The ministry of fear

The ministry of fear

Steven Heller

WHEN I WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD A FRIEND GAVE ME A NAZI FLAG THAT his father had brought back from the war as a souvenir. Despite my parents’ warnings not to upset my grandmother, whose father, mother, and younger sisters (I later learned) perished at Auschwitz, I would often streak through the apartment in her presence, wearing the flag as a kind of superman cape. At the time, I knew nothing about the Holocaust.

I was also addicted to watching World War II movies on TV and, as a wannabe comic artist, drew more pictures of Nazis than Americans because their uniforms were better. The black SS uniform with the silver “Death’s Head” on the hat and red, black, and white swastika armband made the entire costume so fearsome. Sadly, I had no idea how deeply the Nazi flag, emblems, and those uniforms frightened my grandmother because she never said a word.

AS A GRAPHIC DESIGNER I AM FASCINATED BY HOW GRAPHICS ARE USED to intimidate and instill fear as a tool of politics and ideology. It is in this sense that I have observed the unmitigated power of the swastika and all things Nazi. I must admit, as a Jew I am embarrassed by my fascination. And this paradox is one reason why I wrote a book called The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption?, which examines the power of the symbol to continually elicit fear.

I still own that Nazi flag and have subsequently amassed a collection of over 100 additional swastika artifacts of Nazi, neo-Nazi, as well as non-Nazi origin. These things are horrifically hypnotic.

Yet how Adolf Hitler created an aesthetic and ethos that millions of people willingly followed is, for me, a continual source of bewilderment. The swastika was his instrument–his personal emblem–the surrogate of the man. Arguably, like any symbol it is only as good or bad as the ideas it represents. After all it had been an ancient symbol of good fortune, among other things, and remains a charged religious icon in many parts of the world. But as the icon of Nazism the swastika was transformed from a neutral vessel into an instrument of criminality. A case can be made that the swastika is not the bottle in which an evil genie lived; it is the incarnation of that creature.

MY GRANDMOTHER EMIGRATED FROM GALACIA IN THE EARLY TEENS, her father deposited her and a couple of siblings in New York while he returned to collect the rest of his family. The Great War prevented his own emigration and after it was over he was forced to remain in Poland with his ill wife and younger children. The only time my grandmother ever spoke about the Holocaust was when I was 13 and she showed me a postcard from her father that was dated 1940. She received it a few years after the war. It had actually been posted from the Lodz ghetto and was stamped with three official Nazi seals that included the swastika. The postcard had an acrid smell, as though it had been at the bottom of a moldy bag for years. The words said that everything was fine. But the swastikas said otherwise. In 1946 my grandmother learned of their fate. I always remember that smell when I see a swastika.

Of course, not everyone who lived under the Nazi symbol was afraid of its powers. To the contrary, millions were emboldened by it. This ancient mark signified the good fortune of the German people to have a leader who rekindled their collective greatness. Yet in order to do so he instilled in the majority fear of his minority enemies through regular propaganda blitzes.

One such was weapon of hate was Der Sturmer (The Stormer), the rabid, anti-Semitic weekly newspaper edited by the infamous “Jew-baiter” and executed Nuremberg war criminal, Julius Streicher. Nothing could have prepared me for the indescribable sense of defilement that I experienced when I held a copy in my hands and read (or rather was read to) about crimes of the Jews, including ritual murder and savage rape. I could feel the black spiky Der Sturmer lettering on the masthead dripping like blood onto the front page. Its incendiary motto, “The Jew Is Our Misery,” printed at the bottom of the cover in red ink and repeated on at least eight of its sixteen pages, felt like a dagger to my heart. It is impossible for one who has never turned the pages of Der Sturmer to viscerally experience the magnitude of its evil.

Since it was posted in every German city and town and its cartoons and headlines enlarged to billboard size, how could the object of its attacks not feel the fear it was designed to instill? Likewise, a now infamous poster for the pseudo-documentary film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), directed by the Nazi’s “anti-Jewish expert,” Dr. Eberhard Taubert, portrays a heinous caricature of a generic Hasidic Jew in long coat and skull-cap (the garments that for centuries distinguished this devout sect from more assimilated Jews). He is presented as an avaricious, cowardly fiend poised to devour the world. When pitted against high German culture the obvious message was that the Jew was a defiler, and therefore the target of permissible malice. Hitler expounded, “The Jew has destroyed hundreds of cultures, but built none of his own.” Goebbels’ propagandists derived certain Jewish stereotypes from myths like the golem taken from Jewish lore. In the most infamous of all Nazi hate propaganda, an SS booklet, The Subhuman, a manual of hatred and loathing that viewed its victims as vermin, the Jew was portrayed as barbarous and perverted.

Der Sturmer published for 23 years until the final weeks of the Third Reich, its sole purpose to slander what it called the mongrel Jewish population. Its message was conveyed through gross pornographic tracts and hideous caricature, including the Poison Mushroom, one of a few such books designed to instill fear and foster hatred children. At its height Der Sturmer printed over 2,000,000 copies per week. Yet it fell victim to its own success; its circulation began to plummet around 1940 when Jews were quickly eliminated from every walk of German life.

VISUAL PROPAGANDA IS NOT ALWAYS DESIGNED TO PROVOKE FEAR OR hatred but when it does the intent is unmistakable. Although the aesthetic of enmity may not be rooted in any particular typeface or color, the visual rhetoric is obvious. It includes lies and hyperbole, caricature and stereotype, threat and agitation–all given concrete graphic form by common designers and illustrators.

Moreover, fearsome messages are not only the product of extremist and fringe groups; the vast majority is government sanctioned and professionally produced.

“In the beginning we create the enemy,” writes Sam Keen in Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (1986), a book about state coercion. “We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or ballistic missiles with which to kill them.”

Propaganda precedes technology as a means to soften otherwise rational minds into malleable clay. Wars fought on a battlefield or in the hearts and minds of a citizenry cannot be waged without the collaboration of people of conscience. Therefore, the process of demonic manufacture, wherein the object of abhorrence must be thoroughly stripped of its human characteristics, is essential in securing mass hostility towards one group or another. “The war of icons, or the eroding of the collective countenance of one’s rivals,” noted Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964), “has long been under way. Ink and photo are supplanting soldiery and tanks. The pen daily becomes mightier than the sword.”

Fear triggers hatred and inflames ignorance, which the skilled propagandist converts into manifestations of terror. Whether in picture or word, the specter of unspeakable harm cannot help but wreak havoc on the psyche. When wed to a particularly repellent depiction of a foe, the susceptible are lead willingly into states of antipathy.

During World War I, American artists and designers under the watchful art direction of Charles Dana Gibson at the Committee on Public Information invented images (bolstered by rumors of German savagery against civilians) that depicted German troops as even more venal than those later in World War II. The “Hun,” an ape-like beast with blood soaked canines clutching young female hostages (implying that rape was an instrument of policy), was the veritable poster child of fear.

In the process of demonization, repetition becomes the artist’s primary conceit. The more an image or epithet (or visual epithet) is repeated, the more indelible it becomes. The big lie is synthetic truth. But real truth bolsters extreme exaggeration.

Purveyors of fear imagery routinely latch onto the lowest denominator and overgeneralize a particular people or nation on the basis of a single characteristic or trait–as in all Jews are rapacious, all Palestinians are terrorists, or all blacks are drug addicts. In US propaganda of the 50s, Joseph Stalin, a real scoundrel, represented not merely the regime over which he lorded but all Soviets. Not surprisingly, in Soviet propaganda Americans were portrayed as corrupt, corpulent money-grubbers often given the composite features of avaricious capitalists. In the litany of hate everyone, irrespective of individual persona, is tarred with the same brush. When seen only as a mass of faceless types the enemy becomes even more terrifying.

At the outset of World War II US propagandists, including designers and illustrators from the advertising industry, were drafted into the paper war against Axis Germany, Japan, and Italy to create and propagate odious stereotypes that subverted tenets of peacetime civility. The Office of War Information in Washington, D.C., created many of the negative depictions that were fed civilians at home and soldiers overseas. Civilians had to be constantly reminded of the ruthlessness of the enemy, while soldiers had to be encouraged to kill them without remorse. This was only accomplished through relentless dehumanization–the ends justified abominable graphic means.

In 1942, the US Forest Service issued a postcard cautioning campers against accidentally igniting forest fires that was typical of how this racism was introduced in all manner of public media. In this textbook study of visual enmity, Smokey the Bear is replaced by the quintessential Japanese demon: he was a buck-toothed, four-eyed (as though thick lens glasses somehow indicated inferiority). He was further a low-browed and pointy-eared soldier holding threateningly a lighted match. When placed in a number of other cautionary scenarios this archetype underscored the duplicity and savagery ascribed to the yellow race. The marriage of the grotesque to the immoral in this portrayal was as powerful as a planeload of bombs and left similar scars. Since war is hatred run amuck it gives license for pent-up atavistic animosities that surge like a shot of adrenaline through the body politic. Extreme caricatures of the Japanese like these plumbed the depths of fear.

“Civilization is a constant struggle to hold back the forces of barbarism,” writes Sam Keen. “The barbarian, the giant running amok, the uncivilized enemy, symbolize power divorced from intelligence….”

So the graphic lexicon of hate abounds with metaphor and allegory in which the barbarism of any opponent is made concrete through images of vicious anthropomorphic beasts–polemical werewolves–the embodiment of bloodthirsty wickedness. Never mind that in wars each side resorts to barbarism to achieve its aims. Never mind that the vocabulary of hate invariably uses barbarism to “fight” barbarism. In the propaganda war the victor is the nation that claims God is on its side and invents the most horrific image of its satanic enemy.

War is not the sole rationale for institutional, graphic hatred. In fact, there is no greater motivator than apprehension of “otherness,” and no more effective imagery than ethnic and racial stereotypes that exacerbate the suspicions of insecure people. Absurd racial stereotypes have historically been (and still are) used as benign commercial symbols in comics, advertisements, and packages, even logos, but when similar caricatures are tweaked with just a hint of menace, such as a lustful gaze or dramatic shadow, they switch from benign comedy into vengeful attack.

THE GRAPHIC IMAGE CAN BE AS INJURIOUS TO THE PSYCHE AS BULLETS are to the body. Psychological warfare has long been employed in hot and cold conflicts and inciting fear in enemy troops and civilian populations is a proven strategy for creating panic. Leaflets are the ordinance of psychological warfare, the purpose of which is to instill paralytic fear that will severely reduce an enemy’s fighting capabilities.

It is usual in modern warfare for aggressors to drop leaflets warning civilian and soldier alike to capitulate before the onset of massive destruction. At the beginning of the 2003 Iraq War the US-led coalition central command in Qatar reported that it saturated battle zones with literally millions of missives exhorting hostile troops to surrender in the face of an overwhelming air force raining death from land, sea, and sky. One might assume that a word from the wise would be sufficient.

Paper bombs are not as intelligent as smart bombs, nor as cagey as more sophisticated propaganda, but they are powerful in subtle ways. Leafleting is designed to convey a straightforward message without artifice or conceit–and the message proposes only two viable options: live or die. However, in addition to cautionary leaflets that offer the enemy safe haven from inescapable carnage, there is a genre of missive designed simply and specifically to undermine a battle-weary soldier’s morale. This variety is especially virulent when aimed at exhausted troops who, caught in quagmires during prolonged engagements, are more susceptible to doubt, despair, and free thought.

During the cold war, when US troops were on the ready but experienced little direct combat, the Defense Department’s Psychological Warfare Division produced simulated enemy leaflets that were routinely dropped during maneuvers in an effort to show troops what they might expect under real siege conditions. The leaflets here were among those produced for extended maneuvers involving the 505th Airborne Division (c. 1955) and include four types of messages.

1. Leaflets dropped by US forces on its enemy. One states: “You are facing the mightiest nation on earth. The United States Army has never been defeated. Behind us lies the enormous power of American production. This war can have only one outcome, your total defeat.” Another proclaims: “We have gathered our strength. Massed American forces now begin to roll forward. You are retreating before the best-trained, best-equipped, most powerful military machine that the world has ever seen. We will drive you back into the sea. Your destruction is only a matter of time.”

2. Leaflets dropped by the simulated “aggressor” on the US Army. In one that reproduces the self-assured US leaflet quoted above, the enemy counters with defiant rhetoric: “CRUSHED: US Forces, What Happened?” and on the flip side offers its own plan for capitulation. Among these leaflets is an ersatz dollar bill with the headline “Attention: This is a Safe Conduct Pass” that guarantees that all “aggressor soldiers” treat surrendering troops “with courtesy and respect.”

3. Leaflets distributed by the aggressor designed to demoralize US troops by focusing on their daily deprivations. One reads, “You could be in town TONIGHT. Yes, You could be enjoying yourself … instead of being holed up.” Another showing a sexy devil of a girl reads, “Here’s a Real Hot Offer. You Can Have It Made: Plenty of your buddies are in the Aggressor Rest Camp. There’s no reason why you too cannot enjoy a hot meal without sand in your tray, a warm bed, and recreational activities….”

4. Leaflets designed by the aggressor to terrorize US troops. One reads, “The Aggressor is Stalking YOU Day and Night” and another states, “With every tick of the clock, with every passing minute, Aggressor plunges deeper into your lines.”

Crudely printed on cheap paper, usually in black and white, the typography and illustration are competent but undistinguished. Nonetheless, the imagery is suitably menacing. Illustrated in a pulp comic book style, the “aggressor” is not given any explicit national characteristics (that is, Soviet or Chinese) but has a curiously alien demeanor. Perhaps it is the helmet, the most distinctive and frightening accessory of any combat uniform. While ordinary military maneuvers are rarely a matter of life or death, they do test the mental and physical stamina of participating soldiers. These leaflets, and others like them, were purposefully designed to seduce the psychologically weakened troops during a dangerous junction in warfare–the moment at which a decision is made to continuing fighting or surrender.

A few years earlier this was put into practice. On July 12, 1952, American warplanes, following orders from UN Headquarters, Far East Command, Psychological Warfare Section, dropped 50,000 leaflets warning North Korean civilians to leave their homes or die. “Obey this warning and you will live,” goes the translation of one Korean language flyer. “Leave this area immediately. Take your families with you. Warn your friends to do the same. If the Communists force you to remain in the danger area, send your women and children to safety.”

The number of people that heeded this warning is unknown, but the leaflet was just one of scores designed to terrify both civilians who were in battle zones and military personnel who were fighting in the Korean theater to flee, surrender, and otherwise disrupt strategic efforts on the ground.

Fear was a principle weapon and every avenue into the psyche was exploited. One graphic leaflet, printed in red and black and showing a photograph of four Chinese soldiers with an X striking out one of them, announces a “secret plan” to eliminate 100,000,000 Chinese. “Will you be one of those sacrificed? One out of every four is to be killed!” The text explains that American food aid, refused by the Chinese government, will enable famine to take this many lives. Simple comic strips illustrated injustices perpetrated by Communist occupiers. Another leaflet informs North Korean soldiers that they are merely clearing a path for Chinese Communist troops, and thus placed in greater danger than these soldiers.

In addition to frightening warnings, safe-conduct passes printed in Korean and English provided instructions to UN soldiers about the good treatment guaranteed to any enemy soldier who ceased fighting. Another “good treatment” leaflet further promised warm clothing and cigarettes were provided for one and all. It further said, “You will all be given opportunity for health-restoring recreation.” It is not clear how many hearts and minds these leaflets saved, but it was an inexpensive way to make tactical profit.

FEARSOME IMAGERY IS NOT ALWAYS BASED ENTIRELY ON THE DEPICTION of subhuman stereotypes or frightened human beings. Indeed, the most terrifying image of the mid- to late twentieth century was not a monster but a cloud.

Spectators described the first atomic bomb blast on July 16, 1945, as “unprecedented,” “terrifying,” “magnificent,” “brutal,” “beautiful,” and “stupendous.” Yet such ordinary words failed to truly convey the spectacle because, as Thomas F. Farrell, an official of the Los Alamos laboratory, later explained to the press, “it is that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately.” And what the inarticulate scientists and military personnel in attendance had witnessed was an unparalleled event: a thermal flash of blinding light visible for more than 250 miles from ground zero; a blast wave of bone-melting heat; and the formation of a huge ball of swirling flame and mushrooming smoke majestically climbing toward the heavens. While the world had known staggering volcanic eruptions and devastating man-made explosions, and often throughout history similar menacing shapes have risen into the sky from catastrophes below, this mushroom cloud was a demonic plume that soon became civilization’s most foul and awesome visual symbol–the logo of annihilation.

The mushroom cloud was nightmarishly ubiquitous, especially for young children growing up during the late forties and early to late fifties, the relentless testing period of the nuclear age when the United States and the Soviet Union carried out their arms race on deserted atolls and in underground caverns. The US government issued scores of official cautionary pamphlets and the mass media published countless histrionic paperbacks, pulp magazines, comic books, and other periodicals that fanned the flames of thermonuclear anxiety.

For this child of the atomic era, who was never sanguine about the frequent Conelrad (emergency network) warnings presented on TV or the duck-and-cover drills at school, mushroom cloud patterns wallpapered my dreams for an excessive number of impressionable years. Dreading the unthinkable was underscored by knowing the real.

Everyone was taught about the historic shock and awe displays launched respectively on August 6 and 9, 1945, when two atomic bombs destroyed and incinerated the citizens of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was not some H. G. Wellsian prediction or pulp science fiction apparition. The furies unleashed by these weapons left indelible scars on conscience and consciousness just as the blasts’ scorching heat literally etched dark shadows of vaporized humans onto the naked ground.

Americans greeted the bombings as a necessary means toward an inevitable end. When told of the bombing, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist directly responsible for the Los Alamos nuclear bomb development teams, expressed guarded satisfaction, for he understood the power of what was unleashed. A month earlier, after watching the triumphal first blast at the Trinity Site he quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” and was plagued by guilt until his death in 1964.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, propagandists did not wait long to put a happy face on the ghastly new weapon and incorporate the mushroom cloud into popular iconography. The bomb itself (in its various unexceptional physical manifestations) was not iconic enough for widespread use as a modern emblem, but the mushroom cloud was monumentally omnipotent. Since the bomb ostensibly ended the war and brought the Japanese to submission, the cloud initially represented superhuman accomplishment. It symbolized righteousness rather than wickedness. But not everyone embraced this view. Only a few months after the end of war one early opponent, former US Navy Lieutenant Robert Osborn, an artist whose wartime assignment was drawing cartoons for training and safety brochures, published a cautionary manual of a different kind. This time rather than teach sailors and pilots survival techniques under battle conditions, his book, entitled War is No Damn Good, condemned man’s passion for war.

Osborn created the first protest image of the nuclear age: a drawing of a smirking skull face on a mushroom cloud, which transformed this atomic marvel into a symbol of death. But even Osborn’s satirical apocalyptic vision pales before actual photographs and films of A-bomb and H-bomb blasts that were prodigiously made of the many tests over land and under sea. Yet early into the atomic age the mushroom cloud devolved into kitsch. Government and industry promoted “our friend the atom” with a variety of molecular-looking trade characters and mascots. Comic book publishers made hay out of mushroom mania. Atomic blasts, like auto accidents, caught the eye of many comic readers and horror aficionados. Just as real photos and films of atomic tests seduced viewers, fantastic pictorial representations of doomsday bombs blowing up large chunks of earth tweaked the imagination.

The sheer enormity of these fictional blasts, especially when seen on earth from space, raised the level of terror many notches. Similarly, B movies in the nuke genre with all those empty cities made barren by radioactive poison exploited the “what if” voyeurism that people still find so appealing. Books and magazine stories covered a wide nuclear swath. Novels like Fail Safe and On the Beach (both made into films) speculated on the aftermath of nuclear attack and thus triggered fear (and perhaps secretly promoted disarmament too). But to sell these books paintings of mushroom clouds were used in ridiculous ways. The cover for On The Beach, for example, is absurdly prosaic, showing a woman standing on a seaside cliff directly facing a mushroom cloud while waiting for her lover to return from his submarine voyage to no-man’s-land. By current standards–even for mass-market paperback covers–this is dumb, yet effective.

An intelligent, though more frightening, mushroom cloud display is the montage of nuclear blasts at the end of the satiric film Dr. Strangelove, accompanied by the mournful lyrics “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.” In quick succession a dozen or so detonations, taken from real test film footage, flash to illustrate a fictional “doomsday” machine triggered when only one bomb falls to earth. Although this chain reaction was not real, it played to fears of many lay people and some scientists that the United States and the Soviet Union each had created such demonic devices. In that spirit, the Atomic Scientists of Chicago and the Federation of American Scientists during the 1950s, in their magazine, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, adopted a “Doomsday Clock” that they intended to symbolize the world’s proximity to self-destruction–a surreal but reasonable presumption.

Absurdity (a curious form of denial) reigned during the nuclear age and afterward. In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the United States Postal Service planned to issue a postage stamp showing the Hiroshima atomic mushroom cloud with the words: “Atomic bombs hasten war’s end, August 1945.” The Japanese government protested, and the stamp was canceled. For the mushroom to be so commemorated would be an affront to the memory of those killed, but would also serve to legitimize this endgame trademark rather than underscore that the mushroom cloud is and will remain world’s most wicked icon.

Although the mushroom cloud is no less frightening today than it was a decade or two ago, the specter of World War III as portrayed in late-twentieth-century pop culture became as kitsch as those old duck-and-cover drill training films that can be seen on cable television today. The Soviet Union is no longer the super evil empire and the Chinese are trading partners. However, today fear is still perpetrated by the government and businesses that rightly or wrongly feed on such fears.

After an all too brief interlude following the fall of the Soviet Union, it is undeniable that the world is a more terrifying place and terrorism has changed the rules of engagement–and propaganda. So, what are the graphics of fear today? Images of Sadaam Hussein briefly made the fear hit parade, but now he is a shell of himself. Osama bin Laden’s visage continues to cause the requisite gulp every time his image appears on the news. The indelible pictures of the attack on the World Trade Center continue to horrify, and rightly so.

But the official answer to the war on terrorism is raised levels of anxiety. The most fearsome images today include the graphics for precautionary tools, like nuclear, biological, and chemical gear sold on the Internet, and most of all the Department of Homeland Security advisory system that is flashed before the public on a regular basis. As unemotional as this color-coded minimalist design appears, it is its very coldness that sends shivers up the spines of all who see it.


Keen, Sam. Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

COPYRIGHT 2004 New School for Social Research

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