Adolf Hitler v John Heartfield (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Adolf Hitler v John Heartfield

Q1: Explain the methods Hitler used to ensure the success of propaganda.

A1: In source 2 Adolf Hitler argues that the "masses" are slow to understand the message you are promoting and therefore it needs "constant repetition" in order to "imprinting an idea on their mind". The "slogan" (message) needs to come from "several angles". Hitler means that it has to come in different forms (radio broadcasts, public speeches, posters, leaflets, books, films, plays, etc.).

Hitler was aware that a message is easier to communicate if your political opponents are not allowed to question these ideas. After he gained power he banned all other political parties. (source 3)

Q2: After studying the sources in this unit, explain the meaning of censorship and describe the different forms it took in Nazi Germany.

A2: In source 6 Joachim Fest points out that Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, was "the brain behind this manipulation of minds". The author of source 5 points out that the Nazi Party controlled all aspects of German cultural life. Books that had previously been published that were hostile to fascism were burnt and their authors, if still alive, were sent to concentration camps. Newspapers and magazines that had opposed Hitler were banned. The Nazi Party rigorously controlled all radio broadcasts, film production and theatre performances. The introduction points out that the decision to censor works of art was not only motivated by the fear that alternative political ideas would be communicated, Goebbels, banned the music of Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler.

Q3: How, according to source 8, was the dictatorship in Germany different from that which had existed previously?

A3: Albert Speer, a minister in the German government, argued that "Hitler's dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country." Speer was mainly talking about the importance of radio broadcasts. In the 1930s nearly everyone in Germany owned a radio and therefore it was possible for the government to send messages to people in their own homes. Speer claimed that this meant that "eighty million people were deprived of independent thought".

Q4: Use the information in sources 9 and 10 to explain the meaning of sources 4 and 7.

A4: Rudolf Olden was a journalist who investigated the Nazi Party claimed that it received funds from wealthy businessmen. As a result of the censorship in Germany, Olden had to flee the country in order to publish his book.

Fritz Thyssen, the owner of United Steelworks, a company that controlled more that 75 per cent of Germany's ore reserves and employed 200,000 people. He was one of the richest businessmen in Germany. However, he eventually fell out with Hitler over Crystal Night. He fled the country and published I Paid Hitler in 1941. He admitted that he "personally given altogether one million marks to the National Socialist Party".

In source 4 Hitler is showed standing in front of a large man who represents big business. The man is handing over money to Hitler. Printed underneath are the words: "Motto: Millions stand behind me! A little man asks for gifts".

In source 7 John Heartfield shows Fritz Thyssen, working Hitler as a puppet. Heartfield is making the point that rich businessmen in Germany were in control of the policies being imposed by Hitler. For example, by banning German trade unions, employers such as Thyssen were able to increase their profits.

Q5: Read the page on John Heartfield and explain why he changed his name in 1917.

A5: Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to John Heartfield in "protest against German nationalistic fervour" during the First World War.

Q6: Use the information in sources 11 and 12 to explain why photomontage was such an effective weapon against Hitler.

A6: Anthony Coles in source 11 argues that Heartfield was a "skilful" user of photomontage. He believed that one of the main reasons why photomontage was so successful was that it used photographs as "the myth that the camera does not lie and thus photographs came to have a documentary power". He goes on to state that Heartfield "could produce the most intellectually convoluted images by montage and still the final product would retain its power as a photographic image".

Zbyněk Zeman also shares an admiration of Heartfield's work. "Heartfield was the first artist who understood and was excited by, the possibilities opened up by contrasting two or more photographs. A new reality emerged when heterogeneous photographic material was used which threw a sharp, unusual light on the everyday life of society. "

Q7: Study sources 1, 4, 7 and 13 and explain why John Heartfield's work was banned in Nazi Germany.

A7: Source 1 was produced before Adolf Hitler gained power and was not banned at the time. The man appears to be strapped into an electric chair and his head is covered in German newspapers. The caption says: "Those who read capitalist newspapers will become blind and deaf". As a Marxist, Heartfield believed that newspapers owned by wealthy businessmen were not telling the truth about what was happening in the country.

Sources 4 and 7 were also produced by Heartfield before Hitler took office and are discussed in answer 4. Source 13 was created several months after Hitler gained power and was banned. In fact, the AIG magazine was published in Prague and illegal copies were imported into Germany. In 1932 the magazine had a circulation of 500,000. In 1933 this had fallen to just a few thousand.

In 1933 all copies of Heartfield's work was destroyed in Germany. Adolf Hitler became increasingly annoyed with John Heartfield's photomontages published in Prague (35 in 1933) and told the government in Czechoslovakia to ban his work. In May 1934 the authorities agreed to Hitler's demands.

When Hitler ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement of 1938 John Heartfield was forced to flee the country. In December he arrived in London. Over the next few months his work appeared in the Reynolds News and Lilliput. He spoke at political rallies, organized anti-Fascist groups, and took part in a successful political cabaret, Four and Twenty Black Sheep. On 23rd September, 1939, Picture Post used one of Heartfield's earlier photomontages, His Majesty Adolf, which showed Hitler wearing the Kaiser's uniform and moustache, on its front-cover.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Heartfield was interned with fellow refugees who had suffered under the Nazis and were now dubbed "enemy aliens". He was suffering from poor health and he was eventually released but he was not asked to work for the British government. His English friend, Richard Carline, later wrote: "His whole ambition was to make people fully aware of the menace of Fascism and to expose the Nazi tyranny through his work as an artist... The powerful contribution he might have made toward the Allied victory through his mastery of satire was not acceptable to the British authorities. They were highly suspicious of art, especially experimental forms of art by a German refugee."

John Heartfield and his wife moved to Leipzig in East Germany in August 1950. Together with his brother, Wieland Herzfelde, he worked for publishers and organizations in the GDR. He also designed scenery and posters for the Berliner Ensemble and the Deutsches Theatre. However, as Peter Selz has pointed out, he found it difficult to return to producing political photomontages. "While he was celebrated as a cultural leader, his chief idiom, photomontage, was still suspect during the 1950s among the more orthodox advocates of socialist realism." Heartfield had discovered that communist regimes were like fascist governments and were unwilling to accept the publication of his political photomontages.