Die Deutschen und der Iran. Geschichte und Gegenwart einer verhängnisvollen Freundschaft
(The Germans and Iran: The History and Present of a Fateful Friendship)
By Matthias Küntzel
WJS Verlag. 352 pages, Hardcover.
As the 5+1 group ends another round of negotiations with Iran, commentators assume that the four Western powers involved -- the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany -- are united in their determination to curtail Iranian nuclear ambitions. However, in this fascinating book, German scholar Matthias Küntzel argues that Germany's position on this issue may be closer to that of Russia rather than the United States -- with Germany acting as "a shield for Iran against America," as Germany's former Foreign Minister Joshcka Fischer described his country.
The reason, according to Küntzel, is the "special relationship" that Iran and Germany have built since 1871, when Germany emerged as a nation-state. Two years after Germany was put on the map as a new country, Nassereddin Shah of Iran arrived in Berlin for a state visit of unprecedented pomp.
It is not hard to see why the two sides warmed up to each other. For over a century Iran had looked for a European power capable of counter-balancing the Russian and British empires that had nibbled at the edges of Iranian territory in pursuit of their colonial ambitions. In 1871, Germany looked like a good ally. As for Germans, they saw Iran as their sole potential ally in a Middle East dominated by Britain and Russia. The friendship was put to the test in the First World War, when Iran refused to join the anti-German axis and suffered as a consequence. With the advent of the Nazi regime, Küntzel shows, a new dimension was added to the Irano-German relationship: the myth of shared Aryan ancestry. In World War II Iran again declared its neutrality, but was invaded by Britain and Russia after refusing to sever relations with Germany.
Iranians had always regarded themselves as heirs to an Aryan identity, asserted in bas reliefs dating back to more than 2500 years ago. The Achaemenid King of Kings, Darius, describes himself as "Aryan son of an Aryan". The very name of the country, Iran, means "the land of Aryans." The idea of Germans as Aryans, however, dates back to the 19th century and the rise of nationalism in Europe. Then, writers such as Herder and Schlegel claimed that Germans were descendants of original Aryan tribes somewhere in Asia, splitting into several groups moving into India, Iran and Europe. (Much later, the Irish also claimed they were Aryans and named their newly-created republic Eire, which means land of Aryans.)
In the 1930s, Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler's philosophers, published "The Myth of the Twentieth Century", a book in which he claimed that the torch of Aryanism had passed from Iranians to Germans. The reason was that Iranians had been "corrupted" by Islam and mixed with "inferior races" such as Arabs, Turks, and Mongols. Thus, in 1936, when the Third Reich wanted to publish its official list of "superior" and "inferior" races, there was some debate regarding the place to be assigned to Iranians. In the end raison d'etat prevailed and Iran was declared an "Aryan nation".
However, that was not the end of story. The Iranian government demanded that the Reich recognize all citizens of Iran, including Jews, as "Aryans". That demand provoked anger among Nazi officials charged with the "elimination" of Jews.
Küntzel shows that Adolf Eichmann insisted that Iran's Jews, numbering over 60,000 at the time, be listed and rounded up by the Iranian authorities. Tehran rejected that demand and even went further by issuing visas to hundreds of German Jews who wished to leave the Reich. (The Iranian embassy in Paris did the same for hundreds of French Jews).
The "Aryan" myth was a source of major misunderstanding between Tehran and Berlin.
To Iranians, the term "Aryan" was cultural not racial; anybody who partook of Iranian culture could claim to be Aryan. One of ancient Iran's most famous queens, Esther, was Jewish. The maternal grandfather of Rustam, the mythical hero of Iran's national epic "Shahnameh" (The Book of Kings), was the Arab Zahhak. The late Ayatollah Khomeini boasted of his partially Arab ancestry by claiming to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
To Germans, however, Aryanism was a racial concept linked to blood and biology. The Nazis published supposedly scientific texts about the shape of the heads of "superior" and "inferior" races, the color of hair and eyes and the various shades of skin tan.
The misunderstanding continues even today.
In 1986, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the mullah who served as President of the Islamic Republic, wrote a letter to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl emphasizing "our common Aryan roots." Kohl's Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel liked to speak of "our joint heritage and a 100-year alliance".
In 2009 in a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the Irano-German "alliance, broken by the Allies in 1941" should be revived. Remarkably, German leaders did not bother to disown Hitler and distance themselves from the murderous myths spun by Nazis.
In the past 50 years or so, the "special relationship" between Iran and Germany has been highlighted in numerous ways. The first German industrial fair held in a foreign country after the Second World War was hosted by Tehran in 1960 with Economy Minister Ludwig Erhard leading a delegation of over 100 German businessmen. After that, all German Chancellors, starting with Konrad Adenauer, made a point of visiting Iran until the fall of the Shah. Even after the mullahs seized power, Germans pursued the special relationship through high-level visits, including that of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The only time the German Federal parliament approved a law unanimously was when it enacted legislation to guarantee investments in Iran.
Some critics claim that the Germans are attached to Iran for purely economic reasons.
Küntzel shows this not to be the case. As the world's number-one exporter, Germany has little need of Iran, which represented less than half of one per cent of all German exports in 2013. Nor is Germany a major importer of oil or anything else from Iran.
According to Küntzel, German leaders have at least two other reasons for helping Iran defy the United States.
The first is German resentment of defeat in the Second World War followed by foreign occupation, led by the US. That resentment cannot be publicly expressed, if only because Germany is a member of NATO and needed US protection against Russia, an even more dangerous enemy, during the Cold War. If Iran thumbs its nose at the US, so much the better.
The second reason is that Iran is one of the few countries, if not the only one, where Germans have never been looked at as "war criminals" because of Hitler. For over 100 years, Germany has been the favorite European power of most Iranians. Germans reciprocate the sentiment by having a good opinion of Iran. Küntzel cites a number of opinion polls that show a majority of Germans regard the US and Israel, rather than Iran, as the biggest threat to world peace.
Küntzel also asserts that Germans are fed up with being constantly reminded of Hitler's crimes and beaten on the head with what Martin Walser, one of Germany's most famous writers, calls "the Holocaust cudgel." Walser says: "The motives of those holding up our disgrace stem not from a desire to keep alive the idea of the impermissibility of forgetting but rather to exploit our disgrace for their present purposes."
That the Holocaust never attracted popular attention in Iran is a relief to many Germans. "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have repeatedly asserted that Holocaust never happened. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has disputed the figure of six million Jews killed by Hitler, putting the number at "around 20,000". Former President Muhammad Khatami claims that "the facts of the situation have not been independently verified and established."
Finally, the Iranian nuclear dossier provides Germany with an opportunity to play in the diplomatic big leagues. In economic terms, Germany is a bigger power than Britain, France, Russia and China. And, yet, it has no place in the Security Council. The 5+1 formula creates a parallel Security Council in which Germany has a decisive say. The exercise could become a precedent for other international initiatives in which Germany is treated as a member of the "big powers club."
Küntzel cites another possible reason for Germany's attempts at helping Iran maintain its nuclear program with a minimum of modifications. In the 1990s, Germany tried to develop a clandestine nuclear program, very much like what Iran had been doing, by developing two sites closed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At the time, President Bill Clinton forced the Germans to shut the program by threatening them with sanctions, a similar tactic used against Iran so far without success.
With the United States in global retreat under President Barack Obama, Germany is beginning to assert its independent personality: It is in neither Western nor Eastern camps, Küntzel shows. It is at the center of a new "political pole" in Europe.
Küntzel's book is of special interest for the glimpse it offers into what many German politicians and scholars feel and think in silence.
A recent official German report states: "The Federal Republic has no evidence showing that Iran's nuclear program has a military aspect." That may explain, at least in part, Berlin's ambiguous position during the 5+1 negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
Originally written in German, Küntzel's book is also available in an excellent Persian version and is due for publication in English as well.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist and author.