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April 19, 2006

Why does the devil have all the best posters? Christie Davies on pro-Nazi war-time propaganda posters from Italy and the Netherlands - Weapons of Mass Dissemination at the Canadian War Museum

Posted by Christie Davies

Weapons of Mass Dissemination: The Propaganda of War
Canadian War Museum, Ottawa
17th November 2005 - 30th April 2006
Daily 9am - 5pm (Thursdays until 9pm)

Weapons of Mass Dissemination: The Propaganda of War
edited by Marianne Lamonaca and Sarah Schleuning
Miami Beach, Florida: Wolfsonian-Florida International University, 2004

The best war-time propaganda posters in both exhibition and book were designed by Dutch and Italian supporters of Hitler during the latter stages of the Second World War. They rightly take pride of place on the cover and as frontispiece in the book edited by Lamonaca and Schleuning.

The most striking poster of all shows nothing but a set of huge, stylised, black bombs falling in parallel, almost vertically out of a blue sky. It is raining bombs, bombs that are fat, black painted cylinders with the light catching their tail fins, so close together that the sky only peeps through the gaps between them. They are the very essence of threatening bombness, the way the people of Nijmegen, Enschede and Arnhem in the Netherlands would have felt when their towns were bombed by the US Airforce in February 1944 killing more than 800 people. It was a "friendly fire" incident, an inept and deadly gift. Americans are good at that. Within three days Dutch pro-German propagandists produced this poster inscribed "Van je vrienden" moet je't hebben! NIJMEGEN, ENSCHEDE, ARNHEM. (With Friends like These who Needs Enemies! NIJMEGEN, ENSCHEDE, ARNHEM.) 1944.

The "friends" were those coming to liberate the Netherlands which had been occupied by the Nazis since 1940. The surrender of the neutral, utterly unprepared, indeed foolishly supine Dutch in 1940 had been hastened by the bombing of Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe. Rötterdämerung had led to Die Fliegende Hollander, as the Dutch government fled to England and the Dutch Royal family to Canada where they planted tulips. In the light of this it was clever of the pro-German faction in the Netherlands to move so quickly to produce a vivid poster about the American bombing.

The poster has a curious link with another one, 1943 is Geen 1918 (1943 is not 1918) 1943; a dark brown map of Europe without Britain, made with depth like a jigsaw piece, is set against a blue black sea. A shining ring of steel presses down on the map showing how the Nazis still held the area within, that is to say most of Continental Europe. They still held Festung Europa, Fortress Europe, in a circle of steel, proof against invasion from the contemptibly small island on the other side of that German Ocean, the North Sea. 1943 is contrasted with 1918 which had seen the swift collapse of the Second Reich at the end of World War I, when Kaiser Wilhelm had fled to neutral but pro-German Holland. The poster came out at a time when the Second World War was turning against the Germans both in Russia and in the Mediterranean. The Dutch resistance movement and government in exile were telling their people that the end was in sight and that there was no longer yet more tunnel at the end of the tunnel. "Thousand year tunnel ringed with steel", replied the Nazis.

The third splendidly Dutch poster done for the Nazis is Steeds Dezelfde Vijand 1673 1943 (Still the Same Enemy!), 1943 which shows a grey, foam-tossing, German torpedo boat, sleek in every line, hurtling across a dark sea against England, a black London skyline with union flags added placed against a red sunset. Alongside the German modern warship is the majestic flagship in full sail, of the great Dutch admiral, de Ruyter who had smashed and defeated the British and French fleets at Texel in 1673. The poster is inscribed, Strijdt met ons Mede! (Fight alongside us).

It is a clever, if far-fetched, appeal to history, to the days of the seventeenth-century Anglo-Dutch naval wars, when the Dutch had won significant victories over their larger and richer trade rival. Sadly for the Dutch, imperial Britain went on to displace them in the Cape of Good Hope, Sri Lanka, India and the East and West Indies, much as the Dutch had earlier displaced the Portuguese. You can still see Dutch fortresses in many Commonwealth countries and meet local people with Dutch surnames who are the descendants of Dutch traders and their local wives. The Dutch did have something to resent and the resentment was reinforced by the Boer War 1899-1902 when Britain occupied the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, whose rulers were Dutch by descent, culture and religion. During the First World War Dutch sympathies lay with the German side and against the British oppressors of the Boers.

The Germans here, as in Anglophobic France, exploited the latent anti-British feelings of the local people, notably with their film Ohm Kruger 1941 about Paul Kruger, Oom Paul, the leader of the Boers. In the last and most brutal phase of the Boer war the British army had rounded up not only Afrikaner farmers but also their women and children and interned them in concentration camps to stop supplies reaching the guerrilla forces of the Afrikaner republics who fought on after their main armies had been defeated. In this way the British dried up the sea in which the fish swam, an effective means of defeating guerrillas. However, many of those who had been interned died, as many as 26,000 of them, not because of brutality or deliberate neglect but due to the traditional incompetence of the insanitary British army whose own troops also died in large numbers from disease.

However, it didn't look that way to the Dutch who, in contrast to the British, are remarkable for their cleanliness. Besides, the word concentration camp (literally to concentrate people in one place under guard) is ambiguous. It can mean anything from mere internment by the British to the torture and extermination centres of the Nazis. It is a British myth that everyone in Europe loved us during World War II.

Yet it was not hatred of the British that led tens of thousands of Dutchmen to volunteer for the Nederland division of the Waffen SS, still remembered for its defence of Stettin against the Russians in February 1945. Many Norwegians, Belgians, French, Finns and Spaniards fought alongside them on the Eastern Front, something they are all now keen to forget. There is an excellent recruiting poster here for the Dutch, Uw plaats in nog vrij in die Waffen SS, 1942 (Your place in the Waffen SS is still free). A forest of parallel rifles between coal-scuttle German helmets marches past, one rifle and helmet are larger and emptily white, a vacancy for a Dutchman.

Why did they volunteer, given that the Nazis had occupied their countries and oppressed their fellow-citizens? The answer can be seen in the poster Bolsjewisme is Moord, (Bolshevism is murder) 1941-2
showing a distraught woman whose husband has been murdered, daughter raped and crucifix broken by marauding Red Army soldiers. The curators and the book editors treat this as an appeal to irrational fears to get volunteers to fight for Germany on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union.

Yet the fear was not irrational. Bolshevism is murder. Tens of millions of innocent people had already been murdered by the Bolsheviks prior to the Second World War, at that time far more than had been murdered by the Nazis. Just as the Communists could recruit many dupes by their promise that they alone could and would fight the Nazis, so too many ordinary people were fooled by the Nazis into thinking that they alone could protect them from Bolshevism. They were wrong to believe this but given the previous Soviet record of the slaughter of the Whites, the kulaks, the Ukrainian peasants, the Kazakhs and the people of Chechnya together with large numbers of deviationists and doubters it was hardly irrational. And as Milovan Djilas has reminded us, the Soviet Army did rape and loot its way across Europe. What is unpleasant is not the poster which is entirely salutary but the way it has later been used by anti-semites.

The other group of superb posters are those produced by Mussolini's Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) formed after the Italian monarchy and Grand Council of Fascism had deposed the Duce in 1943 and come to terms with the Allies. Here are such skilfully designed posters as O Roma O Morte! (Rome or Death) 1943-4 showing a garibaldian bayonet charge by fierce faced Bersaglieri, their putties and boots stomping out of the frame, their helmet feathers streaming behind them. In the background is the Coliseum against a blood red sky. You can almost hear them singing the patriotic Italian hymn Giovinezza (Youth). The slogan "Rome or Death" is from Garibaldi himself, who used it in 1862 when he invaded the patrimony of the Holy Father, Pius IX, Pio Nono, later the first infallibly infallible Pope, in an attempt to unite Italy. Garibaldi was thrown out by the French, an insult avenged by the war-like Italians in Nice and Savoie in 1940. Now in 1943 Mussolini, squatting in Salò, wanted once again to reunite Italy, except, of course, for Alpenvorland and Adriatisches Kustenland and restore Rome to its position as capital. Salve o popole d'Eroi, Salve a patria immortale.

In Guilio Bartoletti's poster Etu… cosa fai? (And You…what are you doing?) 1943-44 a German infantryman with a wounded wrist has his arm round the shoulder of a stern Bersagliero who is all rifle and pouches. The two men point together with the index fingers of their left hands, like Kitchener and Uncle Sam, at you, the ought-to-volunteer. The two men have identical heroic faces, though close up you can see that the German has slightly lighter eyes and eyebrows and only a three o'clock shadow, no doubt the sign that he is the true Aryan but with the Italian hero of Bir el-Gobi as a good imitation.

Italy's enemies were shown as many and menacing. Rondinelli's Amici? (Friends), 1943-45 shows an Asiatic looking Stalin, a savage cigar chomping Churchill and a cynical grinning Roosevelt sitting round a circular table, all wielding knives. De Gaulle's silly face peeps round the curtain. A Jewish menorah, all candles lit, stands in the middle of the table which is tilted dramatically towards us and the insignia of the Freemasons hovers in the sky. The Judaeo-Bolshevik-freemasonry world conspiracy has come to Italy. Churchill holds a sheaf of paper marked Grecia, Stalin's is labelled Polonia and Roosevelt has Italia. After the war Italy will have as little freedom as Poland. The strength of the poster lies in its very modern placing of the circular table between curtains and the triangulation of the three allied leaders in a way that defies all the rules of academic art. It is curiously like the Soviet avant-garde porcelain of the early 1920s.

Curiously it was the Nazis and their subordinates who made the best use of bold modern poster design and in a way quite contrary to Hitler's anachronistic artistic preferences. By contrast the British, American and Canadian posters are more realistic, more cluttered with detail, less dramatic and heroic, more homely and sentimental, in a word, they are inferior. Yet here is the paradox. It was the bourgeois moral superiority of the democratic countries that led them to produce feebler posters. They could not use the futurism, the dynamism, the militarism of their opponents because they were obliged always to remember what they were fighting for – the security of private life, hearth and home and everyday unheroic things. Many of the British posters look like advertisements for the London Underground tempting ramblers to have a day out in the Chilterns. The British soldiers are civilians in uniform with friendly knobbly faces. You are wanted Too! Join the ATS, 1941 shows Private Mary Catherine Roberts, a particular, real, authentically ordinary woman who could be your next door neighbour in Grantham. Its more striking predecessor Join the ATS, 1941 was withdrawn after the Conservative M.P. Thelma Cazalet-Keir objected to it.

Britain was the only hero of the Second World War, the only country both to declare war on Nazi Germany before being attacked itself and also to see it through to the end. Yet we do not look heroic in the posters. We lacked and still lack Nazi chic because it does not fit with the British ideals of moderation, individual liberty and sheer human decency for which we went to war. No German prince is going to go to a fancy-dress party in the uniform of the British pioneer corps. Good poster art has nothing to do with morality.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, New Brunswick, N.J., Transaction, 2004, a story of the moral decline of the British people in the last half of the twentieth century.


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As, I suppose, a professional propagandist (I do not relish the term) I spend time designing and supervising the design of posters. My clients and I believe that the 'best' ones are the most effective rather, than as Dr Davies supposes, the ones that appeal to a modernist artistic elite. And we test them.

Consequently the mawkish and homely WW1 poster ('Women of Britain Say Go') that Orwell said the men in the trenches so despised, used honour and home and womenfolk as a powerful cocktail to get men into uniform. It was a printed rebuke, like a white feather. The posters produced by ideologies, by contrast, make interesting use of black and red, or look frightfully like a magazine cover (or some such thing). Hang art in your galleries, posters have work to do.

Posted by: s masty at April 19, 2006 10:50 PM
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Masty gives us no explanation of how he knows whether particular types of persuasive (ie. not just informative) posters work better than others.
Also the example he gives of 'women of Britain say go' is hardly moral. As soon as they were in the trenches the men who had been deceived despised it but were trapped. In any case it was playing on traditional patriotism -something that already existed.
Davies' point that the Nazis were able to get Dutch volunteers to fight for them despite the conquest of their country and the persecution of their fellow-citizens shows posters succeeding in a far more difficult task.

Posted by: David Williams at April 20, 2006 01:49 PM
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The poster that sticks clearly in my mind is one issued in Poland by the Nazis shortly after the Germano-Soviet Invasion. I tend to mirror-reverse things in my memory, but in the left (I think) foreground stands Neville Chamberlain, while in the middle just behind him a Polish man stands pointing at a bombed city in the background and shouting at him “ANGLIO! TWOJE DZIEŁO!” (England! This is your doing!). I don't know what the Poles made of it, but it remains in my memory as a standing warning whenever I start to engage in doublethink.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 20, 2006 05:32 PM
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Wouldn't have gone down well with our chaps. Only foreigners produce posters like that.

Posted by: The Microscope at April 21, 2006 08:12 AM
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