GERMANY ix. Germans in Persia

The Germans in Persia who have risen to a certain prominence fall mainly into one or more of the following categories: a) travelers and explorers (see above); b) experts in the service of the Persian government; c) agents and soldiers; d) members of German institutions in Persia.




The Germans in Persia who have risen to a certain prominence fall mainly into one or more of the following categories: a) travelers and explorers (see above); b) experts in the service of the Persian government; c) agents and soldiers; d) members of German institutions in Persia.

Germans in Persian government service. Since 1873, Persia had not only been trying to intensify its diplomatic relations with Germany but had also been keen to attract German advisers and experts. In autumn 1885 a special mission under Moḥsen Khan asked for military instructors and an administrative advisor. Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah wanted this advisor to become a kind of plenipotentiary for the reform of Persia’s system of government. Although Bismarck had refused to sent anybody on an official basis two retired Prussian generals, Fellmer and Weth, entered Persian service in a private capacity. Fellmer remained in Persia until the end of the 1890s and Weth left in 1911 (Martin, p. 31-33). Shortly before World War I the Prussian sergeant Haase came to Persia as an artillery instructor. In 1922, having risen to the rank of colonel in the Persian army, he traveled to Germany as a representative of the Persian government. As an indirect result of the Haase mission, in 1924, the German engineer Hartmann became head of the arsenal in Tehran, which he successfully led until 1932 (Hirschfeld, pp. 41-42, 125).

In summer 1925 Ernst Herzfeld (q.v.) was invited to advise the Persian government on archeological affairs (Hirschfeld, pp. 55, 77). Both by his excavations and by his efforts to propagate the importance of archeological research, he contributed much to the development of archeology as an academic discipline in Persia (Morey, pp. 2-4). He was passed over, however, when in 1928 the Persian government placed the French André Godard (q.v.) at the head of the Department of Antiquities (Edāra-ye koll-e bāstān-šenāsī; Mahrad, pp. 217-19).

In September 1928 Kurt Lindenblatt became chairman of the newly founded National Bank of Persia (Bānk-e mellī-e Īrān; see BANKING), the highest position ever held by a German national in Persian service. Being responsible for financing the ambitious program of industrialization and since May 1930 for the issue of bank notes, Lindenblatt wielded considerable power. He nevertheless lost his post in summer 1932 when a number of highly questionable and risky financial transactions were uncovered (Hirschfeld, p. 321). The affair developed into a veritable scandal after Lindenblatt’s deputy, Otto Vogel, who had fled Persia, committed suicide in Beirut in September 1932 (Hirschfeld, p. 128). Another German expert, Walter Horschitz-Horst, replaced Lindenblatt and headed the National Bank until January 1934. Lindenblatt was tried and sentenced to prison in October 1933. He appealed and was finally allowed to leave the country in April 1934 after having paid an indemnity (Hirschfeld, p. 146; Maḥbūbī, Moʾassasāt I, pp. 114-17).

In December 1928 Otto Schniewind became a senior adviser for the Persian ministry of Finance, bringing with him a small team of other German financial experts. However, as he disagreed with his Persian colleagues over how to tackle the financial crisis that had hit Persia in early 1930, the Persian government did not renew his contract in October 1930. In May 1934 the last member of his mission left Persian service (Hirschfeld, pp. pp. 93-95, 103-4, 146, 321-22).

Soon after the National Socialist takeover in Germany, a considerable number of now persecuted German-Jewish scholars and scientists inquired about the possibilities for asylum in Persia. Some of them came up with a proposal to establish a university in Persia to be staffed by this highly qualified experts of all fields. In their proposal they referred to the successful transfer of forty professors to Turkey (see the letter of Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland in French addressed to the head of cabinet of His Majesty the Shah, Zurich, 6 January 1934, which was transferred to the cabinet of the prime minister on 5 Bahman 1312 Š./25 January 1934 with a request to check the feasibility of the project, in Āḏarī Šahreżāʾī, p. 134; for the Persian translation see ibid., pp. 28-29). After a protracted decision-making process, the government decided to welcome Jewish experts but the project never materialized on a large scale as intended in the first place. Only a very small number of Jewish experts actually entered Persian service (Āḏarī Šahreżāʾī, pp. xxiv-xxvi).

Agents and soldiers. German agents active in Persia during World War I, particularly Wilhelm Wassmuss, created considerable headache for the Allied headquarters. Initially appointed consul to Shiraz in 1915, Wassmuss had his diplomatic guise removed and decided on his own to move to the Persian Gulf region. There he stirred up anti-British feelings and encouraged a number of local khans to attack British positions. Having excellent contacts stemming from his pre-war posting to Būšehr (q.v.), he was quite successful in alarming the enemy, yet his success was due much more to psychological factors than to actual military strength. From the hinterland of Būšehr his allies managed to block the road to Shiraz. Furthermore, between November 1915 and August 1916 one of Wassmuss’ allies, Zāʾer Ḵeżr Khan Tangestānī, held the British consul to Shiraz, Frederick O’Connor, and six other British hostage in his stronghold at Ahram, just forty miles from Būšehr (Wright, p. 174; Sepehr, pp. 233-36; Oberling, pp. 128-36). Wassmuss was captured near Qom only after the end of the war (March 1919). In 1924, Wassmuss was back in Būšehr with peaceful intentions. He wanted to introduce modern agricultural methods by setting up a model farm. He convinced his wartime allies to put the money that the German government was to pay them into a joint venture. Wassmuss worked tirelessly to make the project commercially viable, but the whole project eventually failed due to the resurgence of clan rivalries amongst his partners. In 1931 a broken Wassmuss returned to Germany, where he died in 1935 (Sepehr, pp. 74-88; Mikusch, passim).

Other German agents failed to achieve Wassmuss’ almost legendary fame. Max Otto Schuenemann, stirring up Kermānšāh, succeeded in driving out the Allied colonies from that city; Fritz Seiler, Erich Zugmayer, and Lieutenant Walter Griesinger working in Isfahan, Yazd and especially Kermān, turned these cities between summer 1915 and spring 1916 into anti-Allied strongholds. Those men had initially been members of the Afghanistan bound mission headed by First Lieutenant Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer (Gehrke, pp. 69-245; Griesinger, passim; Vogel, pp. 61-75, 102-25; Ducrocq, pp. 55-199). Another German, Kurt Wustrow, consul in Shiraz since summer 1915, skillfully orchestrated the activities of the pro-German National Committee for the Protection of Persian Independence (Komīta-ye mellī-e ḥāfeẓīn-e esteqlāl-e mamālek-e Īrān) that reigned over the city from late December 1915 until March 1916 (Mikusch, pp. 207, 221; Oberling, pp. 133-34). In summer 1918, Wustrow reappeared in Persia as consul in Tabrīz. There he got closely involved in the city’s internal political struggles, which led eventually to his assassination (Zürrer, p. 47). Another tragic figure was the German military attaché, Count Kanitz, who since April 1915 had been traveling all over west Persia distributing money and promises in order to win over the region’s tribal leaders to the German cause. In early November 1915 he also attempted to stir up a rebellion amongst the Tehran based units of the Cossack Brigade. During the Russian offensive of late 1915/early 1916 Kanitz finally realized that he had largely over-estimated his allies’ capability to resist regular Russian troops. He is believed to have committed suicide on 15 January 1916, after yet another defeat at Bīd-sorḵ near Kangāvar (Gehrke, pp. 219-20; Sepehr, pp. 316-17; Samīʿī and Ardalān, pp. 98-100).

Other Germans in Persia during World War I include Wilhelm Litten, German consul in Tabrīz in 1914 (Litten, 1925, passim) and the later German minister to Tehran (1931-35); Wipert von Blücher, who tried to win support for the Germans amongst the Kalhor Kurds in western Persia (Blücher, pp. 47-49); Captain Fritz Klein, Lieutenant Hans Lührs, and their men, who attacked British oil installations in Ḵūzestān in 1915 (Gehrke, pp. 91-95; Lührs, 87-125); and First Lieutenant Hugo Erdmann, who successfully stirred up anti-Allied feelings in Hamadān in 1915/16 (Erdmann, 34-48). A considerable number of further German diplomats, soldiers and physicians supported Neẓām-al-Salṭana Māfī and his provisional government between 1915 and 1917 (Gleich, passim; Kiesling, pp. 876-80, 87, 112, 122-69; Nadolny, pp. 42-59; Samīʿī and Ardalān, pp. 81-82).

Compared to the First World War, German military and intelligence involvement in Persia during World War II was insignificant. Nevertheless it was exactly by pointing to the allegedly strong and dangerous German presence in Persia that the Allies tried to justify their invasion of Persia on 3 Šahrīvar 1320 Š./24 August 1941. For that reason, in summer 1941, the allied propaganda heavily overestimated the number of Germans present in Persia. The Soviets sometimes came up with numbers as high as 5,000 to 10,000 men (Hirschfeld, p. 275-76; Madani, p. 266, who repeats the Soviet figures without question). The actual figure seems not to have exceeded 1000 including women and children. On the 9th of July 1941 the journal Eṭṭelāʿāt reported the number of German men working in Persia to be 690 (Hirschfeld, p. 270). Internal documents of the German legation from August 1941 mention 1,052 Germans, 567 of which were men (Hirschfeld, p. 276). There was only a remote potential danger emanating from those Germans, if indeed there was any at all. Privately, even the Soviets admitted that the number of professional German agents in Persia did not exceed ten (Hirschfeld, p. 277; Rezun, pp. 54-56).

One of these agents was Major Bernhardt Schulze-Holthus, who worked for the German military intelligence, the Abwehr. He came to Tabrīz in the middle of May 1941, disguised as the German vice-consul. As the attack on the Soviet Union was imminent the main focus of Schulze-Holthus’s intelligence activities was Soviet Azebaijan. Determined to hold out in the countryside, Schulze-Holthus tried to reach Afghanistan in September 1941. After this had failed, he went underground in Tehran, keeping his contact with anti-Allied circles within the armed forces and amongst politicians. In June 1942, Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan, the head of the Qašqāʾī tribe, invited Schulze-Holthus to stay with him as his military advisor. The invitation was communicated to Schulze-Holthus in Tehran by Ḥabīb-Allāh Nowbaḵt, who accompanied him to the tribal headquarters of Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan (Schulze-Holthus, tr., pp. 146-58). Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan, who had rejoined his tribe from exile in Tehran after Reżā Shah’s abdication, now felt strong enough to challenge the central government in order to regain the privileged semi-autonomous status that the Qašqāʾīs had lost as a result of Reżā Shah’s ruthless policy of sedentarization. Already during World War I, the Qašqāʾīs had supported the Germans, and now again two of Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan’s brothers, Malek-Manṣūr and Moḥammad-Ḥosayn, were officers in the German army (Madani, p. 460). When Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan invited Schulze-Holthus, he might have indeed believed in quickly getting German support for his cause, hoping that the German offensive would soon traverse the Caucasus. With the help of a German engineer, Konstantin Jakob Hummel, Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan had an airstrip built in Farrāšband in the hope of receiving weapons directly from Germany as well as making it possible for German troops to land in case it becomes viable (Schulze-Holthus, tr., pp. 162, 175-76, 178-79, 186-88; Oberling, p. 172). In summer 1943, after having inflicted a number of defeats on the government troops that had been sent out against him, Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan bargained for a new autonomous status for his tribe with British and government representatives. The presence of Schulze-Holthus among the Qašqāʾīs, whom the British were intent on capturing, was a valuable bargaining chip in the khan’s hand during these negotiations. He twice had refused the government’s offer of cash (5,000,000 and 20,000,000 tomans) and the recognition of the semi-autonomous status of the tribe in exchange for handing over Schulze-Holthus (Schulze-Holthus, tr., pp. 167-68, 217). In autumn 1943, Malek-Manṣūr, a second lieutenant in the German army, was offered by the Gestapo the rank of a major in the Gestapo if he and his brother would carry out a secret mission in Persia. Malek-Manṣūr Khan and his brother, as military officers, deeply despised the Gestapo; therefore, the offer was rejected and the two brothers fled Germany for Istanbul (author’s private conversation with Malek-Manṣūr Khan Ṣawlat Qašqāʾī, Tehran, July 1998; Oberling, pp. 181-82). They, however, fell into the hands of the British secret service near Aleppo on their way to Persia and were transferred to Cairo. Under these conditions, Schulze-Holthus and three agents of the German political intelligence service (Sicherheitsdienst = SD), who had parachuted into the Qašqāʾī region in summer 1943, became even more valuable in Moḥammad-Nāṣer Khan’s hands. After the khan had reached a satisfactory agreement, he eventually handed the Germans over to the British in late March 1944, but not without having obtained guarantees as to their privileged treatment (Schulze-Holthus, tr., pp. 278-79, 283, 295-317; Madani, pp. 453-73; Oberling, pp. 170-82). Miron Rezun (pp. 56-63) has argued that Schulze-Holthus was in fact a Soviet double agent whose real name was Ilya Svetlov. This is an interesting proposition that deserves serious consideration, but, unfortunately, nothing definite can be said before the KGB archives become accessible.

Apart from Schulze-Holtus there was at least one other professional German agent who stayed behind in Persia after the Anglo-Soviet invasion, namely Franz Mayer of the German political intelligence service (on his activities see Schulze-Holthus, passim). Mayer had come to Persia in summer 1940, disguised as a business representative (Hirschfeld, p. 256). From April 1943 he was supported by a small group of SD agents who had parachuted near Tehran (Schulze-Hotlthus, tr., p. 212; Madani, pp. 463, 467). Until his arrest by the British in August 1943, Mayer quite successfully collaborated with nationalist officers and politicians, including Major General Fażl-Allāh Zāhedī, the military commander of Isfahan at that time (Schulze-Holthus, tr., pp. 174, 186, 191, 264; Madani, p. 463). Already in 1941 the Abwehr had sent another two of its agents to Persia: Stark, who was to work in Baluchistan (early 1941), and Gräwer, who went to the Persian Gulf region (June 1941; Hirschfeld, p. 246). So far very little is known about their activities.

As a whole, the German agents of World War II seem to have been less successful than their predecessors. Nevertheless, they had to act under rather different conditions such as a much higher degree of centralization of the Persian state, the existence of a regular Persian army, and the lack of a German ally bordering Persia as had been the case with the Ottoman Empire.

German institutions in Persia. In 1906, the Persian and German governments agreed to the establishment of a German secondary school, which was to be funded by the two countries. In May 1907, the Deutsche Schule Tehran (Madrasa-ye ālmānī) began to operate with forty students. It soon gained a good reputation and the enrollment grew steadily. After the outbreak of World War I the school continued to work as a Persian-German joint venture, but in 1918 it was taken over by the Persian government (Kochwasser, pp. 90-92; Martin, pp. 94, 98; Dawlatābādī, Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā II, pp. 208-10). In 1925 a new joint Persian-German secondary education establishment began to operate on the same premises: the Deutsch-Persische Gewerbeschule (Madrasa-ye ṣanʿatī-e Īrān o Ālmān). It offered a combination of science oriented secondary education (with German as first foreign language) and technical apprenticeship in several professions. The school later opened branches in Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabrīz, and Mašhad. In 1937 the Persians took the school over but kept a number of the German teaching staff as well as the school’s whole German orientation. After the Allied occupation of Persia in 1941, the school continued to exist as an entirely Persian institution and the teaching of German became forbidden until the end of the war (Kochwasser, pp. 129-30). In 1957 the branches in Tehran and Tabrīz regained their joint German-Persian status with Germany, sending the necessary equipment and German teaching staff resuming their work (Kochwasser, pp. 252-53). The Deutsche Schule Teheran had already resumed its activities in 1955, taking the form of a full-fledged German secondary school (Gymnasium), administered from Germany by the corresponding authority (Bundestelle für das Auslandsschulwesen). The school’s degree was accepted by both Persian and German authorities of higher education. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this school became extremely popular with Persian students, including those without any German background at all. Demand was by far outgrowing offer (Fabry, pp. 198-204; Kochwasser, pp. 250-51).

The Federal Republic of Germany had made an agreement with the Persian government in 1961 to establish a German-oriented university (Dānešgāh-e Gīlān) in Rašt. The German state of Baden-Württemberg, home of prestigious universities such as those of Tübingen and Heidelberg, took over the responsibility to realize this project (Kochwasser, p. 254). It was, however, only in 1974 that the two countries started to take concrete measures to realize the plan. The opening ceremony took place in Rašt in November 1977 with the enrollment of 155 students, although most of the buildings were still to be erected. The university was to be financed by the Persian state while Germany was to provide one third of the academic staff. Nevertheless, before the project could have a chance for full realization, the agreement was annulled in 1980 following the revolution, and the university closed down until 1982 when it reopened without any official ties to Germany (Fabry, 204-7; Ḵomāmīzāda, pp. 520-21).

In 1925 the German pastor Ernst J. Christoffel (1876-1955), the founder of the Christian Blind Mission, opened a home for the blind in Tabrīz, followed in 1929 by another one in Isfahan. After the Anglo-Soviet invasion, Christoffel was initially allowed to continue his charitable work in Isfahan. Nevertheless, in late August 1943, he was suddenly arrested (probably in connection with Mayer’s arrest (see above) and stayed in several British camps of prisoners of war until his release in June 1946. Immediately after this invasion of Persia in August 1941, the Soviets interned sister Hanna Harms, who had taken over the Tabrīz branch in June 1940. She could only leave Soviet captivity in 1955. Schulze-Holthus erroneously claims that the Soviet secret police (Narodnyi kommissariat vnutrennikh del) had killed her in Tabrīz (ref. to as Sister Elisabeth; Schulze-Holthus, tr. p. 87). The home for the blind resumed its activities in 1951 after Christoffel had returned to Isfahan, where he also died in 1955 (Schmidt-König, pp. 26-68). In 1972, according to the policy of local ingraining adopted by the Christian Blind Mission’s headquarters, the Isfahan branch, although still funded from Germany, joined the Episcopal Church of Persia (q.v.). At the height of its activities the Isfahan home included several workshops, a school for telephone operators, and a Braille printing press. A specialist clinic also worked for early detection and prevention of common eye diseases (Fabry, p. 208-9).

As a result of the upturn in Persian-German economic relations in the mid-1930s, the German-Persian Chamber of Commerce (Deutsch-Iranische Handelskammer) was established in Berlin in April 1936 (Hirschfeld, p. 169). In 1952, it resumed its activities in Hamburg. Since then, unaffected by the ups and downs in the political relations, it has been working to promote Persian-German economic co-operation providing services especially to smaller and middle-sized firms. Its Tehran partner organization, the official Irano-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (Otāq-e bāzargānī wa ṣanāyeʿ-e Īrān o Ālmān), was established in July 1975 (Fabry, p. 162-163).

In 1958, the Goethe-Institut (q.v.) opened its Tehran branch, to which a sub-branch was added in Shiraz in November 1975. Initially the Goethe-Institut (founded in 1951) concentrated on language courses but it developed gradually into a fully-fledged structure of German cultural institutes abroad. In the 1970s, after the Munich head-quarters had adopted a policy partly inspired by the ideals of 1968, director Heinz Becker opened the Tehran branch also to Persian intellectuals critical of government policies. He thus offered them a forum that they could have hardly found elsewhere inside Persia. Hence the now legendary week of public readings held by the institute in October 1977 almost developed into a political demonstration. Thousands of people gathered outside and listened to the transmission via loudspeakers of the merely veiled criticism of the regime expressed in the poems and writings (Fabry, pp. 196-98, 213-15). After the revolution, the Tehran branch continued to function until February 1987, when the Persian government demanded its closure because a satire on Ayatollah Rūḥ-Allāh Ḵomeynī had appeared on German television (Deutsches Orientinstitut, p. 84).

The Deutsche Archäologische Institut (q.v.) opened its Tehran branch (Abteilung Tehran) in 1961. Under its directors Hans Henning von der Osten (1961), Heinz Luschey (1961-71), and Wolfram Kleiss (1971-95), the Tehran branch continued the great tradition of German ancient and Islamic archeology in Persia that had been established by noted scholars such as Ernst Herzfeld, Friedrich Sarre (who co-operated with Herzfeld before World War I), Ernst Diez (who worked on early Islamic architecture in Khorasan; Gabriel, p. 141), and the Sasanian expert Kurt Erdmann (Fabry, pp. 195-196). After the revolution, the Tehran branch had to scale down its activities considerably. By 1996 it eventually ceased to exist and its staff were integrated into the DAI’s newly established Eurasian department. The branch’s premises in the northeast of Tehran were abandoned, the mobile property was sold, and the fine library was transferred in entirety to Berlin.



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(Oliver Bast)

Originally Published: December 15, 2001

Last Updated: February 7, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. X, Fasc. 6, pp. 567-572