Towards the Precipice presents Spanish, German, British and Soviet posters from the period 1935 to 1942 that illustrate some of the crucial events and activities going on as Europe headed towards all-out war.
The term propaganda derives from the name given to a 17th century Committee of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, Congregatio de Propaganda de Fide, which was charged with directing ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries. The dictionary defines propaganda as the ‘systematic propagation of information or ideas to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response’. This remarkable selection of posters exemplifies the above definition. They were collected by the late Dr WB Sutch, a New Zealander whose work for the government in the 1930s took him to Europe as the events depicted in these posters were unfolding.
The use of posters as propaganda tools had come of age during the First World War. Their aim was essentially two-fold: in Britain, to encourage male recruitment – a famous and frequently adapted example being Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your country needs you’ – and in all major participating countries to inspire home front support for the war. Posters were cheap to produce, easy to distribute, and could immediately respond t wartime events. They continued to be employed by governments of the 1930s and 1940s who believed in their effectiveness.
These posters present their views in a way that is both overtly manipulative and stunningly simple when compared to the methods and media that are used to influence public opinion today.
The Spanish Civil War began on 17 July 1936, when a group of right-wing officers, including General Francisco Franco, launched a coup against the democratically elected government of the Republic.
Despite their desperate pleas for assistance, reflected vividly in the selection of posters in this exhibition, the Republic did not obtain the international support it needed. The massive military and economic support given to the Nationalists by the fascist powers was decisive, while the severe internal divisions within the Republican coalition also contributed to the Republic’s downfall.
The posters capture some of the intense ideological and idealistic appeal of the Republican side, and are believed to have done much to bolster public resolve. The war lasted 1,000 days, ending with the victory of General Franco’s armies over the Republic on 1 April 1939. The Second World War began in Europe five months later.
The German and Italian fascist regimes collapsed with their defeat in the Second World War. Because Spain had remained neutral throughout the war, Franco’s regime was able to survive and subsequently thrive in the Cold War years that followed. General Franco ruled Spain without interruption until his death in 1975.
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. From then on the Nazi Party set out to control every aspect of civilian life, and on 13 March the Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Ministry was established under the direction of Dr Josef Goebbels. Through film, radio, the press, and posters, the Ministry’s initial focus was on stressing the importance of the ‘National Community’ (Volksgemeinschaft) over the individual.
Posters were geared towards ‘ordinary Germans’ who could benefit from the rule of the Third Reich. However, many of the opportunities on offer were illusory and continued to be well out of reach of the ordinary worker. They also excluded all those deemed outside the ‘National Community’. Concurrent measures were taken to eliminate the influence of political dissenters, homosexuals and Jews. From 1933 opponents were banned from holding positions in public office, trade unions were abolished, and in 1935 the first of the Nuremburg Laws came into effect, which among other things, excluded Jews from citizenship rights.
The Second World War began with Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. German refusal to respond to a British ultimatum resulted in a generalised European war two days later. It was to become a total war involving not only those in the armed forces but also those on the home fronts. Learning from experiences gained in the First World War, Britain’s political leadership recognised that the maintenance of social cohesion and civilian morale was as important as military discipline. The Ministry of Information was re-established in September 1939 to mobilise the masses and maintain morale and support for the war effort.
Throughout this period, when the threat of invasion was most pronounced, Churchill personified the ‘bulldog spirit’ of the British people, through his famous radio broadcasts, inspiring speeches in Parliament, and visits to bomb-damaged towns and cities. The promotion of Churchill as leader and the increasingly professional use of propaganda, as reflected in these posters, was in part the result of the influence of Churchill’s close personal friends Lord Beaverbrook, the press magnate, and Brendan Bracken, owner of the Economist and the Financial Times, whom he made Minister of Information in 1941.
Included in the show are two of the British government's early attempts to win over the British public - 'Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your Resolution' and 'Freedom is in peril'. These posters are notorious for their absolute failure, the criticism directed towards them being that they perpetuated class differences.
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa, started on 22 June 1941. Russian propagandists made the most of an unprovoked attack, which broke the non-aggression treaty the Soviet Government had signed with Germany on 23 August 1939 and which had appeared to unite the two ideologically opposed regimes. The Soviet Union was ill-prepared for war in 1939 and was still unprepared when the attack came in 1941.
Lord Beaverbrook, the British representative at one of the negotiations, was keen to garner support for the Soviet Union, and undertook to inform the British public about the Soviet war effort and why Britain should assist it. He used Soviet Union propaganda posters to emphasise Soviet opposition to Nazism