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2008-09, 359, German, War

Branding the 20th-century totalitarian state

The Discreet Charm of Totalitarian Propaganda:

Iron fists – Steven Heller on Branding the 20th-century totalitarian state

Jürgen Wegner

DESPITE THE INROADS made by our debt-led economic miracle—I heard of the closure of four Melbourne bookshops in the past year with two more to follow—Melbourne remains the City of the Book.1 Though, arguably, Australia’s best general new bookshop must be Sydney’s Kinokuniya. One of many interesting books I came across in a recent week of bookshops, libraries, museums, presses private and bibliographical, and bookbinders, was Steven Heller’s newly published book Iron fists,2 a study of the four major totalitarian ideologies as marketing campaigns. Part popular history of totalitarianism and part graphic design history, I bought it chiefly for its extensive treatment of printed ephemera and grey literature as primary source material.

Heller is well-known for his many books dealing with graphic design and typography. He has published over one hundred books including the important Graphic arts timeline,3 Texts on type 4 and Merz to Emigré and beyond,5 His series dealing with graphic design in Europe before the Wars6 no doubt has made him aware of the sales power of totalitarian graphic design. Similar to the marketing and branding exercises of big corporations, such iconic logos as the German Hakenkreuz, the Italian fascio, Soviet hammer and sickle and Chinese gold star were used to engender national brand loyalty. As with the modern merchandising associated with films and television programmes, a whole range of peripheral goods and services were developed to capture and then maintain market dominance… and with a brand loyalty more recent consumer products can often only dream of. The book covers the big four totalitarianisms (“other dictatorships have used similar techniques … but [are] merely imitators with their own national dialects”) and is particularly interesting for the large amount of printed matter (printed ephemera and grey literature) which it displays to make its case. There are some contextualising photographs and large slabs of text which outline the development of control through political propaganda under the masterful stewardships of Der Führer, Il duce, Comrade Lenin and Chairman Mao, themselves just so many “trade characters” generated by party spin doctors.

The book provides a wonderful visual anthology of applied graphic design especially from the period between the World Wars—from those dramatic political posters we all know and love, down to merchandising (flags, badges, standards and accoutrements) and even the labelling of concentration camp inmates; as well as Mussolini in sculpture, gilt porcelain Stalin commemorative vases, and Chinese revolutionary porcelain. Not just another coffee table book, it provides more than the usual information and analysis of the context and development of political propaganda from the beginnings of their careers through the golden age of totalitarianism, Mao being the only one to survive into and be treated as part of our recent past. It is published by the quality art publisher Phaidon (“world’s leading publisher of books on the visual arts”), though it is not without a few minor irritations. One such irritation, straight out of the Introduction, is the use of such highly emotional language as “rant”, “rooted in hate” and “diabolical”, especially, it seemed to me, with regard to German Nazism. Treatment of the subject gave me the impression that there was a decided ideological backdrop for the ideas in the book when a more objective and clinical approach would have given a much better idea of the insidiousness of such consumer marketing; but then demonic totalitarianism has itself also become something of a global franchise today— at least with respect to its smaller contemporary outlets. I would have also liked to have seen included— even if only by way of contrast—that fifth great “totalitarianism” of consumer capitalism and its use of brand and image to promote and control contemporary global consumer society (e.g. our own Kath and Kim’s shining path to, as they put it, “effluence”).

German fascism is interesting not in the least for the value it placed on the typographic arts. Today Anglo-American culture has such market penetration and market dominance that we rarely hear anything about German type design or indeed any other non-Anglo type design such as the Dutch or French. The role that was ascribed to typography by Nazi Germany is little less than extraordinary and led to one of the more bizarre events in modern type history. Unlike the Anglo-American sphere, some European countries retained the use of blackletter 7 into the nineteenth and even well into the twentieth century. This is, of course, especially so in the case of Germany where blackletter was in regular use until World War II. Is it correct to see this as an historic dead end and the Nazi promotion of blackletter as just a dramatic interlude before the inevitable triumph of the roman? This adoption of roman was already well underway before the championing by the Nazis of blackletter as the true German type. From blackletter, scientific and some other works had increasingly appeared in roman type by the turn of the century. Under the Nazis, blackletter blossomed as the type style if not of choice then of German patriotism, and a Renaissance of blackletter occurred as part of the general revival of type in the early part of the last century… now with the exception of those typefaces designed by Jews and others designated as “cultural Bolsheviks” which were banned. But from about 1935 Hitler cooled towards blackletter and in 1941 Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and his head of the Parteikanzelei (Party Chancellery), decreed that the so-called German Gothic scripts were really Schwabacher Judenlettern (i.e. Schwabachan Jew letters)!; that after the invention of printing from moveable type, the Jews had taken control of the printing shops and thereby also the promotion of this un-German, now Jewish, type!8 This extraordinary back-flip—not so unusual with totalitarian dictatorships—is thought to have been in part due to the realization of the kinds of problems that would have resulted had blackletter been the universal type style of a Nazi world empire. Or, for that matter, in the pursuit of the War itself.

Unfortunately in the eyes of the world blackletter has become synonymous with the War and Hitler Fascism and has never quite been rehabilitated.9 One can perhaps imagine a blackletter typewriter… but Google blackletter? Still, the point is made in Plata’s book Schätze der Typographie 10 that many countries exist and thrive with parallel scripts, and even several languages. The demise of blackletter, or rather its relegation to funeral notices and those of heavy metal bands, is regrettable, and I think it has deprived us of one of the great typographic pleasures… that of reading text in a good blackletter typeface.11

Soviet Communism and Italian Fascism are both treated in similar detail. Both placed great emphasis on printed matter and design as an integral part of their national political programmes, though less structured than Germany. Soviet design centred round Constructivism with artists such as Lebedev, Rodchenko, El Lissitzy and Mayakovsky making an important contribution to political design. In Italy it was Futurism, but typography and design, image and branding, while omnipresent, never experienced the systematic control which was a characteristic of Germany.

Rather disappointing is Heller’s much briefer treatment of Chinese Communism under Mao. Perhaps this is due to some difficulty in accessing collections of such material as, unlike the first three, this ideology still seems to be in control today? I remember the radical scene here in Sydney in the late Sixties which centred round Bob Gould and his Third World Book Shop and to a smaller extent the East Wind Book Shop in Pitt Street. The East Wind was run by two less charismatic but impeccably dressed, refined, elderly (Caucasian) gentlemen. I did buy many Communist Chinese books and pamphlets at the time, and still have a long run of the English language journal Chinese literature thanks to a set of back issues from these gentlemen and to the subscription I maintained for many years. My real regret is not having bought those many fine large coloured revolutionary posters, the Mao badges, busts and other Chinese Communist collectables also. Though I do have some examples of printed matter similar to the comic-style Immortal hero Yang Ken-sze which is illustrated in detail and such classics as Red women’s detachment, &c. All of this material is now highly collectable, while Mao himself seems to have assumed some kind of retro-chic both at home and abroad! On at the moment at the Armory Gallery in Sydney’s Olympic Park is the From Mao to now 12 exhibition of posters of this period from the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. Quite small in size— both the individual posters as well as the number displayed—but worth seeing if only for the 1956 Communist Chinese Melbourne Olympics poster!

Iron fists is beautifully designed and presented as one would expect of a Phaidon art book; however, the copy I saw on display at Kinokinuya only a short time after its release here already seemed very shaky in its binding. Compare this with another book I also saw in Melbourne at just a little more than the $120 price of Iron fists—Imagining paradise13—which shows what a fine publication a better printing, production and binding job can produce. For an extra $15 you get a larger book, much better printed and bound. The Heller was printed in Hong Kong; Imagining paradise has pre-press, printing and publishing all by Steidl Publishing in Göttingen, Germany, with the solid “GDR-style” binding by the Leipziger Großbuchbinderei. I would really have liked to see a bit more effort put into the production of the Heller book as it should become and remain a popular reference for many years to come. As it is, an interesting comparison between contemporary British and German book production and publishing! Recommended for anyone interested in twentieth century political history, as well as typography, graphic design and printed ephemera/grey literature.


1.  Just announced in the State Library of Victoria’ latest email newsletter (Aug. 2008) will be the establishment in 2009 within the Library of a Victorian Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. The announcement was made along with another: the United Nations has named Melbourne as the world’s second City of Literature (http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/about/news/latest/220808.html?newsletter).

2.  Steven Heller, Iron fists: branding the 20th-century totalitarian state, London, Phaidon, 2008.

3.  Steven Heller and Elinor Pettit, Graphic design time line: a century of design milestones, New York, Allworth Press, 2000.

4.  Texts on type: critical writings on typography, edited by Steven Heller and Philip B Meggs, New York, Allworth Press, 2001.

5.  Steven Heller, Merz to Emigré and beyond: avant-garde magazine design of the twentieth century, London, Phaidon, 2003.

6.  Steven Heller & Louise Fili, Dutch modern: graphic design from De Stijl to deco, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1994; Steven Heller, Euro deco, London, Thames and Hudson, 2005; Steven Heller & Louise Fili, French modern: art deco graphic design, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1997; Steven Heller & Louise Fili, German modern: graphic design from Wilhelm to Weimar, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1998; &c.

7 . See: Blackletter: type and national identity, edited by Peter Bain and Paul Shaw; with a foreword by Lawrence Mirsky; essays by Philipp Th. Bertheau … [et al.], New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 1998, and also: http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Blackletter.

8.  Silvia Hartmann, Fraktur oder Antiqua: der Schriftstreit von 1881 bis 1941, 2. überarb. Aufl., Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, 1999 (Theorie und Vermittlung der Sprache; Bd. 28), p. 258 ff.

9.  Though there have been attempts. See, for example, Schätze der Typographie: gebrochene Schriften: Gotisch, Schwabacher und Fraktur im deutschen Sprachgebiet in der zweiten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts: Informationen und Meinungen von siebzehn Autoren, angeregt und eingeleitet von Walter Plata, Frankfurt am Main, Polygraph-Verlag, [1968], which republishes a series of articles which originally appeared in the German printing trades journal Der Polygraph during 1966. The websites Blackletter revival (http://www.moorstation.org/typoasis/blackletter/index.htm) and that of the type vendor Delbanco Frakturschriften (http://www.fraktur.com/) have further information. There is even a European Union (sponsored?) website called Frakturschriften (http://www.frakturschriften.de/) described as being part of their Europäisches Kulturgut (i.e. European cultural heritage) programme, which gives font vendors, a bibliography of texts concerning Fraktur types and even a Fraktur discussion list. The latter especially gives the impression of a quite active interest in blackletter today. And this is not only a “Germanic” phenomenon. The American Typecasting Fellowship’s ATF newsletter regularly contains material on blackletter.

10.  Schätze der Typographie, Einführung, p. 9.

11.  I recently read Hermann Hesse’s Roßhalde in a post-war economy paperback edition (31. bis 40. Aufl. [i.e. printing], Berlin, S Fischer Verlag, 1919) purely for the pleasure of again reading a novel in a nice Fraktur type.

12 . An exhibition catalogue is available: From Mao till now: Chinese sports and propaganda poster exhibition at Sydney Olympic Park, June 28 – Sep. 28, 2008, [Sydney], Sydney Olympic Park Authority, [2008]. Poorly produced and printed, it hardly does much credit to China’s capacity today as printers to the world! Check the website: http://www.sydneyolympicpark.com.au/Visiting/Whats_on/ events/all_events/from_mao_to_now_exhibition_june-sept08;

13 . Sheila J. Foster, Manfred Heiting [and] Rachel Stuhlman, Imagining paradise: the Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at George Eastman House, Rochester, Rochester, NY, George Eastman House [and] Göttingen, Steidl, 2007. The book presents a history of photography through the collection of significant photography books of Richard and Ronay Menschel. €75 or $135 at Gleebooks.



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