Donald Trump taunted Hillary Clinton during their debate that Vladimir Putin had “no respect” for her. Clinton shot back, “That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as President of the United States.” Trump replied, “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet! No! You’re the puppet!”
As the investigation into Donald Trump’s financial and political relations with Russia deepens, could there be a more fitting image than Heartfield’s brilliant image of a comical puppet politician? Is the current United States President a puppet whose strings are held in the hands of Vladimir Putin?
Those with power, wealth, or some combination of the two have sought to influence politicians throughout history. Fritz Thyssen, Germany’s premier steel magnate was an essential financial supporter of Adolf Hitler. In this masterpiece of political satire, Heartfield manages to reveal that Hitler was not “a tool in God’s hand” but rather “a toy (a puppet) in Thyssen’s hand.”
The exhibition is grateful to visiting scholar Andrea Hofmann. Please enjoy her detailed commentary on this photo montage masterpiece. Ms. Hofmann also provides insightful historical perspective to add to the enjoyment of Heartfield’s work of political art.
Written by Andrea Hofmann
In this AIZ cover, the industrialist Fritz Thyssen is pulling the string of an Adolf Hitler jumping jack. The uniformed Hitler is holding a bag of money in one hand and waving a sword in the other.
Heartfield depicts Hitler as much smaller than Thyssen, contrasting big business with politics. Hitler was chancellor of the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) at the time. Yet, Heartfield reduced him to a toy, ridiculing him and his status.
John Heartfield, on the other hand, had just narrowly escaped the SS and fled from Berlin to Czechoslovakia. His prospects weren’t bright. In fact, he ended up on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List.
The iron and steel tycoon Fritz Thyssen (1873-1951) was one of Germany’s most powerful industrialists with global business interests.
As early as 1931, he held a speech in New York where he proclaimed that the use of steel was the barometer of a country’s rise or fall. His audience included American top leaders such as Henry Ford and Owen Young. Notable sentiments considering the Thyssen empire had hugely profited from armaments production in WWI.
John Heartfield’s photomontages are often strong visual statements peppered with mass media quotes that instantly get Heartfield’s pointed messages across to the viewer even today. A closer look at subtle clues enhances the appreciation of their intense wit.
Heartfield cuts and pastes Thyssen as pulling the string of the much smaller combative Hitler. Obviously, Thyssen is the instigator and financier of Hitler’s politics. A swastika on the puppet master’s tie points out Thyssen’s complicity.
Note, however, that Heartfield touched up Thyssen’s steely eyes. These are not focused on Hitler. Evidently, Thyssen has broader interests. This opens up plenty of room for speculation.
Heartfield also darkened Thyssen’s lips. It almost looks as if Thyssen is wearing lipstick. This draws our attention to his huge cigar which deserves closer inspection.
For a start, cigars were widely used as symbols of upper-class greed and complacency. Critical artists like Charlie Chaplin used them to ridicule snobbishness and the abuse of power – no wonder Heartfield and his Dadaist friends were great Charlie Chaplin fans.
The Nazis loathed Chaplin. When he visited Berlin to promote his film City Lights in March 1931 a huge crowd of fans greeted him flanked by protesting Nazis. SA thugs even tried to prevent audiences from viewing the film in several cities. Ultimately, Chaplin ended up on Hitler’s death list, too.
As it happens, Thyssen smokes a special cigar. It looks like a missile or a gun shell and is called “Torpedo.” In military terms, a torpedo is a cigar-shaped weapon that can be fired above or under water.
The German military had been greatly restricted by the Versailles Treaty after WWI. When the Nazis came to power they stepped up rearmament. But, secret rearmament and arms research had already begun during the Weimar Republic. This included torpedo boats. These were small and relatively cheap boats fitted with highly effective weapons. They were fast and perfect for fighting in narrow seas. From 1931 onwards, torpedo boats were refitted with upgraded torpedo tubes. This enhanced their military potential.
Heartfield may have had this well in mind since the AIZ repeatedly ran articles to point out the crucial connection between armament, harbors, and shipyards. Heartfield himself had produced stunning works criticizing rearmament during the German battleship debate in 1928 such as “Hurra! Der Panzerkreuzer A ist da.” The Kurt Tucholsky – Heartfield collaboration “Germany, Germany, Above All” from 1929 is still famous. It starkly satirized German militarism.
The viewer’s eye is also drawn to Thyssen’s tie. This sports a swastika and is transfixed by a nail. Allegedly, Heartfield used a photo from a previous AIZ edition for this montage. He enlarged Thyssen’s head. (Heartfield liked playing with proportions.) He altered Thyssen’s suit. But he kept the shirt and tie from the original clipping adding a swastika and a nail. When John Heartfield added or stressed elements in his political montages he often hinted at something. So, we can safely assume that he added that nail on purpose. The nail piercing the tie forms a cross. The cross could be a visual allusion to the caption “Fulfilling his duty, the Führer sees himself as God’s instrument.“ This is a quote by the notorious Nazi anti-Semite Wilhelm Kube who was a major figure in the German Christian movement.
When Heartfield echoes Kube in the bold caption “Tool in God’s hand?” followed by “Toy in Thyssen’s hand!” he instantly links Kube’s religious rhetoric to a higher power – the German economy.
This is reinforced by one of John Heartfield’s masterstrokes. He satirizes Kube’s remark printing it in uppercase as catchline and in small print as a quote. But, he uses different punctuation.
All it takes John Heartfield to unmask Kube’s hypocrisy is one tiny little question mark. He deconstructs Nazi rhetoric simply by using punctuation as a weapon. Who can say grammar is dull and boring?
The nail might have served another purpose. Historically, a tie identified a man as a member of a certain group. It often indicated a higher social rank. Piercing a man’s tie could question his rank and puncture his pride.
Heartfield was well familiar with Grimm’s fairy tales, like most of his German contemporaries. He alluded to them in other montages like “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.” So, he might have thought of Grimm’s tale “The nail”. In this tale, an obsessed businessman ignores the fatal consequences of his deeds because he is fanatically pursuing his ambitions. As a result, he has a nasty fall.
The English version of this fairytale is the nursery rhyme “For want of a nail.” This rhyme also reminds people to think of the wider implications of their actions. Remarkably, this verse was put up in the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London during WWII.
Decoding Heartfield’s montages is great fun. Uncovering hidden clues adds to the thrill. One thing about this famous montage is certain: It is a stark reminder of what can happen when profit-driven business people align with politicians lacking a conscience.
It invites us to question the mindset of those who finance politicians and those who profit by their rise to power. It is also an incentive to follow the trail of money.
He played an influential role in various key institutions. He had ties to the Imperial Association of German Industry (RDI), the German Iron and Steel Industry Association, and the Reichsbank.
To this day, Thyssen is remembered in Germany as an early public Nazi supporter. His huge donations to the Nazi Party were a key factor in Hitler’s rise to power. He was one of the signatories of an industrial petition that urged President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. And, he convinced the Association of German Industrialists to provide huge donations to the Nazi party for the March 1933 Reichstag election.
Adolf Hitler rewarded Thyssen for his public and financial support in several ways. He made him a member of the German Economic Council and a Prussian state councilor.
John Heartfield promptly responded to Thyssen’s appointment and used it to expose the Nazi system as corrupt.
But Adolf Hitler pleased businessmen in many other ways. For a start, he neutralized the trade unions. In May 1933, the Nazi-led German Labor Front (DAF) took over trade unions and their funds. Strikes were outlawed. Many union leaders were arrested. This prevented potential (political) protests. It also ensured a wage freeze and secured solid profit margins.
In return, industrialists founded the Adolf Hitler Fund of German Trade in June 1933. Its money went straight to the Nazi party.
Hitler launched the Reinhardt-Program that guaranteed significant economic stimulus packages for big business.
And, he modified Germany’s unemployment statistics. These new figures improved Germany’s global economic standing. This was good for investment and easy term loans.
One trick to “adjust” unemployment statistics was the “Law to Reduce Unemployment”. This law introduced “Marriage Loans.” These loans were only given to acceptable “Aryan couples” if the future wife left her job and her husband earned enough.
In effect, it was a slick trick to keep women at home and out of the unemployment statistics. It was also part of the racist policy to create an “Aryan Baby Boom.” Couples could repay the marriage loan by having babies.
Plainly, Fritz Thyssen played a key part in Hitler’s rise to power. He profited substantially by backing the Nazi regime. Yet, he was never significantly held accountable for it.
He only began opposing the Nazis when his own interests were at stake.
After the war, he was classified as a “minor Nazi” by a denazification court and had to pay a trivial penalty to a fund for victims of Nazi persecution considering his role as Nazi backer and profiteer. He died a free man with a comfortable fortune.
Victims of Nazi persecution and their relatives, on the other hand, still struggle to get proper compensation while big international firms that profited from slave laborers have received ample compensatory damages.
Survivors still fight to get Germany to recognize “reprisal” massacres as war crimes, accept its obligations under international law and pay compensation for the victims and relatives of those who were murdered. The ongoing legal battle of the survivors of the SS massacre in Distomo is a shocking example of the dragnet techniques employed.
John Heartfield’s wake-up call is still spot-on.
Skirting the Treaty of Versailles by Hook or by Crook
Military training was carried out in Germany and abroad. The Treaty of Rapallo (1922), for instance, opened up options for tank and air training in Russia. German-based military training centers used harmless names like “gliding club” to play down their activities. Allegedly, even the Prussian police trained men for military service.
Loopholes were constantly being exploited. For instance, military equipment was produced abroad, then imported and assembled in Germany. Tanks, produced in Germany, were called “tractors” to obscure their function. Subsidiaries were set up to cover tracks. They didn’t have to publicize their balance sheets.
Occasionally, rumors about rearmament got out and created a stir. One of the biggest scandals for the Weimar Ministry of Defense was the Lohmann affair. It involved Captain Lohmann of the German Naval Transportation Division. Lohmann secretly financed many defense-related aircraft and submarine projects for the Ministry of the Defense in the 1920s. This was a clear breach of the Versailles Treaty. Many of Lohmann’s projects later provided essential technologies for the Luftwaffe and the Navy. His projects included torpedo and torpedo boat research. When journalists started investigating Lohmann’s activities and the deputy Ernst Schneller asked irritating questions about submarine production in Spain, the affair was quickly hushed-up by the government. Notably, the international press and policy-makers conveniently ignored the scandal.
Some military research could proceed quite openly. One area that wasn’t restricted by the Versailles Treaty was rocket research. Therefore, it could be funded by the military. Under its cover, Wernher von Braun and other scientists laid the groundwork for the devastating V-weapons in the early 1930s. This didn’t hamper their post-war careers. On the contrary, many of these people were later recruited by the USA under operation paperclip.
Rearmament was expensive. Direct bank loans to finance it would have been too risky. Questions would have been asked and the government would have been accountable. Because of the Versailles Treaty, financing rearmament had to be covert. One way to achieve this was a sham company called Mefo (Metallurgical Research Corporation). This was founded in July 1933. Key players of the Mefo scheme were Deutsche Industriewerke Spandau, Gutehoffnungshütte, Krupp, Siemens and United Steelworks.
The Mefo scheme was a neat little fraud system that enabled the state to borrow money without taking out bank loans. In other words, it was a way to cover up state debt by cooking the books.
When Reichsbank president Hans Luther opposed the Mefo scheme, he was swiftly replaced by Hjalmar Schacht. Schacht’s services were duly rewarded in 1934. Tellingly, he became Minister of Economics. This meant he was in charge of unemployment and rearmament programs.
Heartfield and the AIZ were on to these people and their activities. They exposed them time and again. And, they were not the only ones.
Carl von Ossietzky, for example, was a courageous journalist and editor of the political weekly Weltbühne (The World Stage). In 1931, he was convicted of espionage and treason for his revealing articles that won him the Nobel Peace Prize later on. He was amongst the first to be arrested and put into a concentration camp.
The statistician Emil Julius Gumbel wrote prolifically about the Black Reichswehr (illicit rearmament), politicized justice and Nazi terror, especially the political murders they committed called Fememorde. The American journalist and teacher Mildred Fish Harnack risked her life being a member of the anti-Nazi resistance group Red Orchestra (forty percent of which were women). Together with other members of the group, she documented acts of Nazi brutality, wrote and distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets, and helped forced laborers.
She also helped Jews and dissidents escape Nazi persecution, recruited resistance fighters and passed on vital military information to the Americans and the Soviets to stop the terror. She had quite an impact. She was executed on direct orders of Hitler in 1943.
Many courageous people spoke out publically, resisted Nazis any way they could and risked their lives but business went on as usual.