GERMANY viii. German cultural influence in Persia




German culture was and is very highly appreciated in Persia, but its influence on Persian culture is usually overrated. A lasting influence was mainly exercised on Persians who either attended a German school in Persia, had other personal contacts with Germans, studied in Germany, or worked there.

Schools and universities in Persia. During the early phases of the introduction of modern education in Persia, French was the only European language taught at Persian schools and, in certain cases, even the language used for lessons and examination. The Dār al-fonūn (q.v.) had Austrian professors, but their lectures were translated into French. In 1907, a cultural agreement between the German Empire and Persia led to the founding of the first German school in Tehran (Madrasa-ye ālmānī; Plate V), where students, from the very first grade, studied German for nine hours a week (Plate VI; Dawlatābādī, Ḥayāt-e Yaḥyā II, pp. 208-10). Funded by both the Persian (12,000 tomans) and German governments (3,000 tomans), the school was well-equipped with laboratories and sport facilities (Hedāyat, p. 74; ʿĀqelī, ed., pp. 25-27). It led to the Persian high school degree, but imparted knowledge far exceeding the usual high school level, so that its exclusively Persian graduates often found employment in high Persian government positions. Its graduates, a number of whom had continued their study in Germany, provided the technical expertise for the establishment and running of the Persian railway system.

In 1923, a German-Persian vocational school (madrasa-ye ṣanʿatī) was founded in Tehran. It was taken over by the Persian government in 1937 and, after the Allied occupation of Persia in 1941, was banned from offering German lessons, although it continued to employ German teachers up to the 1950s. In the 1930s, more vocational schools were founded with German participation in Tabrīz, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Mašhad. These schools trained qualified technicians who decisively furthered the country’s industrialization. Many statesmen under Reżā Shah Pahlavī were graduates of these schools (e.g., Aḥmad Matīn-Daftarī and Jaʿfar Šarīf-Emāmī) and were regarded as Germanophiles. Thirty of them were incarcerated by the Allied forces during their occupation of Persia (Lārūdī, pp. 172-80).

In 1932, the German colony in Tehran established a German school, which had to be closed during World War II. In 1955, another German school was founded in cooperation with the German embassy. By 1964, it comprised all elementary and secondary classes and was recognized as a German secondary school abroad. By late 1978 it had 1,500 pupils and was the largest German school abroad. The two schools can hardly have contributed to introducing German culture in Persia, since a high percentage of their students consisted of pupils issuing from mixed German-Persian couples or of Persians who had lived and started school in Germany.

After the cancellation of the cultural agreement and the closing down of the Goethe Institute (q.v.) founded in 1958, which had about one thousand students in 1978, imparting the German language and culture to Persians became for a few years the monopoly of the Austrian Cultural Institute. The new German Language Institute established by the German embassy in spring 1995 has not been allowed to engage in any cultural activity, because, in the wake of the Salman Rushdie controversy, the new cultural agreement concluded between Tehran and Bonn on 29 November 1988 has not yet been put in force.

German language and literature could be studied at the University of Tehran, which was founded in 1935, but until the mid-1960s there were very few students concentrating on German language and literature. In the 1960s and 1970s, undergraduate courses in German language and literature were also established in Tehran at the National University (Dānešgāh-e mellī) and Teachers College (Dāneš-sarā-ye ʿālī) as well as in the universities of Isfahan, Shiraz, and Kermān. These courses are still being offered today and have awakened increasing interest in the last five years. In September 1977, pursuant to an agreement between the governments of Persia and the Federal Republic of Germany, a German-oriented university (Dānešgāh-e Gīlān) was founded in Rašt. It offered, among other things, courses in German language and literature, but the agreement was annulled in 1980 and the university closed down for two years. It started again in 1982, but without any German orientation (Ḵomāmīzāda, pp. 520-21). Until 1940, the University of Tehran had a few German lecturers in fields not related to German culture. The fact that they had to teach in French did not rule out a cultural influence.

Persian graduates of German universities. A large number of government scholarship holders or sons of wealthy families who went to study in Europe between 1811 and the foundation of Tehran University in 1935 (see EDUCATION xxi), chose France or the French-speaking part of Switzerland for their higher education. A few of them went to England and only a small fraction chose Germany. Both financial and linguistic problems contributed to the fact that it was only in the early 1950s that a large influx of Persian students came to Germany. In the 1960s and 1970s, almost a fourth of all Persian students abroad were in the German Federal Republic. Up to the Revolution of 1978-79, more than 40,000 Persian students, especially of medicine and engineering, were trained in Germany. Quite a few of them stayed in Germany, but some went back to Persia, where they contributed greatly to cultural relations. Some of the returnees found positions at Persian universities, where they passed on to their students the knowledge and methods acquired in Germany.

Literature. Cultural relations between Persia and Germany are stereotypically described in Persian publications as very old and close and marked with mutual understanding. German scholars played a significant role in introducing the Persian cultural heritage to the West, a role manifested in particular in research and numerous German translations of Persian works. Efforts to translate works of classical Persian literature into German date back as early as the first half of the 17th century; German literature, however, was introduced into Persia not only much later, but also indirectly. In the second half of the 19th century, when, in the wake of the general western orientation, European literature started being translated into Persian, French was the key language for imparting Western culture in Persia. Even German literature first made its way into Persia as an element of French cultural expansion. Until the 1930s, all German classics translated into Persian, e. g., Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (tr. N. Falsafī as Sargoḏašt-e Verter, Tehran, 1926) and the first part of his Faust (tr. ʿA. Banī Ṣadr, 1938), made this detour via French. Among the very few works translated directly from German are those undertaken by Persian literati living in Germany between the two World Wars, e.g., Friedrich von Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans (tr. B. ʿAlawī as Dūšīza-ye Orleʾān, Tehran, 1930) and Maria Stuart (tr. ʿA.-Ḥ. Meykada, 1930). After World War II, English became the most studied and spoken foreign language in Persia, providing another avenue for translating German literature into Persian. Even today most German literary works are not translated directly from German, although German has meanwhile become the second most important foreign language after English and before French.

German literature of the 20th century became known in Persia after World War II and soon superseded the classics. The propagation of modern German literature in Persia owes much to the literary journal Soḵan, in which many German authors and their works were first presented to the Persian public, e.g., Franz Kafka’s Vor dem Gesetz and Die Verwandlung. Success and a large reading public rewarded the kind of German literature that corresponded to the Persian taste both by its content and style. Among these were works of social criticism which could easily be applied to Persia’s own social problems. Among the works particularly popular were Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (tr. K. Jahāndārī as Gorg-e bīābān, Tehran, 1961) and Siddhartha (tr. F. Garakānī as Sedherthā, Tehran, 1962), Heinrich Böll’s Ansichten eines Clowns, Günter Grass’s Katz und Maus, Max Frisch’s Andorra, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. Especially popular were Franz Kafka, who greatly appealed to Persians (Rahnema, p. 143), and above all, before the revolution, Bertolt Brecht. An extraordinary success was Stefan Zweig, whose works formed one third of all fiction translated from Western languages between 1945 and 1955. Normally, however, the share of German literature was rather insignificant, and the reception of many works was and is limited to a small cultural elite.

The influence of these works on Persian literature still continues to be comparatively insignificant. Persian poetry, which has its own powerful tradition behind it, has been less subject to external influences. The modern Persian novel (see FICTION iib) was mainly influenced by French novelists. Persian short story authors (see FICTION iic) have mainly followed English and American models. German drama was popular and was performed before the revolution, but major incentives for Persian dramatists issued for a long time from French plays. Kafka is generally considered to have been the greatest inspiration for modern Persian literature. Ṣādeq Hedāyat (1903-51) translated excerpts of Kafka’s works for the journal Soḵan and also provided a theoretical introduction to Kafka’s work with his Payām-e Kāfkā (Tehran, 1948). The seemingly plausible statement that Kafka provided a stylistic model for Hedāyat appears to be questionable, however, since Kafka’s works were almost exclusively translated from French into Persian. As with many other authors, it must have been the content, rather than the form, which exercised the stronger influence (Katouzian, pp. 141-43, 229-42).

Those exposed to a lasting influence were some of the prominent representatives of modern Persian literature who lived in Germany and were directly in touch with German culture. Thus Bozorg ʿAlawī/Alavi (1904-97), who studied in Germany in the 1920s, lived there in exile from 1953 until his death. He was professor of Persian language and literature at the Humboldt University in East Berlin until 1975 and wrote in the preface to his Geschichte ... persischen Literatur that he owed his own intellectual evolution to German culture. The same is true of his friend Moḥammad-ʿAlī Jamālzāda (1892-1997), the father of modern Persian short story writing, who worked from 1916 to 1930 at the Persian embassy in Berlin, where he first published his famous Yakī būd yakī nabūd. He was a member of the committee of Persian nationalists (Komīta-ye mellīūn-e Īrān) that was founded in Berlin in 1915 under the leadership of Ḥasan Taqīzāda. He wrote for the journal Kāva, edited by the latter, which played a prominent role in the propagation of scientific methods and the development of modern Persian intellectual history. The influences of German culture and literature on ʿAlawī and Jamālzāda also reflected indirectly on other Persian authors, such as Hūšang Golšīrī (1937-2000).

The influence of German thought was particularly remarkable in the philosophical realm. Aḥmad Fardīd (1912-94), one of the most influential contemporary Persian philosophers, who had studied in Germany and France, acquainted Persian intellectuals with Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Hegel, Emmanuel Kant and other German philosophers. He was especially interested in Martin Heidegger, who also influenced Jalāl Āl-e Aḥmad (1923-69, q.v.). Both Āl-e Aḥmad’s and Fardīd’s concept of Ḡarb-zadagī (q.v.) clearly reveal traces of Heidegger. Since the 1950s, a circle including the country’s leading intellectuals, philosophers, and translators had formed around Fardīd (Boroujerdi, pp. 63-65, 70 f.).

German image and popularity. The attention of Persians was first drawn to Germany by the power constellations of the late 19th century and the World War I alliances. Germany, a powerful enemy of Great Britain and Russia, had to be Persia’s friend, inspiring the country with the hope of liberating itself from the interferences of these two powers. Since then, Germany’s image in Persia has always been good despite some political ill-feelings. Even today, twenty years after the revolution, Germany’s popularity is intact despite sporadically critical relations. However, this popularity is not due to a success in cultural relations, but to economic and technical cooperation and the Persian appreciation of German products. Germans are often taken aback by the sympathy of many Persians, including young people, for Hitler, and by their pride in belonging to the same Aryan race as the Germans.



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B. Alavi, Geschichte und Entwicklung der modernen persischen Literatur, Berlin, 1965.

H. Ansari, “Deutsch-iranische Beziehungen nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg,” Ph.D. diss., Munich, 1967.

B. ʿĀqelī, ed., Doktor Aḥmad Matīn-daftarī: ḵāṭerāt-e yak naḵost wazīr, Tehran, 1992.

M. Boroujerdi, Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism, Syracuse, N. Y., 1996.

C. Catanzaro, “Zwischen Statussymbol und Allheilmittel für alle sozialen Übel: zur Rolle der Universität Teheran beim Aufbau der Nation,” Ph.D. diss., Bamberg, 1999.

I. Chehabi,”’In meinem Land gibt es keine Rose…’: Kulturelle Beziehungen zwischen Deutschland und Iran,” Die Horen 123, 1981, pp. 149-52.

Deutsche Schule Teheran 62-64 (yearbook). M. Etteḥādīya, “Masāʾel wa kayfīyat-e goḏarān-e yak dānešjū-ye Īrānī dar Ālmān 1340-1348 h. q./1921-1930 m.,” in idem, Īnjā Ṭehrān ast ... majmūʿa-ye maqalāt dar bāre-ye Ṭehrān 1269-1344 h. q., Tehran, 1377 Š./1998, pp. 421-42.

A. Gabriel, Die Erforschung Persiens, Vienna, 1952.

M. Moḵber-al-Salṭana Hedāyat, Ḵāṭerāt wa ḵaṭarāt, Tehran, 1329 Š./1950, pp. 72-74.

M. Kāmrān, ed., Dīdahā wa šanīdahā: ḵāṭerāt-e Mīrzā Abū’l-Qāsem Ḵān Kaḥḥālzāda, monšī-e sefārat-e emperātūrī-e Ālmān dar Īrān dar bāra-ye moškelāt-e Īrān dar jang-e bayn-al-melalī-e 1914-1918, Tehran, 1363 Š./1984, pp. 185-87.

H. Katouzian, Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Literature of an Iranian Writer, London and New York, 1991.

J. Ḵomāmīzāda, “Āmūzeš-e ʿālī,” in Ketāb-e Gīlān, 3 vols., Tehran, 1374 Š./1995, III, pp. 519-35. N. Lārūdī, Asīrān, Tehran, 1332 Š./1953.

ʿA. Mahdawī, “Afsāna-ye etteḥād-e Reżā Šāh bā Ālmān-e hītlerī,” in idem, Ṣaḥnahā-ī az tārīḵ-e moʿāṣer-e Īrān, Tehran, 1377 Š./1998, pp. 261-80.

A. Mahrad, Die deutsch-persischen Beziehungen von 1918-1933, Frankfurt am Main, 1979.

M. Mīraḥmadī, Pažūheš-ī dar tārīḵ-e moʿāṣer-e Īrān: barḵord-e Šarq o Ḡarb dar Īrān (1900-1950), 2nd ed., Mašhad, 1368 Š./1989, pp. 91-93.

Idem, “Rawābeṭ-e Irān o Ālmān dar qarn-e nūzdahom-e mīlādī,” Majalla-ye taḥqīqāt-e tārīḵī 1/1, 1368 Š./1989, pp. 75-111.

T. Rahnema, “Die deutsche Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts in Iran,” Die Horen 123, 1981, pp. 141-48.

Wezārat-e omūr-e ḵāreja, Edāre-ye sevvom-e sīāsī, ed., Kešvar-e jomhūrī-e federāl-e Ālmān, 1350 Š./1971, pp. 79-83.

M. Ẓahīr-nežād Eršādī, ed., Gozīda-ye asnād-e rawābeṭ-e Īrān o Ālmān, 3 vols., Tehran 1376-77 Š./1997-98, I, pp. xxxvii-xl and docs. 143-69; II, docs. 99-125; III, docs. 93-132.

(Christl Catanzaro)

Originally Published: December 15, 2001

Last Updated: February 7, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. X, Fasc. 6, pp. 564-567