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The Man Who Pissed Off Hitler
May 10, 2009 9:11 PM   Subscribe

Artist John Heartfield was one of those who recognized the threat of Nazism early on. Remarkably, he created his anti-fascist art inside Germany, until 1933 when Hitler came to power. He continued to pointedly satirize the Reich (and those who made it possible, as his bitter image of the League of Nations illustrates) from exile in Czechoslovakia. The nature of his work makes it very clear that Hitler's goals and intentions were obvious well before the war. (via)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll (30 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this post!
posted by pompomtom at 9:42 PM on May 10, 2009


International socialists were pretty wise about national socialists until the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.
posted by codswallop at 9:43 PM on May 10, 2009


Cool post. And now I know where Laibach got a lot of its cover art.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:02 PM on May 10, 2009


This is very interesting, CheeseDigestsAll; thank you. I'll spend a lot of time digesting Heartfield's work. I'd never heard of him before.

There are some very compelling and fraught pictures here. One is this image of Hitler as Kaiser Wilhelm. It should be noted how pointed this picture would have been to a German of the time; if there was any chief reason why the citizens of Germany turned away from democracy and toward what they perceived as 'strong' leadership, leadership which offered to lead them to war if need be to secure the things which were theirs, it was the fact that a generation of Germans looked back on the inconstancy and emotional instability of the first leader of the largely democratic united Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm represented to many Germans the deeply conflicted and even treacherous nature of democracy, which, as they saw it, was responsible for the erosion of Germany's cultural strength, the weakening and breaking of their Germany's foreign policy, and finally the destruction and piecemeal dismantling of Germany's monetary system, properties, markets, and general economy. Wilhelm was indeed the George W. Bush of his country's time, but, like Bush, Wilhelm could not unfortunately be blamed for every problem in Germany after his abdication. But that didn't stop millions of angry Germans reeling from a national disaster from seeing in Adolph Hitler the rebirth of a kind of German strength and purity, a sort of uncompromising insistence on reasserting Germany's place in the world. The reasons why the tragedy of 1933 happened were of course many and various, but Wilhelm represented the biggest one in the minds of most Germans.

This image is a defiant juxtaposition because it says to Germans: “This man is no heroic savior; he is the same kind of prevaricating scoundrel that you have been living with for generations.” I wish I knew the date it was created. However, at any date, it was a powerful and evocative statement.

Again, thanks for this.
posted by koeselitz at 10:17 PM on May 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


I think that you may be viewing his concerns in the light of what you understand to be Hitler's goals. From John Heartfield's perspective, Hitler was a militarist who was trying to re-arm Germany, recapture formerly-German territory, and thereby overturn the Treaty of Versailles. I don't know at what stage Hitler seriously thought he could conquer the whole of Europe, but the only indication of this in the linked prints is the Nazi flag flying over the League of Nations. I would understand this to imply that Hitler had succeeded in winning international acquiescence for his early actions, not that he intended to conquer Europe. None of the linked pictures show the annihilation of the Jews (which we would very much consider one of Hitler's goals) because the large-scale murders had not yet taken place. And so forth.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:28 PM on May 10, 2009


Hitler conquering Europe: image from 1939

Hitler and the Jews: image from 1934
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:41 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks. This is very interesting - I can't believe I'd never heard of this guy.
His images are beautifully crafted - I love that sharp contrasty look that vintage German photography has (and VW manuals). Thematically I think it tends a little too far towards the literal, like the editorial cartoon in a tabloid newspaper.A little more information on the dates would be useful too. E.g without that it's kind of hard to know just how prescient Heartfield was being when he made this one.
Heartfield made these images at least while he was living let's say without the immediate threat of Nazis at his front door in Hampstead ; ) London. And in 1939, I kind of doubt he would be the only one concerned and aware of Hitler's intentions.
posted by Flashman at 10:48 PM on May 10, 2009


Here's a stamp from East Germany with John Heartfield on it. I found it in this essay on Heartfield.
posted by Kattullus at 11:02 PM on May 10, 2009


Joe in Australia: I think that you may be viewing his concerns in the light of what you understand to be Hitler's goals... None of the linked pictures show the annihilation of the Jews (which we would very much consider one of Hitler's goals) because the large-scale murders had not yet taken place. And so forth.

I feel as though it's important to say that, while the holocaust was clearly Hitler's chief crime, it was not his only or even his first crime. Adolph Hitler was a tyrant first and foremost; he took control of Germany in a fanfare of bluster about recapturing Germany's lost inheritance and regaining the prime place amongst the nations of Europe. It was clear even at this early date that Hitler's rise was symptomatic of a diseased spirit in the soul of the nation, a thread of renegade anger which saw all means and all methods as justified in pursuit of dominance.

Though Kristallnach may not have happened until 1938, the signs were there; this is clear from the emigrations of so many Jewish intellectuals from Germany as early as 1933 when Heidegger, taking leadership of the University at Freiburg, proclaimed his support of the so-called Nazis in his famous Rektoratsrede whilst quoting Plato, Aeschylus, and Nietzsche. It was clear to Jews in 1933 what this meant; and if the common political discourse wasn't mentioning the particularly 'anti-Semitic' character of the so-called Nazis quite yet, it was probably understood, along with the other truculent aspects of their regime which garnered more mentions. Hell, even in 1933 laws were being passed which barred Jews from being part of the educational establishment and even banning them from university libraries, laws of which Husserl himself, then rector of the University at Frieburg (but immediately removed), felt the brunt.

You do understand, Joe, what's at stake here, right? There are those who attempt to claim that no one knew that the Holocaust was about to happen or was happened as it occurred in order to absolve certain people or certain nations of responsibility in not preventing this tragedy. This is not to say that everyone is fully responsible; but it's necessary to keep alive the fact that the Holocaust was understood in its time so that we recall the full extent of what happened. I think that's one of the things CheeseDigestsAll has in mind.
posted by koeselitz at 11:08 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Reading these articles was an odd roller-coaster for me. Political cartoons as I know them lack artistic value and are often quite pathetic. There are many qualities shared between Heartfield's work and the ones satirized in The Onion's political cartoons. I don't know if the fact that I find these fascinating comes from the fact that they are of the time that they are or that they are works of a genius. Still worth checking out.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 11:09 PM on May 10, 2009


I don't know at what stage Hitler seriously thought he could conquer the whole of Europe

It's all in Mein Kampf, which was published in 1925.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:17 PM on May 10, 2009


Sorry; I intend to be clearer. What I mean to say, Joe in Australia, is this:

If you're taking issue with CheeseDigestsAll's statement at the end of his post that “...Hitler's goals and intentions were obvious well before the war,” I believe that history demonstrates that you are incorrect. The disposition of the so-called Nazi party and of its leader Adolph Hitler against the Jews and other 'animal races' was blindingly clear even in 1933; and if the extent to which they would carry their animosities was not yet imagined, at least the character of their hatred was clearly understood.

Every sane person in Germany in 1933 knew that the so-called Nazis hated the Jews and wanted them out of every public and private sphere. Those who didn't realize that this would mean some kind of extermination were being willfully ignorant.
posted by koeselitz at 11:19 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: I agree with the first part of your thesis: Every sane person in Germany in 1933 knew that the so-called Nazis hated the Jews and wanted them out of every public and private sphere. I don't think the record supports the second: Those who didn't realize that this would mean some kind of extermination were being willfully ignorant.

Do you really believe that all the Jews who remained in Germany were wilfully ignorant? Surely they would have left as soon as possible if they had believed in Hitler's plan for extermination, but in fact Kristallnacht (1938) was the final catalyst that caused many of them to leave Germany. What could Kristallnacht have done to frighten someone who already believed in the inevitability of extermination?

The period before the Holocaust was a more innocent time. My father was in a Hungarian labor camp in 1944 when rumors of the extermination reached them. Neither he nor the others in his labor battalion believed the rumors: they did not think a civilised nation could do such a thing. Later, of course ...

Now, these people weren't stupid. It's remarkable how many brilliant minds were in that generation of Hungarian Jews. My father went to school with a Nobel laureate. They had a particular interest in Hitler's plans. None the less, they couldn't believe in the death camps in 1944. I can't see how you can imagine that every sane person in Germany ought to have predicted their existence over a decade earlier.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:51 PM on May 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


koselitz, just out of curiousity - why do you keep referring to them as "so-called Nazis"? Aren't they just...Nazis?
posted by supercrayon at 11:58 PM on May 10, 2009


The Devil Tesla: Political cartoons as I know them lack artistic value and are often quite pathetic. There are many qualities shared between Heartfield's work and the ones satirized in The Onion's political cartoons. I don't know if the fact that I find these fascinating comes from the fact that they are of the time that they are or that they are works of a genius. Still worth checking out.

Nonsense—there are some fantastic political cartoonists. Thomas Nast was the daddy of them all; his excellent and incisive cartoons from the late 1800s were definitive illustrations of the time. Look at these:

EVERY DOG (NO DISTINCTION OF COLOR) HAS HIS DAY.
Red Gentleman to Yellow Gentleman: “Pale face 'fraid you crowd him out, as he did me.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, OUR MARTYRED PRESIDENT.

UNCLE SAM'S THANKSGIVING DINNER.
Come One, Come All; Free And Equal.

WHO STOLE THE PEOPLE'S MONEY? DO TELL.
'Twas Him!

Also, read this.
posted by koeselitz at 12:01 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


supercrayon: koselitz, just out of curiousity - why do you keep referring to them as "so-called Nazis"? Aren't they just...Nazis?

It's a small thing, but no one who was a Nazi actually called themselves a Nazi; it's a derogatory term used mostly by the Austrians. Although I don't know that such a group of people is particularly deserving of precision, I guess that history demands it. In any case, I picked up the habit from Leo Strauss' writings on the matter, particularly the preface to his book on Spinoza.
posted by koeselitz at 12:09 AM on May 11, 2009


Joe in Australia: Do you really believe that all the Jews who remained in Germany were wilfully ignorant? Surely they would have left as soon as possible if they had believed in Hitler's plan for extermination, but in fact Kristallnacht (1938) was the final catalyst that caused many of them to leave Germany. What could Kristallnacht have done to frighten someone who already believed in the inevitability of extermination?

The period before the Holocaust was a more innocent time. My father was in a Hungarian labor camp in 1944 when rumors of the extermination reached them. Neither he nor the others in his labor battalion believed the rumors: they did not think a civilised nation could do such a thing. Later, of course ...

Now, these people weren't stupid. It's remarkable how many brilliant minds were in that generation of Hungarian Jews. My father went to school with a Nobel laureate. They had a particular interest in Hitler's plans. None the less, they couldn't believe in the death camps in 1944. I can't see how you can imagine that every sane person in Germany ought to have predicted their existence over a decade earlier.


You're right that wholesale extermination, on the scale on which it finally occurred, couldn't possibly have been on the minds of Germans as early as 1933 or even 1938; and I apologize that my statement implied that anyone who remained in Germany was 'willfully ignorant.' Of course hindsight is 20/20; it seems easy to look back and say, “all of this was clear to anyone alive at the time.”

However, I believe that it can be argued that some violence against Jews could be anticipated. Germany had a long history of pogroms, and one of the major planks of the National Socialist agenda was 'the removal of Jewish influence' which very quickly (as in, by late 1933) came to mean 'the removal of Jews from public rôles altogether.' That this would only escalate was the fear of many Jews in Germany. Some may have thought this would be something that they could ride out, that after the Second Reich of Wilhelm a pacifying influence had come over society in German that still had some force; others may have thought that it was possible to prevail upon the better natures of Germans. It is hard to blame those in either group; but I don't believe that any German at the time doubted that the National Socialist project would only lead to more and more animosity toward Jews, animosity which could easily turn to violence.

There was also a clear political pressure against the German Jews which had been building for a century of German romanticism and strident aggrandisement. I quote a particularly insightful passage from the book I mentioned above, Leo Strauss' Spinoza's Critique of Religion:

Three quotations may serve to illustrate the precarious situation of the Jews in Germany. Goethe, the greatest among the cosmopolitan Germans, a “decided non-Christian,” summarizes the results of a conversation about a new society to be founded, between his Wilhelm Meister and “the gay Friedrich,” without providing his summary with quotation marks, as follows: “To this religion [the Christian] we hold, but in a particular manner; we instruct our children from their youth in the great advantages which [that religion] has brought to us; but of its author, of its course, we speak to them only at the end. Then only does the author become dear and most cherished, and all reports regarding him become sacred. Drawing a conclusion which on may perhaps call pedantic, but of which one must at any rate admit that it follows from the premise, we do not tolerate any Jew among us; for how could we grant him a share in the highest culture, the origin and tradition of which he denies?” [Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Bk. 3, Ch. 11] Two generations later Nietzsche could say: “I have not yet met a German who was favorably disposed toward the Jews.” [Jenseits von Gut und Böse, no 251; cf. Morgenröte, no. 205] One might try to trace Nietzsche's judgement to the narrowness of his circle of acquaintances: no one would expect to find people favorably disposed toward Jews amog the German Lutheran pastors among whom Nietzsche grew up, to say nothing of Jakob Burckhardt in Basel. Nietzsche has chosen his words carefully; he surely excluded himself when making the judgement, as appears, in addition, from the context. But his remark is not trivial. While his circle of acquaintance was limited, perhaps unusually limited, he was of unusual perspicacity. Besides, being favorably disposed toward this or that man or woman of Jewish origin does not mean being favorably disposed toward Jews. Two generations later, in 1953, Heidegger could speak of “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.”

-Leo Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion, [1930] Preface to the English Edition, [1962] pages 3-4

posted by koeselitz at 1:03 AM on May 11, 2009


Great post.

I first came across Heartfield in one or other Trotskyite magazine during the leadup to Bush's Iraq war. The image that stuck in my head is The Butter is Gone. Hmm, I wonder if I still have that magazine. I wouldn't mind reading that article again.
posted by robcorr at 1:21 AM on May 11, 2009


Hitler as Kaiser Wilhelm

Hmmm, sort of a proto-Godwin.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:24 AM on May 11, 2009


My grandmother, who came to England in 1939 from Czechoslovakia, told me that she didn't believe the wartime rumours of extermination, thinking they were British propaganda
posted by criticalbill at 3:25 AM on May 11, 2009


AMAZING. Thank you so much.
posted by applemeat at 5:47 AM on May 11, 2009


Wow. That's some courageous art.
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:03 AM on May 11, 2009


His stuff makes great jacket/sleeve art for Laibach too. :)
posted by edheil at 6:20 AM on May 11, 2009


My grandmother, who came to England in 1939 from Czechoslovakia, told me that she didn't believe the wartime rumours of extermination, thinking they were British propaganda


My grandmother said the same thing, and I don't believe her. She's from one of the Baltic countries and lived through the Soviet invasion and the German "liberation", and, after marrying a German officer, fled the Soviet advance in 1945.

I think folks just didn't want to believe.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:34 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


But wickedness needs to combine with the right kind of nonsense, otherwise it will not achieve the right result: the God, the God who was different—there was a thing! And today it is the race, the race that is different; there's a thing that will prove fateful again for the Jews—and this is one case when we really can hear the grass of history growing.—Constantin Brunner, 1921.
posted by No Robots at 8:10 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Self-Portrait with Police Commisioner has to be my fave. Thanks for this post; Heartfield (and other amazingly courageous anti-Nazi resisters) has been a hero of mine for a long time.
posted by mediareport at 8:31 AM on May 11, 2009


I think folks just didn't want to believe.

Maybe I should have been clearer. My point was that my grandmother - a German-Jewish refugee - didn't think extermination was imminent at any point in the 1930s. Perhaps she didn't want to believe as well. But that's not really the point I was getting at.
posted by criticalbill at 10:03 AM on May 11, 2009


Terrence Nowicki makes some good political cartoons.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:21 PM on May 11, 2009


Nice post. Discharge also appropriated that dove on the bayonet.
posted by stinkycheese at 4:21 PM on May 11, 2009


Somehow it seems that all the communists and socialists that the Nazis killed even before 33, and afterwards murdered en masse in the concentration camps are always very conveniently forgotten when talking about the 3rd Reich.
See the Köpenicker Blutnacht.
German communists new what the nazis had in mind vor them, so they fought with their lives.
It just wasn't enough.
posted by kolophon at 5:11 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


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