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Fascism and the Cult of Nation

In his chapter "Art, Propaganda and Fascism," Clark explores the core values of a political and social movement which is not limited to Germany, Italy, and Spain during the 1930s and 1940s. As I hope to suggest here, we can see resonances of fascism in a number of socially conservative cultural contexts. Despite its appearances of modernity, fascism looks towards the past for inspiration, and builds on the values of a mythical past to unite different classes under a shared banner of "nationality and race" (47). Fascism plays on sentiments of nationalism, loyalty, and an appeal to the "people"; it intensifies social bonds through militarism and movement towards war. Its goal is the "reintegration" of the individual with "the collective soul of the nation."

Fascism--and its propaganda--is anti-rationalist in its approach. Appeals to emotion, references to cultural myths, loyalty, the national spirit and its glorious past, all circumvent rational analysis in those who want to believe. It is a "cult of action and passion free of doctrinal rules" (47). The term Weltanschauung refers to an "all-embracing vision of a spiritually unified and morally regenerated society created by the will of the people as embodied in their leader"(47). Both Hitler and Mussolini built their empires on a cult of personality with themselves at the centre. In Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 film of the Nuremberg rally Triumph of the Will, Hitler proclaims to the assembled masses, "Ein Volk, Ein Fürhrer, Ein Reich!" Under Hitler's leadership, the German fascists added an additional rallying cry--Volksgemeinschaft: a racially pure community purged of decadence. This appeal to the unity of the folk is at the heart of the fascist concept of nation. It conjures up a utopian image of rebirth and regeneration.

To reach a wider social spectrum, German fascism directed different messages to different audiences: the middle class were told that communism and the Bolsheviks threatened German financial security; the working class were promised jobs and manual labour was elevated to the heroic. This sustained propaganda effort required a complex and coordinated bureaucratic machine--what Ellul calls an "apparat"--with full control of the mass media. (According to Ellul, there would be no modern propaganda without mass media and technology.) The Nazis availed themselves of public address systems, radio, cinema, print, and large public spaces (such as sports stadiums) to promote their vision of a regenerated German people. In effect, their approach was to create the propagandistic equivalent of the total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) in which drama, spectacle, music, choreography, and architecture combine into an emotionally gripping experience--not unlike a rock concert, Broadway musical, or football game.

The literary critic Walter Benjamin called fascism "the aestheticization of politics"--politics as aesthetics, or style (52). The cultish spirit of fascism combines politics, religion, and myths of the glorious past with contemporary events. Archaism--making reference to the distant past--suggests that history is not linear but rather a cycle of rebirth and regeneration, making a return to the values of a golden age possible. Visual references to Hellenic Greece, imperial Rome, and later neoclassical revivals evoke continuity with the past and thus provide a source of legitimacy and sense of destiny. Medieval art provided a model for the cult of the warrior, the crusader, and the orderly social hierarchies of feudalism. Similarly, in Japan in the 1920s, the Kokuhonsha organization was formed to promote the racial supremacy of the Japanese in the Pacific region. The medieval samurai became the model for a new fascist warrior.

Fascist archaism has to reconcile an inherent contradiction towards modernity: on the one hand, it seeks the rebirth of past values; on the other, it embraces industrialization. Using the example of architecture, Clark suggests that the neoclassical style provides a veneer of stability and grandeur over a structure of modernist functionalism (58). The Greek or Roman or neoclassical architectural motifs of fascist buildings were confined to their public face; inside, they were designed with the efficiency of a modern machine. The same might be said for the structure of the fascist state.

The conjunction of nationalism with a cult of the people is demonstrated through the proliferation of kitsch: art specifically styled for mass consumption. Kitsch merges fine art with mass culture using "two related strategies: first, the mass-reproduction of paintings and sculptures in films, posters, postcards, advertisements, and magazines, which shift the sites of reception and confer a sense of common ownership over the image; and second, by stylistic adaptation of art to the visual codes of popular culture--by making a painting look like a movie poster or pornographic pin-up, for example" (60). It is indeed a little disturbing to realize how closely the strategies of post-modern art in our time conform to this definition of kitsch.

If you were a propagandist, what popular imagery would you use to mobilize the masses of Canada?

Aesthetics under German fascism were promoted by the National Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturekammer), maybe something akin to the Canada Council or National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the U.S. If there is to be national unity, there must be a national style, or at least art which promotes a set of values esteemed by the nation.

For German fascists, Expressionism provided something of a dilemma at first. Expressionism was a product of German culture, and valorized passion and physical sensation over the intellect...similar the Nazi cult of action. It expressed a romantic view of primitive life and thus was seen as a celebration of volkische culture. Since the late 19th C. Germany had seen a revival of hiking, camping, and nudism--all celebrations of nature and physical beauty simpatico with Expressionism. However, the style of Expressionism--its distortion of the ideal human form and references to African art forms--eventually led it into disfavour with the Nazi cultural managers. It was labeled "degenerate" and came to suggest genetic deformity and the decay of civilization to the racial purists. The Degenerate Art exhibition (1937) was staged by the Nazis as a propaganda event to continue their campaign against a sick, infected, and disordered society that needed to be cleansed of political and racial impurities.

The cult of nation and its folk was instead promoted through ideals of physical beauty: as in Saliger's The Judgement of Paris (1939) or Riefenstahl's Olympiad (1936). In both examples, the Nazi mythos of racial purity and physical beauty are synthesized with Hellenic archaism to create the body as a model of the state. The modern career woman or the ideal mother recall Nordic female warriors. We see strains of this body worship in our own time in the cults of physical fitness, and the idolization of physical health and beauty in all forms of popular culture, including reality TV.

Designing Modernity

In the commentary above, you might notice me drifting towards a certain point-of-view: that fascism is not confined to the usual suspects--Germany, Italy, and Spain. There is, I suspect, a kind of proto-fascism in those cultures which espouse nationalism, the virtues of the people, a glorious past, the need for regeneration, and militarism. It's instructive, I think, to look for signs of this proto-fascism in the popular art of the past century.

An excellent resource for making this comparison is the The Wolfsonian Museum of Modern Art and Design at Florida International University. It was Wendy Kaplan's book Designing Modernity: The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945 which first introduced me to the Wolfsonian Collection and guided me to look at the propagandistic arts in comparative ways. What surprised me reading through this text was the strong appeal of the Nordic material arts--furniture, architecture, painting--and the kind of unease I felt as I saw how these material arts evolved into the iconography of fascism. Equally fascinating was to see how the United States had adapted that same aesthetic into many of its promotional and propaganda campaigns. For just a taste of what the Wolfsonian has to offer by way of insight, compare the images down the right hand side of the screen. If you cursor over the images, you'll discover text tags that describe the images. The descriptions below are excerpted from the Wolfsonian website for your convenience; however, I urge you to visit for yourself: www.wolfsonian.fiu.edu/

Commentary Excerpted from the Wolfsonian Collection

Arbeit Siegt (Work Triumphs)

The first half of the 20th century was a tumultuous time - with two world wars, the rise of fascism and communism, and the Great Depression. Design was used by all nations involved in these occurrences - including the United States and European nations - to advance new political systems, rally public support for war programs, and to promote often-hateful governmental policies.

Work to Keep Free!, 1943

Posters such as this demonstrated the importance of factory production as a patriotic effort and enticed the unemployed, including women and minorities, to join the labor force....This poster was produced by the U.S. Division of Information, Office for Emergency Management as part of the national campaign to focus attention on the need for production. The strong graphic image carries the message using bold, simplified images. A worker's hand clenches a symbol of manual labor - a hammer. Behind it the shadow of the Statue of Liberty's hand holds the emblem of democracy - the torch of liberty. The poster focuses on the importance of work and production to assure an Allied victory and thus a democratic way of life. The colors - red, white and blue - underscore the patriotic intent of the poster.

Germany's Modern Architecture

This poster was intended to publicize the Nazi ideals of monumental classicism and its associated messages of power and control to other nations. Note that this poster is in English, and was probably intended for a U.S. or British audience. The same poster was produced in other languages.

The images in this montage are of buildings constructed during the nazi era. The row of columns at the base is a wing of the House of German Art, the museum designed by Paul Ludwig Troost, Hitler's first personal architect. Troost was succeeded by Albert Speer, who later became the Nazi Minister for Armaments and Munitions. From Speer's Reich party Congress Grounds in Nuremberg comes the eagle-topped pedestal that dominates the poster. The curving colonnade is from the 1936 Olympic Stadium, which was used by Hitler to promote Aryan physical superiority.

The swastika emblem is the most potent example of the Nazis' complete mastery of modern marketing strategies. Using mass production and mass communication, the Nazis turned the swastika into a brand identity. The swastika appeared everywhere. It was carved in stone on state buildings, embroidered on party uniforms, pressed or printed on ceramics and other domestic products, and reproduced on millions of pieces of printed ephemera. Despite its original meaning as a symbol of good fortune and well being, it remains to this day a potent emblem of anti-Semitism and violent intolerance in general.

Italian Art of the 10th & 20th Centuries

Propaganda material, such as this poster, often used motifs and symbols inspired by classical Roman art. This practice was part of Romanità-the intense belief that Fascism was the continuation of the glorious Roman Empire. By referring to the power of the Roman civilization, the artist elevates not only the importance of Italy's cultural heritage but also the legitimacy of Mussolini's Fascist government. The central figure here depicts the Greek goddess Minerva, shown as the helmeted goddess of war. She is also presented in her second role as patroness of learning and the arts, indicated by the owl that adorns the helmet. Another ancient icon is placed behind Minerva-the fasces, a bundle of reeds tied together with an ax. Originally, the fasces was carried by Roman officials to signify their authority. In 1926 Mussolini adopted the fasces as the official emblem of his Fascist regime.

Women in the War: We Can't Win Without Them

"Women must be induced to change their customary life pattern of school, a few years of work, marriage and children. Some must remain in jobs, others must go to work." As increasing numbers of men joined the armed forces, vital manufacturing jobs were left empty. Campaigns were conducted by the U. S. Government to convince women to support the war effort by leaving their homes to work in the factories. Posters such as this were strong, positive calls to action that were printed in the thousands and placed in every conceivable public locale from hospitals to banks. The woman here uses an electric rivet gun to make a bomb casing....After the war, similar campaigns were launched prompting women to leave their jobs and return home in order to make room for the returning war veterans.

Neues Volke 1938 (New People)

The concept of a pure Germanic race was the basis of Nazi culture and permeated every aspect of German life. Here, an advertisement for a calendar promotes the Neues Volk, or New People, published by the Racial Policy Office of the Nazi party. Designer Ludwig Hohlwein portrays a "model" Aryan family that illustrates this group's principal characteristics: blond hair, fair complexion, chiseled features. The figures' hierarchy reflects each person's role within the family and in Nazi society. The male is in the dominant position, standing protectively over the group. The female figure carries a child identifying her as a mother. Indeed, the roles of women of pure Aryan blood were strictly defined as tied to the home and family. Aryan women were to be mothers and primarily responsible for increasing the German population, an activity the Nazis saw as "appropriate to their nature". The state used numerous measures to encourage large Aryan families, including closing birth control centers, providing tax credits for children, and outlawing abortion.


The Wolfsonian Museum of Modern Art and Design Associated with Florida International University, the Wolfsonian collection features propaganda as expressed in art and crafts from the period 1880 to 1950.

Kaplan, Wendy, ed. Designing Modernity: The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945. London: Thames & Hudson, 1995. Examines design at the height of the industrial age in the context of social, technological, and aesthetic issues. An excellent introduction to the persuasive aspects of material culture, and to the Wolfsonian Collection.

Immer Schneller, Deutsche Reichsbahn (Always Faster. German State Railroad), c. 1935Designed by H.J. Barschel, Published by W.E.R. Germany, Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, NRA Member, U.S. We Do Our Part, 1934Designed by Charles T. Colner (American, b. 1898);Published by the National Recovery Administration, Washington, D.C., Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, Arbeit Siegt (Work Triumphs), c. 1935; Designed by Hermann Grah (German, dates unknown); Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, Work to Keep Free!, 1943Printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office; Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, World’s Fair Chicago. 1833 A Century of Progress 1933, 1933Designed by Sheffer, Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, In 1939 The New York World’s Fair, 1937Designed by Nembhard N. Cullin, Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, San Francisco World’s Fair 1940, Golden Gate International Exposition, c.1940; Designed by Vanderlaan; Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, Industries Fair, Utrecht Holland International, c.1930Designed by P.A.H. Hofman (Dutch, 1885–1965); Published by Netherlands Railways; Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, Germany's Modern Architecture, c. 1938Designed by Richard Klein (German, 1890-1967), Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, Italian Art of the 10th & 20th CenturiesDesigned by U. Brunelleschi (Italy, 1879-1949), Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, Women in the War: We Can’t Win Without Them, 1942;War Manpower Commission–U.S. Government Printing Office; Wolfsonian Collection

Poster, Neues Volke 1938 (New People), for the calendar of the Racial Policy Office of the Nazi Party, 1938; Design attributed to Ludwig Hohlwein (German, 1874-1949), Wolfsonian Collection