Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 by Peter Darman

It’s nice to be able to review a book, for once, that is about more than just ‘words’. I must confess to having a great interest in war art, in particular the propaganda poster. Long before ‘Keep Calm and Carry On‘, I have been fascinated with ‘Let us go forward together’, ‘The few’ and ‘I need you for US Army’. An interesting distinction I found is the difference between propaganda produced by Democracies and Dictatorships. Whereas democratic posters tended to be more subtle and laidback, as free citizens tend to be scornful of being told what to do in an overt fashion. Democratic propaganda tends to be more romantic, and more an attempt to appeal to the reader’s better nature. Nazi and Soviet propaganda was far more akin to a sledgehammer – there was no need to appeal to anyones better nature, as in a one party state nobody had a choice in the matter in any case. In an interesting kind of way, propaganda posters reflect that nature of the societies in which they were created.

British propaganda is something that many people will be familirar with, and is certainly in vogue in shops such as Past Times at the moment. Information posters exhorted the population to conserve food, carry gas masks, or evacuate children. Recruitment posters were generally an attempt to encourage rather than enforce. Many examples show an exemplary man or men, in an attempt to encourage the reader to wish to be like them. Quotes from Winston Churchill were also a staple. Funnily enough Canadian propaganda tended to be more overt, such as the famous poster of a lion and beaver charging, bayonets fixed, and the equally famous ‘Lets go Canada!’. French war posters were also quite interesting. Of couse after 1940, whilst the Vichy French were pleading with the populace to ‘remember Oran’, and attempting to recruit for the Vichy Legions, the Free French were also producing posters for the consumption of exiles in Britain and elsewhere. Soviet propaganda has always interested me greatly. Although to begin with Russian posters were very socialist, and very, well, brutalistic and politicised, in time the regime peformed a volte-face and began to embrace aspects of Russia’s history and culture that had been shunned previously. Attempts to demonstrate continuity with the old Russia, ancient Russian heroes and cultural icons such as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were made in an attempt to inspire the Soviety citizens in the great patriotic war. Examples of heroic soldiers abound, rifle thrust in their air, in defence of the motherland. Like Soviety War Memorials, its very stirring stuff indeed.

American propaganda is also quite interesting. obviously, after Pearl Harbour a desire for revenge was present, and racial stereotypes of ‘the Jap’ were very common. Often Japanese soldiers were portrayed as rat-like, no doubt in an attempt to convince the American public that they were an inferior race and that Uncle Sam would prevail. Talking of which, Uncle Sam himself featured very heavily, in his Kitchener like pose, along with Golden Eagles and lots of  blue, red and white. i cannot help but think also that a lot of American propaganda was inspired by American commercialism, which obviously drew on consumerism and marketing, to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world at the time. It could be suggested that the US Government was selling the war in the same way that Ford would sell Model T’s, or Coke would sell Cola.

The Nazi regime had made use of Propaganda since its inception after World War One. In fact, men such as Hitler and Goebbels were consumate propagandists, placing spin at the centre of the regime right from the start. How else do you explain a whole country being made to believe in what turned out to be an illogical and nihilistic ideology? The ‘ein volk, ein reich, ein Fuhrer‘ poster is one of the most famous ever. Much use was made of classical symbols such as the Eagle, and bemuscled, Teutonic males, in an attempt to invoke a heritage supposedly linked with age old Empires. Posters decrying the Jews attempted to arouse old stereotypes, particularly of Jewish looks, and portraying them in an animalistic manner. When the war started to turn against the Third Reich the propagandists had an even harder job, to try and persuade the population that Aryan superiority was not a myth. By contrast, Italian propagandist were facing an uphill struggle, as the majority of Italians were indifferent to the war, and hence Italian posters seen, in retrospect, rather absurd and ironic. Japanese posters really are very different to anything seen in Europe, given the vastly different culture. And, again, in a totalitarian monarchy, there was little need to co-erce or persuade.

The funny thing is, I can’t help but admire totalitarian propaganda more. There’s something about Nazi and Soviet art that is really impressive. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with what it is saying. I guess its kind of like Lemmy from Motorhead, who has been criticised for wearing Nazi-like clothes. When pressed, he answered that if the Allied armies had cool looking clothes, he would wear them. It just so happens that the bad guys always seem to have the best uniforms. Not sure if I completely agree with that, but it does sum up my thoughts about war propaganda.

This was a very enjoyable book to read. Some well-known examples, but also some posters that were new to my eyes. Neither is it just a picture book, it is well interpreted and enlightening, looking not only at the art itself, but also the sociological, political and military background. I only wish I had more wall space and funds to decorate my flat with some of them!

Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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24 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

24 responses to “Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 by Peter Darman

  1. John Erickson

    “The Germans dressed for going on parade. The British dressed for going to work. The Americans dressed for the day off.” That’s a VERY old commentary on uniforms I’ve heard.
    By the by, pal, it’s “Red White and Blue”! Blue, white, and red are for those socialist Frogs! :p
    The Soviet army “culture” is truly fascinating. Until the Germans invaded, the Soviet hierarchy tried to cut all ties to the old Czarist traditions. When morale took a nosedive during the latter half of 1941, somebody got clever (some have credited Stalin, others advisers to him) and did a full 180 throughout the military. Propaganda (as you observed) rekindled “Motherland” sentiments, military units that distinguished themselves were given “Guards” titles, even the NKVD were (SLIGHTLY) toned down in their “Party, Party, Party” philosophy. Interesting stuff!
    Great review! Another dang book I can’t afford. Thanks! ;)

    • James Daly

      John, you should hear some of the British soldiers recollections of serge battledress at war. It looked awful, felt like wearing sandpaper, and never dried out when it got wet. If I had to go to war, I would not have wanted to do so wearing serge! I’ve only worn it once as a commemorative thing at work, and I came out in a nasty rash – you almost want to wear pyjamas underneath!

      I must confess I have always liked Soviet war propaganda. Like Soviet War Memorials – the one in Treptow Park in Berlin is incredible. A fine example of how a secular society can create something spiritual and powerful.

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