David Stairs

Image: David Stairs

I recently started reading Volker Ullrich’s biography HITLER: Ascent 1889-1939 out of a curiosity to better understand the motivations of the man often ranked as history’s most malevolent monster. Along the way I became fascinated by the parallels between Uncle Adolf and a more recent demagogue of the American ilk. These are the similarities I noted:
•Mendacious use of facts
•Scapegoating a religious group
•Extreme nationalism
•Intolerance for criticism
•Bullying as a defense tactic
•Inciting violence
•Contempt for adversaries
•Dislike for administrative work
•Prima donna tendencies

Of course, crying fascism is not an original comparison; it was made throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. One author has gone so far as to suggest that Trump is using Mein Kampf as his “playbook.” But there is one significant difference as I see it— despite all of our vaunted new technology, Donald Trump does not have a visual critic of the caliber of Helmut Herzfeld, better known by his English name: John Heartfield.

Born two years after Hitler, in 1891, Helmut Herzfeld was involved in publishing from his mid-twenties on and, with Georg Grosz, was an early practitioner of photo montage, at the time a cutting-edge appropriation of mass-produced imagery to create new possibilities. In 1917 he became associated with the Dada movement, and anglicized his name in protest of anti-British sentiments sweeping Germany. In 1918 Heartfield joined the German Communist Party (KPD). During the 1920s he produced a number of dust jackets for books, later pioneering the use of the photomontage technique for political purposes.

Blood and Iron, 1934. Heartfield used hatchets to represent the Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, another name for the swastika, here critiquing a famous German slogan, originally attributed to Otto von Bismarck in 1862.

Following their successes in the election of 1930, Heartfield relentlessly targeted the National Socialists on the cover of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ). His communist party affiliation, along with his participation in modernist art activities made him persona non grata to the Nazis, who, following Hitler’s sentimental chauvinism in all things artistic, defined individuals like Heartfield as “Bolshivists” and “degenerates.”

One of Heartfield’s most famous political montages Adolf, the Superman, Eats Gold and Spouts Junk, 1932. Hitler’s ever-present WWI decoration, the Iron Cross First Class, is here secondary to the swastika over his heart.

Hitler did not consider Heartfield’s attentions flattering. In 1933 Heartfield made a hairs’ breadth escape from the Gestapo, leaping from his balcony and hiding in a trash bin, then making his way across the border to the south where he continued to publish damning works. After the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Heartfield relocated to Britain.

Donald Trump is no less unhappy with his critics, threatening them with censure, or worse. And his mouthpieces, people like Shawn Spicer and Kellyanne Conway have been nearly as prominent as Josef Goebbels was in the ’30s, though with less success. But in the quality of the visual lampoonery surrounding his political ascent Trump is considerably less fortunate.

This is not to suggest that John Heartfield was responsible for aiding Hitler’s rise with his activist satire, merely to lament the fact that a talent of equal stature has yet to emerge from the welter of Photoshopped montages that have been cropping up over the last year. But, hey, a guy can hope, can’t he?


After the war John Heartfield was denied the opportunity to remain in England, and moved to East Berlin where he faced, among other indignities, interrogation by the Stasi. He avoided a trial for treason and, with the assistance of Berthold Brecht, was active as a theater designer. He never returned to his high satirical art of the 1930s.

John Heartfield by Boris Mrkonjic

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project

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