Propaganda: the most fun thing about history

February 5, 2009 at 10:15 pm (Julia) (, , , , , , , )

On Tuesday I had a pretty epic attack of the sads, and I started a post here about it, which made me feel better, and then yesterday I saw a number of very good people, and that made me feel fantastic, so the post became pretty irrelevant (I can tell you all about it IRL anyway), so I’ve scrapped that post on the grounds that it is no longer necessary. This is good! Just as an aside, before I get on with my Real Post, and as a reply to Tab’s post yesterday: January was probably the best month of my life, mental-health wise, and I have you guys to thank for that in a pretty huge way. Obviously, some of that was me going “I will do this. I will see these people. I will accomplish this small goal” but having you guys around to be with, to talk to, has been so important to me. So thank you!

Now here is a post about propaganda.

I’m a pretty visual learner. One day I will write stuff about learning styles and multiple intelligences, because I think that shit is pretty fascinating, but suffice it to say that I like having a lot of pictures. I don’t have a problem with words, but having a picture to drive home the point works wonders on me.  I also grew up in a house that had a newspaper published out of the front room, a newspaper that made its money from advertising. I have inherited, so my family tell me, the Kelly Advertising Gene. (Grandfather was in advertising/PR, or what they called “exploitation” before WWII, my dad runs a newspaper with advertising, and always organises/promotes local events, my sister is some kind of PR goddess), but I seem to have used it primarily for promoting Sutekh (which was fun, and easy for me) and for my unholy love of propaganda, the best kind of advertising in the world.

Propaganda can tell you a lot about the events of the time, and the attitudes of the society that produces it. The art, the language, has to be highly emotive for it to work, so it has to play upon the values and sentiments of its intended audience.

This poster is from WWI, and it’s distinctly Australian. Even though it would’ve been seen by men living in the cities, it evoked the knowledge of one of the biggest and most Australian dangers, the bushfire. Something that Britain didn’t have, that threatened life and property and livelihood. Something that required courage, strength and physical prowess to defeat. This poster causes the viewer to feel shame that he is not helping the men risking their lives, especially because the bushfire metaphor implies that all of us are in danger, here. The rhetoric is pretty fantastic – it speaks to both the national sense of self (which had been created pretty heavily 14 years before with Federation), and the ideals of the time surrounding masculinity. The poster discusses both what it means to be Australian, and what it means to be a man, and tells you that someone who won’t enlist is neither, which is basically the early-century version of calling someone a scrub n00b.

This next picture is one of the most famous Australian war images, painted, rather hilariously, by Norman Lindsay, who wrote the Magic Pudding. It depicts Germany as a hulking beast (see the little spiked German helmet? Yeah.) with blood on its hands, blood which is spilling out of Europe – but dripping down, about to touch Australia. This poster is fascinating because it’s actually quite unlike most Australian and British propaganda posters, which tended to have quite a lot of text, and usually relied on the character and ego of the person reading the poster. This, on the other hand, was created right at the start of the war, in 1914, and I think it’s probably a very good summation of how a lot of people were feeling at the time – this violent beast, threatening the whole world. Man, stick a big beard and Islamic garb on it, and you’d have something relevant to the fear and uncertainty people felt right after the WTC attacks. This poster represents people who have recieived a big shock, and haven’t quite recovered from it, yet. Images like this were pretty prevalent during the first couple of years of the war, but as it dragged on with no end in sight, the images focused on things like the first poster, a sense of duty to the men who were fighting. The Germans aren’t really mentioned in Australian propaganda after about 1916, because, quite frankly, people didn’t care anymore. It wasn’t worth it to fight Germans, but it was worth it to stand up next to the men already risking their lives. This poster is actually much more like the German and Russian posters from the same period, which I think is pretty interesting.

Now! Onto WWII! The sense of Australianness goes even further during this conflict. But it’s really clear that a lot of attitudes have changed. There are very few posters about helping Britain, because people don’t care, and a lot of people are still cranky about the British fucking us over at Gallipoli. It’s pretty obvious to see that some values have changed as well.

Check it out: if you join the AIF, attractive ladies will pay attention to you. I kind of love this style of message, because they’ve sort of worked out what really motivates young men to do dangerous things. Pride in one’s country, helping out mates, making your parents proud, sure, all these things matter, but not quite as much as impressing the ladies.

The interesting thing about this poster is that even though it’s been sexed up a bit, those ladies still look like very nice girls, the kind you DO take home to Mother. So there’s still a bit of morality shining through. It might also send messages to ladies – look, at these nice, well-brought-up girls. They get to hang out with nice, clean boys in uniform! Yeah. Or maybe it’s his girlfriend and his mum. Either way, your womenfolk will be impressed, if you join up. It’s important to note that the guy in this isn’t the tallest, most perfect specimen of Australian manhood, either – he’s got a touch of the Chesty Bonds chin, but he’s fairly normal looking. But yet, ladies, all over his junk.

Here we’ve got another poster featuring ladies, but instead, these are immoral, sexy ladies who are ACTUALLY spies. Hot spies. This is warning against discussing secret information, even in front of ladies – of course, ladies LOOK like they’re stupid and can’t understand anything, but some of them (especially the foxy ones who sleep around) are insidious tools of the Fuhrer. The art in this is really gorgeous. So much of the artwork for posters was done by people requisitioned from advertising agencies, magazines, etc, and so that’s where you get that very normalised look (like the AIF recruitment poster above), but sometimes there were actual, real artists doing these posters, and there are some absolute gems, like this one. I love the light on her dress and shoulders.

Japan entering the war in late 1941 was basically the best thing that happened to propaganda writers, because for the first few years of the war, most of Australia didn’t care. Messages about helping Britain, or defeating evil Germany, invader of small, helpless nations, had worn out their welcome during WWI, and it was still a sore point for a lot of Australians. It’s important to realise that for most of WWII, the atrocities of Nazi Germany were widely unknown by the Allies. They knew they were persecuting Jews, but they didn’t know the complete extent of it. For the early part of the war in Australia, trying to get men to enlist based on The Evil Hun was pretty pointless. But then! Japan enters the war, enters it right in the Pacific, and takes the closest British naval base to Australia (Singapore). Then they bomb Darwin, and send submarines into Sydney Harbour, and sit, for a while, outside the heads, shelling the Eastern Suburbs. Finally, the government can say “You need to join up because Australia is directly threatened”. Finally, we get a big, bad villain for the posters.

Even better, for an Anglo-Australian 1940s audience, the villain was a different colour, with strange, unfamiliar facial features.  Sometimes, Japanese soldiers (and Tojo in particular) were caricatured into laughable imbiciles (similar to a lot of the anti-Chinese cartoons from the turn of the century), but particularly in the early years of the War in the Pacific, they’re scary and serious. Another boon for propaganda artists was the sun from the Japanese Flag – as you can see in this poster, it works very well as something rising imposingly over the world, or over Australia. In this case, it’s rising over the Pacific.

This also has the famous slogan “Fight, work, or perish”, which was a favourite of  the government. It was an emotive slogan that could be used on many, many posters – posters showing slogans, posters showing factory workers, posters showing the enemy. After the war, an altered version – Populate Or Perish – became the catchcry for increasing immigration to Australia and promoting an increase in the birthrate.

One of the best things about showing propaganda to students in a history class is that you can show them things they know are offensive. You can encourage discussion about the ideas, and you get the students interested (like when there’s something sexy going on). It’s one of the most engaging historical sources, and it’s also one of the most useful ones in terms of helping students empathise with different opinions and perspectives. It’s also a type of source which demonstrates both social/cultural history (which is my bag) and political/military history. And it’s funny. Sometimes it’s rude, sometimes it appeals to low aspects of your character, but that’s good too. It’s real, it’s unpolished, and I think that’s important to show.



  1. Danoot said,

    I like how, in the first poster, you can see the true character of the manhood the slouching bystander rejects “Ay mates? A Bushfire! I’ll take me branch to it!”.

    Good job, that guy with a branch.

  2. juliadactyl said,

    Yeah, he’s going to beat the shit out of that fire, with a branch. What, it works on snakes.

  3. chromefist said,

    What I read from this:
    Putting my life on the line could bag me the pretty nurse my mum likes in panel #3.
    That’s not a bad deal.

    Discovering war secrets and drinking heavily will get me a date with the smoking vixen in panel #4.
    That is a fantastic deal.

    I’ve made my choice, Fraulein Sexbomb!

  4. Danoot said,

    Not Kaiser Wilhelm anymore, Tom?
    I think he is more interested in your choices than Frau. Geschlectsbombe.

  5. juliadactyl said,

    Well, he was referencing the wrong war, so I made him change it. It hurt mah brain to look at it.

  6. Heather said,

    Tom, I misread that as ‘Freudian sexbomb’. I like the way that one looks like a pulp cover! And I’m no art historian, but the art for that one looks like what I’d expect from the sixties, not the forties. That artist was well ahead of his time.

    I love the way the bushfire poster was put out by the ‘Win the War League’. I like the idea that you have to have one of those or else you’ll just lose. It’s like you need cheerleaders for the war effort.

    (Also, I can’t see a comma in the last poster, so to me it looks like I need to fight work, or perish. I’m fighting work right now!)

    This was a really interesting post, Julia! Also this just came up on one of my feeds today:

  7. naboolio said,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post Julia! I can see why you love these 😀

  8. misterfinn said,

    Julia, I’m not sure I understand. If I don’t carpool, who am I riding with?

  9. juliadactyl said,

    With Hitler.

  10. chromefist said,

    I’m not sure I’d like to meet a Freudian sexbomb. I have a terrible fear she might look a lot like my mother.

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