Steven Heller | Essays

Branding Youth in the Totalitarian State

Hitler Youth: Youngsters were required to join the party and wear the HJ (Hitler Jugend) uniform (this was the Austrian HJ).
Hitler Youth wearing the Hitler Jugend uniform (Austrian version)

This article is adapted from Steven Heller’s new book, Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press).

Youth may be wasted on the young, but under the totalitarian state they were not forgotten. For the state to prosper, youth was turned into a sub-brand that both followed and perpetuated the dominant ideology. Graphics played a huge role in making this happen.

In Nazi Germany, being a member of the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) and Bund Deütscher Mädel (Organization of German Maidens), enabled children to conform to a party that dictated and built a sanctioned social community. As part of a sub-brand they enjoyed the signs and symbols that adhered to National Socialist dictates. Curiously, when Hitler took over the party he wasn’t particularly interested in German adolescents because they could not vote. Yet propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels saw Germany’s disenfranchised youth as the key to the Nazi’s future. So by 1926, when Hitler Jugend was founded, der Führer also believed young people would provide a limitless supply of leaders and followers.

A textbook used to teach children about the Nazi postal service

Hitler Jugend accepted all Aryan boys and the Bund Deütscher Mädel all girls, aged 14 to 18. Boys 10 to 13 belonged to Jungevolk and girls to the Jungemädel. For boys HJ was, in effect, the farm team for the SA, SS and Reich Labor Service. For girls it was a finishing school for being loyal wives and fecund mothers.

Members wore snappy uniforms, went on overnight hikes, played sports, exercised and earned badges — lots of badges. They were required to spend most of their free time at Hitler Jugend camps, learning the Nazi creed, which included honor, sacrifice, camaraderie and anti-Semitism. They canvased neighborhoods, distributed leaflets, recruited new members and often engaged in violent skirmishes with Communist youths. There was even a junior Gestapo, the Hitler Jugend-Streifendienst, which monitored other children. During the allied bombardment of Germany, it was the Hitler Jugend members who manned anti-aircraft guns and were killed or wounded. Those who were captured were compelled by their oath to die for the Führer. Much of their fervency came from the barrage of signs and symbols they happily consumed.

Frauen Warte, a Nazi women's magazine; cover showing Hitler Jugend in Africa

The Italians were equally as demanding. Nothing was more integral to Italian Fascist life than its youth. In 1923, Giovanni Gentile, the Education Minister and Fascist philosopher, conceived of a new educational system. This system was not intended to train youth to think for themselves, but rather, to turn them into instruments of the regime. In fact “the cult of the cradle,” as the fascist strategy was known, was an aggressive official doctrine determined to inculcate in predominantly male youngsters, the mythology of the omnipotent regime in order to transform so-called “flowers of faith” into soldiers of empire. Relentless propaganda campaigns and the “Fascistization” of schools and youth groups would breed a new cultural order.

The job of the new regime was to weave Fascism through the fabric of Italian society. Teachers were tasked to glorify Mussolini on all occasions. All classes started the day singing the official fascist hymns, like Giovinezza and Balilla, the anthem of the youth organizations. The mystique of youth was a fascist obsession. This obsession was played out through propaganda and built upon the manufactured youthful image of Il Duce (the media was prohibited from discussing his grandchildren but countless photographs of the bare-chested Mussolini were published in newspapers and magazines). The Duce also encouraged the creation of youth groups that emphasized sports and martial training in order that its members be fit enough to carry the baton of the Fascist movement into the future. Indeed the shock troops of Fascism were originally gangs of unbridled youth — a generation of combatants storming through Italy wearing black shirts, jackboots, carrying death’s head flags, and wielding batons against an enemy that represented social decay and cultural elitism.
Young Fascists wore a fez with the logo "M" and the symbol of the fasces

Italian Fascism, like National Socialism, proclaimed a revolution against socialism, liberalism, materialism and egoism. Just evoking the word revolution implied a generational uprising. The Fascists made the most of their ties to youth, yet paradoxically the propagation of Fascist ideals began with an aging body, the Fascist Grand Council. The orders of the Grand Council were implemented by the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (MVSN), formed in 1923 and comprised of twenty-somethings and older members known collectively as the Black Shirt militia, who personally pledged undeviating obedience to Mussolini. In the spirit of revolution and to infuse fresh blood into the MVSN, the Grand Council instituted youth organizations that included 8 to 21 year olds. The first such group founded in 1920, was the Avantguardia Studentesca dei Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, under the control of the Milan fascio, which published a magazine titled “Giovinezza” (Youth). In 1921 the original group became the Avanguardia Giovanile Fascista (or Vanguardisti) for boys from 15 to 18 years old. Within a few years the original journal evolved into a more startlingly designed and expensively produced “Gioventu Fascista” edited by the regime’s leading stylist, Achile Starace, which through its moderne poster-like covers of young Vanguardisti rendered in a streamlined manner, defined a Fascist graphic youth style that increased the allure of membership.

The Fascists tightened their hold on the youth, in part through inspiring ideological images. Uniforms were designed with careful attention to detail and style and with each incremental age level the regalia (including various shinny badges and insignia) increased in direct proportion to completed indoctrination. The wearing of uniforms was required during all official gatherings (of which there were many), as well as all rites and celebrations. Although not compulsory for every student during school hours, those not so attired were indeed suspect.

Il Capo Squadra Ballilla, a hand-book for young Fascists, illustrated with light-hearted drawings

Images portrayed individual young Fascists in sleek poses like statues poured from the same mold. The airbrush became an ideological tool in the making of myths. Fascist artists used the airbrush to streamline human figures into modernistic effigies and this mythic image of the Giovanili symbolized obedience and allegiance. In contrast to the stiff heroic realism of Nazi iconography, portrayals of Fascist youth involved futuristic nuance that reduced the human figure essentially to a sleek logo. The quintessential ONB member wearing short pants, black shirt, fez and crossed white breast straps looked more like a toy soldier than a hardened fighter; the helmeted Vanguardisti carrying a baton or dagger looked more menacing yet still resided in that netherworld between youth and adulthood.

The Fascists worshiped might and celebrated speed, which was duly represented in modernistic graphics and typography. Antiquated, central-axis-page composition was replaced by more dynamic aesthetics that wed Futurism to Art Deco — controlled anarchy to decorative mannerism. Typefaces with sharp edges and contoured right angles expressing velocity, as well as a stencil lettering like Braggadocio (Bravado), replaced the classic Roman alphabets (at least in propaganda aimed at the young) considered old fashioned. Language drove the look of type and Mussolinian words like struggle, courage, death, glory, discipline, martyr and sacrifice were appropriately spelled out in letters that seemed to speak loudly and bombastically.

Quaderno, a school assignment book, featuring images designed to inspire and influence young students

Mixing Roman (romanita) and Fascist mythology resulted in the mélange of hybrid graphic codes. Take for instance covers for quaderni, assignment booklets for school exams and essays, often illustrated with colorful propaganda: The quaderno was such a common accoutrement that it was an ideal place to reinforce Fascist ideas on a daily basis. Some covers showed the Roman fasces rendered in a classical manner while others mixed ancient with moderne renderings of Fascist rites. The most popular quaderni covers showed warplanes, weapons, and scenes of fascist conquest (particularly in Abyssinia) sometimes drawn in a light-handed cartoon style, often with the motto “Mussolini is always right” emblazoned on the front or back cover. Graphics were abundant and plentiful when it came to idealizing the Fascist cause.

Soviet children where shown from early on how to be industrious, model citizens

Children were the great red hope for the Marxist-Leninist “New Soviet Man” and as early as 1918, Pravda, the voice of the Communist Party, affirmed: “the children’s book as a major weapon for education must receive the widest possible distribution.” By 1924, two years after the Soviet Union was formed, the Central Committee of the Party announced its mission to develop a new kind of juvenile literature that rejected bourgeois ornamentation and trivial fantasy dominant during the preceding Mir iskusstva (The World of Art) era from around 1881 to 1917. In fact, Mir iskusstva books produced during the so-called Silver Age, as the reign of Czar Nicholas and Alexandra was known, were impressively decorated in the style of the Russian equivalent of Art Nouveau, a curious fusion of Japonisme, Pre-Raphaelite mannerisms and Russian folk art.

After the 1917 October Revolution, with Russia in the throes of civil war, the Bolshevik state was bankrupt, forcing Lenin to reluctantly embrace capitalistic measures. Under the NEP, free-enterprise was briefly allowed and as a result almost one hundred separate independent and state-run children’s book publishers were founded in Moscow and Petrograd (later Leningrad), each with the goal to enlighten and inspire the next generation through pictorial books. Hence quality book production was attained through high-grade paper stocks and advanced color technology. Which in turn created an art form, that seemed to cry out for experimentation and attracted a slew of progressive revolutionary artists, including Rodchenko, Gustav Klucis, Vladimir Tatlin, Natan Altman and El Lissitsky.

A USSR textbook; turgid realism replaced light-hearted imagery

No one was more determined to end illiteracy and educate the masses than Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, a former school teacher (shades of Laura Bush), who assumed a leadership role, along with commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky, in the Commissariat of Enlightenment. She helped establish free libraries and schools and given her unflagging support for the new literature, picture books were now regularly subsidized by the government as agitprop used for spreading socialist ideals and Communist programs throughout the land. Literally thousands of titles of various quality and merit were published in hefty amounts ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 copies, sometimes more.

The holy marriage of word and picture came with an ideological rationale representing the Prolectcult movement, which sought to elevate the worker (and proletarian workmanship) to heroic status. But the Golden Age ended in 1932 when Stalin collectivized the publishing industry (like he did the farms) into a single entity and through functionaries decreed that artists and writers must embrace Socialist Realism’s turgid “Red Romanticism.” Despite a copious number of children’s books and pamphlets produced during the initial surge of artistic reform, when Uncle Joe’s iron fist fell from above — and many avant-gardists were denounced as counter-revolutionary — books failing to conform to sanctioned parameters were confiscated or destroyed. Formalists, meaning those who experimented with abstract visual languages, were considered “enemies of the people.” Anti-intellectualism reigned in large part thanks to Leon Trotsky, who referred to the formalist school as representing “abortive idealism.” Parochial thinking ultimately spilled over into children’s books.

Graduation certificate shows the signs and symbols of the Soviet state

Posted in: Business, History

Comments [11]

A few concerns:

How could "anti-intellectualism [have] reigned in large part thanks to Leon Trotsky" simply by his critique of Formalism as "representing 'abortive idealism,'" as if somehow the man who would soon be condemned to exile and hunted by the forces of Stalinism might still hold sway within the borders circumscribed by a monstrous, bureaucratic ruling elite?

Incidentally, it is rare indeed to see "anti-intellectualism" and "Leon Trotsky" pitted together, especially in the realm of Arts & Letters. Was it not Trotsky, who, more so than any other revolutionary of that time, rallied his energies against the mechanical submission of art to so-called "proletarian culture," or, for that matter, an any insistence at all that there was such a thing of "proletarian culture?"

This is the first I have heard of this book. It is something that has interested me for years. I was always fascinated by the strict standards that these rulers put into place and how unethical some were, and how unconscious they were to their decisions.

It is interesting as a designer and an appreciator of all arts that regimes like the Nazis could uphold a distinct 'branded' image and yet denounce artists with their entartete Kunst, displayed through their Degenerate Art exhibitions.

It is amazing just how much of a 'brand' these cultures were in that the militant leaders could stand for something evil, yet portray to their followers a sense of pride and security.
Chad K

Fascinating and frightening, Steven. Thanks for taking the time to dig past the usual Nazis-at-Nuremburg stuff and do the digging that you do. I am really looking forward to this book!
James Puckett

Wow, just...wow.

I'm writing a thesis on how terrorist organizations use branding to further their ideologies; not just design branding, but also in how attacks are planned and executed, and in who is chosen as an "enemy".

I'm looking at the PKK and their shift from a leftist organization to a rightist one in Iraq, Iran, and (especially) Turkey.

This article is a great beginning. I'll be sure to cite the heck out of it when I finish.
Asher J.

I just think of all those eager designers and illustrators in Nazi Germany, churning out logos, posters, the whole enchilada. Living on your knees can be highly rewarding for some I suppose.
Jmaes Prior

The symbol on the children's chests in the first picture - I knew I'd seen something similar somewhere before.

Finally it hit me:

Seven and the Ragged Tiger, in the lower right corner of the cover.

Just a little bit different. Evocative. I think it may also have been strewn across the stage on red banners for the tour.

Great article - thanks so much for sharing this.

Correct spelling:

Bund Deutscher Mädel

Interesting article, thanks

That Duran Duran sleeve icon doesn't match the Jugend symbol
shown above. For the use of Nazi symbols in music (and elsewhere)
look no further than Boyd Rice aka NON:

John Coulthart

The last illustration is not a graduation certificate but a commendation for participating in a military exercise. It is a stock form for a commendation, so it technically could have been for anything.

I have already ordered this book. As I am doing a PhD thesis in brand communications and propaganda, this seems to be a great resource... Together with Graphic Agitation 1 and 2, this is one of the few Phaidon books that I can actually use in the my thesis, and not on my coffee table.
Gjoko Muratovski

from a graphic point of view this article gives a good argument towards the early signs of understanding the powerful messages that can be conveyed through graphic imagery and how art can be constructed as a machine with underlying motives as we most commonly see today in advertising.
Thomas Brown

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