Between Worlds and Wars: The Formation of Iranian-German Modernism

Comprising the several hundred Iranians living in Germany during the 1920s was a disproportionately influential coterie of Iranian intellectual exiles who converged around Berlin. Drawing on their publications and journals, my paper will make a case for a nascent German-Iranian modernism which was fertilized by cross-cultural and cross-linguistic interactions. Of particular interest are four Persian language journals published in Berlin between 1916 and 1928 which forged a kind of cultural and linguistic nationalism in exile. Steeped in Western culture and equally versed in current Middle Eastern intellectual trends, contributors mediated between different cultures and literary traditions. Due to censorship within Iran, these publications exerted a major influence over the exile community as well as intellectual circles inside Iran. Surveying the work and publications of two major writers, I will argue that they combined German scholarship with a distinctly Iranian national idiom to form an exilic German-Iranian modernist discourse embedded in critiques of both cultures.

In 1916 Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh, Sayyed Ḥasan Taqizadeh and a group of Iranian intellectuals founded the periodical “Kaveh,” which was circulated in Europe and Iran until 1922. A prominent Iranian modernist, Jamalzadeh feared that the adoption of western education would lead to the decline of the Persian language and to a subsequent loss of Iranian identity. Like Joyce, Döblin, and other European modernists, he experimented with language, jargon, and dialects as a means of exploring his multicultural literary inheritance as well as his anxieties about artistic originality. His unique style can be thought of as a German-Persian modernist hybrid, combining Iranian idiom with a direct, European-influenced diction.

Hossein Kazemzadeh Iranshahr, another Iranian intellectual exile, developed a more critical stance toward Western civilization and ideologies, warning his countrymen about emulating the West and espousing a modern Iranian national identity which combined Iranian moral values with Western advancements. A friend of the “Kaveh” circle, he lived in Germany between 1915 and 1936, where he published six German books and founded “Iranshahr,” a Persian language magazine which circulated between 1922 and 1926. Ironically, given his suspicion of Western ideologies, he proposed that Iranian nationalism harness the “blood and soil of the Aryan Race,” indicating he had been influenced by National Socialism. Combining German intellectual thought with Iranian literary and political tradition, writers like Jamalzadeh and Iranshahr forged a critical and not uncontroversial German-Iranian modernist discourse informed by the liminal position of exile.