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Iran woman passes by Georges Rouault painting Trio-Cirque, Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/B.Mehri
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B.Mehri

Tehran-Berlin art exhibition jeopardized by Holocaust denial

Gero Schliess / ct
June 22, 2016

A Tehran museum director has been linked to caricatures that deny the Holocaust. Works from his museum were to be shown in Berlin this year - in an exhibition meant to symbolize closer ties between Germany and Iran.


Last summer's nuclear deal with Iran seems to have led to a competition among Western states for business and cultural collaborations with the country. Germany is one of those countries edging itself closer to Iran.

Shortly after the agreement was signed in July 2015, Germany's Federal Minister of Economics Sigmar Gabriel flew to Tehran. And, according to "Der Spiegel" magazine, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who long demurred due to Iran's anti-Israel stance, is now ready to welcome Iranian President Rouhani in Berlin.

A major cultural collaboration meant to symbolize Berlin and Tehran's improved ties and accompany the political efforts has been in the works. Yet a new stumbling block has arisen in the project that may be difficult to move past.

Holocaust cartoon competition in Tehran

"Modern art comes from Tehran to Berlin," announced the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in October 2015, referring to plans for a spectacular exhibition that had been made possible due to an agreement with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA).

Top works from European and American painters that were part of a collection by the former Persian Shah Farah Pahlavi would be shown abroad for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s. And not in London, Paris or Rome, but Berlin. Among the masterpieces to be included are works by Claude Monet, Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock.

A woman in front of a painting by Francis Bacon in Tehran's TMoCA, Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/B. Mehri
The TMoCA maintains a collection of valuable contemporary art from the WestImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Mehri

The decision to show in Germany was seen as a political coup at the time. The Germans said their intention with the exhibition was to demonstrate their appreciation and to open a door for closer ties to Iran.

Political dynamite from Tehran

Even before the first artwork from Tehran has arrived in Berlin, a hitch has come up that is leading to extensive debate. A controversial caricature contest, apparently organized by Iran's theocratic Islamic regime, took place in the meantime. It featured cartoons that treated the Holocaust as a fictional event and ridiculed its victims.

The awards were presented to the contest's winners by Majid Moullanourouzi, who is both director of the TMoCA and a department head in the Iranian Culture Ministry.

Denying the Holocaust is a crime in Germany. Now, the exhibition's link to fictionalization of the genocide could jeopardize the event altogether.

Germany's foreign minister forced to explain

Present at the signing of the contract for the planned exhibition in October 2015, Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the agreement "cultural diplomacy."

Now his diplomatic skills are being called upon in order to ensure that this form of cultural diplomacy does not turn into cultural confrontation.

Whether the exhibition is still tenable given the circumstances was likely to be a topic of discussion at the Foreign Ministry. When contacted by DW, the ministry's presented the following response: "Our policy is such that more, not less, contact be made, and that we need more exchange in the cultural arena, even though it can sometimes be difficult and tedious."

Monika Grütters, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen
Monika Grütters has distanced herself from Holocaust denialImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Foreign Minister Steinmeier appears to have remained firm on the German-Iranian cultural exhibition. At the same time, his ministry told DW clearly, "Denial of the Holocaust will not find a stage in Germany."

The controversial museum director Moullanourouzi will most certainly not be given a stage in Berlin. The exhibition, however, is one that the Germans would like to in any case keep in their capital. The Foreign Ministry implied as much in a press conference on May 18, when a spokesperson said that Steinmeier had already addressed the cartoon contest in his last trip to Iran at the beginning of February. He is said to have told the Iranian government that he was opposed to the caricature contest being held in the first place.

A case for holding the exhibition

According to the spokesperson at the press conference on May 18, Tehran's decision to continue with the contest was met with "great incomprehension" in Germany. While the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, officially partnered with the museum in Tehran, definitely wants to continue with the exhibition, it also "strongly condemns any form of Holocaust denials," as does the Foreign Ministry.

Nevertheless, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation sees the exhibition as an opportunity to "strengthen civil society and the liberal powers in Iran that seek an open worldview." The Foundation told DW that the works planned for the exhibition speak "the language of freedom and liberalness."

Support from Germany's Culture Ministry

Germany's Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters has a hand in the exhibition, along with the Foreign Ministry and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. Her office has contributed up to 3 million euros ($3.4 million) for the show, according to her press office; the Foreign Ministry has contributed 500,000 euros.

"At the time, we were unaware of the partner's connection to Holocaust denial," said the press office, adding that the culture minister would "never provide political support "to Holocaust deniers."

All the same, the Cultural Ministry has not yet said whether it is reconsidering itssupport after learning of the caricature contest.

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