dedicated to imbuing Nazi officials with the prescribed ideology. Monshizadeh was also accredited by the Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany as an expert on Jews in Iran. That organisation was tasked with “academically” justifying the Nazis’ policy towards the Jews, a de jure implication of Monshizadeh in the crimes of the Holocaust; fortunately, his effects would remain academic as the Third Reich never extended its grip to Iran and ironically, this was also fortunate for Monshizadeh: had it done so, it is likely he would have hanged for his role in the rounding up of Iranian Jews.
None of this, nor the “discovery” of the crimes of the Holocaust, deterred Monshizadeh’s return to Iran or his founding of Sumka. Doner has also established that his secretary after the war was none other than Traudl Junge, Hitler’s private secretary and witness to his final days in Berlin.
Sumka came of age during the politically feverish days of the Oil Crisis from 1949-1953. Centring on the question of whether the British-run and operated Anglo-Iranian Oil Company should be nationalised, this period saw the nascent Iranian parliamentary democracy, such as it was, reaching a fever pitch alongside vociferous street-politics. SUMKA was mobilised against Mohammad Mossadegh, who headed the pro-nationalisation National Front, which included an alliance of the Tudeh (Communist Party) as well as liberals, members of the clergy, socialists, social-democrats and bazaaris. They not only aimed to nationalise Iran’s natural resources but also challenge the power of the Shah. While uniting vast swathes of the Iranian mob behind the question of nationalisation, and against the Shah, Mossadegh also succeeded in alienating powerful members of the population. This included General Fazlollah Zahedi, with whom he was at odds for Mossadegh’s tolerance for the Tudeh. He was dismissed from his government position and moved to rally support against Mossadegh and the national front. Most famous for being the successor to Mossadegh as prime minister, Zahedi had been kidnapped and imprisoned by the British during the Second World War for Nazi sympathies. When British commandos raided Zahedi’s quarters, they found incriminating German automatic weapons. It is revealing to note that he shared a prison with SS personnel handed over to the British by Qashqai tribesmen who had gladly accepted Abwehr bribes to sabotage British and American supplies bound for the USSR over the Iranian supply route Churchill called “the bridge of Victory”, and then promptly handed them over to the British. Evidently, the power of Nazism to take root amongst rural Iranians was limited and certainly not ideological. Even when reinforced by gold, it failed to take any sort of principled hold. As the popular Iranian novel and TV show My Uncle Napoleon reminds us, many pro-German sympathies held by Iranians were in fact, anti-British and anti-Russian feelings in disguise, and even then, they were clearly risible enough to be made the butt of the joke in the most popular Iranian tv show (now banned) to date.
The heady days of the Oil Crisis, culminating in the infamous 1953 coup which overthrew Mossadegh and brought Zahedi to power, was also a coming of age for SUMKA. Zahedi recruited the help of SUMKA (and another fascist party, the Pan Iranists) as useful muscle to combat the Tudeh party in the streets and to pave the way for the coup. SUMKA’s rise did not only mirror the rise of the Nazi’s in terms of the armbands, salutes, cries of “Hail Leader” (“Shad Rahbar”), the leader’s moustache and Alsatian dog; the political malaise in which it came to being also echoed the political morass in which its German inspiration had flourished. Doner has pointed out that the rhetoric used by Davud Monshizadeh directly paraphrased Nazi rhetoric such as “the holy battle for the sake of blood and soil against Communism.” It enjoyed high placed patrons just as the Nazis did. It sought the expulsion of Jews, and talked of Jews being “non-Aryan” or even “aniran” (literally non-Iranian). Students of Jewish schools were harassed by loitering SUMKA members. “Persons of Iranian blood and race” on the other hand were told they needed protection from capitalism, profiteers, communists and “the rotten and corrupt path of parliamentary government.” Its members used clubs and engaged in brawls and violence, often on anti-Shah anti-imperialist grounds.
Ultimately, however, the party ruptured itself on the fissure of supporting Mohammad Mossadegh or the Shah; its leadership found itself unable to adequately do both simultaneously. It also came into conflict with their fascist colleagues of the Pan-Iranists’ Party. Monshizadeh’s need for funds and for a support-base ensured that he alienated both pro-Shah backers of the party and pro-Mossadegh supporters. He could not afford to do both. He was arrested on numerous occasions, leaving the party in the hands of his protégé, Dariush Hamayoun, who after being in charge of SUMKA’ s propaganda went on to become an highly prominent member of the Shah’s cabinet and Iranian émigrés. Like Iran-e Bastan, it became rudderless and haemorrhaged itself in the political discourse and violence of the period. But this did not signify the end of pro-Nazi leanings in Iran.
Many of the issues chosen as justifications for Davud Monshizadeh’s political feelings have not disappeared. The disappearance of Nazi Germany as an example to follow, and as a patron of Iranian Nazi feeling, removes its greatest component. But outposts of these forces still exist in Iran: to name but one, the Pan-Iranist party of Iran still exists today with a presence online despite being outwardly banned by the Islamic Republic. More broadly, the chauvinistic propagation of ideas about the world and an absolute certainty of historical, political and social-scientific ideas on the part of Iran’s leadership seem to abound in ways redolent of SUMKA’s rhetoric. As Ansari says, the likes of “Ahmadinejad and his ideological bedfellows claim to have already understood the world, and then proceed to rationalise it.” This is most problematic when it comes to the Holocaust and the Iranian regime’s contemporary engagement with it, a subject amply covered by IranWire in previous articles.
In a letter to the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ahmadinejad once claimed that Germany and Iran were linked psychologically, claiming “the people of Iran and Germany are two great nations that have contributed to the making of our civilisation”. His time in office and that of his successors has represented the triumph of that same neo-Achaemenidism mobilised by the Aryan myth, and is alarmingly similar to other state-mobilisations of ancient myths and their attendant, pseudo-scientific theories. In the period in which this article was written, Ebrahim Raisi suggested once again that claims of the Holocaust should be “investigated”, demonstrating once again the potency, and the parlous side-effects of these now centuries-old, palliating myths.
As The Arian Band and Chris de Burgh fittingly sang in 2008, in the Persian-language release of The Words I Love You: “… many hearts have been broken by the lies of history…”
With thanks to Maziar Bahari for his forbearance and the wonderful opportunity, and to all the many academics whose work I am reproducing here, especially to those who have spoken to me personally and particularly to David Motadel, and Tim Doner. I must also thank Herr Gerhard Keiper of the Auswärtiges Amt Politisches Archiv in Berlin for his readily kindness and admirable patience when seeking out and discussing sources with me, as well as other individuals, whom I am not going to name. Also to Hannah for taking on the gargantuan task of editing this article.
Further recommended reading on the subjects discussed above includes David Motadel’s article “Iran and the Aryan Myth” in Ali Ansari’s Perceptions of Iran: History, Myths and Nationalism from Medieval Persia to the Islamic Republic, Ali Ansari’s The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran, Professor Afshin Marashi’s compelling chapter in Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran and – when it is published!– Timothy Doner’s thesis on the life and times of Monshizadeh and post-war Iranian Nazism. For anything on the Tudeh Party, read Siavush Randjbar-Daemi.