How German Artist John Heartfield Pioneered the Use of Art as a Political Weapon, and Took on Hitler

The sto­ry of artist John Heart­field — born Hel­mut Franz Josef Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891 — begins like a Ger­man fairy tale. In 1899, his par­ents, ill and pover­ty-strick­en, aban­doned Hel­mut and his three sib­lings in a moun­tain cab­in at Aigen, near Salzburg. The hun­gry chil­dren were dis­cov­ered four days lat­er by the may­or of the town and his wife, who took them in and fos­tered them. Mean­while, their uncle, a lawyer, appeared with a trust from their wealthy grand­fa­ther’s estate to fund their edu­ca­tions.

Hel­mut trained at sev­er­al art schools in Ger­many, even­tu­al­ly arriv­ing at the School of Arts and Crafts in the bohemi­an Berlin of the 1910s, where he aban­doned his dream of becom­ing a painter and instead invent­ed huge­ly effec­tive anti-war pro­pa­gan­da art dur­ing World War I and the rise of the Nazis. As The Can­vas video above explains, Heart­field­’s work point­ed­ly encap­su­lates the “anti-bour­geois, anti-cap­i­tal­ist, anti-fas­cist” atti­tudes of rad­i­cal Berlin Dadaists. He was “one of Hitler’s most cre­ative crit­ics.”

Herzfeld began his anti-war art cam­paign by angli­ciz­ing his name to counter ris­ing anti-British sen­ti­ment at the start of World War I. As John Heart­field, he col­lab­o­rat­ed with his broth­er, Wei­land, and satir­i­cal artist George Grosz on the left­ist jour­nal New Youth and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary pub­lish­ing house, Malik Ver­lag. After the war, they joined the Ger­man Com­mu­nist par­ty. (Heart­field “received his par­ty book,” writes Sybille Fuchs, “from KPD leader Rosa Lux­em­burg her­self.”); they also became “found­ing mem­bers of the Berlin Dadaists,” devel­op­ing the pho­tomon­tage style Heart­field used through­out his graph­ic design career.

John Heart­field, War and Corpses, the Last Hope of the Rich

“Pho­tomon­tage allowed Heart­field to cre­ate loaded and polit­i­cal­ly con­tentious images,” the Get­ty writes. “To com­pose his works, he chose rec­og­niz­able press pho­tographs of politi­cians or events from the main­stream illus­trat­ed press.… Heart­field­’s strongest work used vari­a­tions of scale and stark jux­ta­po­si­tions to acti­vate his already grue­some pho­to-frag­ments. The result could have a fright­en­ing visu­al impact.” They also had wide­spread influ­ence, becom­ing an almost stan­dard style of rad­i­cal protest art through­out Europe in the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

On rare occa­sions, Heart­field includ­ed pho­tographs of him­self, as in the self-por­trait below with scis­sors clip­ping the head of the Berlin police com­mis­sion­er; or he used his own pho­tog­ra­phy, as in an unglam­orous shot a young preg­nant woman behind whose head Heart­field places what appears to be the body of a dead young man. The 1930 work protest­ed Weimar’s anti-abor­tion laws with the title “Forced Sup­pli­er of Human Mate­r­i­al Take Courage! The State Needs Unem­ployed Peo­ple and Sol­diers!”

John Heart­field, Self-Por­trait with the Police Com­mis­sion­er Zörgiebel

Heart­field­’s direct attacks on state pow­er were allied with his sup­port for work­er move­ments. “In 1929, fol­low­ing ten years of activ­i­ty in pho­tomon­tage and pub­lish­ing,” The Art Insti­tute of Chica­go writes, “John Heart­field began work­ing for the left-wing peri­od­i­cal Work­er’s Illus­trat­ed Mag­a­zine (Arbeit­er-Illus­tri­erte-Zeitung [AIZ]).” This week­ly pub­li­ca­tion “served from the first as a major organ of oppo­si­tion to the ris­ing Nation­al Social­ist Par­ty.” Heart­field­’s provoca­tive cov­ers mocked Hitler and por­trayed the pow­er of orga­nized labor against the fas­cist threat. He trav­eled to the Sovi­et Union in 1931 under the mag­a­zine’s aus­pices and gave pho­tomon­tage cours­es to the Red Army. His style spread inter­na­tion­al­ly until the life­less pro­pa­gan­da paint­ing of Social­ist Real­ism purged mod­ernist art from the par­ty style.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Heart­field, and for Europe, the Ger­man left failed to present a uni­fied front against Nazism as the KPD also became increas­ing­ly dog­mat­ic and Stal­in­ist. The artist and the edi­tors of the AIZ were forced to flee to Prague when Hitler took pow­er in 1933. (Heart­field report­ed­ly escaped a “gang of Nazi thugs,” writes Fuchs, by leap­ing from his bal­cony in Berlin). In Czecho­slo­va­kia, he con­tin­ued his counter-pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign against Hitler through the cov­ers of the AIZ. When the Nazis occu­pied Prague in 1938, he fled again, to Lon­don but nev­er stopped work­ing through the war. He would even­tu­al­ly return to Berlin in the ear­ly 1950s and take up a career as a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture.

Heart­field is a com­pli­cat­ed fig­ure — an over­looked yet key mem­ber of the Ger­man avant garde who, with his broth­er Wei­land and artists like George Grosz rev­o­lu­tion­ized the media of pho­tog­ra­phy, typog­ra­phy, and print­ing in order to vir­u­lent­ly oppose war, oppres­sion, and Nazism, despite the dan­gers to their liveli­hoods and lives. You can learn more about the artist’s life and work at the Offi­cial John Heart­field Exhi­bi­tion site, which fea­tures many of the col­lages shown in the Can­vas video at the top. (See espe­cial­ly the fea­ture on Heart­field­’s rel­e­vance to our cur­rent moment.) Also, don’t miss this inter­ac­tive online exhi­bi­tion from the Akademie Der Kün­ste in Berlin, which con­trols the artist’s estate and has put a num­ber of rare pho­tos and doc­u­ments online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Edu­ca­tion for Death: The Mak­ing of the Nazi–Walt Disney’s 1943 Film Shows How Fas­cists Are Made

Stephen Fry on the Pow­er of Words in Nazi Ger­many: How Dehu­man­iz­ing Lan­guage Laid the Foun­da­tion for Geno­cide

Watch a Grip­ping 10-Minute Ani­ma­tion About the Hunt for Nazi War Crim­i­nal Adolf Eich­mann

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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