This montage is an adapted version of a 1936 John Heartfield’s poster with the caption: “Weg frei für den Frieden!” (Make way for Peace!).
“Fordert: Verbot der Atomwaffen!” was executed in the GDR in 1955. This was the year when West Germany became a member of NATO. The same year the Warsaw Pact was founded.
What struck me about the 1955 version of the montage is that Heartfield changed the caption while pretty much keeping the original design and the message written on the snake.
At a first glance, it seems to be more or less the same poster. The man’s arm clearly remains the arm of a worker. However, there are subtle differences in the two montages. The arm in the 1955 version is that of an older, wiser man. The positioning of the snake suggests that the man appears to have, at least for the moment, gained the upper hand over the snake (often a Christian symbol for Satan). The man may control the snake if he makes the effort (shown by the rolled up sleeve). So there is hope.
A closer examination of Heartfield’s work reveals some more obvious changes to the 1936 version. Note that the tongue of the snake is a dollar sign, linking (nuclear) war and finance. This may be a dig at the Bretton Woods System and the ensuing significance of the dollar as reserve currency.
If we assume Heartfield meant the snake to bring Satan to mind, it conveys some ambiguity. It is a luring trickster. It speaks with a forked tongue. It’s making false promises. At the same time, it is equipped with knowledge, the forbidden fruit. Given Heartfield’s biography, it might well be a subtle hint at the patronizing system he lived in and the censorship he was under. After all, paradise had its downsides and rather serious restrictions.
Perhaps even more interesting is the map of the world. The eye is drawn to what appears like a large white smudge on the poster. There is already smoke rising in Egypt. This brings to mind the 1952 Egyptian revolution and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
It also suggests a reference to an Egyptian-Czechoslovak arms deal, fundamentally an agreement between Egypt and the USSR. This arms deal had a great impact. In its wake, the Arab–Israeli conflict increased and raised fears it might kick off an arms race in the Middle East that might result in another war.
Heartfield was spot-on. In 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. This led to the Suez Crisis, a major clash of international interests. Suffice it to say, the Suez Canal was a crucial shipping route for oil. Strikingly, finance played an important role in this conflict. The USA used massive financial pressure to bring Great Britain to heel.
One of the few posters John Heartfield was physically and politically able to execute in East Germany (DDR).
Warning of the danger of atomic war [Atomkrieg], Heartfield shows the earth being strangled by the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
A strong hand (a call for prohibition of nuclear weapons) has the ability to reach out and end the snake’s power.
This poster was one of the very few that Heartfield created after his written request to remain in England for “his health and his work” was denied.
It is a great loss that Heartfield was denied refuge in democracies. His financial situation left him no real choice but to return to East Germany where he was nearly tried for treason because of the length of his stay in England and the fact his dentist was under suspicion by the Stasi. The political climate of the GDR and the fact that he was denied admission to the Akademie der Künste for many years severely affected his failing health and limited his ability to function as an artist. He was finally admitted to the AdK due to the intercession of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym.
Heartfield’s 1936 Poster
“Weg frei für den Frieden!”