News | German / European History - Arabic Middle East / Turkey - Middle East The Void Between Tehran and Leipzig

On the under-researched history of Iranian migrants in the GDR



Daniel Walter,

[Translate to en:] Hossein Yazdi: Strafgefangener 382 – Vom Schicksal eines persischen Agenten in der DDR
As the son of a German and a doctor trained at the Berlin Charité, Hossein Yazdi came to the GDR in 1954 as a committed communist. Some time later, however, he radically changed sides and made his services available to the Iranian secret service.
  DVD cover of the documentation (D, 2003): Prisoner 382 - On the fate of a Persian agent in the GDR, CC BY-SA 4.0, Lieberwehr, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the so-called contract workers and migrants from Warsaw Pact countries, East Germany was also home to a number of “political émigrés”, including a number of Iranian communists. Up until now, their stories have received little critical attention.

Can the experiences of East Germans in the new Federal Republic of Germany be compared with those of migrants? When migration researcher Naika Foroutan made this suggestion some time ago, it caused a considerable stir and came in for criticism. Historian Patrice G. Poutrus, for example, argued that the essentialism of the categories “East Germans” and “migrants” was too crude. Film critic Angelika Nguyen, for her part, argued that the analogy fails to recognize the racism faced by contract workers in the GDR.

Daniel Walter has studied political science and Middle Eastern studies in Bonn, Sweden, and Tehran. He is currently working at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History (ZFF), writing a doctoral dissertation on the international economic history of the 1980s with a focus on Iran. Translation by Marc Hiatt and Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

No matter how you evaluate these arguments, it is striking how little historical research has been carried out into certain aspects of migrant and refugee life in the GDR. Filling in such gaps in the literature might help to produce a more nuanced picture of the situation. Migrants in the GDR can roughly be divided into three groups: first, immigrants from Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, the Soviet Union, or Hungary; second, co-called contract workers from socialist “brother countries” like Vietnam, Mozambique, or Cuba; and third, the “political émigrés”, or politically persecuted people from other countries.

Of the 191,200 foreigners living in the GDR in 1989, over 45 percent fell into the first group, and a further 44 percent were contract workers.[1] There are no overall figures available for political émigrés; but their group probably numbered some several thousand.

The idea of the GDR as a place of refuge may seem paradoxical; after all, the country not only considerably restricted the mobility of its own citizens, it also had restrictive laws on refugees and foreigners. Nonetheless, from mid-1949, persecuted communists were taken in, first from Greece and Spain, and later from Iran and Chile. In contrast to contract workers, they did not live in relative isolation in barracks, but in large part shared in the everyday life of the East German population.[2]

The first small group of Iranians—all of them members of the communist Tudeh Party, with its close links to Moscow—arrived in the GDR in mid-1954. In the course of the 1953 coup d’etat against the Mossadegh government, the party was targeted by the Shah and attacked. Thus the Iranians were also the first non-Europeans to be taken in as refugees by th

Similar Backgrounds, Different Paths

Bamberg philologist Roja Dehdarian has done research into the exile in East Germany of Bozorg Alavi, probably the country’s most famous Iranian émigré. Alavi taught as a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University for over three decades, becoming a significant figure both in German-language Iranian studies and modern Persian literature.

According to Dehdarian, Iranian emigration to the GDR can be viewed as a “clearly defined entity”.[3] Firstly, because it was limited to a definite period (1954–89), and secondly, because it involved a largely homogenous group of male communists from affluent backgrounds. Thus, despite his prominent role, Alavi, who was born in 1904 into a family of Tehran merchants with a long history of political activism, is emblematic for almost all Iranians who came to the GDR in the 1950s. As co-founder of the Tudeh Party in 1941, his life was at risk after the 1953 coup—which took place while he was visiting the GDR.

Taking in Iranian communists was a political act. This is made particularly evident by the treatment that these refugees initially enjoyed. Artist Yadegar Asisi, who now lives in Berlin after arriving as a child with his family in Halle in 1955, told the Welt  in an interview: “when we arrived they put us in a villa and we had our own cook.” In comparison both to the contract workers, who were accepted into the GDR for economic reasons, and to a large part of the broader East German population, the political émigrés were not necessarily worse off, and in some cases, they were even better off.

The case of Hossein Yazdi shows how diverse the lives of Iranians in the GDR were, despite all  similarities. As the son of a German and a doctor trained at the Charité hospital in Berlin, Yazdi came to the GDR in 1954 as a staunch communist. A little later, however, he changed sides radically, putting himself at the service of the Iranian secret service. From 1957 on, he spied on Iranian communists in exile and handed the secrets over to SAVAK headquarters in Bonner Strasse in Cologne.

In October 1961, the mission of the “most important scout in enemy territory”[4] (in Yazdi’s own words) came to an abrupt end. The SAVAK informer was arrested by GDR security officers at Checkpoint Charlie. He went on to serve almost 16 years in the prisons at Hohenschönhausen (Berlin) and Bautzen II. Yazdi regained his freedom in 1978 in the course of Iran’s rapprochement with the GDR—as the Berlin tabloid B.Z. writes concerning its long-time employee, in part thanks to the efforts of its publisher, Axel Springer.

In the GDR, the status of members of Tudeh likewise depended on the shifting winds of the political climate. A radio station founded in Leipzig in 1957 that broadcast communist programming to Iran had to move to Bulgaria as early as 1959. Alavi, initially the spokesperson for Tudeh in the GDR, soon ended his party-political activities in favour of an academic career. The Tudeh Party and its members grew increasingly marginalized in the GDR, particularly after December 1972 when, with the SED regime reluctant to jeopardize its contacts with the Shah, the country established diplomatic relations with Iran.

Even in the wake of the Islamic Revolution this support remained flimsy. Today we know that during the Iran–Iraq War the GDR supplied both sides with weapons. From June to September 1989, Iranian Revolutionary Guards were even trained to fly MiG-21 fighter jets at the Rothenburg airfield—international relations and the shortage of foreign currency were put before support for the Iranian “brother party”.

We can only hope that the multifaceted experiences of Iranians in the GDR will be the subject of increased historical investigation. This would  be particularly helpful in the quest to paint a more nuanced picture of refugee and migrant life in the GDR.

[1] Table “Ausländer in der DDR 1989 und in den neuen Bundesländern 1996”, in: Jörg Becker, “Die nichtdeutsche Bevölkerung in Ostdeutschland: Eine Studie zur räumlichen Segregation und Wohnsituation”, Potsdam 1998, p. 26, (last accessed 14.09.2020). Figures do not include members of the Soviet military forces and their families.

[2] Cf. Patrice Poutrus, “‘Teure Genossen’: Die ‘politischen Emigranten’ als ‘Fremde’ im Alltag der DDR-Gesellschaft”, in: Christian T. Müller und Patrice G. Poutrus (eds.), Ankunft – Alltag – Ausreise: Migration und interkulturelle Begegnung in der DDR-Gesellschaft, Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2005, p. 221.

[3] Roja Dehdarian, “Selbstentwürfe in der Fremde: Der iranische Schriftsteller Bozorg Alavi im deutschen Exil”, Bamberg: University of Bamberg Press 2018, p. 30, (last accessed 14.09.2020).

[4] Hossein Yazdi, “Als Iraner in Bautzen II”, in: Wege nach Bautzen II: Biographische und autobiographische Porträts, Dresden: Stiftung Sächsische Gedenkstätten, 20134: (Lebenszeugnisse – Leidenswege, 8), pp. 61–76, here 65, (last accessed 17.09.2020).