Propaganda and World War One. Poster art from the Great War’s aftermath are visual documents that recall great propaganda and more importantly, the desperate years that produced it. They are compelling; and also a vivid form of pictorial shorthand for recording the history of a tragic era. The themes are straightforward enough: war, aftermath of war, hunger, unemployment, age old resentments, brand new remedies, ephemeral hopes, and lingering despair. In short, they reflect all the ambiguous promises and defeated illusions of the time that prepared the terrain for the Second World War.
While Americans were urged to consume and enjoy, the European posters had particularly mordant images that were totally outside the context of American life. No one leafing through American posters, with their entreaties for women to smoke, the cigarette being a symbol of ”torches of freedom” , could learn very much about the political ideas and impulses, repressed as they were, through the first half of the twentieth century.
Europe is the exception. Shifting allegiances and emerging emotions were recorded with searing precision on vacant walls and kiosks from Moscow to Vienna and paris. Recorded, but often not preserved since the poster is a fragile art and there were no real efforts to preserve them as artifacts that bore witness to an artistic and historic legacy. The era covered by the posters opens with the carefully marshaled patriotism that had sustained the Allied nations through the end of an exhausting war followed by the false assumption that the losers would embrace new national identities irrespective of the past.
Germany had fallen into the trap that history sets for the over ambitious and and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy crashed. The victors thought they were looking into the dawn of a new millennium. However, behind the mist and the isolated chirpings of peace songbirds, the Russian revolution had torn apart the fabric of society making Bolshevism a new threat and total upheaval a real possibility. Politics became extremely polarized and the competition of the terrors, the Red Terror and the White Terrors, fossilized beyond the point of realistic solution. Hinterlands were often conservative and religious and the urban centers, socialist and industrial. The opposites were never resolved and all the Western societies were left in a treacherous equilibrium between uncompromising forces.
Postwar inflation ran its dizzying course through Central Europe, leaving whole classes pauperized and resentful. The Germans , who had never recognized the inevitability of their defeat, chafed at the absurdities of the Versailles Treaty and feeling the old martial stirrings, began secretly to rearm. The victor nations averted their eyes from this unnerving spectacle to concentrate on their own concerns, particulaarly bruising strikes, worker unrest and an expansion of social welfare. America returned to isolationism and the rapid expansion of their economy which would transform itself into a stock market boom.
But already by 1922, the nazis had emerged in Germany; bully boys, malcontents and sullen leftovers from the Kaiser’s army. Mussolini, farther south was preparing a new ”heroic age” for Italians. Nothing was inevitable. Men of good will reaffirmed their devotion to peace, and sometimes worked to preserve it. But, to look at the testimony of the posters, it almost seems to have been inevitable.
Above: A new conflagration overtakes the old. In Europe’s east, war turned into revolution. A Bolshevik poster assails a triumvirate of Czar, Priest and Rich Man who ride on the shoulders of the workers and peasants, over a destroyed earth, over the corpses and bones of the dead poor. Chief of the oppressors is the capitalist. With his whip he drives the working people and with his sword he drives people to war. Acclaiming the overthrow achieved in Russia’s October Revolution, the poster warns that in France, England and America the kings, priests and the rich still ru
nd are sending forces to put down the Russian people’s revolt.
Above: An apocalyptic revolutionary figure is shown putting the torch to the guardian of such liberties as postwar Austrians possessed; the Parliament at Vienna. Yet this placard which caused a sensation when slapped upon the Danubian capital’s billboards in 1920, does not preach resistance to the incendiaries at all,but the reverse. ”Vote Communist!” is its message. Such rabid incitement to violence served to foment further incitements on the opposite side, until the battle of the posters led to physical battles in the streets.
Above: Beaten by the West and undermined by revolution from the East, Central Europe became a seething battleground of rival extremists. In the midst of Germany’s military and social breakdown, a poster recruits veterans for one of the many mercenary private armies that sprang up like vigilante bands to keep self-appointed order and prey upon leftist opponents. Here the ”storm Battalion Schmidt” calls for infantrymen, cavalrymen,machine-gun sharpshooters, flame throwers, tankers, artillerymen etc. Such freebooting formations of German condottieri eventually fed manpower into the revival of the Reich’s military strength.
Above: Over the name of War Commissar Leon Trotsky, the Red Army exhorts its men to ”BE ON GUARD” against Polish interventionists who are trying to ”stir up war” under the leadership of Pilsudski, behind whom stand ”the biggest French imperialists” , denoted by the aged figure in Gallic uniform. But the Soviet legions once again will destroy the bands of Polish adventurers; ”The Red Army will do its work and nothing will stop it.” Below: City dwellers are shown as victims of peasant greed.