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Art and Lies

Steven Heller, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (Phaidon, 2008)

Few symbols grab and hold our attention like the swastika. The symbol has deep roots—it has been used by virtually every major civilization and dates back to at least 3000 BC. Even though the swastika is one of mankind’s oldest symbols, its grip on our imagination today is entirely due to its forceful association with the Nazi party.

In The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption?, Steven Heller wrote, “I find the swastika to be representative of how line, shape, mass, and color can be influential on popular perception when manipulated to serve an idea and promoted vociferously as a brand.” Heller writes the “Visuals” column for the New York Times Book Review where he also served as art director for almost three decades. He writes authoritatively and often on design in Print magazine and i.d. and has, in the last decade, increasingly turned his attention to the role of design in politics. In his latest book, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, Heller reconsiders the branding of the Nazi party, as well as the iconography and propaganda of the last century’s other major totalitarian governments: the Italian Fascists, the Russian Soviets, and the Chinese Communists.

In the same way that these regimes turned conventional morality on its head—ratting out your family was “good,” saving those the state had condemned was ‘bad’—the outward signs of things, too, were distorted beyond recognition. Streets and cities were renamed for the prevailing political climate (St. Petersburg became Leningrad); state buildings went up in the footprints of just-demolished churches; in one Chinese city, a zealous traffic policeman reversed the meaning of traffic signals: cars were to advance on red (the color of the Communist Party) and halt on dollar-green.

Heller’s previous research and writing on the swastika gives the first chapter in Iron Fists—a vigorous interrogation of the iconography of the Nazi party—singular gravity and scope. He traces the Nazi obsession with strong propaganda to Germany’s defeat after World War I, when Hitler, who started out as the PR officer of the German Worker’s Party (later the Nazis), insisted that graphic identity be a priority of the new party. Hitler was deeply critical of the Kaiser’s response to American and British wwi propaganda, and Heller includes an example of the wwi German propaganda effort that shows us why. We see a flyer that looks like it’s straight out of the Middle Ages, apparently executed in wood-block. Following his political ascent, Hitler’s image was even trademarked: the Fuhrer earned royalties for every card, poster, and postage stamp bearing his visage. (Every inch of the state was regulated, and smartly stitched, Heller observes—Hugo Boss even made the snazzy black uniforms sported by the ss.)

Iron Fists demonstrates how the underlying obsessions of each regime colored their design decisions. In Germany, for example, the Nazi party used a gothic font (think New York Times masthead) on all party publications because of that typeface’s unsullied, “authentic German” feel. In China, on the other hand, the Communists rejected anything to do with the old regime, and discouraged old-fashioned articulations of party support—discouraging, for example, Mao portraits rendered in traditional Chinese paper cutting. Whatever the differences in their print culture, all shared a fetish for monumental architecture and public spectacles where individuals were, in Heller’s words, “subsumed into a branded mass” that underscored their subservience to the state.

The breadth of the images that Heller pulls together gives the reader a glimpse of the pervasiveness of propaganda. Iron Fists includes many examples of unfamiliar material artifacts: a Hitler poster that looks like the Meet the Beatles album cover (with a jaunty, mustache-shaped dot over an incongruously lower-case sans-serif “i”); socially-correct Soviet children’s books with titles like Where Do Dishes Come From? and how-to-heil pamphlets addressed to the Third Reich’s junior high-school set; photographs of Mussolini’ bald pate thrust into innumerable public arenas, including a snapshot showing a gargantuan granite face of Mussolini mounted on a building, where it hovers, looking uncannily like Marlon Brando’s chiseled death mask in Superman II.

All in all, Iron Fists is a beautiful, unsettling book. Heller writes of the power of strong branding narratives to reinforce and extend power—whether of a product or a political party—by “infiltrating the subconscious,” and these representative images remain forceful and insidious. Full-page photographs transmit the power of the staged events: one is struck by the mass, might, and order conveyed by the Nazi parades, the Soviet demonstrations, the Maoist spectacles. This coffee-table tome transmits the graphic devices of four of the 20th-century’s most powerful totalitarian regimes with disconcerting effectiveness.

While Heller’s accompanying text provides some context, the focus here is chiefly in the images, which remain compelling—persuasive, even—in spite of our presumed knowledge of the dreadful particulars of what they mask. Strangely, in his discussion of the images, Heller shies away from any explicit mention of what any of these governments actually did with their power—what it was that set their governments apart, other than their pioneering uses of well-designed propaganda. Politics and history take a back seat to a time-line of aesthetic developments. At most, Heller condemns the governments of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao through a smattering of condemnatory adjectives, writing somewhat euphemistically of their “perverse paradigm,” “heinous political goals,” and “horrific plans.”

But Heller has produced a striking, powerful book; why quibble with what’s not in it?

In focusing on the graphic motifs of totalitarian regimes, Iron Fists asks, “Why do these images matter?” The branding narratives of these governments promoted an idea of the state that was at some significant distance from reality—for example, Lenin-era propaganda touting the benefits of the New Economic Policy through photographs of smiling peasants and bushels of wheat denied the reality of peasants starving to death as a result of the nep. In not explicitly noting what these powerful images masked, Heller leaves us with an expanded sense of the ingenuity of these totalitarian regimes but with an inadequate appreciation of their deviousness or of the evil that good design can do.


Karen Shimizu


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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