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College of Arts/
the Design Area:
Design Contexts
Lecture Notes

2. Modernism and the Totalitarian State

As the twenties turned into the thirties post war optimism in europe
began to turn into a political polarisation and a growing extremism.
Communism and Fascism replaced liberalism and the Civil War in Spain
saw these extreme ends of the political spectrum come into direct conflict.
Graphic design and illustration became important tools for both sides to
communicate their messages. We saw this morning how constructivist
artists like El Lissitzky and Rodchenko helped promote communism in
Russia and in Italy the Futurists were equally simpathetic to Mussolini and
the Fascist blackshirts.

Modernism was about:

> change/ innovation/ revolution/ newness/ a better way/ technology/
efficiency ...but above all a group of people thinking they had the answer!

The futurists were interested in violence as a vehicle for enabling this

change and as a result they fell in behind Mussolini and the Fascist

Mussolini & the Futurists

“Mussolini received enthusiastic support from the vanguard of modern
Italian art: the Futurists. Although Futurism’s radical manifestos were
doubtless repellent to many old gaurd fascists, Futurism’s visual bravado
served the Fascist message well, signalling change in spirit as well as in
aesthetics... Fillipo Tommaso Marinetti, threw futurism’s support behind Il
Duce. His Futurist Manifesto of 1909 had been a call to battle: “United we
must attack!.. there can be no nostalgia! No Pessimism!.. Forward! Farther!
Higher! Faster! Futurism espoused the idea of a permanent artistic and
political revolution.” Heller, Steven. Iron Fists. Branding the Totalitarian
State. Phaidon. New York. 2008

War and violence to Mussolini and the fascists was a necessary human
instinct, and without it society would stagnate.

“‘War is to man what child rearing is to woman’. War was promoted as the
cleansing of the the old and stagnant elements of society...’Fascism.. does
not believe in the possibility of the utility of perpetual peace’, he wrote. It
therefore rejects that pacificism which hides a renunciation of struggle and
a cowardice in the face of sacrifice. Only war brings all human energies
to their maximum tension and impresses a seal of nobility on peoples
who have the courage to meet it’”. Heller, Steven. Iron Fists. Branding the
Totalitarian State. Phaidon. New York. 2008
There is an obvious correlation between the views of Mussolini and
Marinetti, but.. “Much to Marinetti’s dissapointment, Mussolini’s
pronouncements on Art & architecture were inconsistent, and eventually,
as real politics took precedence, he abandoned Futurist ideals. Mussolini’s
tastes ran more toward the monumental than the experimental”. Heller,
Steven. Iron Fists. Branding the Totalitarian State. Phaidon. New York. 2008

The development of the Mussolini brand was way too controlled and
systemmatic to left to mavericks like Marinetti, Depero and Balla. The
eventual aesthetic of Italian Fascism was “characterised by a stripped down
neo classicism inspired by the geometric decorative tendencies found in Art
Deco” and this style “smoothed away the cracks in roman antiquities and
brought these artifacts of Italy’s glorious past up to date.”

Mussolini styled himself as a roman emperor and his three quarter profile
was posted all over Italy. To complement the icon of their leader, the PNF
or National Fascist Party “ took as it’s emblem the fascio littorio (lictorian
fasces), a bundle of rods tied around an axe, symbolizing strength and
authority, that had been carried by the ‘lictors’ or or magistrate attendents,
in the Roman Republic. This fascio provided both the name and the
metaphor for the party, symbolizing the notion of strength in unity- a single
stick is easily broken but a bundle is unbreakable.” This icon began to
be worked into every aspect of Italian life from Theatre posters through to
childrens exercise books. (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.)

Alongside these visual icons they developed a set of slogans that

communicated certainty and strength:

“Believe, Obey, Fight”

“A book and a rifle make a perfect fascist”
“Inactivity is death”
“Let us have a dagger in our teeth, a bomb in our hands, and an infinite
scorn in our hearts”

Like advertising copylines today, these slogans “infiltrated the mass

subconcious” (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.) as Mussolini sought to build a new
Roman empire.

Nazi Germany
Unlike Mussolini, Adolf Hitler’s background was in the visual arts and
although, he was twice rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, he
orchestrated one of the most effective pieces of visual communication ever

“It could be argued that this self proclaimed artist conceived his horrific
plans as a massive sociopolitical ‘gewamtkustwerk’ (total work of art) built
on the notions of racial purification, nationalist regeneration and world
domination. These were intergrated into an overall scheme much of which
Hitler either designed himself or had a hand in designing. It does raise
the question of why the audacious visual identity of Nazi Germany was so
extraordinarily effective, and how it ultimately became a textbook example-
indeed a perverse paradigm of corporate branding.” (Heller, Steven. Iron

From the start Hitler was convinced that in order to be successful any group
had to communicate a strength of identity. He believed that Germany’s
defeat in the first world war was partly to do with the allies superior use
of propaganda and he was impressed by the strong visual identity of the
bolsheviks in Russia. So when he took over the German Workers Party in
1920 he quickly renamed it the Nationalsozialistiche Deutche Arbeiterpartei
which could be shortened to the ‘Nazi’ party and began work on the creation
of a visual identity.

“Up until then the movement had possessed no party badge or party
flag,” he wrote in Mein Kampf. “the lack of these tokens was not only a
disadvantage at that time but would prove intolerable in the future... it was
absolutely unthinkable that for the future they should remain without some
token which would be a symbol of the movement and could be set against
that of the (Communist) International” (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.)

For this purpose Hitler chose a swastika in a white circle on a red


“He explained that the red expressed the social thought underlying the
movement; white, the national thought; and the swastika signified the
struggle for the victory of ‘Aryan mankind and at the same time the triumph
of the the ideal of creative work which is in itself and always will be anti
semitic” (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.)

The nonsense that he uses to justify it does not change the fact that it
is certainly an extremely powerful visual statement. “The swastika is
one of humankinds oldest symbols. It represents prosperity and good
fortune, and numerous meanings have been ascribed to it” (Heller) These
include harmony, the elements, reproduction, man’s generative instinct
and equilibrium. It has been used by the Hebrews, the Jain’s, buddhists,
Corinthians, Etruscans, native Americans and ancient Scots and Britains.
Heller spends over 1000 words describing it’s various iterations, yet when
the nazi’s co-opted it the meaning of the swastika was changed forever.

They rewrote the swastika into a mythic story of germanic folkish mysticism
and it took it’s place alongside the image of Hitler as the Nazi ‘brand
champion’. In March 1933, the night before the election that would bring the
nazi’s to power, the German people were ordered to display the swastika
flag outside their house and such a powerful visual statement created a
feeling of inevitability to the Nazi victory. After this point use of the swastika
was tightly controlled and in 1935 a law passed in Nuremberg was enacted
that made the Swastika flag the flag of Germany and the colors red,
black & white it’s colors.

“While Hitler and the swastika were the principle visual assets of the nazi
identity, various other symbols reinforced the brand” (Heller)
The two most important of these were:

The Grosse Deutschland Eagle, which in 1933 became the National emblem
of the Third Reich. and the ‘Heil Hitler’ Roman salute which Hitler borrowed
from Mussolini in July 1933 was decreed to be used as the official greeting
of the German people as a sign of national solidarity. The salute could not
be used by inmates of penal institutions or jews.

After 1933 the Nazi’s began to manage the implementation of the Nazi brand
across all areas of German society this process was called ‘gleichschaltung’
best translated as ‘synchronisation’.

An important part of this process was the elimination of dissenting

voices which included the Bauhaus (which Hitler regarded as a hotbed of
communism) and avant garde artists and designers of every persuasion.
Initially this happened through critical propaganda and harrassment until in
the summer of 1937 when “two exhibitions were mounted simultaneously
with a view to creating a spectacular contrast. These were Entartete Kunst
(degenerate art), the gallery wing of the Hofarkaden and the first Grosse
Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), the opening
show of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Prinzregentenstrasse, the first of
Hitler’s prestigious public buildings, built as a ‘temple of German Art.” Hinz,
Berthold. Degenerate & Authentic. Aspects of Art & Power in the Third Riech
from the Catalogue to Art & Power at the Hayward Gallery.

The degenerate art was haphazardly hung with slogans daubed next to and
over the images saying things like: “Art Preaches class conflict”, “Painted
Military sabotage” and “the harlot as a moral ideal”. (Hinz)

German people were encouraged to come along and laugh at the modern
artists and as a result the exhibition was one of the best attended Avant
Garde exhibitions of the twentieth. At the Great German Art Exhibition
the Nazi’s promoted a grand Neo classical realism which looked great
reproduced on postcards.

“They surprise by their unexpectedly large dimensions; and yet their linear
layout and precise outlines and even poster like application of colour
makes them look rather dull and flat. These are precisely the characteristics
required for successful reproductions; and when reproduced they look like
quasi photographic representations of nature” Hinz, Berthold. Degenerate &
Authentic. Aspects of Art & Power in the Third Riech from the Catalogue to
Art & Power at the Hayward Gallery.

Thus nazi art communicated the fact that it was technically accomplished
and well crafted, qualities that always appeal to the masses. The work of the
formost poster designer of the nazi era, Ludwig Hohlwein, could certainly be
said to be all of these things. He designed many of the posters of the 1936
Berlin Olympics and his angular use of watercolor was ideal for describing
the chiselled features of the idealised aryan athlete.

Another important aspect of ‘gleichschaltung’ was the co-ordination of the

badges, icons and logotypes which differentiated the various parts of the
nazi machine.

Various guidelines were published to facilitate this, the most important of

which is The Organisational Handbook of the National Socialist Party which
bears an uncanny resemblence a modern set of brand guidelines. But there
is also the Path of the NSDAP, the SA handbook and the Hitler Youth in

As with any modern brands the Nazi’s also outlined typographic guidelines.
“Type was deemed critical; it was examined as much for it’s readablity - and
even it’s aesthetic - as for it’s Germanic origins.” (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.)
Our stereotype for Nazi type is Gothic blackletter, but Bauhaus sans serif
type was not immeadiatly rejected and there was a significant group that
supported the use of modernist typography.

“The German Labor Front which controlled the trade chambers in charge of
printing and typography, was responsible for developing graphic teaching
materials and produced annual type specimen books featuring a limited
number of presumably sanctioned typefaces- most of which were variations
of Gothic Fraktur” (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.)

In 1935, however, Hitler himself came out against Gothic Arts and said
they were beloved by “petrified backward lookers” and as a result Gothic
typefaces were “simplified to be readable while still conforming to the
overall Nazi style”. (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.)

As in Italy, all of these visual specifications were aligned with a constant

stream of slogans and straplines:
“Germany Awake!”
“One People, One Empire, One Leader”
or Simple the word “Ja!” next to a portrait of Hitler were all potent rallying

At it’s height the Third Reich enveloped most of mainland Europe and North
Africa. Like it or not The Nazi’s were one of the most potent (and evil) brands
of the twentieth century and the creation of their visual identity echoes that
of many contemporary brands. “While being horrified by the regime one
must aknowledge the effectiveness of it’s propaganda. The fact that the
swastika elicits such strong emotional responses- that it can still inspire
fear and conjure a world of horror- is a sinister testament to the power of the
Nazi campaigns.” (Heller, Steven. Iron Fists.)

Although Mussolini & Hitler rejected many of modernisms stylistic

attributes, their instinct was fundamentally avant garde, in that their
movements were about a group of people thinking they had the answer. In
order to implement this answer they were interested in change, innovation
and the utilisation of new technology. The problem was that they were
prepared to eliminate anything that questioned this idea. Understandably,
after the Second World War there was a suspicion of such an ethos and a
desire to embrace a plurality of approaches.
Further Reading

> Heller, Steven. Iron Fists. Branding the Totalitarian State. Phaidon. New
York. 2008
> Catalogue to the Exhibition, Art & Power. the Hayward Gallery.
> Aynsley, Jeremy. Pioneers of Modern Graphic Design. A Complete History.
Beazley. London. 2001
> Eskilson, Stephen J. Graphic Design, A New History. Laurence King