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New Book: Iron Fists. Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State

Friday, 11 March 2011 02:44
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Handbook for the Organisation of Hitler Youth, c. 1936. Die Organisation der HJ Handbook for the Organisation of Hitler Youth, c. 1936. Die Organisation der HJ Courtesy USM books

What do Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Mao have in common? The totalitarian ideology would probably be the first thing that comes in mind. Yet, what Steven Heller talks about in this new volume "Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State" published by Phaidon is something else. Heller is interested in the aesthetics of totalitarianism, and in particular in the way these are presented in propaganda graphics.

iron fists pb flat cover

Starting from their brands, the swastika. the hammer-and-sickle etc. and moving onto different types of poster iconography, flags and publications, Heller examines step by step, how totalitariam regimes used aesthetics not only to built an image, but also to convey very special messages. The book is divided into four chapters: The Nazis, The Italian Fascists, The Societ Communist and The Communist Chinese. In these Heller follows the way particular myths were created with the use of symbols, how particular aesthetics where used to sell racial (racist) and cultural stereotypes, but also how personalities themselves (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao) became brands in themselves. The author follows the rise and fall of the brand, but also its legacy, often much stronger than we would ever imagine.

086 iv festa delle legioni poster

IV Festa Delle Legioni. Poster designed by Franco Signorini for a gathering of the Fascist youth organization Opera Balilla in Milan. 1937 (private collection)

Heller's argument is that totalitarian states used brands in a same way that only corporations had done in the past, branding particular narratives  - with a core narrative - about themselves and their organization. With rich material, partly from his own collection, partly from others', he manages to convince the reader to read beyond the surface and the pure quality of the aesthetics, but rather think about how graphics are used to manipulate. The book not only guarantees a fascinating reading, but also it makes you think about the power branding has and they way it can be easily abused. Maybe totalitarian regimes are an extreme, but manipulation is no stranger to any industry branding strategy.

112 gioventu fascista magazine

Gioventù Fascista (Fascist Youth), magazine, 1931. The official magazine edited by Achille Starce was Mussolini’s constant link to the Vanguardisti.  While later issues were designed like many other commercial magazines, with duotone photographs, earlier issues were designed in a manner influenced by the Futurists.  Many illustrated by Cesare Gobbo emphasized speed, a key tenet of the Futurists, and power, the principle behind ‘Fascism 1935’. (Private collection)

On the author:

Steve Heller, co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism programs at New York's school of Visual Arts, was a Senior Art Director at the New York Times for 33 years. He now writes a column for the paper's book review section. Heller has written and edited more than 100 books graphic design, illustration and political art. Awards and honors: Three National Endowment for the Arts Design Arts fellowships; 1998 Special Educators Award, Art Directors Club; 1999 AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement; 1999 Hershel Levit Award, Pratt Institute; 2000 Outstanding Client Award, Graphic Artists Guild; 2006 Richard Gangel Art Direction Award, Society of Illustrators.


Author: Steven Heller

Publisher: PHAIDON

223 Pages

Publication date: March 2011
Last modified on Thursday, 10 March 2011 20:50


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