Among Aryans

Posted on 2019-05-05

While we're still cycling between the big and interesting cities of central Iran (Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz - more about these in a future blog post), people (as usual) ask us all the time where we're from. Shockingly often, Heiko's response is then followed by positive remarks about Hitler or the common German-Iranian Aryan-ness. That is probably less due to Iranians being all Nazis and anti-Semites, but more due to some major gaps in education. Heiko is not exactly an expert in the field himself, but is fairly shocked every time this happens, thus this explanatory blog post.

Many people seem to readily believe anything that gives them a feeling of importance, specialness, and/or superiority, even if all the facts are actually messed up. Nationalists and racists of all kinds probably base the major part of their propaganda on this.

Before the 19th century, linguists already discovered commonalities between the European, Central Asian and Northern Indian languages (which are known today as the Indo-European languages, where "Indo" and "European" only refer to the geographical extremes of this language family, not to its significance or origins) and traced them back to a common Proto-Indo-European language. "Aryan" is a self-designation of speakers of Indo-Aryan languages (e.g. Iranian, Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, etc), and for a long time it was assumed that speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language also called themselves "Aryans".

When nationalist sentiments grew in 19th century Europe, many people tried to prove that this protolanguage developed in their own region and that they were the most direct descendants of the original speakers. Because non-linguists wrongly assumed that the language primarily spread through conquests and cultural superiority, people tried to use this supposed heritage to fuel their own feelings of superiority. People wanted to be "Aryans".

Linguistic discoveries were reinterpreted in a ethnic and racist sense and augmented with imaginary theories. The French diplomat and novelist Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, best known today for legitimising racism by use of scientific racist theory, claimed to have ascertained that the French nobility represented the purest and most superior form of Aryans. The English-German writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain derived in a similarly pseudo-scientific way that the Germans were the purest Aryans. Linguists dropped their jaws in disbelief, but who cares about science anyway. The Nazis finally carried the racist ideologies and the misuse of the term "Aryan" to the extreme, with the horrific results of the Holocaust and World War II, that too many people still don't know enough about. There is a cruel irony in the fact that the Roma people, who were persecuted by the Nazis, are speakers of an Indo-Aryan language (Romany) and as such had a far better reason to call themselves Aryans than the Nazis.

Iranians can also rightfully call themselves Aryans. They also like to use the term to distinguish themselves from the traditionally hated Arabs. Antisemitism is usually not a part of this, but combined with a lack of knowledge about Hitler's racist ideologies, the mutually used term "Aryan" is used to infer a German-Iranian kinship and a relatively positive image of Hitler. When Heiko then tries to clarify on these misunderstandings, the other person often reacts with disbelief and whips out their smartphone to google for various graphics to support their stand, even when the images usually actually show the opposite. It seems like any theory that supports one's superiority is being embraced without being questioned enough.

In the meantime, the origin of the Proto-Indo-European language remains unknown. Of course, even today, this does not stop Indian Hindu nationalists who portray themselves as the purest Aryans, the origin of all Indo-European civilisation, and therefore superior. Many theories, however, point to an origin somewhere in the Black Sea region. Nevertheless, the theory of language expansion due to conquest and submission of more primitive cultures does not have any scientific basis, so no one should derive any feelings of superiority or inferiority from this.