The Extraordinary Anti-Nazi Photomontages of John Heartfield

12 June 2011

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How the photomontage art of John Heartfield, a contemporary and friend of Brecht, warned the world of the rise of Nazism.

In the 1930s the Nazis were gaining ground in Europe. Many chose to ignore or had a laissez faire attitude to the National Socialist policy of expansionism, known as Lebensraum or the threat of war that Germany now posed to the world. John Heartfield (above, doing Hitler's hair), a German citizen born Helmut Herzfeld, was one who chose to criticize the regime through art. He produced a remarkable series of photomongages (decades before Photoshop it should be noted), the audacity of which can still astonish today.

Blood and Iron
Bismarck had stated that the German people would be reformed through a combination of blood and iron. Heartfield’s 1939 photomontage shows exactly how this was to be interpreted in reality. Heartfield had always been a reactionary when it came to German nationalism. Born in 1891 as Helmut Herzfeld he saw the horrors of the First World War first hand. Although propaganda was rife and rabid on both sides he made the extraordinary move of anglicizing his name in 1916, in the middle of the war, to protest against such nationalism.

Kaiser Adolf
The real motive for Hitler’s stranglehold on political power in the thirties was something that was utterly transparent to Heartfield. Here, he gives Hitler the Emperor’s old clothes and upturned moustache to reveal that power had simply changed hands and nothing had changed in democratic terms. As a left wing socialist, Heartfield was diametrically opposed to the extreme right wing National Socialism (Nazism) that swept Germany (although it borrowed policies from both left and right wing). It was after founding a satirical magazine, Die Pleite, that he met Brecht. Later he would work for the weekly AIZ (published in exile, of course, this sort of thing would never have been allowed inside The Fatherland). It was for AIZ that he produced most of his photomontage work.

Hitler Prepares to Kill the French Cockerel

Although some of his work may seem a little primitive in our days of Photoshop, the meaning of Heartfield’s 1939 work is as sharp as the knife that the dictator is holding. The caption jokes ironically around Hitler’s vegetarianism. The French Foreign Minister is seen to be unperturbed at the sharpening of knives. After all, Herr Hitler did not eat meat. Of course, by this time, Heartfield had had to remove himself from Germany (in fact at the beginning of the Nazi Regime) as his sort of political satire would no doubt have earned him a visit in the night and a trip to a concentration camp. He left Germany in 1933, the year Hitler came to power and relocated to nearby Czechoslovakia. Perhaps a little too close for comfort.

The Butter is Gone

As the caption on the card says, this is bitterly satirical and based on the words of Göring in 1935. Hermann Göring, one of the potentates of Nazi Germany, said, during a food shortage that "Iron has always made a nation strong, butter and lard have only made the people fat". If one of our politicians were to say that today there would probably be a riot but satire like this was one of the few ways to injure the regime. Possibly Heartfield’s most famous work, this family attempts to eat the various weapons of war that have been built instead of the butter that should have been on their table. The swastika wallpaper in the background is a particularly deft touch and shows how the regime permeated all aspects of even domestic life.

The German Oak Tree

The Oak Tree is watered by the environmentally aware Hitler. However, what it produces is shells and iron helmets marked with swastikas. As potent an image about how the ideals of a nation will become perverted from the top politically, the oak tree is Germany – watered instead from the bottom. This was produced in 1939 by which time Heartfield had felt it necessary to retreat from his adopted host nation of Czechoslovakia. Soon after, he made it to England and lived in Hampstead, London, for the duration of the war.

The Middle Ages and the Third Reich

With reference to the medieval torture instrument, the wheel, Heartfield skillfully adapts the swastika (itself an image accosted and misused by the Nazis) to picture what was happening to the German people under the ‘guidance’ of Adolf Hitler and his cronies. Some might say that this image of suffering is somewhat generous to the German people, portraying them as the victims of Nazism but once Hitler had secured absolute power for himself and with no way of democratically – or governmentally - relieving him of his position (as was the case with Mussolini in Italy) then victims is exactly what they were.

The House That Hitler Built

The house of cards that was bound to topple, the political system of Germany is shown here. Prescient as ever, Heartfield shows Hitler as the drummer boy at the base of the pack of cards. At the top is the industrialist, Thyssen, showing how industry colluded with the dictator. The weight of the Nazi flag at the top is just too much for the house of cards to stand and it is seen just before it collapses. As would be the case in Europe, Nazism was built on foundations that would never last for too long – it was a political system that was bound, at some point, to collapse.

Peace and Fascism

This is a particularly brutal piece of satire – the dove of peace is often shown dead or dying but here it is transfixed – literally – on a bayonet, representing the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. The League of Nations building is shown in the background. Peer closely and you will see the swastika flying from it. This shows the bitterness, felt by many that the nascent organization founded to represent the nations of the world in the aftermath of the First World War had failed in its duty to combat regime's such as Hitler's. In its ineffective manner it had, in fact, encouraged the rise of Nazism and Fascism on the beleaguered continent of Europe.

After the defeat of Hitler and Nazism, Heartfield (above center, in 1960) returned to Germany and lived out the rest of his days in East Berlin. His life and works were commemorated on a postage stamp. During the later years he worked closely with a variety of theater directors and in 1967 he visited London to prepare for a retrospective of his work. Unfortunately he died before this happened, but his widow completed the work for the exhibition and it was shown at the ICA in 1969. Although the Tate Modern in London did a retrospective of his work a few years ago, he remains a little known artist. Perhaps this short piece will help to put that right. Although a blue plaque in London is something, something more permanent would be much better.

Image Credit Flickr User liits

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