Iron Fists: Branding the 20th c. Totalitarian State

“Glory to the great October!” A Russian poster commemorating the 1917 Revolution,
from Steven Heller’s new book, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State
In Iron Fists, an illustrated survey of totalitarian visual propaganda, Steven Heller offers an insight into the visual representations of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist USSR and China writes Katya Kan. Heller’s argument centres around the idea that totalitarian imagery is based on the potential of brand devotion. “Like any corporate identity campaign,” he writes, “the totalitarian regime demands the brand loyalty of its subjects.”
In his new book, Heller discusses how posters, magazines and advertisements were used within the visual systems of these dictatorships, alongside more formalistic elements such as typefaces and colour palettes…

Socialist poster
“Glory to the great October!” A Russian poster commemorating the 1917 Revolution,
from Steven Heller’s new book, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State

In Iron Fists, an illustrated survey of totalitarian visual propaganda, Steven Heller offers an insight into the visual representations of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist USSR and China writes Katya Kan. Heller’s argument centres around the idea that totalitarian imagery is based on the potential of brand devotion. “Like any corporate identity campaign,” he writes, “the totalitarian regime demands the brand loyalty of its subjects.”

In his new book, Heller discusses how posters, magazines and advertisements were used within the visual systems of these dictatorships, alongside more formalistic elements such as typefaces and colour palettes…

Each chapter explores a particular aspect of the visual culture that surrounded these dictatorships (such as the autocrat’s persona as visual device) and looks at the design and branding strategies used to help enforce each regime. Heller draws a parallel between the imagery of advertising and that of dictatorships on the level of branding strategies: as in marketing or corporate branding, these systems indoctrinate the viewer and establish an allegiance to a particular institution. As Heller contends, the purpose of authoritarian propaganda is ideological, with one essential aim: to fortify the power of the dictator and their regime.

The Socialist Realist poster (above) establishes brand fealty for the Communist system through key Soviet trademarks: the hammer and sickle insignia embodies the alliance between the workers and peasants; and the Aurora battleship, that sounded the signal to storm the Winter Palace in 1917, is placed in the centre of the star (hence the line, “Glory to the great October!” commemorating the start of the Revolution).

Hitler Youth

This Nazi pamphlet from 1936 was intended for Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) members. The illustration communicates brand loyalty via symbols including the swastika and the impactful ‘H’ and ‘J’ letters. Again, each of these elements promotes the Nazi autocracy endorsed by the contents of the booklet.

Heller also looks at the transposition of a dictators’ personal traits – a face, or even more specifically, Lenin’s goatee or Hitler’s moustache – onto public buildings. In reality, however, the four regimes examined viewed corporate branding in different ways. Lenin actually refrained from visual self-adulation as a means of enforcing his power. As Heller remarks: “[Lenin’s] concern with art was limited to practical matters.” Rejecting state branding, the dictator aspired towards classlessness and an external image of modesty. Nonetheless, Lenin’s followers deified him after his death. “As Lenin’s health declined, the appearance of his image increased,” Heller neatly observes.

Portrayals of Lenin also exploited discernible trademarks such as his plebeian hat. Lenin’s political successor, Stalin, in fact helped to initiate the cult of this first Soviet dictator. For example, photos and paintings of Lenin were hung in homes and offices in what were known as “Red Corners”. These reproductions immortalised the dictator’s image in the minds of the common people. Moreover, this leader cult reinforced Stalin’s authority, ensuring the continuation of Soviet totalitarianism.

Lenin poster

This photograph from 1967 features a poster of Lenin suspended on a department store in Moscow with pedestrians passing by. The portrait’s enormity – compared to the size of the pedestrians – glorifies Lenin as a leader. Moreover, the stars on the building also embody the standard symbols of Soviet domination.

In contrast to Lenin, Hitler overtly manipulated his outer identity to drive his leadership cult. Heller writes: “Hitler’s image was designed to become the face of the Nazi state.” He presented himself as the nation’s guardian and was influenced by the principles of Peter Behrens, a pioneer of corporate identity. Hitler also depicted himself as a man of the people in his visual propaganda. For instance, he was frequently portrayed as stroking dogs and receiving flowers from young women. He then created the emblematic Nazi salute by combining Mussolini’s Roman salute with the greeting “hail to Hitler”. This infamous salute came to represent incontestable loyalty towards Hitler and the Nazi party. Indeed, through cultivating this positive self-image, Hitler was able to achieve an intimate connection with the German people.

Hitler pamphlet

This brochure from 1936 (cover shown, above), illustrated by Ludwig Hohlwein, advertises a Nazi sporting event. On a formalistic level, Hitler and his subordinates are painted in warm colours – in the reds and browns of their uniforms – whereas the background is infused with cold shades of blue. As warm colours are traditionally associated with optimism in Western iconography, the brochure’s design again attempts to generate a positive perception of the Führer.

Overall, Heller’s book is a fascinating study of the power inherent in symbols and visual branding – and, moreover, how that power bears the potential to be abused to terrible ends.

Iron Fists, published by Phaidon Press, is available now; £45

Iron Fists cover

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