Propaganda vault: Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933)

All over the place, one can find mountains of old World War II propaganda created by the Nazi Party. However, the democratic Germany that preceded Nazi rule saw a far more diverse set of beliefs expressed through propaganda posters created by parties all over the political spectrum, from pro- to anti-democratic, and from communist to nationalist.  Today, we’ll examine some of the most interesting posters made for the German Reichstag elections during this period, starting from the far left and moving right.

Note: the “Liste” in many of the following posters refers to the list that the party in question was running under. In both the Weimar Republic and modern Germany, citizens could vote by “party list” instead of for individual candidates, and each party is assigned a list number. The list number was assigned separately for each election, which is why the same party will advertise different party list numbers in different posters.

Communist Party of Germany (KPD)

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Communists around the world are famous for their propaganda posters. For good reason – extremism of any kind deals with the kinds of black-and-white ideas that lend themselves best to propaganda. The Communist Party of Germany, which was formed shortly after the creation of the Weimar Republic and died shortly after the Republic was destroyed by the Nazis, carried this tradition on. Here we see four KPD campaign posters that effectively sum up the views of the revolutionary leftist party.

The first two on the left feature the “giant man”, a theme that would be used by communists, democrats, and nationalists alike in Germany to push their views. In the KPD’s posters, the giant in question is obviously a communist worker. The guy in poster #1 is even colored all red, and he looks about ready to smash up the entire Weimar government (the men at the long table representing the bankers, nobility, and nationalists in government at the time.) While giant #1 is bent on destruction, giant #2 is instead helpfully opening a giant gate for a bunch of much smaller workers, who have seemingly been trying to get to their factory jobs that somebody locked them out of. Maybe the factory owner locked them out during a strike – there were strikes, after all, during the turbulent period of the Weimar Republic.

The third poster contains another common feature of these works of propaganda art: the grotesque caricature. These are always of some enemy or other of the party in question. In the Communist case, the greatest enemy is naturally the capitalist, usually in a three-piece suit and often with monocle and top hat, and almost always fat. In this piece, two of these cartoon capitalists gleefully watch the ripped urban worker and rural farmer threaten each other, and then flee in terror when the worker and farmer become friends, the implication being that when the urban and rural working classes join up, they’ll kick the shit out of the upper class. This “worker-farmer alliance” is a common theme in communist propaganda.

The fourth and final KPD poster we included just because the imagery is fantastic. The artist uses the KPD’s party list number for the election – in this case, List 5 – and makes the 5 the head of a sledgehammer slamming a collection of anti-Bolshevik politicians and officers in the head. Pretty cool, if extremely violent (and therefore appropriate, since the German Communists weren’t shy about using force and had their own paramilitary force, the Rotfrontkampferbund, that often rumbled with the Nazi Sturmabteilung in street battles.)

Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)

spd-prop

The SPD was among the country’s oldest political parties, having its roots in the old German Empire. Initially a Marxist party, the SPD had dropped the “revolutionary” and “communist” parts of its agenda long ago and became one of the foremost republican parties in the interwar period, taking part in several ruling coalitions before the Nazi coup of 1933.

Because of its position, the SPD’s campaign posters attacked both its far left and far right opponents. The first poster above depicts a shirtless man, probably meant to be a factory worker, smashing a swastika with a hammer. In the second poster, a shirtless screaming red man with hollow eyes has instead chosen to smash the skulls of a Communist and a Nazi, the SPD’s chief enemies, against each other. This one must have given a kid nightmares. The most striking of these posters, though, is the third: a starved worker crucified on the “bent cross” of the Nazis.

Not all of the SPD’s posters are violent or dark. The final poster of the group features an exuberant woman who’s happy about voting for the SPD and hopes they’ll help improve her life. Well, they won’t get the chance – not until after World War II, anyway, when the party reformed in West Germany.

German Democratic Party (DDP)

ddp-prop

The German Democratic Party was a center-left republican party that only existed and operated during the Weimar period. As with most of the moderate parties, the DDP’s propaganda posters tend to be pretty boring. The above, in fact, was the only mildly interesting DDP piece we could find. A giant man, who is this time naked for some reason, uses his giant shield emblazoned with the colors of the republican German flag (black-red-gold – the same as the flag Germany flies today) to block the spread of Nazis and Communists, represented by worms and snakes and other crawling animals toting swastikas and red stars. Not even really that interesting compared to some of the better efforts. But better campaign posters probably would not have saved the party from being outlawed with all the rest by the Nazis in 1933.

It’s interesting to note that East Prussia is tied to the rest of Germany by rope. This territory was left to Germany after the creation of Poland in 1918 by the post-World War I treaties, and the terms of access to this disconnected state remained a point of contention between the countries up until Hitler took all of Germany’s lost eastern territories back, and then some, in 1939.

German Centre Party (Zentrum)

zemtrum-prop

The Zentrum, or Centre, Party was a national Catholic-dominated party with strong support in southern Germany. The Centre Party was more or less centrist (as the name suggests) and pro-clerical, and it ruled in a few coalitions, namely in one of the very last before the Nazi takeover of power in 1933. The modern Christian Social Union is seen as the spiritual successor to the Centre.

Once again, not much interesting seems to have come out of the Centre’s propaganda office. All the really good artists and idea guys must have been working for different parties. The above poster does sum up the Centre’s philosophy nicely, however. The party is depicted as a great stone bridge supporting a group of people, some of whom are carrying banners with crosses. The Centre stands above a dark valley full of leftists and Nazis waving red and swastika flags respectively. This poster means to depict the Centre as the bulwark against extremism. Though the Centre delegates in the last free Reichstag session basically assented to their own dissolution by the Nazis when they voted for the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler complete power over the government, so… that image doesn’t hold up too well in hindsight, does it?

German National People’s Party (DNVP)

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Also referred to as the Deutschnationale or the Nationalists, the DNVP was a conservative nationalist party with monarchist sympathies. The Nationalists eschewed the black-red-gold banner of republican Germany in favor of the old imperial black-white-red, which they used as their party flag. DNVP delegates initially won great support from the far-right and traditionalist voters but lost steam in the early 1930s and ended up joining a coalition with the Nazis as junior partners before being dissolved with all the rest of the non-Nazi parties.

As with the DDP and Zentrum, the DNVP apparently didn’t have too many really good propagandists on their side. The only interesting poster we found was this depiction of a group of goofy-looking hoodlums wearing ridiculous hats destroying the old imperial flag in 1918, referring to the defeat of the German Empire in World War I and the revolution that introduced the Weimar Republic, led largely by moderate socialists and democrats in the SPD and other republican parties.  On the right, by contrast, are three strong, upright Germans (a worker, a soldier, and a woman, a nicely diverse group) raising the imperial flag once again.  Meanwhile, the various other parties squabble in the background, represented by the communist flag, the red banner, and the republican black-red-gold flag.  And a weird combination of the two that I’ve never seen before on the right.

Anyway, the DNVP matched the Nazis for their hatred of both the Weimar Republic and Jews, although the latter bigotry isn’t represented on this poster.  Speaking of…

National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP)

nsdap-prop

The Nazis really need no introduction.  They won the battle over the Weimar Republic, destroyed it, and built a new state in its place, leading to World War II and unimaginable death and destruction.  As with a lot of other turns in history, though, this was not an inevitable outcome.  For the first decade of its existence and even into the beginning of the 1930s, the Nazi Party was just one of several parties fighting in the fray that was German democracy, and for a while it didn’t even count as one of the major parties.  However, the Nazis under their leader Adolf Hitler did manage to turn out quite a lot of propaganda posters for their campaigns.

The Nazis often emphasized the importance of rebuilding Germany’s economy, as did many other parties.  Poster #1 states that Hitler will build, but it bizarrely seems to promise that he’ll build swastika-shaped buildings, which doesn’t seem terribly useful or efficient.  Poster #2 uses the same giant man motif that the Communists and the Democrats have also used, though this time the giant is naturally a Nazi who has just finished building a giant swastika, perhaps one of those swastika buildings that Hitler wants to have built.  A bunch of cartoonishly grotesque figures surround him, representing communists/socialists (the red hat guy), what I’m pretty sure is meant to be a Jew whispering into his ear (Jews backing socialists was, and still is, a popular theme among Nazis) and… a priest?  Or a bureaucrat or something.  All of these lesser figures are presenting papers to the giant, which may represent laws or proposals of some kind, but he looks down on them with a dismissive smile.  This poster actually sums up quite well what the Nazis did in 1933!  Minus the horrible caricatures, of course.

Poster #3 is perhaps the most grotesque of them all, though, featuring a ridiculous-looking, almost naked, lanky “guardian angel” carrying a club and wearing a hat with both “SPD” and the hammer and sickle on it, implying that the social democrats and communists were basically the same thing (when they actually never worked together and more or less hated each other, but we won’t let that fact stop us from some good propaganda.)  He’s leading a fat capitalist in a nice suit and a top hat, but not just any capitalist – a Jewish one.  At least that’s probably what the big nose is meant to imply.  The caption reads “Marxism is the guardian angel of capitalism”, which is maybe the stupidest thing anyone has ever said, since the only Marxist state at the time, the Soviet Union, actively killed capitalist types and suppressed independent businesses.  But, again, who cares about the facts?

Finally, Poster #4 shows a Nazi hammer (I think?  There’s no visible handle but let’s call it a hammer) smashing a communist/socialist guy and a priest, showing that the Nazis hated Catholic priests as well.  Or pretty much anyone who opposed their line.  Except that the pope at the time is widely considered a Nazi collaborator!  Ah, what a pain.

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