The rights and wrongs

In the second world war the Netherlands saw design used in the service of hope as well as hate

(Above: top row, left to right: ‘What do you want, freedom or thralldom? Freedom only through the NSB’ poster, designer unknown (1941–1944); ‘The Eternal Jew. You have to see this movie!’ poster, designer unknown, 1941; ‘Your place is still free in the Waffen SS’ poster, designer unknown, 1942. Bottom row, left to right: ‘War against Fascism. Vote OSP’ poster, designed by Meijer Bleekrode and Hein van Wijk, 1933; ‘Resilient democracy’ exhibition catalogue cover designed by Dick Elffers, 1946; National exhibition poster, Stedelijk Museum, designed by Dick Elffers, 1955)

In the 1930s, a number of German-born designers migrated to The Netherlands seeking to distance themselves from the growing anti-Semitism in the country (Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933). While Dutch graphic design had already benefitted from the influence of artistic movements from across Europe, such as Dadaism, Futurism and Constructivism, this pre-war immigration brought about the evolution of Dutch Modernism with a ‘German twist’. At the University of Amsterdam’s Bijzondere Collecties museum, a new exhibition, Goed Fout [Right Wrong]: Graphic Design in the Netherlands 1940–1945, brings together a collection of this lesser-known pre-war, wartime and post-war graphic design.

The exhibition’s title “points to the moral dilemma that faced designers in this period,” says Bijzondere Collecties director, Steph Scholten. “The title is a typical Dutch phrase, a wordplay that works in two ways,” he explains. “But when reflecting on WWII, you were on the ‘right’ side of history or you were on the ‘wrong’ side of history, the ‘goed’ or the ‘fout’.” The show’s design reaffirms this strict division, displaying fascist work against a dark grey background and anti-fascist against a light grey. The work is further divided into three main rooms (pre-war, wartime and post-war), with a spine of columns that slice through the middle. These display contextual black-and-white photographs of a selection of the posters in-situ and are one of Goed Fout’s many strengths, showing images such as the circulation office of the National Socialist Movement in 1937, covered in propaganda posters.

In the pre-war room, the books, catalogues, chocolate tins and other printed matter from the ‘goed’ (right) side of the war are positioned by the 1938 Dutch translation of Jan Tschichold’s Typographische Gestaltung. “This is work by Jewish-German immigrants who added quality to Dutch design at the time,” says Scholten.

“Someone like Helmut Salden was here looking into the windows of the bookshops thinking, ‘I can make a living here’. We had small Bauhaus-type schools that started and then you see things like photomontage emerge. There was an upsurge in the quality of Dutch design.”

 Below, left to right: ‘I vote Mussert’ election posters for the NSB, 1937, designed by Adolf Gantzert; Paul Guermonprez’s ‘The eye in hand’ photomontage, created for a special photography issue of De Groene Amsterdammer magazine, 1937

Work by German-born designers such as Salden, Gerd Arntz, Otto Treumann, Hajo Rose, artist Paul Citroen and Austrian-born Stefan Schlesinger as well as Russian designer Vladimir A Bielkine is on display alongside several pieces by the design collective Co-op 2. Many of the designers in Co-op 2 came through or taught at The New Art School (Nieuwe Kunstschool), founded in 1933 by Citroen, and aligned itself with the methods of the Bauhaus (which closed that same year).

Former Bauhaus student Rose became the head of the commercial art department at The New Art School in 1935 and taught Treumann, among others. In the book Otto Treumann: Graphic Design in the Netherlands, Toon Lauwen described Rose as “an avowed champion of functionalism” who taught students to design by “rationally ordering the elements necessary for getting a message across”. This Modernist approach to design was in extreme aesthetic contrast to the traditional, regressive, painterly approaches of right wing producers of propaganda graphics.

Anton Adriaan Mussert was one of the founders of the Netherlands’ national fascist party, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB); his name features prominently on three of the posters in this room. Another NSB poster shows clear Nazi references while another uses the familiar image of a seagull in flight, an emblem that The Netherlands’ current fascist party maintains.

The second room shows a selection of graphics from German-occupied Netherlands, including stamps and propaganda posters as well as several examples of clandestine and illegal publishing from designers in support of the resistance.

This room is also the most disturbing. Artist Pyke Koch’s ‘wrong’ stamps, designed to replace the image of Queen Wilhelmina, are a collection of beautiful monochrome renderings of horrific Nazi-Aryan projects such as Heinrich Himmler’s Lebensborn (translating as ‘Fount of Life’, this was an SS-initiated eugenics programme which aimed increase the birthrate of Aryan children). In this room, propaganda posters yell from the walls with statements like: ‘The English fliers know no mercy for peaceful citizens’ (designer unknown, 1942) and ‘Your place is still free in the Waffen SS’ (designer unknown, 1942).

One poster hangs ominously over the room, advertising the anti-Semitic film De eeuwige Jood (The Eternal Jew), released in Dutch in 1941. The central figure is a grotesque portrayal of a ‘Jewish’ man with a sunken, lined face, pointed ears and unnatural green-grey colouring. The typography references Hebrew script and a lit Chanukah Menorah, and the figure’s forehead is almost cattle-branded with the star of David. The poster, unsigned though believed to have been designed by Hans Borrebach, is a disturbingly literal manifestation of the demonisation of the Jewish people. It is one of many Fascist posters in this room that are unsigned.

The clandestine publishing movement was understandably quieter. Defiant Dutch printers and designers who supported the resistance ignored the decree which required them to join the Kultuurkamer (Culture Chamber) and allow them officially to practice art and design, gain commissions and have access to materials. This meant that secret publishing outfits often used poor-quality paper and other salvaged materials. Printers were even forced to relinquish lead type to be made into bullets.

Publications like Mosquito Februari (1945) – produced by the underground newspaper Ons Volk and Zehn kleine Meckerlein (Ten Little Nuisances), a text smuggled out of a concentration camp and published by Amsterdam book dealer AA Balkema – were clearly illegal. But there are also display cases in the show dedicated to Willem Sandberg’s experimental typography and Henrik Werkman’s paintings – the work of the latter during this period was not obviously clandestine.

“There are implicit messages in there but not explicit ones,” says Scholten. “Making such colourful and optimistic work is a statement in itself but it is definitely not strongly political.”

With the help of printers like Frans Duwaer, designers such as Sandberg, Treumann and Dick Elffers risked their lives serving the underground resistance movement and applied their typography and draughtsmanship skills to falsifying documents like passport stamps, ration cards and other official paperwork.

Treumann even hand-copied German banknotes. At the Bijzondere Collecties, the exhibition features rare photographs from 1943 taken by Violette Cornelius who captured a group of designers partaking in these illegal activities. A short film from 1988 of Treumann recalling this time is also shown.

The final post-war room sees an expected shift in aesthetic and tone and also demonstrates the diminished community of designers after liberation. Pro-German designer Lou Manche was a key player in the production of widespread National Socialist propaganda – he served just three years in prison and three years probation following the war. Werkman was arrested by the secret police in March 1945 – his work was classified as Bolshevik art and confiscated. He was shot along with 29 other randomly selected prisoners as retaliation against the Dutch underground just two days before Canadian forces moved in.

Printer Duwaer also perished as a direct result of the war, as did photographer Paul Guermonprez and several other key figures in Dutch graphic design. Those that remained, including Treumann, Elffers and Wim Brusse produced forward-looking work imbued with optimism – some were even celebratory, advertising newspapers that illegally came into being during the war period, such as DeVolkrant (still in production today).

Goed Fout is a historically honest description of the landscape of Dutch design in and around the period of the second world war. Yet visitors are left with a sense of reassurance, knowing that a handful of young designers, with Sandberg as director of the Stedelijk Museum at the helm, were part of the nation’s resurrection and the bright future for graphic design in the Netherlands that was to come.

Sarah Snaith is a design writer and editor based in London. Goed Fout is at the University of Amsterdam’s Bijzondere Collecties museum. More details available at

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