John Heartfield continued to produce brilliant political art against the Third Reich in Prague after his narrow escape from an SS assassination squad that kicked in the door of his Berlin apartment in April 1933. It was the type of searing political art that made him number-five on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Heartfield attacked the Gestapo by creating a montage that revealed the raw pain of a newly notified widow of a man murdered by the Gestapo. He manages to expose the Gestapo’s bureaucracy with a minimum of objects: A notification letter and a packet containing the ashes of the woman’s dead husband. It was one of the Gestapo’s tactics to terrify and silence German women.
Written by Andrea Hofmann
Heartfield The Whistleblower
Psycho Terror And Bullying By Mail
In his montage “Gestapo letters to German Women – Adding Mockery to Murder!” John Heartfield confronts us with the image of a devastated woman who has just received a letter by the Gestapo informing her of the murder of her husband. The caption tells us, the letter might even have contained his ashes and that this is no isolated incident.
Legal Terror: Targeting Women
In this montage, Heartfield concentrates on psychological violence against women as part and parcel of Gestapo terror methods.
The caption of the piece emphasizes that women are distinctly targeted and subjected to a specific form of torment by administrators. The visual image highlights the traumatic stress and damage these civil servants inflict on women.
The subheading “Adding mockery to murder” left no doubt that Heartfield and the AIZ believed these bureaucratic procedures were part of a creepy power game to crush any resistance by women. They were trying to silence them when they were most vulnerable. After the war, the same bureaucrats who had implemented these procedures dismissed any responsibility for spreading Gestapo terror by claiming to have only followed regulations.
Why does this photomontage still resonate with us?
Heartfield: A Designer With A Cause
Heartfield was a political artist who campaigned against Nazis and for a more just society. In this montage, he identified and documented human rights violations to alert the public.
He used advertising techniques to achieve the biggest impact and reach the widest audience. What seems like a simple montage with few elements is actually a complex piece of work.
Heartfield was a professional. He had trained in graphic design and worked as an advertising graphic designer. He had created path-breaking bookjackets that were renowned and highly popular. In 1929, his work was shown at the International Film and Photography Exhibition (FiFo) in Stuttgart and highly praised all-round. He was an expert on dramatic visual effects with cinematic and theatrical experience. In short, he was a specialist who used his know-how and all the technical options available to him to the hilt. Many of these techniques are still being used. No wonder Heartfield’s work has been an unfailing source of inspiration to this day.
Heartfield’s Way Of Instant Messaging
Like many others, Heartfield thought that visual information clarifies messages and intensifies their impact. He also believed that high-quality work was crucial to reach your audience.
Today’s research supports Heartfield’s approach. Many experts think that most of the information transmitted to our brain is visual – provided we are not seriously visually impaired or blind. They also believe that we process visuals faster than text and respond better to them.
In addition, we seem to remember about 80 percent of what we see but only 20 percent of what we read. Advertising experts also claim that visual content increases bonding and drives sales. And, we tend to belief messages sooner if they are well presented.
Heartfield went for topmost effect. He combined striking photomontages with provocative captions creating a double dosage of cognitive input. He pulled all the stops.
Keeping all this in mind, let’s have a closer look at Heartfield’s montage and the strategies he used here.
Keeping It Short And Simple
Heartfield’s work instantly communicates a lot of content without requiring a lot of reading. The top headline is short and simple. This appealed to a lot of people. In fact, AIZ-readers had pointed out early on that they particularly liked Heartfield’s visual political flashes because they were so concise and witty.
Body Language As Instant Message Transmitter
The woman’s body language amplifies the written text. Her bare arms and hands show her vulnerability. Her whole body language expresses grief.
A Minimal Approach To Keep Us Focused
True to the motto: “Less can be more” Heartfield uses few objects. We see a woman, a piece of paper, an envelope and a plain table. Or to be more precise we are confronted with a grief-stricken woman, an unspectacular piece of paper, a crumpled envelope and a plain table that looks in poor condition. This is all it takes to stage the drama. Designing stage sets for Erwin Piscator and Max Reinhardt definitely rubbed off on Heartfield’s photomontages.
Directed Illumination Creates Visual Effects And Focal Points
Heartfield places the grieving woman in the center of the montage. She is the focal point and gets most of our attention. Skillfully he guides our view to the most important elements of this piece contrasting light and shadow.
Collective Symbolism As Message Booster
Heartfield loved to draw on collective symbolism. Here he employed everyday objects like an apron, a letter, and a table to build up tension.
The woman’s apron identifies her as an impeccable homemaker. As such she doesn’t deserve cruel treatment. But, the apron is also a visual metaphor for home. Ideally home is a safe place. We associate it with peace. Heartfield drastically contrasts this with Gestapo brutality thereby amplifying the perfidy of Nazis.
The letter contained an unspectacular piece of paper that contained vital news – a contrast that stresses the cruelty of the message.
Pointing out that the letter may have contained the ashes of the woman’s husband in the caption emphasizes the callousness of the sender, the Gestapo apparatus. It also stresses that Nazi murderers act in concert with bureaucratic administrators.
In a flash, Heartfield exposed that these ordinary bureaucrats destroyed the evidence of the crime by incinerating the corpses, covered up for the murderers with bureaucratic jargon and disposed of the bodies for them. They were far from harmless.
Heartfield’s message is clear: Nothing is safe from the Gestapo. For all Nazi propaganda talk about family values and honor these are their real actions. And, actions speak louder than words. But, it is not only the obviously violent thugs we have to look out for. The administrators are the backbone of the system. They are its data collection network and its transmission belt. Administrators were helping the Gestapo get away with murder and Heartfield was not having it.
The plain table tells us immediately the socio-economic background of the woman and the victim. They are poor. But Heartfield cuts through all class barriers adding the caption to the montage. Instantly, he affiliates the poor woman’s fate with that of the rich Mrs. Klausener. Women of all classes can fall victim to sadists exerting psychological terror through bureaucratic procedures.
Heartfield reinforces this statement visually. We see the woman’s face and take notice. She hasn’t got remarkable features, which makes her a universal woman. Her body is clearly feminine and soft, i.e. non-aggressive. Anyone can identify with her or pity her plight. Humane people must feel for this forsaken woman and become emotionally invested.
Stimulating Emotional Bonding To Spread The Message
Heartfield’s montage touches the reader emotionally, creating a bond between the AIZ reader and the product. Obviously, the AIZ offered more than naked facts. The strength of this connection would have motivated readers to be loyal customers and refer the product to family members and friends or pass it on to spread the word.
Note, the AIZ shows non-partisan sympathy and solidarity with Nazi victims. After all, Erich Klausener and his wife weren’t likely to be AIZ readers. Therefore, this montage also reaches out to an audience that normally wouldn’t have been attracted to the AIZ. At the same time, it lends credence to the AIZ and cements its image of objectivity and humaneness.
Clearly, Heartfield was a brilliant visual communicator and an expert in his field. Within seconds he brings across the message: The Gestapo is a bunch of murderers. Anybody can become a target. Nazis are unscrupulous. They are sadists who enjoy taunting even the most vulnerable. Humiliating people gives them pleasure. They are intolerable.
The subliminal message for the shrewd reader would also have been: Any form of appeasement policy or co-operation with Nazis is fatal. Nazis don’t stop at anything. Nothing is sacred to them. They don’t and won’t keep any agreements.
Erich Klausener (1885-1934) was a conservative German politician and leader of Catholic Action. He and his wife ranked as pillars of respectability. From 1926 to 1933 Klausener was head of the police department of the Prussian Ministry of Internal Affairs. After the Nazis seized power Goering took Klausener’s post and Klausener became Director of the Reich Ministry of Transport. This was another key position.
In 1934, Klausener was killed during the Night of the Long Knives. This was a series of political murders engineered by the Nazi regime to consolidate its power. Several hundred people were killed, including various major officials. Among the more famous victims were the last chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Kurt von Schleicher, and his wife, Elisabeth Schleicher. The purge caused a storm of indignation in the international press.
The German press had already been subjugated in 1933. So, the Nazis could use it to launch a fierce domestic propaganda campaign to quench any opposition. Propaganda Minister Goebbels claimed Kurt von Schleicher and Ernst Röhm (SA) had been plotting to seize power. The newspaper Völkischer Beobachter produced headlines like “The German People Saved from Serious Danger“, “Reich Minister Dr. Frick Demands Discipline and Submission“ and “A Strong Fist and an Iron Will Rule in Germany”.
The AIZ was produced abroad by then and smuggled into Germany at great risk. It ran several articles about the events. But Heartfield didn’t particularly focus on the Night of the Long Knives in this montage. He focused on the Klauseners’.
Why exactly Klausener was killed is still under debate. He might have simply known too much as the former head of the police department. Strikingly, Heartfield doesn’t even raise that question.
He chooses Klausener as an example of an “innocent man shot by the secret police.” This is quite an interesting choice. Klausener wasn’t exactly an AIZ darling. In fact, the AIZ called Klausener a second-rate celebrity killed during the purge.
Klausener had been head of the police department of the Prussian Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1929. This linked him to the notorious Labor Day demonstration at which over thirty demonstrators had been killed by the police. Feelings ran high in the aftermath of the event. The media covered the events broadly. Police actions and government policies were called massively into question. Parliamentary debates about police brutality were heated. In fact, it was such a far-reaching scandal that it deepened the massive rift in the political left.
Klausener hadn’t cut too fine a figure in the affair. Heartfield would have been aware of Klauseners’ involvement in this scandal. After all, he had produced his famous self-portrait in which he decapitated police commissioner Zörgiebel, who had been in charge of the police operation. Yet, Heartfield chose to ignore this fact for his montage. Interesting.
As a politician and leader of Catholic Action, Klausener and his wife clearly belonged to the elite. They wined and dined with important people. Reputedly, Klausener was loyal to the Nazi system. So why did Heartfield pick Klausener of all people?
The explanation seems to be quite simple: Heartfield used him as a plug. Klausener as such wasn’t of any interest for this montage. It is his wife, her treatment by the Nazis and her feelings that are important. The violation of her rights gets center stage. This would have included the denial of compensatory payments from the state she would have been entitled to for the murder of her innocent husband.
Heartfield employed Klausener’s celebrity status as an attention getter to stress his point: Nobody is safe from Nazi terror, not even the wives of men in high positions. And, if celebrities aren’t safe, where does this leave the rest of us mere mortals?
Nazis divide and rule, also along gender lines. They manipulate people and take advantage of them. They use them to their own end and dispose of them as soon as they have served their purpose. Anyone could be next. So this montage could be seen as an early call for a popular front against Nazis. This was a courageous thing to do at the time.
Heartfield and the AIZ made their view perfectly clear: You can’t cooperate or reason with Nazis. You can’t control them. They have no morals. They won’t change their agenda. Hoping to change their politics is illusory, thinking they will stop at some point is wishful thinking.