What is the WWII propaganda

Nazi posters: Artful propaganda

"Isn't propaganda, as we understand it, also a kind of art?" Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, posed this rhetorical question in June 1935. At this point in time, the National Socialists had been in power for almost two and a half years and had long since laid the foundations for their reign of terror, which ended in 1945 and culminated in World War II and the Holocaust. With prohibitions, intimidation, murder and manslaughter.

Propaganda posters as a weapon for war and the home front

Adolf Hitler was rapidly upgrading - militarily and civilly. There were new tanks, planes and submarines for the soldiers. For the people on the home front, the newsreel in the cinema, the Volksempfänger at home and posters on every street corner. The art historian Sylke Wunderlich has now got to the bottom of the meaning of the poster in her book "Propaganda des Terrors", which is illustrated with over 200 motifs. Quite a risk, because it is about two very different spheres: ideology and art.

Election posters for the last Reichstag election in November 1933 (l.) And for the presidential election in March 1932 (r.)

"I think that the artistic style of the posters has contributed significantly to influencing the mass of the population so well," said the author in an interview with DW. "Good in terms of National Socialist politics." Even before they came to power in 1933, the Nazis were not afraid to copy successful strategies of the socialists and communists. Posters tailored to Adolf Hitler with the likeness of Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Liebknecht could also have come from the revolutionary left.

Ludwig Hohlwein was a staunch Nazi

They were designed by convinced Nazis like the successful graphic designer and architect Ludwig Hohlwein, but also by Bauhaus students like Herbert Bayer. While Hohlwein was temporarily banned from working after the Second World War, Bayer emigrated to the USA in 1938. Until then, he designed posters for the Nazi regime. Sylke Wunderlich considers the accusation that he was at least temporarily taken over by the Nazis to be too short-sighted. Freelance graphic designers should also have thought of their own "getting through".

New people's receiver: Propaganda Minister Goebbels (center) at the International Radio Exhibition (IFA) in Berlin in 1939

They may even have been specifically addressed - "because of their modernity". Because the National Socialists wanted to distinguish themselves from the Weimar Republic as a state "that is modern, that is new, that is different." That is why the book author sees no contradiction between the often modern-looking poster motifs and the ethnic-racist ideology of the Third Reich: "There were photomontages, clear fonts, clear imagery definitely something that one found good."

A Bauhaus student who worked for the Nazi regime

Herbert Bayer, whose teachers at the Bauhaus had included Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, fell out of favor anyway: Some of his works ended up in the 1937 humiliating exhibition "Degenerate Art". That was the final impetus from an artist who perceived himself to be apolitical to turn his back on the German Reich. Bayer's broken vita is an extreme example of the sometimes astonishing contradictions of Nazi cultural policy on the one hand - and the seemingly opportunistic behavior of some poster artists on the other.

Anti-Semitic and racist jazz was frowned upon (left) and the Bauhaus-style exhibition "Degenerate Art" was advertised (right)

One of them studied at the Bauhaus, later even headed the workshop for printing and advertising and then, from 1933, got involved with those who had always fought the Bauhaus. Poster art, says Sylke Wunderlich, was "quite spectacular", "very modern, constructive" and not only in Germany. The National Socialists took up this formal language in order to seduce and incite the masses: against Jews and Bolsheviks from the beginning, later against all opponents of the war. The facade of the beautiful appearance lasted a long time - it did not get the first cracks until later when the tide turned during the war.

Advertisement for Leni Riefenstahl's films

After the attack on Poland in September 1939, the propaganda functioned smoothly until the defeat in Stalingrad. Leni Riefenstahl played a key role in this. Her films from the Nuremberg Party Rallies and the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin were literally advertised far beyond the borders of the German Reich. And that with so much sophistication that foreign countries were also duped. Riefenstahl's ambivalent masterpieces have received numerous awards, including a first prize at the Venice Film Festival and a gold medal from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Nazi ideology in Hohlwein's poster work: A ski jumper stretches out his arm as if in a so-called German greeting (r.)

The Nazi strategy had worked. "Otherwise the crowds would not have followed this policy," says art historian Sylke Wunderlich. With Leni Riefenstahl, the seeds of seduction came up particularly well. "Triumph of Will" or "Festival of Beauty" were technically and aesthetically perfectly staged. Propagandistically accompanied and fired with appropriate posters. Here we are back to the subject of "modernity", says expert Sylke Wunderlich: The Nazis used them "to give this terrible, dictatorial state a beautiful, modern, clean appearance."

Important target groups: Hitler Youth and BDM

As long as no bombs fell on Berlin and other cities, the Nazi state could rely on the majority of Germans. "One nation one empire one leader!" - the personality cult around Adolf Hitler was consistently reflected on posters. Always in focus: children and young people. The claim to total availability was never made a secret. Nobody should escape the Hitler Youth (HJ) or the Association of German Girls (BDM). And most of them participated enthusiastically.

The cult of the Führer on posters used by the Nazis to promote the Hitler Youth (left) and the Association of German Girls (right)

At first glance, poster propaganda over the years was often harmless, even tempting, and sometimes at a high artistic level. For a long time it was hardly possible to deal with it impartially after the end of the Nazi dictatorship. In 2012, 67 years later, an exhibition in Munich sparked heated debates. Perhaps well meant, but "pure propaganda", judged the left-wing liberal "Süddeutsche Zeitung" on "Typography of Terror - Posters in Munich from 1933 to 1945".

The subject of National Socialism is always sensitive

The title of the exhibition is reminiscent of Sylke Wunderlich's book "Propaganda des Terrors", published in German and English. The Berlin-based art historian and founder of the "Poster Ost" foundation has no influence on the fact that right-wing extremists might like her analysis. Old and new Nazis would regret their purchase at the latest when they read the clear and unmasking analyzes of poster art during the Nazi era. In any case, the author cannot be accused of being trivialized - on the contrary.

Critics of the Munich exhibition in 2012 accused the curators of insufficiently classifying the posters: they would leave the visitors alone with the pictures. "In the hope that their former suggestive power can only be guessed at, their ridiculousness will be exposed by itself." Thomas Weidner, then head of the graphics and painting department, referred to the captions with information on the event depicted, the clients, the artists and their working methods. Nevertheless, what he said in 2012 should still apply: "Exhibitions on National Socialism are always tricky." The same could be true of books on the subject.