Book Review:: Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State. By Steven Heller.

Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Tiron-fists-steven-heller-book-coverotalitarian State. By Steven Heller. (Phaidon: Phaidon Press Limited, Reprinted 2010. 224 pp.)

The idea of “branding” usually brings to mind the recognizable logos, corporate identity packages, and benign graphics that saturate today’s commercial market. However, the use of these comprehensive design systems to communicate an organization’s idea or message to the masses is not limited to corporate design and capitalism in the Western World. The power that early corporate identity systems proved in eliciting an emotional response from the public was quickly recognized, and total-branding strategies came to play an instrumental role in disseminating political party ideas, swaying public opinion and creating a façade of power throughout history’s most devastating totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Steven Heller, author of Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, provides the first illustrated survey of the propaganda tactics utilized by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and Communist China as components of a successful modern marketing strategy. Heller explores the symbolism, slogans, and strategies utilized by these former regimes, and evaluates the highly effective way these totalitarian governments were able to “sell their brand” to the masses.

Steven Heller served as art director for the New York Times for 33 years, and currently writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review and co-chairs the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has published and produced or edited over 100 books, and among many other accolades, is a leading authority in design and popular culture.

Heller has broken down this 224-page tome into four sections, treating each government separately as a case study in effective branding. In order to survey the history, symbolism, design strategy, dissemination tactics, and overall impact and effect of the branding methods of these totalitarian governments, he breaks up each section further into four or five chapters, and the organization of information is structured consistently among the four sections. Although Iron Fists carries the size and weight of a textbook, this heavily illustrated survey of propaganda and symbolism reads quickly since many of the pages and spreads are dedicated entirely for graphic imagery that coincides with the text. Heller utilizes propaganda posters, photography, symbols, logos, flags, typographic design elements, books, journals and other print publications to illustrate how these autocratic regimes in history gained loyal followers to a powerfully devastating brand. Heller’s method of examining each regime separately aides to highlight the similarities and differences manifested between the former totalitarian states, with the common thread being that these governments were able to effectively create and maintain a strong loyalty, albeit the sinister motives behind their brand.

Iron Fists provides an in-depth historical overview on the political and societal contexts from which each of these totalitarian regimes were built and propagated, as well as the branding and marketing elements that allowed these regimes of terror to maintain control for so long and the impact these branding methods had on modern graphic design and marketing. The first 75 pages focus on the branding strategies of Hitler and Nazi Germany, and how Hitler strictly enforced a design system that he made sure was fully integrated into German society. Hitler devised the swastika as the definitive icon of his brand, and along with his own image as the Führer, he controlled and utilized posters to communicate, declared blackletter as the official typography of Germany, enforced a strict color palette on branding elements, banned all opposing press and viewpoints, and even altered the school curriculum, among many other tactics to infiltrate his brand to all aspects of everyday life. The effectiveness of Hitler’s brand can be measured in the most detrimental racial genocide in our recorded history, resulting in the death of over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Notably consuming the bulk of the book’s pages in comparison to the last 3 chapters, Heller argues that Nazi Germany had the most effective totalitarian campaign due to their achievement of a completely synchronized system of graphics within the realms of Nazi control. He maintains that “although the Nazis did not, as many have asserted, develop the archetypical corporate-standards manual, the Promi and German Labor Front accomplished through caveat the kind of graphic synchronization that major companies spend millions to ensure” (p75).

The consequent chapters outline the branding and marketing strategies of Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and Communist China, allowing parallels to easily be drawn between the design and propaganda strategies among the four regimes. By breaking down the book this way into case studies, Heller is also able to highlight the differences in strategies employed between the Nazis, Fascists, Soviets, and Communist China regimes, which were each successful nonetheless. For instance, Mao and Hitler employed themselves as dictator, leader, and sole face of the government, and maintained control over their own image with an iron fist, strictly prohibiting the use of any unauthorized printed material. Large posters of Hitler as the proud leader of the German people were sanctioned and approved by Hitler himself, and Mao had multiple series of Mao figurines that were made to hand out to the public, elevating himself as an omnipresent figure in the homes of the people. On the other hand, Mussolini did not restrict or limit the use of his image, and encouraged its appropriation, even in the commercial realm as imagery on packaging, to infiltrate the market, and minds of the people.

It is important to have an understanding of the chilling ways in which these totalitarian governments inculcated their extreme and hate-filled ideology to the public, because having an understanding of history allows for the ability to create a more peaceful future. The branding strategies used by these totalitarian regimes, which were successfully able to disseminate radical messages of supremacy and racism or maintain control over the populace through fear and facades— are branding strategies that can be compared to and used in modern marketing strategies due to their success building and maintaining a strong brand loyalty. Iron Fists provides a thorough survey of each of the four most detrimental political regimes of the 20th century, and how they used iconic branding and varying degrees of control over the media to cultivate some of the most powerful, and impressionable brands that have ever existed. The heavy shroud that remains today pertaining to Nazi symbolism such as the swastika, leaves the topic of Nazi propaganda more frequently swept under the rug, rather than discussed for merit in design. And as hard as it may be to find “merit” in anything that was espoused by Nazi Germany and the other brutally oppressive totalitarian states, the lasting emotional impact that prevails today surrounding those controversial symbols, such as the swastika, alludes to how powerful the symbol can be and how profoundly it can impact culture and society.

This book is a great supplemental text for understanding the history of graphic design, because it provides a more in-depth look at the propaganda and political art of the four notoriously evil regimes that existed in the 20th century.

Heller successfully combines an array of propaganda elements from a variety of sources to support his assertion that the Nazis, Fascists, Soviets, and Communist China carried out massively successful marketing campaigns that have helped shape and influence the history of design. Iron Fists provides a valuable design resource by analyzing some of the arguably most effective mass communication strategies that were ever implemented. Just know—they can be used for bad, or good.


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