Case Study: International Relations

A major difference between posters of the World Wars is that unlike in the First World War, in the Second World War it “was no longer possible to stir patriotic blood by large references to King and Country”, [Footnote 1] neither was xenophobia rampant. The Germans were no longer depicted as the evil Hun as improved travel and communications meant that many realised that Germans were normal human beings. When war broke out, it was less than twenty years after the previous conflict, and many had believed that all nations involved in it would wish to avoid such a disastrous war again, believing that even the Germans would not wish to get involved again, although they had been visibly re-arming.

The government made attempts to distinguish between Nazis and Germans; people were told that it was a war of ideas, that the “enemy’s recourse to war does not represent the will of the people, but rather reflects the obsessions of misguided leaders”[Footnote 2]. Hitler, consequently, appears to have become the symbol for Germany: he was easy to depict, recognisable simply by a flopped fringe and a black moustache (Figure 17). Fougasse’s cartoon pictures of Hitler and Goering in all places “perhaps tended to convey the impression that the Germans were omniscient, ubiquitous and so omnipotent”[Footnote 3], but they became so well known, that in one poster they are recognisable simply by their uniformed legs (Figure 18).

It was felt that propaganda “should emphasise that our ideals are superior to Nazis’ aims … To harp on villainy only, misses the point and makes for complacency.” [Footnote 4] The use “of atrocity stories … only make the nervous more nervous … [and] we all suspect that the Germans can and are producing similar stories for their own people”[Footnote 5]. It was believed that there was a need to

continually remind people that Hitler’s method is to lull them with promises of relative security and then to destroy them when weakened … this negative horror at the idea of German rule must be supplemented by pride in our own country. [Footnote 6]

as feelings had been aired that people would be better off under the Germans, and that a truce would save much loss of life. This doubtless was what led to the production of the ‘Grab, Grab, Grab’ poster ( Figure 19 ) which was to “convince people of Germany’s aggressive attentions, and to arouse the determination to resist” [Footnote 7]. M-O felt that this poster was a failure as people did not need any further proof of Hitler’s aggressive intentions, and indeed raised a “reluctant admiration for Hitler’s capabilities and concrete achievements” [Footnote 8].

‘Two Cheers for Socialism 1940-1942’, a chapter in Addison’s The Road to 1945 [Footnote 9], describes the struggle that the government had, after the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941, in trying to combine support for the USSR as a war-partner, whilst avoiding the popularisation of Communism. [Footnote 10] Churchill, in particular, was totally anti-Communist and banned the ‘Internationale’ until it was realised that the Soviets were playing ‘God Save the King’ at every conceivable opportunity. [Footnote 11] A M-O survey into a Communist poster ( Figure 20 ), produced soon after the USSR entered the war, encountered differing reactions, with many enthusiastic about their new ally. Yet, many others had reservations about the past behaviour of both the USSR, with its previous alliance with Germany, and the British Communist Party, which had previously been completely against the war, and were concerned that the USSR planned to take over Britain at the end of the war. [Footnote 12] Pro-Russian feeling was generally recognised as high in the country, and Anglo-Soviet publicity was consequently produced, but only in order to steal the thunder of the left [Footnote 13], with relations built up between the Soviet Embassy and the MoI in order to prevent a flow of information to British Communists. [Footnote 14]

It was emphasised that Russians were fighting for their homeland, not for Communism as

Inasmuch as he is for the creation of certain attitudes, the propagandist is necessarily against others; and the extirpation of what he regards as false beliefs and doctrines is as much his concern as the propagation of the ‘right’ ones. [Footnote 15]

Points of common interest were to be referred to, not differences. [Footnote 16] Russians were no more to be referred to as Communists than Britons were to be referred to as Capitalists. Bolshevism was accepted only as superior to Nazism, and it was stressed that “We need not tell the public again that as Hitler had his Gestapo so Stalin has his Ogpu. But we need never let him forget it” [Footnote 17]. Propaganda aimed at the working class was to dwell on the sacrifice of the Russian workers, such as the newspaper advertisement in Figure 21 , and the efficiency of the Russian war machine, whilst propaganda for the middle classes was to stress Russian culture. [Footnote 18]

Some Soviet posters were directly re-printed with captions in English, such as those seen in Figure 22 . The Soviet’s generally depicted Hitler as fairly evil (Figure 23), and one could compare this with British representations of Hitler as a silly, and relatively harmless, little figure, (Figure 24) although this has to be set within the general historical context of a far longer history of German-Russian enmity than of Anglo-German enmity, with the Russians suffering far more at the hands of the Germans.

Other campaigns exhibit a more subtle Soviet influence. The emphasis upon the rule of the proletariat in Communist society led to a glorification of industry in Soviet posters, and, as the government owned the economy, the Soviets were able to concentrate upon campaigns to increase industrial output without worrying about finance. [Footnote 19] The Ministry of Supply produced a poster (Figure 25) showing “a gory Hitler … scurrying away from a concentration of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ tanks with blazing guns” [Footnote 20], with the caption ‘When? it’s up to us’ placing the responsibility for bringing the war to a speedy end squarely with the workers in the factory. With the accent upon the close relation between production and the battle front, the Soviet influence was repeated many times in posters in which the soldier urged the citizen on in his/her duty (Figure 26). [Footnote 21] For the factory workers cartoons superseded ‘superb pictorial reproductions’ as the main propaganda weapons, although action photographs were still to be ‘liberally featured’ [Footnote 22].

In 1941 the Ministry of Labour launched a major campaign, designed to make work in factories look appealing and important, including the poster ‘WOMEN OF BRITAIN, COME INTO THE FACTORIES’ (Figure 27). We can see the influence of Socialist Realism in this poster, in the bright colours which attracted the eye; the statuesque pose of the woman in peasant type clothes, and the slogan, which stressed the heroic nature of factory work; and the background scene a glorification of industry. A more outright pro-Russian appeal was made by a poster which declared ‘COVER YOUR HAIR, YOUR RUSSIAN SISTER DOES’ (Figure 28), which held Soviet women up as “appropriate models for emulation by British women” [Footnote 23].

Allusions to the Japanese largely do not appear to come into Home Front propaganda until the end of the war. The Japanese war was seen as a peripheral activity, something in which the Americans were engaged, rather than the British [Footnote 24]. After VE-Day, on 8 May 1945, the British people had to be reminded that the war would not really be over until the Japanese were defeated (Figure 29).

In relation to its attitude to ethnic minorities within Britain, it could be assumed that Britain was entirely populated by white people, as there do not appear to be any posters which appealed to ethnic communities. Black people had long been held to be at the bottom of the social pile, and to bring them into view as workers alongside white British women “went against the long-held colour bar” [Footnote 25]. Although Hitler was “told off in public for undervaluing black men, the British government was privately doing its best to keep black women out of the forces” [Footnote 26], and the only posters which depicted ethnic minorities are those which appealed to a sense of Empire (Figure 30), and even in this poster there is only two ethnic minorities, and they are relegated to the back rows.

Having seen how the government dealt with the issue of foreign nations, we will look at some of the ways in which it tried to make those at home feel that their contribution to the war was important, knowing that flag-waving would not work any more.


  1. Chamberlin, E.R. Life in Wartime Britain, 1972, p23
  2. McLaine, I. Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War Two, 1979, p20
  3. Calder, A .The People’s War 1939-1945, 1969, p136
  4. Minute Sheet, 27/5/40, PRO, INF 1/533
  5. Ibid.
  6. Report of Planning Committee on a Home Morale Campaign, undated, Ibid.
  7. M-O A FR 74 ‘Grab, Grab, Grab’ poster, 16/4/40, p1
  8. Ibid. p6
  9. Addison, P. The Road to 1945, 1975, pp127-163
  10. See also Bell, P.M.H. John Bull and the Bear: British Public Opinion, Foreign Politics and the Soviet Union, 1941-1945, 1990 for a more detailed study of the evolution of government policies.
  11. Addison, P. Op. Cit., p134
  12. M-O A: TC Posters, 4/C, ‘Red Army Poster’, 8/8/41
  13. Very Secret: Letter from R.H. Parker, 10/2/42, PRO, INF 1/677
  14. Addison, P. Op. Cit., p135
  15. Brown, J.A.C. Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing, 1963, p13 (emphasis in original)
  16. Memorandum on possible points in dealing with Russia, undated [July], PRO, INF 1/913
  17. Policy towards Communism: Note by Director of Home Division – RHP, Secret, 12/8/41, p3, Ibid.
  18. Memorandum on possible points in dealing with Russia, undated [July], Ibid.
  19. Weill, A. The Poster, 1985, p295
  20. Advertiser’s Weekly, 9/10/41, p27, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the Imperial War Museum. (Hereafter, Embleton Collection, IWM)
  21. Weill, A. Op. Cit., p295
  22. Advertiser’s Weekly, 9/10/41, p27, Embleton Collection, IWM
  23. Lant, A. Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema, 1991, p84
  24. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p158
  25. Jarrett-Macauley, D. ‘Putting the black women in the frame: Una Marson and the West Indian challenge to British national identity’, in Gledhill, C. and Swanson, G. (eds) Nationalising Femininity: Culture, sexuality and British cinema in the Second World War, 1996, p120
  26. Ibid., p121

If you wish to cite from this page, please use the following citation:

Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 5: International Relations in Posters, Undergraduate Thesis: The planning, design and reception of British home front propaganda posters of the Second World War’, <URL>, written April 1997, accessed Enter Date Here

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Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.

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