Cartoons of the Third Reich

By Coupe, W. A. | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Cartoons of the Third Reich

Coupe, W. A., History Today

W.A. Coupe looks at ways in which the Nazis employed political cartoons in their armoury of propaganda techniques for imparting their message to the German people.

From the mid-nineteenth century the German periodic press had embodied a rich tradition of graphic political satire. It was therefore natural that the National Socialists, with their keen sense of propaganda, should seize on the cartoon as a convenient vehicle for their message. Since its inception in 1924, Julius Streicher's notorious publication, Der Sturmer (The Stormtrooper), employed `Fips' (Philip Ruprecht) to produce the front-page cartoons that gave graphic illustration to the journal's motto: `The Jews are our misfortune'. Similarly, Joseph Goebbels, Gauleiter of Berlin and Party Director of Propaganda, highly valued cartoons and used them from the late 1920s in his newspaper, Der Angriff (Attack). In an obvious attempt to go `up market' in the 1930s, the Party published Die Brennessel (The Stinging Nettle) as its own counterblast to sophisticated liberal publications such as Simplicissimus and Lustige Blatter (Merry Pages).

Such competition was, of course, destined to disappear in 1933. Hitler had never made a secret of his intention to destroy the `so-called freedom of the press' once he achieved power, and after the Reichstag fire, many liberal and socialist newspapers and journals were unrestrainedly suppressed. Others were `co-ordinated' -- initially by a process of wholesale intimidation, and latterly by the legal sanctions embodied in the `Reich Editorial Law'. This made editors responsible for ensuring that no `offensive' or `subversive' material appeared in their journals and put them under the ultimate supervision of Goebbels' Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which had rapidly established offices in all main centres. In keeping with Goebbels' celebrated dictum that `the Government should be able to play on the press as though it were a piano', official news conferences and written communications reinforced the ethos of the `New Germany' and instructed editors on what was to be emphasised, played down or omitted, and even which words or expressions might be used and which were deemed `undesirable'. Illustrated material had to be approved by a censor before publication.

The new measures effectively meant that comment on home affairs was limited to cartoons of approbation, while satire was reserved for Germany's real or imagined enemies. The cartoons of the period thus provide an accurate reflection of the shifts in Nazi policy and the accompanying cynical manipulation of public opinion. Particularly striking is the way in which, on the one hand, the German public was being reassured of its leader's pacific intentions while on the other it was being prepared for war. A mere four days after taking office, Hitler was secretly meeting senior army officers and outlining plans for the implementation of the programme already foreshadowed in Mein Kampf. Over the next few years further meetings reinforced these strategies, culminating in the Four Year Plan of 1936, whose premise was the perceived need to prepare a war of aggression.

But the main task of Nazi propaganda, both at home and abroad, was to reassure the general public, alarmed at the possibility that Hitler meant war. The `Peace Declaration' in Hitler's speech to the Reichstag on May 17th, 1933, was intended to do just this and thereafter the assertion of National Socialism's peaceful intentions became the stock-in-trade of Nazi propagandists. In the run-up to the `election' of November 1933, for instance, the traditionally rightwing Kladderadatsch contributed to the massive public brainwashing with a free adaptation of Rembrandt's engraving of Faust's vision of the sign of the macrocosm (plate 1). `Der deutsche Michel' (the German equivalent of England's John Bull or France's Marianne) appears as Faust, who turns his back on the skeleton of the Versailles Treaty and faces the radiant swastika which floods his study with light and proclaims `With Hitler for honour and peace'. …

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