German Cartoonists of the Nazi Era, 1933-1945
Mark Bryant looks at those elusive masters of Nazi propaganda, the German cartoonists of the Second World War.
Though a fair amount has been written about Allied cartoonists and caricaturists working during the Second World War, very little has been published about their Nazi counterparts and the contributions they made to Axis propaganda during the conflict. Part of the reason has been the difficulty in identifying who they were – many either did not sign their work or used pseudonyms, and even those who worked under their real names were later keen to distance themselves from their wartime drawings in order to avoid censure and possible imprisonment by the Allies. None the less some notable artists of this period can now be identified.
Germany has a great tradition of pictorial satire going back at least to the 18th century. Its artists have been published in a number of internationally respected humorous magazines such as Fliegende Blätter (1845) and Kladderadatsch (1848) – both set up soon after Punch was founded – as well as Lustige Blätter (1888), Simplicissimus (1896) and others. In addition, their work has appeared in a wide variety of other media including newspapers, books, posters, postcards, and advertisements.
Adolf Hitler was very aware of the power of cartoons. As he said in Mein Kampf, ‘At one stroke…people will understand a pictorial presentation of something which it would take them a long and laborious effort of reading to understand.’
The Nazis’ Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels even complained about British cartoons saying, ‘British caricatures of German types are insulting, because they are no longer truthful. The National Socialists have completely transformed the German people.’ He also kept files of press-cuttings of anti-German drawings by Leslie Illingworth of the Daily Mail and David Low of the Evening Standard, among others. The names of a number of these British cartoonists appeared on the Nazis’ Black List, indicating those who would be executed first in the event of a German victory in the war.
Nazis take control
It thus comes as no surprise that as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 they cracked down on dissenting cartoonists in Germany, and took control of many publications. Some artists, however, especially the Jewish ones, saw the writing on the wall and made their escape.
Thomas Theodor Heine (1867-1948), editor and co-founder of Simplicissimus, as well as its most prolific cover artist – who had been imprisoned for six months for an anti-Kaiser cartoon in 1898 – left soon after Hitler’s election as Chancellor and eventually settled in Stockholm.
The Czech-born Walter Trier (1890-1951), staff cartoonist on Lűstige Blätter and illustrator of Erich Kästner’s famous children’s book Emil and the Detectives, left Germany shortly after seeing Kästner’s works, as well as some of his own books, burnt in Berlin by the Nazis as ‘subversive literature’. He moved to London where he achieved fame as the cover artist for Lilliput magazine from its foundation in 1937.
Victor Weisz (‘Vicky’, 1913-1966), later to create the image of Harold Macmillan as ‘Supermac’, managed to flee to Budapest and then London, when his paper, Das 12 Uhr Blatt, was taken over by the Nazis. However, a fellow Berliner, Willi Wolpe (‘Wooping’, 1904-58) was not so lucky. During his imprisonment he was tortured and lost an eye before being released in 1936 after which he fled to Czechoslovakia and then, in 1939, to London (where, ironically he was interned at first as an ‘enemy alien’).
Sticking to their guns
For those cartoonists and caricaturists who remained in Germany, most either accepted the Nazi regime reluctantly or changed their allegiance and became enthusiastic supporters of it.
Among the former were such distinguished pre-war artists as Karl Arnold (1883-1953), Paul Weber (1893-1980), Wilhelm Schulz (1865-1952), the Norwegian-born Olaf Gulbransson (1873-1958) and the Austrian-born Eduard Thöny (1866-1950).
Another was Erich Ohser (1903-1944) who worked as ‘E O Plauen’ (a combination of his initials and the name of the town in which he was brought up). Born on 18 March 1903, the son of a customs official, he studied at the Academy of Graphic Art in Leipzig where he met Erich Kästner and illustrated Kästner’s first volumes of poetry. He then began contributing to various newspapers in Leipzig before moving to Berlin. When the Nazis came to power he was at first forbidden to work as a political cartoonist and so drew the ‘Vater und Sohn’ (‘Father and Son’) wordless strip for the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (1934-7). It was very successful (even being used in Nazi propaganda campaigns) and three books of the drawings (1935, 1936 and 1938) were published.
From 1940 he also drew political cartoons for Das Reich. However, by 1944 he had become increasingly anti-Nazi and was arrested by the Gestapo. He committed suicide (aged 41) in Moabit Prison, Berlin, during the night of 5 April 1944, only hours before his trial (which would have sentenced him to death).
The painter, illustrator and cartoonist Willibald Krain (1886-1945) had a similar experience of the Nazis at first. Born in Breslau on 11 December 1886 he was brought up in Silesia and studied painting in Breslau and Munich. He worked for Kladderadatsch and the socialist magazines Der Wahre Jacob and Lachen Links, among others, and attended Hitler’s 1924 trial after the Munich Putsch as a court sketch artist for the Berliner Illustrierte.
Prohibited from drawing when the Nazis came to power, he later went along with the regime and was thereafter allowed to contribute propaganda cartoons (including some anti-Semitic work) to the German press. At the end of the war he served in the Volksturm (Home Guard) and was captured by the Red Army. While on a prisoner transport he received a gunshot wound from which he died in a Dresden hospital on 11 September 1945.
Those artists who seemed to have been more willing supporters of the Nazi regime included Philipp Rupprecht (‘Fips’), the star artist of Julius Streicher’s infamous anti-Semitic weekly Der Stürmer, Eric Schilling, Goebbels’ favourite cartoonist, Professor Hans Schweitzer (Mjölnir), the Nazis’ expert on ‘degenerate art’, and Arthur Johnson, the American-born son of the US consul to Hamburg.
Philipp Rupprecht was born in Nuremberg in 1901, served in the German Navy in the First World War, and then moved to Argentina, aged 20, where he worked on a cattle ranch and as a waiter. Returning to Nuremberg in 1925 he began contributing cartoons to the Fränkische Tagepost before he caught the attention of Julius Streicher who invited him to draw cartoons (including covers) for Der Stürmer.
His first cartoon for the paper appeared on 19 December 1925. With the outbreak of war he served at first in the Kriegsmarine but was later released to do wartime propaganda work and continued to contribute to Der Stürmer until its last issue on 2 February 1945. He also illustrated Nazi childrens’ stories by Ernst Hiemer (editor of Der Stürmer) and published his own book Juden Stellen Sich (Jews Present Themselves, 1934).
Eric Schilling was born in Suhl, Thuringia, on 27 February 1885, the fourth child of a gun manufacturer. After serving an apprenticeship with the master engraver Karl Kolb he worked as a rifle engraver in his father’s company. At the age of 18 he went to Berlin to study art at the city’s Academy. His first cartoons appeared in Der Wahre Jakob and he also contributed to Simplicissimus (from 1907), Kladderadatsch, and others, often signing his work simply with a capital S. He moved to Munich in 1918 and later became a shareholder in Simplicissimus. Formerly vehemently anti-Nazi, in 1933 he became a fervent supporter of Hitler’s regime and continued to draw for Simplicissimus until it closed in 1944.
‘Mjölnir’ was the name of Thor’s hammer in Norse mythology and from 1926 to 1945, it was used as the nom de plume of Hans Herbert Schweitzer. Born in Berlin in 1901, the son of a doctor, Schweitzer studied at the Kunsthochschule in the city and was one of the first 30 members of the Berlin Nazi Party (he joined in 1926). A close friend of Joseph Goebbels, he helped set up Der Angriff in 1927 and drew cartoons for it. He also contributed to the Völkischer Beobachter and Die Brennessel. In addition he designed postage stamps and posters and illustrated a book lampooning quotations from Winston Churchill’s speeches. In 1935 he was appointed Reichsbeauftrager für Künstlerische Formgebung (Reich Instructor for Artistic Shaping) in the Reich Chamber of Culture – responsible for identifying and confiscating so-called ‘degenerate art’ – and from 1937 had the title of Professor.
The American Arthur Johnson would seem at first to be an unlikely Nazi. He was born in Cincinnatti in 1874, the son of a journalist (who was also the proprietor/editor of the Cincinnatti Volksblatt) and his German wife, and studied at the Cincinnatti Art Academy. In 1889, when his father was appointed US Consul to Hamburg, the family moved to Germany where Johnson continued his studies at the Berlin Academy of Art and was awarded the Prussian Academy’s Prix de Rome.
After travelling in Italy he returned to Berlin to work as a painter. He began contributing to Kladderadatsch in 1906 and produced a number of anti-British cartoons for the magazine during the First World War, including ‘The Rape of the Germans in England’ (1914) which lampooned George V’s German descent. At first anti-Nazi, he later became a supporter, and after Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, drew a front-cover cartoon, ‘The Seeds of Peace, Not Dragons’ Teeth’ (Kladderadatsch, 22 March 1936), featuring Hitler sowing seeds in front of the angel of peace blowing a trumpet. He worked for Kladderadatsch until it too closed in 1944.
Three of these four Nazi cartoonists survived the war. Johnson lived to be 80 (he died in Berlin in 1954) and Schweitzer worked as an illustrator until his death in Landstuhl on 15 September 1980. Rupprecht was sentenced to six years’ hard labour in Eichstätt prison by the Allies. Released on 23 October 1950 he then worked as a painter and decorator in Munich where he died on 4 April 1975.
As for Eric Schilling, he committed suicide in his studio in Munich on 30 April 1945, the day before his great admirer, Joseph Goebbels, did the same in Berlin.
About the Author:
Dr Mark Bryant is the author of World War II in Cartoons (1989), The World’s Greatest War Cartoonists, and Caricaturists, 1790-1945 (2012).