Fathers of the Nation

A Comparative Analysis of The Visual Portrayals of Hitler and Stalin as Father Figures of Their Respective Countries

Dit is het derde artikel in een reeks artikelen over Russische geschiedenis en communisme.

Auteur: Thirza van Hofwegen


“The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.”

- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1925) [1]

As this quote by Hitler makes clear, children were deemed very important in the national socialist ideology. When Hitler later came to power, the significance of children in Nazi Germany as expressed in the quote was put into practice with the foundation of several youth organizations, the most important being the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend) and the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel). Furthermore, education of children was reformed to fit in within the national socialist ideology. The emphasis on children as the backbone of Nazi Germany was hardly unique. Almost at the same time in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the youth was enlisted in organizations such as the Komsomol. The importance of childhood was perhaps recognized even earlier in the communist superstate than in Nazi Germany, with Loraine de la Fe arguing that ‘ideas of childhood and citizenship stood at the center of the Soviet Union’s empire-building project during the 1920s and 1930s.’ [2]

In this paper, twenty primary sources (propaganda posters, staged pictures and paintings) from 1933 to 1953, which present Hitler and Stalin as ‘fathers of the nation’ will be analyzed in relation to the personality cults of both leaders, with the question being asked to what extent Hitler’s and Stalin’s images as ‘fathers of the nation’ as visualized in propaganda from this period can be compared to one another. The choice for the number twenty as the amount of primary sources analyzed in this paper is not coincidental, as there are twenty years between 1933 to 1953, the period chosen as the timeframe of this paper. Furthermore, by assigning an equal number of ten primary sources to each dictator, the chance of one dictator being more discussed than the other is prevented. Due to the limited scope of the paper, not all of the primary sources will be discussed separately in much detail. Instead, in this paper, it has been chosen to connect all the primary sources with one another by discerning common patterns between the several sources if possible. Therefore, while the analysis of the primary sources on their own at first may not seem to be very ‘in-depth’, I have attempted to link the primary sources with each other in a way that in the bigger picture, the generalizations and conclusions I have drawn hopefully do make sense.

The scope of twenty years, then, was chosen as it covers all of Hitler’s twelve years as leader of Nazi Germany (1933-1945) and leaves room to analyze the shift in the use of children in Soviet propaganda under Stalin before, during and after the Second World War. No more than two sources from the same year have been chosen to analyze in order to cover the twenty-year timeframe as evenly as possible. Despite this, less material of both dictators being presented with children during the war years could be found. This can be explained by the fact that from the invasion of Poland in 1939 onwards, the aim of propaganda shifted from presenting Hitler as an admirable, trustworthy man towards maintaining public morale and increasing support for the war effort. [3] Similarly, in the Soviet Union, propaganda during the war years was also mainly used to rally national support for the war effort and convince eligible people to enlist. [4]

Each of the primary sources have been selected on three criteria, those being that the exact year in which the propaganda was published or made is known, that English translations of the texts or slogans presented in the propaganda was available and that the sources either directly show the dictators in the presence of children or mention Hitler or Stalin in relation to the children portrayed in them. The sources do not necessarily have to mention Hitler or Stalin directly in relation to fatherhood, but a paternalistic attitude towards the children must be conveyed in some way (e.g. the dictator must be presented as an overarching figure that interferes or influences the youth). In the case of Hitler, more photographs than posters of him posing were available. With Stalin, however, more propaganda and artworks could be found. Therefore, the primary sources will not be compared on a material level, that is, by evaluating the difference between seeing a photograph of the leader posing with a child or a poster showing the same. Rather, while comparing the primary sources, the position of the two leaders towards children in the propaganda, the position of children towards the leader within the propaganda, and, if present, the respective language used in the material which links the leaders to ‘fatherhood’, will be considered. All the primary sources have been found either by using the online search engine Google or by consulting pictures in academic works. In the case of Stalin, many primary sources also discussed in this paper have been derived from Anita Pisch, who has written The personality cult of Stalin in Soviet posters, 1929 -1953 and has researched images from the Russian State University in Moscow. The choice to include some primary sources from Pisch is because she has provided English translations of the Russian slogans used in them, a language which I myself do not speak.

In each of the four paragraphs, a different element of the main research question will be discussed. First, Paragraph 1 will elaborate on the concepts ‘personality cult’ and ‘father of the nation’ and bring up the role of propaganda in the cultivation of Hitler’s and Stalin’s personality cults. This will be followed by a discussion on the role of children in both Hitler and Stalin’s dictatorships and propaganda in paragraph 2. In the same paragraph, a brief history of the symbolism attached to using children in government propaganda, in particular Nazi and Communist propaganda, will also be provided. It is in paragraph 3 that the full analysis and comparison of primary sources which feature Hitler and Stalin as father of their respective nations takes place. In the analysis in paragraph 3, the emphasis is on the position of the children in the propaganda towards the leader, which is a bottom-up approach. This kind of analysis is carried on in the last paragraph, paragraph 4, in which the position of the leader towards the children featured in the propaganda is the focus, thus adopting a top-down approach.

Getting Personal: The concept of ‘personality cults’ in relation to Hitler and Stalin’s regimes

A general definition of personality cult would be ‘a situation in which a public figure (such as a political leader) is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved’. [5] The term ‘personality cult’ has been attributed to Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956, in which he denounced worship of his predecessor Stalin, who had died three years before. Jan Plamper has identified five characteristics in relation to modern political personality cults, respectively that propaganda was directed and derived its legitimacy from the total population; used modern mass media which allowed the cults to reach a much larger audience; originated in closed societies in which criticism of the leadership was made very difficult; was secular; and was exclusively centered around men (patricentric). [6] Both the regimes of Hitler and Stalin ascribe to Plamper’s characteristics. However, in this paper, the focus will be on Plamper’s notion that modern political personality cults are ‘patricentric’, since this ties in well with the presentation of both leaders in propaganda as ‘fathers of the nation’.

While much has been written about the role of propaganda in cultivating a personality myth of leaders in dictatorships, the specific image of leaders as real ‘fathers of the nation’ seems to have been studied less. Instead, the debate on personality cults, especially those of Hitler and Stalin, has centered on three major questions. First of all, Max Weber’s concept of ‘charismatic leadership’ has been brought into the academic circle to determine whether Hitler and Stalin could be characterized as being ‘charismatic leaders’, who, as summarized by Robert C. Tucker, are revered by their followers for apparent extraordinary qualities, not out of fear or by the promise of money, but ‘out of love, passionate devotion, enthusiasm’. [7] While some scholars have argued that Hitler was a charismatic leader, most notably Ian Kershaw in his book The" Hitler myth": Image and reality in the Third Reich (1987) [8], others, such as Hans Mommsen, have characterized him as a weak leader, claiming that the adoration towards Hitler was not ‘identical’ with the loyalty towards the NSDAP, SS, local Nazi chiefs and thus the regime. [9] The same question has been raised in relation to Stalin, with most scholars, arguing Stalin was not charismatic but more pragmatic. Rather, he was in the words of Ronald Grigor Suny, a ‘man who got things done, a skillful political infighter able to sense when he needed to retreat or keep silent and when he could act with impunity.’ [10]

Another scholarly debate regarding personality cults has focused on the question to what extent personality cults were orchestrated or real. In the case of the Soviet Union, scholars such as E.A. Rees have noted that leader cults in the Soviet Union appeared in the times of desperate need, such as economic crises, social unrest and overall weak support or dissatisfaction with the regimes. Leadership cults, then, have been characterized as cultivated, as legitimacy for the leader could not be derived ‘through its policies or accomplishments’. [11] In contrast, scholars such as Ian Kershaw have characterized as Hitler’s personality cult as both real and constructed, with Kershaw writing in his classic article Working Towards the Führer.' Reflections on the Nature of the Hitler Dictatorship (1993) that ‘…the 'Hitler myth' was structurally indispensable to, in fact the very basis of and scarcely distinguishable from, the Nazi Movement and its Weltanschauung [worldview, author’s translation].’ [12] Finally, a concept which has often been used in relation to personality cults is that of ‘political religion’, which sees the popular appeal to ideologies such as National Socialism and Soviet Communism as forms of non-secular ideologies that adopted characteristics of traditional religions. The history and academic debate regarding this term have been discussed extensively by Ulrike Ehret. [13] The scholarly debate regarding ‘political religion’ can be linked to the personality cults of both Hitler and Stalin, as the propaganda of both leaders, despite them not adhering to traditional religious values, frequently elevated them above the population, almost God-like.

In propaganda, Hitler was presented in several different ways. Steffen Krüger distinguishes between images of Hitler as a ‘being without worldly desires’ (by not indulging, for example, in eating meat, drinking or smoking), a hard worker who sacrifices himself for the wellbeing of the country and as a man of the people, and a father to the Germans. [14] Posing with children or being shown in relation to children made Hitler seem as a man of the people, or as, James Wilson in his book Hitler’s Alpine Headquarters (2014) wrote in the description of a picture of Hitler with a young boy, ‘a approachable and caring leader who gives of himself without hesitation’. [15]

In The Stalin Cult. A Study in the Alchemy of Power (2012), Jan Plamper traces the Stalin cult back to 1929, when the Soviet Union was rapidly industrializing and collectivizing agriculture. Since many Soviet citizens were illiterate at the time, the image of Stalin was mainly expressed in visual forms. Hence, Plamper describes the Stalin cult as an ‘overwhelmingly visual phenomenon.’[16] It has also been argued by some scholars that the cult centered on Stalin originated from a cult that was built around Lenin after the latter’s death. The association with Lenin in the initial propaganda featuring Stalin aimed at presenting the latter as the founding father of communism’s legitimate heir. [17] However, like Hitler, the portrayal of Stalin in propaganda did not remain constant over the years that he was in power. Roughly, four archetypes can be discerned, namely Father of the nation, Warrior, Teacher and Savior. [18] Anita Pisch has cited the Father of the nation archetype in propaganda as ‘one of the strongest and most prevalent images associated with Stalin’s persona’, writing that Stalin was frequently described as ‘father’ in the press and portrayed in posters in paternal or patriarchal roles. Often stressed in propaganda was the view of Stalin as ‘the patriarch of all the Soviet peoples, all nationalities and all ethnicities.’ [19]

Getting Them While They’re Young: The Role and Importance of Children in Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR in Reality and Propaganda

Over history, the uses and symbolisms attached to the depiction of children in propaganda have differed. In a brief historical overview, Robin Jackson traces the representation of children in art until the mid-eighteenth century as ‘faulty small adults’ who were in need of discipline and correction to ‘romantic children’ from the period of Enlightenment, with children becoming ‘icons of innocence and naivet [naiveté, author’s correction], onto which adults could project their own hopes, dreams and ideals.’[20] During the First World War, two archetypes of children were used in propaganda by all combatant states, namely the innocent and the heroic child. [21] Throughout the Second World War, children in Soviet propaganda were represented as victims of the war. These images were meant to recruit adults for the war effort. [22] While propaganda posters of the Nazis also linked children to militarism – for example in relation to the Hitler Youth – many of the posters portraying children set out to promote pro-natalist messages and the stereotypical idea of an Aryan, nuclear family, in which the father worked and the mother looked after the children. [23]

In her analysis of photographs of children in Nazi and Stalinist Propaganda from 1933 to 1939, Silja Pitkänen argued that in both regimes, children often symbolized new futures in either Socialist or Nationalist Socialist ideologies. [24] If children as a group were indeed seen as representatives of the future, then the Nazi reading of the propaganda would be that the future is white, predominantly blond and traditional (Figures 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 1.6, 1.8 and 1.10). In contrast, the future of the Soviet Union, as depicted by children, would be diverse and inclusive (Figures 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 2.8 and 2.9). However, even in Stalin’s personality cult, there was a shift in the children depicted in propaganda after the Second World War. Instead of showing a broad variety of children from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, the children shown in propaganda were white ethnic Russians, with blonde hair. [25] This is also reflected in the primary sources, with images from respectively 1947 and 1952 all showing blonde children (Figures 2.6 and 2.10). This change in the sort of children depicted in propaganda has been linked to ‘Soviet Patriotism’, which erupted during the Second World War and has been seen by many historians as ‘thinly veiled Russocentric nationalism.’[26] However, the depiction of children of non-ethnic backgrounds in propaganda did not disappear completely, as posters from respectively 1948, 1949 and 1951 make clear (Figures 2.7, 2.8 and 2.9). Thus, while children in Stalinist propaganda in terms of appearance sometimes seemed very alike to the children seen in Nazi propaganda, the fact that non-white children did never completely disappear in the propaganda of the Soviet Union is indicative of the ideological differences between the two regimes.

The Relation of Children- Leader (Bottom-Up) in Nazi and Stalinist Propaganda

When analyzing the primary sources from a bottom-up approach, starting with how the children are represented in the propaganda of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, a few observations can be made. Apart from the difference in the ethnicities of the children represented in propaganda, there are also similarities between them. One thing the propaganda of both regimes do have in common is the way that even though children are shown in the images, they both make clear that ultimately, it is the leader one should focus on. Two examples that make clear that Hitler is elevated above the children presented are the front covers of two books, whose titles respectively translate to ‘Children, what do you know about your Führer?’ (Figure 1.1) and ‘Mother, Tell Us About Adolf Hitler!’ (Figure 1.8). Even though the children are put on the front, with the second book cover showing Hitler as a spirit-like presence in the background, the titles make clear that the children are to be told about their Führer, not the other way around. The images seem to suggest that the role of children in the Nazi regime is to be passive recipients of Hitler’s apparent wisdom. This passive role also becomes clear in some of the pictures, especially the pictures in which Hitler is seen posing with boys. The way the pictures are framed makes clear that it is Hitler who initiates (physical) contact with the children. The purpose of the children, then, is to sit still and greet the leader appropriately (Figures 1.3, 1.5 and 1.10). Although one could argue that Hitler in these pictures is presenting himself as literally ‘one of the boys’, linking it more to the ‘man of the people’ archetype that can be found in personality cults rather than the ‘father of the nation’ persona, I argue that the latter is more appropriate to use here. Due to the fact that militarism was an important aspect of the Nazi regime and ideology and also formed an important aspect of its propaganda, Hitler posing with boys dressed in military uniforms was also a way to showcase how boys were to be primed to become soldiers. Furthermore, Hitler as a former soldier himself perhaps could be linke