Bösch (Frank)

Frank Bösch, Fighting for Democracy Abroad: Iranian Protest in West Germany, 1955-1973

In 1967, the Iranian Bahman Nirumand published the book Persia, a Model of a Developing Country or The Dictatorship of the Free World.[1] His work, published in West Germany, denounced the autocracy in Iran and blamed Western democracies in particular for the fact that a dictatorship was exploiting the Iranian people who thus were living in poverty. Nirumand’s book immediately sold 50,000 copies and became one of the most successful non-fiction books by a non-Western author in the young Federal Republic. It contributed significantly to discrediting the Shah’s reputation abroad and was a spark for German-Iranian protests in the Federal Republic of Germany, which were violently put down, especially during the Shah’s visit to Berlin.[2] Nirumand thus stands for a transnational confrontation with the democratization of the Global South.

As is well known, people from Islamic states stood up for democracy and human rights not only in their homeland. Their protest against the oppression in their home country was often staged in democratic foreign countries. Through the media, they sought the world’s attention in order to exert pressure at home. Especially in the 1960s, students from the Global South emerged politically in Western Europe and the United States. Iranian students formed a particularly active and visible group in the Federal Republic of Germany, but also in other Western countries. Their involvement contributed significantly to discrediting the rule of the autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Using the example of the Federal Republic of Germany, this article examines how the protests by Iranian students arose and how the governments in West Germany and Iran reacted to them. Thus, the article looks not only at the perception of but also at the political reactions to these protests. How did the small group of Iranians succeed in gaining broader support from German students, and to what extent did the German government change its benevolent relationship with Iran as a result? This article shows that the Iranian protests in West Germany not only challenged the autocracy in Iran but also that they had an impact on democracy in West Germany, thus analyzing the complex relationship between democracies and autocracies. I argue that the protests against Iran’s autocracy initially contributed to the German federal government restricting democratic rights in Germany, especially those of non-German nationals. This, in turn, strengthened broad solidarity against oppression in Iran, which as a consequence contributed to destabilize the Shah’s rule and international standing. To discern this interrelationship, I evaluated archival sources on the actions of demonstrators, authorities, the media, and politicians.

[1] Bahman Nirumand, Persien, Modell eines Entwicklungslandes oder: Die Diktatur der freien Welt, Reinbek 1967.

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