Before Disaster

“Fool and scoundrel guide the State.” That’s true enough. In the early 1930’s when this was written speeding traffic on a Californian freeway was still something new and probably pretty scary to many. Just as the rise of fascism was to those who could see it. 

Before Disaster

by Yvor Winters

Evening traffic homeward burns
Swift and even on the turns,
Drifting weight in triple rows,
Fixed relation and repose.
This one edges out and by,
Inch by inch with steady eye.
But should error be increased,
Mass and moment are released;
Matter loosens, flooding blind,
Levels drivers to its kind.
Ranks of nations thus descend,
Watchful, to a stormy end.
By a moment’s calm beguiled,
I have got a wife and child.
Fool and scoundrel guide the State.
Peace is whore to Greed and Hate.
Nowhere may I turn to flee:
Action is security.
Treading change with savage heel,
We must live or die by steel.

Those first two lines always come to my mind when I’m driving in traffic on the highway. But look at those last six lines. The cars smoothly speed along. Safety depends on the calibrated human judgment – and error can release the mass and moment to deadly consequences. Winters makes the parallel with the ranks of nations also racing toward to a stormy end.

Fool and scoundrel guide the State.
Peace is whore to Greed and Hate.
Nowhere may I turn to flee:
Action is security.
Treading change with savage heel,
We must live or die by steel

Powerful deadly forces are barely in control. Cars jockey for position on the road like nations competing for power. One mistake, one error and it’s too late. The cars on the freeway are compared to the rise of fascism in Europe and Winters turns the highway scene into a moral political statement. Poetry doing that warning thing again!

John Heartfield lived and worked in Berlin until April 1933 when he jumped from his balcony just ahead of an SS squad out to get him. He hid in a trash bin before walking over the Sudeten Mountains to Czechoslovakia where he continued to work and rose to number-five on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list. He was forced to flee again in 1938 and went to England where he was interned as an enemy alien. He returned to east Berlin after the war.

Adolf, the superman, swallows gold and spouts tin.

Heartfield was a pioneer of photomontage and used and re-used photographs to powerful political effect. Look at these overlays of Hitler and a chest x-ray The caption reads “Adolf, the superman, swallows gold and spouts tin.” It’s reference to the wealthy industrialists who supported the Nazi Party while Hitler mouthed support for the working class. Sound familiar?

This and many other  of his montages appeared in the magazine, Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Magazine or AIZ).  It was reproduced as a political poster in 1932.

In the image at left the industrialist Fritz Thyssen holds the strings of puppet Hitler.

Heartfield’s work reflected the chaos of Germany experienced in the 1920s and ’30s and warned of the catastrophe ahead. He created images for the opposition and the Communist party  to counter Nazism and its swastika.

Heartfield was an extraordinarily talented and versatile artist. His courageous satire mocked and lampooned Hitler and the nazi ideology, exposing their lies and propaganda. He loved to make fun of fascists.

This clenched fist of resistance is the radio antennae for  a radio station in Czechoslovakia that broadcast into fascist Germany.

The Voice of Freedom in the German Night on Radio Wave 29.8

Heil Hitler made after ‘The Night of the Long Knives’, 1934

Hitler Tells Fairytales

Fairy tales, fantasies, fake news and dreams of military glory.

John Heartfield and the Political Image

This playful video has some great representations of Heartfield’s  work:

The featured image is a detail from Picasso’s Weeping Woman, 1937. Those aren’t stars in her eyes but bombers. Picasso had Guernica in his mind.

Demonstration in Battersea (1939), by Clive Branson.

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