Review: Iron Fists 22.08.08

words William Wiles

Symbolism “is a political subterfuge that is… created for the sake of dominance”. This quote comes from Karl Marx, and appears in the third part of Steven Heller’s Iron Fists, the chapter that covers Soviet Russia. Marx understood the power of symbols, and would have understood branding had he lived to see commercial symbolism raised to an art form. Which makes you wonder: why didn’t Heller put the Russian chapter first? The Russian Revolution (1917) predates the rise to power of the Italian Fascists (1922), the German Nazis (1933) and the Chinese Communists (1949), and the Bolsheviks’ use of symbolism and branding influenced all those subsequent regimes.

So why wasn’t the Russian chapter first? Because the Nazis come first. Heller had to lead with the Nazis. No other state in history has so thoroughly fused politics and aesthetics. Hitler gave design pedantic attention, an obsession that was institutionalised after he took power. And there was genius at work in Nazi branding; it successfully sold the fraudulent mumbo-jumbo that was the National Socialist “philosophy” to the German people, and constituted a direct atavistic appeal, a kind of animal sexuality, that is simply unmatched in the history of marketing or semiotics. The ingredients of the Nazi aesthetic are potent: puerile machismo, German romantic nationalism, pagan claptrap and worship of power and the classical ideal of the human form. The Nazis will come first in a book aimed at a general readership because swastikas still sell.

Hitler’s state was the shortest-lived of the four in Iron Fists, but gets a good deal more space than the other three. We then move on to the Italian Fascists, a refreshing blast of sans-serif modernism and go-go futurism that feels frankly relaxed and fun-loving next to the Third Reich. Then it’s on to the Reds, first the Soviets, then the People’s Republic of China. Heller’s text throughout is splendid, neither assuming any prior knowledge of the history of these regimes nor pitching so low that it will bore the more informed reader.

The non-chronological, regime-by-regime approach means that Iron Fists is not quite the comparative study it could have been. But commonalities between the regimes do emerge, even if it is left to the reader to connect the dots. All these dictatorships flirt with the avant-garde and the modern in their early years, and then fall back on the kitsch. This is the visual manifestation of a philosophical battle within all these movements, the contradiction between wanting to be associated with progress and yet detesting change; in the end, conservatism nearly always triumphs.

Even if it avoids synthesis, the detail in Heller’s book is absorbing: for instance, the story of Nazi type. The typographers of the Third Reich were in a perpetual state of civil war between the Roman-type modernists and the gothic blackletter enthusiasts. The former was highly legible, a prerequisite for propaganda and statist efficiency; the latter was more “authentically German”. The surprise is that the Futura-ists won, the goths were sidelined, and one of the leading blackletter typefaces was “discovered” to be riddled with Jewish influence.

Heller’s book is a powerful achievement, one that fascinates, and then leaves the reader sickened and unnerved at the fascination. It’s frightening that the non-logical parts of the brain that totalitarian symbolism appeals to are so easily reached; that we are so ready to mentally submit.

Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, by Steven Heller, Phaidon, £45


An Italian advert for pencils depicting a “fascio”, 1938


Swastika crossword, 1937;


A Soviet constructivist poster by Georgii Kibardin, 1931

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