Steven Heller | Essays

Hitler’s Poster Handbook

On February 7, 2011, Steven Heller wrote a post for Design Observer entitled “The Master Race’s Graphic Masterpiece”. Below is a follow-up to that post.

Hitler’s fervent desire to attain propaganda supremacy among nations was a direct result of the German defeat in World War I and his belief that superior allied propaganda trumped Kaiser Wilhelm II’s meager output. Through intensive barrages of posters and other visual media, Britian and America effectively defamed the “Hun” in the eyes of the world, portraying the Kaiser’s military as callous blood-thirsty beasts. The German counterattack was tepid at best. “The Germans were sent into this mighty battle with not so much as a single slogan,” wrote Eugen Hadamovsky, the Nazi propaganda expert and Josef Goebbels’ deputy, in Propaganda and National Power (1933, reprinted by Arno Press in 1972). So when the Nazis came to power, Hitler commissioned a book titled Das Politische Plakat: Eine Psychologische Betrachtung by Erwin Schockel (Franz Eher Verlag, published in 1939), a psychological assesment of English, American, French, Russian and German political posters. It was a handbook for German propagandists and others.

Das Politische Plakat: Eine Psychologische Betrachtung (The Political Poster: A Psychological Review), by Erwin Schockel

Schockel stridently addressed questions of success and failure. The section on historical performance viewed posters through the long lens from ancient times to the rise of the Nazis, always comparing and contrasting national styles and vocabularies. A chapter on the language of war posters revealed the benign and malicious and the results of each. Schockel, who served in an art directorial role for the propaganda wing of the party, further discussed the application of future war missives, internal political developments, the role of posters in altering opinion, and how individual parties developed distinct signs and symbols. He ended the book with a critical comparison of good and bad posters. And as was de rigeur in Nazi handbooks, derision of Jews — in this case, Jewish graphic artists — was also cited.

Das Politische Plakat was one in a series of textbooks and manuals issued through the Reichspropagandaleitung, based in Munich (Reich Propaganda Office of the Nazi Party, a separate department from the more powerful Berlin-based Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment) for use by party members only. Schockel’s message was clear: powerful propagandistic graphics must be simple and memorable. He highlights one Nazi poster in particular. A 1932 election poster so minimalist that it could easily be confused with Modernist design, featured a black and white floating silhouette of Hitler’s face (just the head) against black. A rather hypnotic gaze — the forerunner of the ubiquitiouis “big brother” trope — was focused on the viewer. “Hitler” was set in white sans-serif capital letters, with only one typographical tic — a square over the “I” in the name (perhaps a visual pun on his famously cropped mustache).

“The calmness, goodness and strength that radiate from Hilter’s face communicate themselves to the observer,” wrote the sycophantic Schockel. “The impression it makes on people of unspoilt mind must be powerful.” Lastly, he notes “In addition, we had the poster printed on a black background which at the time served as an eyecatcher in the midst of the otherwise garish colors of advertising pillars.” After World War I nothing was left to chance.

An invaluable archive of Nazi propaganda artifacts and documents are available here at Calvin College.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History

Comments [14]

There's no confusion. That 1932 election poster is a modernist design. Didn't Jan Tschichold worked on a few Nazi propaganda designs?

Hi Stephen

Thanks for sharing this article. I have found myself fascinated by your two articles on this subject matter. I am a postgraduate student studying branding theory, specifically focused on or around its use by NGOs and Charities. (Or the lack of!). And although not directly relevant to my area of study, I do find this topic quite alluring.

Keep it up!

Thank you for unraveling the presentation of fascism.

I wonder how that applies to our own time? I can think of several iconic posters used by progressive and liberal poilitcal factions but I'm drawing a blank on print presentation – other than the American Flag and the Republican Logo – coming from the Right?

It seems as though the modern equivalent of the early 20th C NSDAP are not relying on print, rather a barrage of dis-informative factoids repeated in media?
Steven Lee Stinnett

Steve: When I was teaching my graphic design history class I showed this poster in my lecture on WW2 propaganda.

I thought it a terrific example of what a major difference a tiny detail could make. An observation that applies to much graphic design.

If you place the posters, one with the dotted I and one with the dot removed side by side you can immediately see the impact of the dot. You can do that easily on the computer by simply placing your cursor so that it covers the dot and seeing how it changes the poster.

Without the dot Hitler appears authoritative, stern. Add the dot over the I and it “softens” him up. Less deity more human (I feel guilty writing that).
Lou Danziger

When I first saw this post, I was thinking the exact same thing that Lou Danziger pointed out. I find that the poster seems heavier without the dotted "I". But I don't really think that that typeface is working. The decision to dot the "I" in that way saved that typeface and made it work. In fact, the dot to me is even more visually powerful than the main subject (the face).

The poster was also printed without the dot and I've never learned the reason why:

I doubt Tschichold, who called himself IVAN as a signifier that he was a Communist, ever did Nazi propaganda.
steven heller

Some of the page design (1st & 3rd) looks like something Tschichold or Joost Schmidt would do. I personally believe that those Nazi propaganda designs were probably a huge influence on Tschichold work and those of the Bauhaus.


The Bauhaus was established in 1919 in Weimar, then moved to Dessau and finally to Berlin, where the Nazis forced its closure in 1933.
Tschichold emigrated from Germany to neigbouring Switzerland in 1933, in direct response to Hitler and the Nazis taking power. He never returned to Germany.
So, it's the other way round. The HITLER poster cited is unusual in the way that it is uncommonly modern for Nazi propaganda, and the influence of the (politically opposed) modernist movement is clear to see.
To say that Nazi propaganda may have had "a huge influence on Tschichold and the Bauhaus" is just about the most ignorant thing one could publicly say, a complete failure to understand the impact that the Bauhaus had.
The Nazi regime had devastating consequences for artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, architects and designers. Mass emigration of the cultural elite was the result; many fled to the US, where they continued to be influential.
Udo Heimlicher

No doubt.
The grid and angle of swastika prove some modernist influence on Nazi image, but this just a sign of existence of the opportunists and careerists.
Saying publicly of an influence of Nazi propaganda on Bauhaus is not only complete failure of understanding the history, but also a complete logical failure.

"...The Bauhaus was established in 1919 in Weimar, then moved to Dessau and finally to Berlin, where the Nazis forced its closure in 1933. Tschichold emigrated from Germany to neigbouring Switzerland in 1933, in direct response to Hitler and the Nazis taking power. He never returned to Germany.
So, it's the other way round..."

Yeah, sound about right.

Julia, you write that "The grid and angle of swastika prove some modernist influence on Nazi image, but this just a sign of existence of the opportunists and careerists."

The swastika is a very ancient symbol, and predates both the Nazis and modernist design. A brief history:


Steven Heller has written a book on the subject, as well: "The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?" (Allworth Press, 2000)
Ricardo Cordoba

Is the swastika a very ancient symbol (and by the way as such part of the Unicode: http://decodeunicode.org/en/u+5350), but the use of the swastika in Nazi design (e.g. in the Nazi flag with a white circle on red background) was definitely influenced by the bauhaus and the constructivists movement. Goebbels secretly ordered copies of modern russian films for example to study their methods.

The interesting, but upsetting fact is, that these forms of propaganda worked for the Nazis as much as they work for political and economic propaganda in different contexts, also in our days. And some of the bauhaus teachers (like Herbert Bayer) in fact did work in projects for the Nazis, before they emigrated.

The graphical language seems not to be bound to a political conviction but can be associated with convictions by designers. That gives the designer quite some power and a big responsibility.
philipp pape

There is a period in Herbert Bayer's career prior to emigrating to the US which indeed points to the fact that he may have been unbothered by many aspects of Nazism. Today he looks like an opportunist compared to his Bauhaus peers. Bayer worked in fashion (e.g. for Vogue), among other things; perhaps he was an unpolitical person to the degree he didn't care where his commissions came from. Perhaps he thought it was all "just design", without deeper meaning?
It's easy to condemn Bayer's career choices today. One has to realise that clever tactics and good relations with the "right kind of people" secured interesting job opportunities, granted the security of a powerful network, access to the latest technology and comfortable working conditions. The downside was, well, Nazism and all this implies. If you played to their tune, you were in business. If you didn't, you'd soon be in trouble.
Perhaps it just took Bayer a bit too long to realise the full scale of the impending horrors of Nazism. He only left Germany after falling from grace with the Nazis in 1937. Work must have dried up very quickly after that. In any case, he is an interesting artist/designer to study, precisely because he did NOT leave after the Nazis took power and thus compromised himself (which is often overlooked and has never been examined in detail, to my knowledge).
Udo Heimlicher

Steven wrote: “The poster was also printed without the dot…”

Does the more organic tail on the capital R in the no dot version do the same “softening” as the dot?
Joseph Coates

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