Written by Jeanette Schramm (B.A. student).
Nominated by Professor M. Saurette.
For Twentieth-century propagandists, the Middle Ages were a time of legend, filled with knights and crusaders, saints and dragons, all easily marshaled to support modern tales of victory and courage. As European governments sought to mobilize their populations for war, propaganda campaigns depicted conflict in simple terms – a battle between good and evil- and imagery of the Middle Ages provided the means to illustrate it. Nations like Britain, Germany, and Russia used easily recognizable imagery drawing on the medieval era to inspire the collective memories of their nations and rally them against their opponents.
A British recruitment poster from 1915, entitled Britain Needs You At Once, depicts the quintessential knight: clad in armour, riding his horse, and slaying a dragon. An election poster produced by the Nazi party ca.1932 likewise shows a medieval Teutonic knight slaying a hydra. In this poster, the crusader, identified by the cross on his chest, has his arm around a Brownshirt holding a Swastika standard. Together they battle a hydra whose many heads represent “dangers” to Germany in the 1930s. Knights are also featured in a 1942 Russian war poster entitled The Road to Victory whose foreground shows Russian cavalry overwhelming German tanks, while in the background, Aleksandr Nevsky and his mounted Russian knights trample defeated Teutonic Crusaders. In these three different times and places, we can see a repeated appeal to the motif of chivalric knights.
The 1915 Britain Needs You At Once poster, for example, was published during the early struggles of World War I by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in London. In the summer of that year, the British forces were seeing casualties averaging 300 men daily (Levack, Muir, and Veldman 2013, 788).The national morale would have been seriously low at a time when more recruits were needed and this poster was to increase both.
The 1942 Russian poster, The Road To Victory, shares similar characteristics with these two posters. It displays enemies of the state as did the The Hydra but in this case they are not abstracted as a mythical beast, but personified as the failed Teutonic invaders of 1242. Printed during the Battle of Stalingrad, the makers of the poster knew that the Russians were on the defensive, fighting to prevent Hitler’s forces from gaining control over that key eastern city (Levack, Muir, and Veldman, 860). Thus, its purpose was to rally the Russian people and increase morale as in the Britain Needs You At Once poster by drawing the connection to the seven-hundredth year anniversary of Nevsky’s victory.
Although in very different contexts, these examples share common imagery. One such image is that of serpent-like creatures, like the hydra and the dragon, representing the enemy. This representation draws on a long European association of such creatures with evil, dating back to the Biblical depiction of Satan as a serpent in the book of Genesis. The near invincibility of the hydra, whose heads multiply upon being severed, highlight the ceaseless battle faced by the Nazi party and argues for their need to take swift and drastic action to slay the multiplying problems within Germany. This usage of an ingrained cultural aversion to snakes makes the message entirely clear as to which groups were being targeted as being “evil”.
The dragon of the Britain Needs You At Once poster uses a more specific mythological reference to accomplish this aim. It depicts the tale of Saint George vanquishing the terrorizing dragon and saving a king’s daughter. As The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine(1275) notes, the “blessed and holy martyr Saint George is patron of this realm of England and the cry of men of war” (Ashliman 2002). Placing this patron saint’s battle on a British recruitment poster equated the defeated dragon with the German forces and revived the stirring imagery of an ancient hero.
In all three posters, the image of the hero takes the form of a knight or crusader. The knight destroys the obvious enemy, thus suggesting that the good knight must always defeat evil. In The Road To Victory, the Russian king Aleksandr Nevsky is positioned prominently above every other subject in the poster, creating the appearance of complete military superiority over the Teutonic Crusaders. It also makes an argument based on historical parallelism: just as Nevsky defeated the larger Teutonic forces in 1242, so would mounted troops overcome German tanks in 1942. Knights were thus idealized in this propaganda and the modern soldier of WWI and WWII was likened to the knight of the Middle Ages through this imagery.
Knights were also depicted as being ordained by a higher power. On The Hydra, a crusader is pictured with an aura about his head, as if he had been blessed by the divine. In fact, religious symbolism was strongly used by the makers of propaganda. Symbols represented people groups and beliefs, as on The Hydra with the star of David symbolizing Judaism and the cross on the crusader’s chest symbolizing Christianity. The significance behind the imagery would not be lost on the viewers, as historically, conflicts based on religion have defined Europe. In this case, the Nazi party has placed the Christian in opposition to the Jew, a conflict which has been repeated throughout history.
The use of medieval imagery in Twentieth-century works of propaganda seemed to ground itself on the idea that history was repeating itself. In The Road to Victory, there is a clear comparison between the Battle of Stalingrad of 1942 and the Battle of the Ice of 1242. The opponents are similar; the Republic of Novgorod, arguably a medieval Russian state, fought to defend themselves against the Teutonic Knights, a German medieval military order (O’Reilly 2004). On the poster is included a threat by the Prince of Novgorod that states, “He who comes at us with a sword, from a sword shall perish” (Ivanov and Burova 1942). The success of the historic Russian army of Novgorod against the German forces of the day was to inspire by example.
To conclude, the makers of war and political propaganda in the early Twentieth-century used their understanding of their nation’s collective memory to select and manipulate medieval imagery, recognizing its power to mobilize the populace for a cause. Due to historical and religious influences, people made associations between the symbols and certain characteristics or ideals. The enemy was generally presented in the form of a serpent, symbolizing evil. The hero was in the form of a knight or crusader, symbolizing bravery and divine support. And people groups were marked by religious symbols, representing the continuing historical tensions between Europeans of different faiths. So whether their purpose was to recruit more soldiers or win over more voters, governments found rallying imagery in the medieval era.
Ashliman, D.L. 2002. “The Legend of Saint George.” Abstracted from The Golden Legend; or Lives of the Saints. Accessed November 26, 2013. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/stgeorge1.html.
“Britain Needs You at Once.” Imperial War Museum. See http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/27762.
Burova, O., Ivanov, V., The Road to Victory, from National Library of Russia, Illustrated Catalogue of the Exhibitions “The Road to Victory” and “Congratulations on the Great Victory Day!”, http://expositions.nlr.ru/eng/war2/1942.php
Levack, Brian P., Edward Muir, and Meredith Veldman. 2013. The West: Encounters & Transformations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
O’Reilly, Donald, “Aleksandr Nevsky: Russia’s Saviour.” Military History. Vol. 21 (1), 2004.
The Hydra, from German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College, Nazi and East German Propaganda Guide Page, See image number 57 at http://www.bytwerk.com/gpa/posters1.htm