Aleksandr Zhitomirsky

During the Second World War, when it still seemed like the Germans might capture Moscow, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote a list of Soviet propagandists who were to be killed upon capture. Number one was the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Number two was chief Radio Moscow announcer Iurii Levitan. Number three was Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the designer and artist of one of the Red Army’s chief illustrated propaganda magazines.

That, at least, was the story, one which is mentioned – with appropriate skepticism – by Erika Wolf in the catalogue to a major exhibit of artist Aleksandr Zhitomirsky’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. A talented designer and illustrator whose most striking works were the satirical, even grotesque, photomontages that he created in the early years of the Cold War, Zhitomirsky’s work pilloried capitalism and the United States, often with allusions to the Nazi threat against which Zhitomirsky had cut his teeth propagandizing. While his main employment from 1953 to 1991 was as chief artist for Soviet Union (Sovietskii Soiuz), a glossy magazine aimed at readers in Eastern Europe and Asia, his illustrations appeared in the Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaia gazeta), official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers; Red Fleet (Krasnyi flot); Rising Generation (Smena); the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile), and even occasionally in more exalted venues such as Truth (Pravda), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and News (Izvestiia), official paper of the Soviet government. Those works attracted attention not just at home, where he was part of a major photomontage exhibit in East Berlin in 1961/2 and had his own retrospective in Moscow, but even in the US, where some of his photomontages from the Literary Gazette drew comment in the New York Times.

On balance it’s the postwar art, not just the illustrations mentioned above but also the book covers and occasional poster, that is the focus of Wolf’s Aleksandr Zhitomirsky: Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2016). For me, though, it’s Zhitomirsky’s wartime work on Front Illustrated (Frontovaia illiustratsiia) and its complementary German-language edition aimed at enemy soldiers (Front Illustrated for German Soldiers / Front-Illustrierte für den deutschen Soldaten) that’s more captivating. The postwar designs are hardly subtle. How often can one look at a monkey-like Goebbels ventriloquizing through some American symbol?

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky CoverFront Illustrated for German Soldiers, which existed to sow unease and dissension in the German ranks, had to be more indirect. For his cover designs and leaflets, Zhitomirsky mixed captured German photographs and new photography (often with himself as the model) with images borrowed for his vast trove of reference photos, often airbrushed together to the point that they became impossible to distinguish. With one leaflet, Choose! Like This or Like That!, Wolf shows how what appears to be a single photograph of dead Germans lying on the ground was actually a composite of seven different photographs, layered together, photographed, then retouched to create a seamless image. With others, she shows how Zhitomirsky mixed background photography with physical objects (like reproduced letters and snapshots) in trompe-l’œil arrangements. Taking advantage of Zhitomirsky’s personal archive, Wolf can demonstrates just how impressive his work was.


London Calling

I picked up London Calling: Britain, the BBC World Service and the Cold War by Alban Webb because it had been shortlisted for the 2015 Longman-History Today book prize (which it won about a month ago). The only book on the shortlist that I had read was Mark Harris’s Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, so I was expecting something similarly pitched towards the general reader (these days, that’s me!). Instead, London Calling is a monograph on the evolution of the BBC’s overseas broadcasting (as Webb points out, the term “BBC World Service” wouldn’t officially exist until 1965) in the first decade of the Cold War. Webb’s focus is on the tension between the BBC’s desire for an independent, albeit government-funded editorial line, and the Foreign Office’s efforts to consolidate all overseas public diplomacy under their control.

The book culminates in a discussion of BBC broadcasting during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Suez Crisis, both of which demonstrated the value of an independent line and the dubious virtues of a close relationship with government policy. The comparison here is to the Voice of Britain, the Foreign Office’s cover psychological warfare radio states in Cyprus, which Webb describes as “a bungled, ineffective and ultimately counterproductive error of judgement.” It also covers how, despite maintaining that independent editorial viewpoint, the BBC overseas services had a close relationship with the government. The BBC took advantage of reporting from British embassies abroad, and it also operated the BBC Monitoring Service. Begun before the Second World War, the Monitoring Service transcribed and distributed foreign radio signals for the BBC and the government – as well as, by extension, the United States.

Neatly covering the interface between government policy and journalistic aims (and, notably, the extent to which the two never diverged that far in the 1950s) London Calling nicely sums up the challenge for the BBC’s broadcasters, as well as for the British government, when it came to the propaganda theatre of the early Cold War.

The History of NATIS

When I wrote about NATO’s early publicity posters last year, I mentioned that there seemed to be almost nothing written about them or the NATO Information Service (NATIS), the NATO agency responsible for propaganda and publicity. So it was a pleasure to be able to read Linda Risso’s Propaganda and Intelligence in the Cold War: The NATO Information Service (Routledge, 2014). Risso’s book is predominantly an institutional history of NATIS, focusing on its organizational structure and its many changes of message and media. It amply covers the challenges that came with trying to convert an organization for inter-governmental liaison into an agency that would actually convey a consistent pro-NATO message inside and outside the alliance era.

Though there were proposals to give NATIS more authority, more central control, and – very occasionally – more budget, they mostly failed. Part of the reason, as Risso explains, was that the countries with better-established information agencies, mostly notably the US and UK, didn’t want to have to reveal the full range of their propaganda activities. In the early 1950s, the non-UK delegations to NATIS weren’t even supposed to know that the British Information Research Department (IRD) existed. IRD reports went to the UK delegation in a plain (i.e. “not ‘Foreign Office'”) envelope without packing slips that might indicate their origins.

Though its not a media or an art history, Propaganda and Intelligence in the Cold War does discuss a number of NATIS’s outputs, including its print publications, traveling exhibits, and involvement with non-governmental advocacy groups. One area where NATIS seemed to be more active was with film, at least partly because its first Media Section chief was Peter Pooley, who had worked in the British government’s GPO (later Crown) Film Unit during the Second World War. Seconded to the US Economic Cooperation Administration to work on short films promoting the Marshall Plan, Pooley had a lot of first-hand experience selling government policy. Though a lot of the early NATO films sound terribly dreary, High Journey (1959) was essentially an aerial guided tour of Europe narrated by Orson Welles.

NATO also took advantage of the expertise of the J. Walter Thompson Company, the lead consultants for Marshall Plan advertising and public interest advertising in the US through the Ad Council. Victoria de Grazia quotes some of JWT’s work on a campaign for NATO’s 10th anniversary in her book on US businesses in twentieth-century Europe, Irresistible Empire:

Advertising would “make clear to the world the striking superiority, as much moral as material, of the Western conception of Man and his dignity.” The NATO Birthday, NATO Song, and NATO promotional slogans such as “Good night – sleep tight – NATO stands on guard,” “N.A.T.O. – four letters that spell peace,” and “Since NATO, not an inch of territory lost” would work “to forge a history of community and traditions.”

The campaign certainly sounds hokey today, but what about in 1959? (Still hokey, I suspect.)

Risso is fairly circumspect in her evaluation of NATIS’s effectiveness, observing that the organization’s low and peripheral status meant it had little to work with: “centralised NATO information work was bound to tend towards the lowest common denominator This tendency translated into a general – if not bland – portrait of NATO as an insurance policy and fire brigade, and an information service that was structurally unable to respond to quickly to the demands placed upon it.” It’s worth noting also that NATIS was explicitly not an organization for wartime psychological warfare, or even public affairs. Those roles were the preserve of national organizations.

Where does that leave the history of NATO’s graphic design work? I’m still in search of more information, and hopefully more images, but I certainly have a far greater appreciation of the organizational challenges that put NATIS in a tough spot here.