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Revolutionary Beauty The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield

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The Subject in Circulation


The readers of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung were formally introduced to John Heartfield and his combative art of photomontage in the second week of September 1929-on page 17 of issue number 37, to be precise (fig. 7). Ceremonially clad in coat and tie as if dressed for a formal portrait, brow furrowed, fierce glare commanding the beholder's gaze, John Heartfield presented himself in the act of beheading the Berlin police chief, Karl Zörgiebel. The blade separating the police chief's head from his body was not the solitary edge of a guillotine, executing the condemned with a single merciful thwack, but the twin edges of long-handled shears, slowly decapitating the victim with a repetitive joining and separating, each gesture widening the gap between head and body, helped along by Heartfield's tugging fingers.

I say "formally introduced" because the occasional Heartfield photomontage had appeared in this or that corner of preceding issues of the AIZ promoting the soon to be published book Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, a collaboration with the well-known writer Kurt Tucholsky. This endorsement was a practical arrangement, since the publisher of the AIZ and that of the satire was the same: Willi Münzenberg's Neuer Deutscher Verlag.Those earlier introductions to Heartfield's work were not particularly auspicious. Far from indicating Heartfield's popularity to come, the editors regularly misspelled his name-as Heartfieldt or Haertfield, for example-signaling not merely linguistic unfamiliarity on the part of the editorial staff but apparent artistic unfamiliarity as well. In the summer of 1929, Heartfield was overshadowed in the AIZ by Tucholsky, one of the most penetrating social critics of the time. Yet this declarative self-portrait and its showcase of his tendentious art would soon help transform this unfamiliarity into celebrity.

Though twice framed in the picture by the slogan "Use photography as weapon!"-once above the self-portrait and once below, in an exclamatory headline and a sober undertitle-Heartfield's commanding and violent act makes us wonder whether the Monteur's savage scissors rather than the photograph serve as the actual weapon. Heartfield's shears declare their own deed, their long blades pointing to the abrupt border of the self-portrait, where the background cedes to the incursion of the adjacent exhibition photograph. "I did this," the shears seem to say, calling our attention to the retracted frame, the mutilated edges of Zörgiebel's chin, the discomfiting rift between his neck and shoulders.

The conception of his 1929 guillotine-shears was apparently new. It is conspicuously absent from the array of scissors that Heartfield put on sardonic mail-order display two years previously in Schöne Be-Scherung (fig. 8). A pun on the word for scissors (Schere), the title Schöne Be-Scherung means either a plentiful bounty, often used to describe holiday gift-giving, or its ironic opposite "This is a fine mess." Although in 1927 scissors were understood as something to trim errant behavior-model no. 26, or "Gertrud," the montage announces, is ideal for reprobates, while model no. 27 is for trash-they are wielded by the state (either monarchy or new republic; the montage suggests they are continuous) against disruptive elements, and not, as in the case of the self-portrait, brandished by a citizen against a representative of that state. In September 1929, the artist asserted that this reversal was necessary.

The laconic caption beneath the self-portrait, "John Heartfield with Police President Zörgiebel," names the actors but not the urgent action, an understatement that insists the work be apprehended in pictorial rather than textual terms. A paragraph penned by F. C. Weiskopf, a member of the AIZ editorial staff, fills the space inside the doorframe at the base of the page, but does little to expand on the action taking place above. Rather, Weiskopf broadly lauds the critical intersections of art and life, declaring Heartfield's art to be a weapon in class struggle, but without elaborating how. Language, in comparison to the exigency of the accompanying images, is curiously inadequate. As this chapter reveals, text regularly falls short of the various tasks for which it was recruited on page 17, issue #37, be they descriptive, explanatory, or hortatory.

Notice that the abutting images are firmly located in an architectural space. As the caption in the upper right suggests, we are to understand them as photographic documentation of Heartfield's photomontages on exhibit at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung. The self-portrait, however, occupies a liminal space created purely for the display of Heartfield's vicious artistic performance. Retracting here, extending itself there, the image competes for space among the other photographs, which are ostensibly documentary-testimonials that veridically reflect events outside the cognitive framework of the illustrated journal. The photomontage demonstrates, by contrast, its rhetoric of artificiality. John Heartfield manufactured his self-portrait specifically for this page, to be circulated in this Communist photographic magazine. It is an exhibit in and of itself-a show of Heartfield's technique, and a performance of his social identity as an artist as he conceived it in the year 1929.

Heartfield's brother and collaborator, Wieland Herzfelde, once wrote: "John was already nicknamed the Monteur(assemblyman) during the war by his friends, not because of his working technique, but because he was in the habit of wearing overalls. He did not want to look like an artist, but he did not want to look like an adman either."1 In his 1929 self-presentation, Heartfield traded in his supposedly habitual uniform-worker's overalls-for more "bourgeois" attire. Is the Monteur posing as gentleman executioner, perhaps, the traces of Dada-dandy subversion still manifest? Are these the props of a conventional self-portrait? Or was he appealing to both working-class and white-collar constituencies? That Herzfelde should choose the triangulation of industrial assemblyman, artist, and advertising professional is not fortuitous. During the Weimar Republic, many artists sought to fuse left-wing politics with commercial advertising and avant-garde aesthetics. Photomontage would play a central role in this combination. Certainly in the instance of the 1929 self-portrait, Heartfield was doing some advertising of his own: the image promoted the exhibition of his political photomontages at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung.

This often-reproduced self-portrait of John Heartfield has become iconic, functioning as a pictorial anchor for his artistic legacy. Appearing regularly on front covers and frontispieces of monographs, the image resonates throughout the reception history of his work. More often, it is presented in its pre-production mockup state, bearing Heartfield's clearly visible, penciled instructions to the production staff of the AIZ. Although reproduced more frequently than any other of Heartfield's photomontages, the self-portrait, as it appeared in 1929, has attracted little analytical attention. Instead, the self-portrait circulates in the economy of art historical images, a seemingly self-sufficient, ahistorical entity. Such dispersal of Heartfield's self-portrait, with its dehistoricization of the artist's image and its valuation of the marks of the artist's hand, stems from its utility in forwarding the cult of the artist (fig. 9). In its pre-AIZ incarnation, the image belongs to a now-familiar aesthetic category, easily accessible for a posterity in search of signifiers of artistic authenticity. We see physical traces contingent on the artist's presence: his script, his photographic likeness, and the jagged track of his incisive scissors. Relying on the posthumous reception of the preparatory mock-up, we might conclude that the montage was manufactured primarily for a life after John Heartfield's death, not conceived for a short-lived mechanical replication, as was in fact the case.

As a document touted as representative-of the artist and of the artist's craft-the self-portrait has been deceptively dissociated from its discursive context, isolated from the other photographs with which it was published as if they were irrelevant to this moment of Heartfield's self-fashioning. The case is quite the contrary. As this chapter demonstrates, John Heartfield produced his militant self-portrait specifically to be disseminated on a page in a mass-market journal of the revolutionary Left, and he did so during a critical transition in Communist politics during the late Weimar Republic. One of the central tasks of this chapter is to elaborate upon what possible functions the 1929 self-portrait's ironic combination of aggression and attraction, self-assertion and subtraction could serve in the culture of late Weimar. Why did John Heartfield produce the self-portrait at this juncture and not any other? What does the picture tell us about his political subjectivity? Which cultural discourses made Heartfield's intervention possible, even determining the decibel level of its strident tone? How might a leftist audience have received the image? To answer these questions is to recuperate what Hans Robert Jauss has called the "horizon of expectation," or the set of cultural, political, and aesthetic expectations that the viewers of the image in 1929 might have held.2 In weaving the self-portrait into various discursive contexts, from the intricate politics of late 1920s Communist subjectivity to the semiotics of pictorial rupture, I aim to anchor its various ideological and visual operations within the particularities of a specific historical moment. Like a motif in a fugue, the self-portrait repeatedly resurfaces throughout this chapter's argument, its significance becoming more complex and resonant as I unpack the conditions of its production.

Producing the Subject: Biographical Excursus

John Heartfield's 1929 image is one of the rare instances of self-portraiture in the artist's body of work. As such, it is an uncommon venue for his self-representational "voice"-a self-constructed utterance about himself and his artistic project at a particular moment. Even more remarkably, this emphatic statement was designed for a well-established mass-circulation journal of the Left. In contrast to earlier Dadaist self-portraits disseminated in short-lived artists' magazines with small print runs, this picture makes a declarative, public statement on a large scale. With an ambition for popular appeal never to be matched, this unique instance of Heartfield's artistic performance represents both the apex and the finale of a Dada theatricality gone resolutely political, for in subsequent AIZ works his embodied authorship is supplanted by his adroit photomontage, while his name retreats from the title to an occasionally ironic byline.

In the historiography of Heartfield, such moments of declarative self-representation are scarce. Art historians sooner turn to his brother's narrative voice than John Heartfield's personal accounts to reconstruct a historical understanding of Heartfield and his project. Wieland Herzfelde's explanation of the social semantics of Heartfield's overalls, cited above, is an example. As Nancy Ann Roth has written, Herzfelde "functioned as a kind of authorized spokesman for his brother through most of their lives. Wieland's word, that is, largely replaces Heartfield's own."3 Beginning with Herzfelde's 1913 letter of introduction to Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schüler, which was intended to ease his brother's move to Berlin,4 culminating in his biographical account John Heartfield: Leben und Werk of 1961, and extending into the numerous essays after Heartfield's death in 1968, Wieland Herzfelde spent his life writing and speaking on his brother's behalf.5 As an author, poet, and publisher (he owned the left-wing publishing house Malik Verlag, named after a Lasker-Schüler novel), Herzfelde actively participated in the narrative construction and replication of Heartfield's life, adjusting facts, simplifying the narrative, and emphasizing expedient detail in order to promote a politically exemplary account of their lives. The brothers' differences in temperament-"as if they had come from separate planets," in Elias Canetti's words-operated simultaneously as a narrative foil and historical mandate: Herzfelde's reasonable, pragmatic, and often almost innocent disposition supplied him with a form of objective, untainted authority to narrate his brother's vituperative pictures and persona.6

Such was Herzfelde's dominion over the Heartfield legacy that other firsthand accounts of the photomonteur and his work met with his derisive pen. For instance, Herzfelde's copy of Roland März's impressive Der Schnitt entlang der Zeit, an invaluable compilation of documents, testimonials, and essays about John Heartfield, is assertively reclaimed by the marks of Herzfelde's hand.7 Scribbled notations such as "imprecise," "wrong," or "quatsch" (the last more or less translatable as "nonsense") deface the margins. A stamp bearing the name MALIK-ARCHIV brands the inside cover, as if Herzfelde wanted to take possession, in ink, of these printed words published outside his jurisdiction. A typewritten disclaimer cut and pasted inside indignantly declares to all readers and posterity that the book appeared without his knowledge and collaboration. Clearly Herzfelde, anticipating an archival reception of his legacy, asserted his hagiographic primacy over John Heartfield from beyond the grave.

The reasons for Herzfelde's pivotal role in the production and circulation of Heartfield's artistic identity have been framed as largely biographical, rooted in the brothers' troubled upbringing. Their father, Franz Herzfeld, was a Socialist poet and playwright who published under the pseudonym Franz Held. He was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to prison in 1895. To avoid jail, Herzfeld, his wife, Alice (née Stolzenberg) and their growing family fled Germany for Switzerland (where the third child, Wieland, was born) and eventually took up residence in an abandoned hut in the woods near Aigen bei Salzburg, Austria, in 1896. One day in the summer of 1899, as the pivotal tale goes, the four children (Helmut, nine; Hertha, six; Wieland, three; and Charlotte, one and a half) woke up to find their parents missing. (They had been placed in mental institutions; Herzfelde's recollections of his mother were published as a dream sequence in his 1920 book, Tragikgrotesken der Nacht.) The children were discovered four days later by Ignatz Varnschein, the mayor of Aigen. As Herzfelde recounts:

The youngest lay peacefully in a thoroughly wetted basket and sucked on her thumb, lodged deeply in her mouth. Her six-year-old sister stirred flour and water in a pot and explained she was making omelets. My brother began to sob uncontrollably when he was asked where his parents were, and I took no notice, but continued to trace the edges of the little lake that had collected at the base of the basket. I was so absorbed in this game that they had to cajole me at length to stop and let them get me ready for departure.8

Wieland had been painting bellflowers with the baby's urine. The Varnscheins took the orphaned children into their foster care. In the difficult years that followed, Helmut grew up as an anxious, troubled, quick-tempered child-characteristics exacerbated by the psychological mistreatment he received as a Protestant boy raised in a Catholic household in imperial Austrian society, which was then split, even defined, by those religious differences. When the Varnscheins moved to Salzburg, a family named Bischof took Helmut in, until he was implicated in a school revolt against a despised teacher and sent to a juvenile detention home run by nuns. When the Varnscheins learned of the mistreatment at the institution, they took the boy back. By contrast, the accounts portray Wieland (who was never baptized in the Protestant church and thus spared abuse) as well adjusted and reasonable, able to speak when Helmut can only stutter. "Helmut is more shy than I am," wrote Herzfelde to Lasker-Schüler, "for his youth was hard and lonely. To me, no one is a stranger. Everybody is my friend."9 As a result, the brothers were "bound by a navel cord," as Canetti characterized their ties, or in John Heartfield's words, they were "two sides of the same apple."10 Or, most likely, they were connected by a co-dependent bond lodged in a reaction formation to abandonment and loss, one brother adopting the defense of a guileless child, and the other driven by deep-seated rage. Indeed, Helmut's childhood experience, according to Wieland Herzfelde, indelibly marked John Heartfield's character: "He perceives any injury he witnesses as a personal attack."11 Heartfield has not left us his version of the tale.12

Heartfield's choleric temperament evolved beyond a mere personality trait into an artistic legend cited regularly as a driving force for his art. "No, our Jonny [sic] had only one thing: a heavy heart that reacted with immense intensity to every adverse, unjust, sinister and degrading manifestation of our society," wrote Oskar Maria Graf in 1938.13 "Produktiver Jähzorn" Herzfelde called it, naming a kind of creative fury-a descriptive term that Heartfield would later wield himself, embedding this evocative phrase in the dissemination of his legacy.14 Characterizing impulsive irascibility as a productive vehicle for dissent deftly converts the story of personal torment into one of political benefit, advancing the Communist cause with passionate investment. Similarly, Canetti's not entirely sympathetic appraisal of John Heartfield (perhaps reflecting Canetti's lingering wound from Heartfield's having once called him a termite) suggests that the artist's volatility and his montages amounted to the same thing: "His reactions were so spontaneous that they got the better of him. He was skinny and very short, and if an idea struck him, he would leap into the air. He uttered his sentences vehemently as if attacking you with his leap. . . . [H]e could only learn aggressively; and I believe one could show that this is the secret of his montages. He brought things together, confronted things after first leaping up at them, and the tension of these leaps is preserved in his montages."15 Brigid Doherty, in a comparable argument, links Heartfield's explosive vehemence to a larger discourse of war neurosis and, in turn, to the technique of Dada montage. "Montage, then, is a vehicle for the monteur's traumatophilia," Doherty writes; "it is a technique for the materialization of traumatic shock."16 In this chapter, I suggest that Heartfield thematizes the productivity of hate in his late Weimar photomontages, summoning the fuel for his pugnacious creativity from the volatile and violent political street culture of the fated democratic republic, aided by private fury.

Heartfield's very name, like his self-portrait, relies on an audacious politics of protest, signaling the fabrication of an artistic identity prompted by historical and political circumstance rather than motivated by psychological necessity. "John Heartfield" came into being in 1916, as the story has it, as the pseudonym of the man baptized Helmut Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891. Anglicizing his German name in the midst of the First World War signaled a cheeky rejection of what has been called a "spontaneous and irrational" Anglophobia that took hold of Germany shortly after the English entered the war on August 4, 1914.17 Ernst Lissauer's popular song "Hassgesang gegen England" (Hymn of Hate against England) lent the jingoism a catchy rhythm and tight rhyme, igniting zealous hatred "like a bomb in a munitions depot," as the writer Stefan Zweig characterized it.18 "Gott strafe England!" (God punish England!) became a popular street greeting, to be met with an enthusiastic "Er strafe es!" (He punishes it!). The phrase was printed on mugs, handkerchiefs, pocketknives, buttons, and badges; it was rubber-stamped on letters, printed on millions of postcards, and engraved on scarf pins, cufflinks, brooches, and wedding rings.19 Swiss authorities eventually issued a warning that letters from Germany bearing the imprint "Gott strafe England!" would no longer be handled by the Swiss post office.20 Its omnipresence signals the nationalistic mania that seized Germany, one of the manifestations of the so-called Spirit of 1914, the collective experience of war mobilization expected to unite the German nation in the present and in the future.21 Adopting the Anglophile name "John Heartfield" indicated Helmut Herzfeld's internationalist, anti-militarist convictions in no uncertain terms; in so doing, he provoked his countrymen by openly taking sides with the enemy during a period of virulent nationalism. That he continued to sign personal letters "Helmut Herzfeld" in December 1917, long after the asserted date of 1916, suggests that this transformation occurred erratically and intermittently rather than emphatically as the established Heartfield narrative suggests. This change in designation would parallel those of his closest collaborators, who also amended their names but to lesser degree. Georg Groß became George Grosz, fusing his Anglocentric interest with his Slavophilia, while Heartfield's brother Wieland Herzfelde made alterations for what he considered poetic rather than political reasons, appending a final e to his father's blunt surname.

At the close of the war, John Heartfield, along with his brother, George Grosz, and the playwright Erwin Piscator (all of whom would later collaborate with Heartfield), signed up with the fledgling Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD). According to the brothers' recollection, they did so at its founding party congress on December 30, 1918, receiving the Parteibuch (a booklet confirming Party membership) from Rosa Luxemburg herself-a neatly packaged story that resurfaces repeatedly. This account has come under closer examination, however, spurred by the fact that the Party congress only began on December 30, lasting until January 1, 1919, in the midst of widespread political turbulence; a published and distributable Parteibuch was hardly likely.22 The anecdote was most likely fabricated retrospectively in the early 1950s to shore up the brothers' Communist loyalty in face of stern Party scrutiny, though Heartfield's early allegiance to the KPD remains unassailable. His subsequent involvement with Berlin Dada, whose art offered a tactical riposte to the traumatic war and the failed revolution of 1918-19, was an anti-bourgeois, pro-revolutionary protest that wielded photomontage as a critical weapon, to portray the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic, as a disorderly verbal-visual cacophony (fig. 6). It is in this context that Monteur Dada (as Heartfield was called) took to wearing his blue overalls (a Monteuranzug in German) in alliance with the industrial laborer. While the radical proclivities of his fellow Dadaists, including George Grosz, waned in the mid-1920s, Heartfield remained a dedicated agitator for the Communist cause, designing election posters, book jackets, and beginning in 1929, satirical photomontages for the AIZ.

The Politics of Mass Circulation: John Heartfield and the AIZ

In his 1929 self-portrait, Heartfield's arresting gaze out at the viewer, away from his activity of bloodless violence, declares its self-conscious performativity. In the instant it was captured, Heartfield's look acknowledged the camera that froze it for posterity, his eyes directly confronting the lens. In its conception, however, the gaze was intended for the viewers beyond the camera, challenging an imaginary audience to witness an execution that the photographic moment can only foresee. This declarative look insists upon a moment of caesura, a pause separating the act of summoning and the act of construction (or destruction), and indicating to us that the photomontage is equally about an alliance with the viewer in which we are made complicit, as captive to Heartfield's handiwork as Zörgiebel. Heartfield is not merely aware of his audience, but deliberately enjoins it, sparking a preternatural continuity between this static photographic likeness and the viewer. We are momentarily sutured as accomplices to this violent act, his penetrating look, in startling contrast to Zörgiebel's lifeless features, demanding that we respond.

This visual summoning is a metaphor for Heartfield's subsequent project for the AIZ, a working relationship that was to endure nine years, survive forced exile, and generate at least 237 photomontages.23 Like the self-portrait, Heartfield's photomontages labored to stimulate political consciousness through aggressive visual means; their aim was to seize the passing gaze in a visual economy saturated by the photograph, hailing viewers into place while transforming us into critical subjects enlightened by a Communist perspective. The ultimate goal was to create a community of revolutionary-minded citizens who would actively contribute to radical social change. The beholder of the photomontage completes the work, an action that is, as I argue, a cognitive operation woven into the conception of Heartfield's project.

Heartfield's viewership would largely have invested in the position he advanced. The AIZ was an overtly political alternative to the illustrated magazines flooding the German market in the mid-1920s. Aligned with, but not an organ of, the German Communist Party, the AIZ was subordinate instead to the Communist International in Moscow, or Comintern. Based on the notion that, as its publisher Willi Münzenberg later phrased it, "an illustrated magazine is more entertaining than a lead article in a political daily," the AIZ boasted a weekly print run of 500,000 by 1931, according to its own estimates.24 It was one of the most popular illustrated magazines in circulation, though its distribution was well behind that of the left-of-center Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ), whose readership extended into the millions.25 Geared toward a broad-based left-wing readership, the AIZ had as its purpose to propagate a Communist point of view to non-Party members and the so-called homeless Left by capitalizing upon the potential of modern mass media to generate a heterotopic alternative space. Its brilliance lay in its ability to speak to the broad spectrum of Lefts during the Weimar Republic, many of which felt disenfranchised by both the radical KPD and the more moderate Socialist Party (Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD). For instance, both Tucholsky and the artist Käthe Kollwitz contributed regularly, disagreeing with the intransigent stance of the KPD but nevertheless supporting radical left-wing politics on philosophical grounds.

The diverse readership of the AIZ can be inferred from photographic materials. An amateur photograph, circa 1930, captures three young women, their hair stylishly bobbed in the Bubikopfschnitt, sitting on the ledge of the Bauhaus canteen terrace, drinking in the weak sunlight (fig. 10). One of them reads the AIZ. This snapshot of Bauhaus life provides markers of a leisured, educated, modern, urban, leftist Weimar Republic. Contrast this with the cultural codes propagated by a kaleidoscopic photomontage published in the pages of the AIZ itself in October 1931 (fig. 11). Cows and Lederhosen in the upper left inform us that the southern agrarian sector reads the AIZ; a barefoot boy in the upper right, his pale naked feet vulnerable against the cobblestones, lets us know that impoverished urban working-class people read the AIZ; men in stereotypically proletarian caps with pipes tell us that the skilled worker reads the AIZ. Another laborer, his dirty, rough hands resting on a grubby kitchen table, sits nearby, reading the AIZ with a child at his side, the girl incongruously presented in a starched pinafore and hair bow, perhaps a projection of a less taxing future. A dark-complected girl placed prominently in front signifies the AIZ's reach into the Far East. In case the assembly of staged photographs does not make their collectivist, international message abundantly clear, explanatory text in the lower right-hand corner elaborates.


Two very different images, two very different meanings: the latter, a self-consciously constructed image, was designed to signify within the sphere of the paper's circulation, while the former was a serendipitous portrait of an AIZ readership. The medium of montage produces the sensation of an intimately clustered reading community, as opposed to the individualized consumption conveyed in the Bauhaus photograph. Although some people might read alone-the man convalescing in the center of the image, for instance-the busy juxtaposition of photographs insists that atomized readers are nonetheless part of a diverse community whose members know no dividing walls. The communal ethos encouraged by the AIZ derived directly from its basic objective: to reinforce Communist political unity and cohesion by way of an illustrated journal. The AIZ also sponsored book readings, film evenings, lecture series, events for women and children, summer festivals, and sports clubs. Regularly solicited for input, readers were summoned by a "personalized" handwritten script and addressed with the informal "you" (Du).

The AIZ evolved out of an international aid campaign for the famine victims of postrevolutionary Russia, established by Münzenberg in 1921 at V. I. Lenin's behest. Its umbrella organization was the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (IAH), or International Worker's Aid, for which Münzenberg served as general secretary. To support the IAH, Münzenberg published the monthly journal Sowjetrussland im Bild (Soviet Russia in Pictures), which was renamed Sichel und Hammer (Hammer and Sickle) in 1922.26 The Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung emerged out of Sichel und Hammer in 1925, at first appearing monthly, then every fourteen days, and then, in 1926, weekly. The AIZ reached its readership by way of newsstands, local bookstores, and a posse of Kolporteure, the journal's "shock brigade." Such militarist references were used in the AIZ literature itself, as these troops not only distributed the paper but also functioned as the offensive front line, as agitators and discussants in the streets and on doorsteps.27 Although many newspapers were sold by street hawkers during the Weimar Republic, those who sold the AIZ took on special significance. These Kolporteure were an integral part of the politicized AIZ community, often photographed within its pages; they received a complimentary propaganda pamphlet, Der AIZ Kolporteur, weekly, as well as prizes for AIZ sales, ranging from books to trips to the Soviet Union.28 Just as the Kolporteure circumvented the difficulty of selling the AIZ from the numerous newspaper kiosks owned by Alfred Hugenberg's right-wing media cartel, readers themselves were recruited for distribution and encouraged to pass the journal along-to leave it on park benches, buses, in cafés, for the neighbor, for the milkman-thereby expanding the leftist community and liberally circulating its revolutionary message in the public sphere (fig. 12).29 The journal was thus a political vehicle, wielded strategically and cultivating the invested intersubjectivity distilled in Heartfield's self-portrait.

Bloody May 1929

The readers of the AIZ would have delighted in Heartfield's staged fantasy of beheading Police Chief Zörgiebel. Zörgiebel, a Social Democrat, was the figure held accountable for the unprecedented police violence against the Communist demonstrators on May Day 1929, soon dubbed Blutmai, or Bloody May, by the radical Left. Five months earlier, in December 1928, Zörgiebel had prohibited all outdoor meetings and demonstrations in order to crack down on the increasing number of violent street clashes between and among Communists, Socialists, and National Socialists. He then extended the prohibition to include the May Day marches, a highly symbolic annual tradition, for both Socialists and Communists, that demonstrated working-class pride and solidarity.

The Communists, taking this gesture as (another) provocation by the regime, appeared en masse to peaceably protest Zörgiebel's prohibition, only to be met by specially drafted riot police. Holding rubber truncheons and pistols, they were armed and psychologically primed to disperse the crowds.30 Toward evening, as the legal indoor meetings disbanded, the numbers on the streets grew, and police clashed with crowds throughout the city. Dozens were arrested simply because they were on the wrong side of the street or as they attempted to flee an onslaught of bullets; others were beaten on sidewalks, in police vans, or at station-houses; still others were shot because they happened to be on their balconies or on an evening stroll.31 Shocking exposés later revealed unwarranted police violence against disabled war veterans, hapless passersby, and innocent children.

In the following days, the police placed entire districts of working-class Berlin under martial law. They mobilized carbines, personnel carriers, and armored cars, at times directing their fire at house fronts, to breach the barricades repeatedly constructed to hinder their progress. The police troops also embarked on large-scale search-and-arrest missions, covering entire streets of apartment blocks. Over thirty civilians were killed, more than half of them innocent bystanders.32 Further casualties included two hundred wounded, more than twelve hundred arrested, and forty-four imprisoned. Accounts of police excesses, in part propagated by the KPD itself, provoked mass demonstrations in Berlin and other Communist centers throughout Germany.

May Day 1929 represented an escalation of conflict between the KPD and the coalition government (comprised of the SPD, the Catholic Zentrum Party, the Deutsche Demokratische Partei [DDP], and the Deutsche Volkspartei [DVP]), which had existed in various forms since the inception of the Weimar Republic in 1918. The KPD, as a mass-based radical workers' party that espoused a forcible revolution of the capitalist system, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, viewed with suspicion by government officials and employers, some of whom had wanted the KPD and its press banned since the Party's beginning.33 Tremendous anxiety about the prospect of a working-class uprising, particularly in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1918, pervaded the early Weimar Republic. As the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union, the KPD emerged on the German stage during the most revolutionary period in Europe since 1848, one marked by the Bolshevik Revolution, world war, uprisings, mutinies, mass strikes, demonstrations, and short-lived workers' and soldiers' councils.34 The Weimar government was bound by a common hostility to Communism and working-class radicalism, which, particularly during the early years of the Republic, included strikes-often violent-passive resistance, refusal to work, and petty thievery. Various levels of state kept a close watch on the KPD and produced extremely detailed reports.35 For the Communists, the Weimar Republic represented a security state strongly allied with the police, army, business, and industry, all of which the KPD saw as its (often brutal) oppressors. By the same token, Communist activists emphasized armed confrontation and a masculinist ethos and "paraded their 'roughness' as a badge of pride, a quality that marked them off from other social classes and political groups."36 Certainly, exaggeration, escalation, and inflated language characterized the rhetoric of both the KPD and the SPD, particularly in the weeks preceding May Day 1929.37

Blutmaiproved to be a turning point for both German working-class consciousness and the KPD, further polarizing the political landscape of the late Weimar Republic.38 The events appeared only to confirm the theory of "social fascism" promoted by Stalin and the Communist International. This theory held that the Socialists were increasingly subject to fascist politics, though "fascism" included anything more moderate than radical Communism-a Communism turned even more radical after the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in the summer of 1928.39 The Sixth Congress declared a new historical period in postwar social development. At the core of this declaration was the observation that postwar world capitalism had entered a "Third Period," which was riddled with political instability and economic crises. (The first period was marked by postwar revolutionary activity; the second was the relative capitalist stabilization of the mid-1920s.) Increased class conflict would result, thus opening the possibility for proletarian revolution. Standing in the way of the revolutionary proletariat, according to this logic, were the reformist Socialists who, in Germany at least, formed governing coalitions with more conservative parties, aligning themselves with the forces of order and tradition rather than advancing radical progress for the laboring class.

If the Communists were to transform the crisis into a revolutionary situation, they believed they must not only fight their primary enemy, the "social fascists" (the Nazis were considered only a secondary obstacle to the far Left), but also politicize the masses on behalf of the radical party of the working class. One aspect of this campaign was a concerted effort to expose the corruption of the governing SPD. In the streets, the emblem of state power was the police. The KPD mounted intensified agitation and propaganda in the post-1928 period in a campaign deliberately conceived for the streets, the tenement courtyards, and the public squares, sites where the Communist Party believed ordinary people were best politicized.40 This was a "politics on the ground," to invoke historian Eric Weitz's phrase, made all the more tenable by rising unemployment and the accompanying increase of a workless constituency lingering on the streets.41 Although the Communist Party of the Soviet Union provided an ideological rudder and authoritarian framework for the KPD, Weitz emphasizes that the German party's evolution was deeply rooted in and indelibly formed by the Weimar Republic's "vibrant and highly contested" public spheres, animated by the class, gender, economic, and social politics specific to Germany. The KPD "was never simply the creature of its own founders and leaders or, later, of the Soviet Union."42

Enter John Heartfield, scissors in one hand, scalp of Zörgiebel in the other, on the page 17 of a mass-circulation illustrated magazine answerable to the Comintern. Although the KPD press was repeatedly banned during the Weimar Republic, the AIZ was never subject to that same censorship.43 Heartfield's photomontage not only gives the social fascist a face but also thematizes the fight against him; Zörgiebel the victimizer becomes the victim. In the form of popular politics, the righteous photomonteur John Heartfield, fierce gaze burning, brow scrunched in concentrated fury, scissors in hand, dispenses justice on behalf of the radical Left, avenging those who are dead, injured, imprisoned, or politically dispossessed because of SPD politics, in a payoff for Bloody May 1929. The popular iconography of the French Revolution-the guillotine as the people's avenger-is transmuted into the everyday weapon of the political montage artist. Like much Communist propaganda, Heartfield's image was a "politics on the ground," indicative of a brand of activism designed to circulate on the streets and to speak to ordinary citizens.

Heartfield's protest was not merely performative, safely relegated to paper, scissors, and glue and furtively sequestered in the inside pages of a leftist magazine, but regularly occurred on the front lines. In the days following the May Day riots, hetook it upon himself to witness the events in the barricaded sections; "I needed it for my work," he would stutter in explanation afterward, since he was, to quote his colleague Max Gebhard, "unable to speak out of agitation."44 A short time later, Heartfield's activism prompted a bloody pummeling, dealt him by a bellicose "Teuton the size of a tree."45 The tree-sized German, according to the tale, applauded while watching newsreels of the violent excesses of the Zörgiebel police during a showing of the Wochenschau at the Ufa-Palast. Heartfield sprang up "as if he had been bitten by a tarantula," as his colleague would later word it, and hissed at the antagonist, "You pig! You pig! You pig!" (Sie Schwein! Sie Schwein! Sie Schwein!). Confronted at the end of the show, Heartfield refused to take back his insults, instead redoubling his efforts, only to be beaten bloody on the sidewalk until rescued by passersby.

Years later, a few weeks into the Nazi regime, Heartfield's proclivity for confrontation ended fortunately in retreat rather than what could have become a dangerous dispute. One evening, Heartfield had joined a group outside a café after a meeting with other artists of the Communist Bund Revolutionäre Künstler when a Nazi Schutzpolizist, or "Schupo," advanced on the group and ordered them to disperse.46 "Gehen Sie auseinander!" he is said to have shouted. Heartfield, head down, stormed forward and said: "You! Listen! You have a Tschako on your head, and I only have a cap! But underneath my cap is more good sense than under your helmet!" Heartfield's response provoked such a bewildered shock in the patrolling officer that he simply turned on his heel and hurried off without another word.

By 1928 Heartfield had already posed as an arbiter of justice. A photograph preserves for us Heartfield Monteur cloaked in a judge's robe and cap, brow characteristically furrowed, the hand that usually held scissors now holding unbalanced scales (fig. 13). Although this is a prankish image-the artist playing dress-up for a Malik book catalogue-it extends beyond mere performance, staging the artist's self-perception as an executor of justice for a humanist cause, a role to which Heartfield and his critics regularly appealed. To invoke and twist a saying that gained currency during the Nazi era, the Dichter und Denker has become Richter und Henker-the poet and thinker transformed into judge and executioner, here, on behalf of the Communist Left.


Performing Violence

These instances of protest and posturing are innocuous enough-or at least they turned out to be-but why does John Heartfield's self-portrait, which circulated to an audience of about 350,000 in 1929, dramatize overt violence? Beginning with the incisive attack on Zörgiebel's neck, Heartfield's scissors, in the name of public political retribution and artistic caricature, disfigured male bodies that stood for power, from Hitler to Göring and Goebbels. The artist's moral impetus is a kind of everyman's street righteousness that rose out of interparty conflict and was in dialogue with escalating political street violence. As will become evident, Heartfield's self-representation performs an anxiety of powerlessness, here on behalf of the radical Left.

It is no mere coincidence that Heartfield produced his self-portrait during a time when the German Communist Party, hitherto reluctant to embrace violence, changed course in the face of militant street fighting. Heartfield's self-portrait responds to real changes in a highly fraught political culture only to reinforce them in semiotically and thematically violent terms. As Weitz observes:

The KPD leadership, hesitant to advocate the open use of violence after a bloody confrontation in Berlin on May Day 1929, soon switched course. The radicalism of the Third Period strategy, the open violence exercised by the police and increasingly by the fascists, the enticing prospects of accelerating militancy in the streets, and the determination of the party rank and file to protect themselves and their neighborhoods against the incursions of the SA and the police all served to move the party toward growing acceptance and, occasionally, outright advocacy, of street violence.47

What followed, from 1929 until the advent of National Socialism on January 30, 1933, was a period of militant political struggle and violent conflict in the streets, particularly in the working-class districts of Berlin. Although the KPD would regularly issue and retract its support of street violence throughout these years, the mood of its constituency, over which the Party had little control, was geared toward battle. Public urban space became an arena of popular politics, galvanized by mass unemployment brought on largely as a result of rationalization and an escalating economic crisis. The traditional location of political agitation-the factory-was supplanted by the public sphere-the streets, the taverns. These were key sites where newspapers, magazines, and political pamphlets circulated, the AIZ prominently among them. Heartfield's belligerent photomontages circulated in the midst of this fray.

The streets became the locus of a particularly physical brand of conflict that one historian has evocatively labeled Zusammenstoss violence, a violence of clashes and bodily collisions.48 This violence consisted, as Eve Rosenhaft explains, "of brawls between members of opposing parties, arising sometimes out of spontaneous confrontations and sometimes out of attempts of one party to disrupt the meetings or demonstrations of another."49 While such clashes were common occurrences throughout the period of the Weimar Republic, intensifying during elections, they increasingly determined the tenor of the public space in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and presented a critical problem for the police. By the end of 1929, Rosenhaft points out, "the Reich Interior Minister issued a memorandum in which he called attention to the threat to public order posed by the continuing violence and anti-republican agitation."50 A 1930 AIZ article that documented "new Nazi murder weapons" featured a description and photograph of a harmless-looking insignia ring that discharged two sharp knives when released by a small spring.51 In 1931, the Comintern reissued a handbook, revised for German distribution, that promoted knives, oil-soaked rags, axes, bricks, and boiling water, in addition to brass knuckles, hand grenades, and revolvers, as important weapons in the revolutionary struggle-in short, everyday materials repurposed for face-to-face combat in an urban space.52

Communist writers also conceived of the camera, with all of its attendant metaphors of shooting, making captive, and penetration, as a weapon in the class struggle, while photographers were the technical help-troops (technische Hilfstruppe), as Münzenberg phrased it in 1930.53 Armed with cameras, revolutionary workers could document police injustices and violence on the streets and public squares, and in turn agitate for the Communist cause. Police treated the camera as a weapon to be harnessed: photographic equipment and light-sensitive plates were regularly impounded, or destroyed by their truncheons. Already in March of 1929, the Münzenberg journal Der Arbeiter Fotograf (The Worker Photographer) published the legal rights of photographers so that photographic troops were both photographically and legally armed. The rights were reprinted and recirculated after the events of May 1929.54 The license was sweeping: according to paragraph 20 of the German law, everything that occurred on public paths, streets, or parks could be legally photographed. The camera, then, became a legal witness and a potent political weapon.

The Poetics and Politics of Rupture

It is within this conception of everyday objects as revolutionary artillery, from bricks and boiling water to cameras, that John Heartfield's performative beheading operates. Scissors in hand, Heartfield wields the instrument of his art, as well as his weapon. The preproduction mock-up of the montage allows us to revel in the savageness of cutting-the act of making itself-that is muted, though not absent, in the AIZ reproduction. We can imagine the vengeful pleasure of decapitating a loathed enemy, the gratification of using scissors to slice through a photographic likeness, the satisfying grind of the blades as they sever the imaged body on thick photographic paper, sundering head from shoulders, arms from torso. The raw edges of Zörgiebel's vulnerable pate evoke a visceral response, summoning an open or scarring wound sooner than a healed seam, with the white of the paper revealing itself from beneath the photographic image like slit flesh. The eye registers the imperfections of cutting, the hesitations of the scissors, underneath his chin, for example, as they separated Zörgiebel's head from the cozy bourgeois interior with which it was originally fused.

Zörgiebel could not have anticipated the violence that was to be enacted on a routine publicity shot taken in his home: the police chief admiring a carefully arranged bouquet of flowers, and further domesticated by the presence of his wife (with sequins on her elbows, no less) and typical props of bourgeois comfort-a gramophone, a hand-stitched tablecloth, a dark striped sofa emanating sturdy security (fig. 14). Heartfield's intrusion metaphorically violates Zörgiebel's private space-a space made public via a public-relations photograph, of course-with a violence that answers, at least symbolically, the penetration by police bullets of working-class housefronts. 

If the photograph operates as an instantaneous abduction of the object from the living world into a static space-time-a form of death, proposes Christian Metz, or like an insect embalmed in amber, writes André Bazin-then photomontage, in its violent excision of photographic elements with a sharp blade, would appear to enact a second death and a further punishment.55 Through its immediate recontextualization, however, photomontage resurrects the inert fragment as an active part of a new semiotic chain, albeit haunted by spatiotemporal discontinuity and never quite integrated convincingly into a unified visual matrix. The often subtle tension between optical petrification and semiotic vitality lends photomontage its cognitive dissonance, one that Heartfield uses to perturb his montages with meanings ranging from human inauthenticity to uncanny presentiment.

The sense of disruption in the self-portrait is further heightened by the mechanics of its own construction-both temporally, since the portrait of Heartfield and the snapshot of Zörgiebel were captured at different moments, and spatially, for Zörgiebel is visibly pasted on top of the photograph of Heartfield, save for the crown of his flat skull, which is trapped beneath Heartfield's cut-out fingers, much as a paper clip confines its contents. The artist took few pains to hide the construction of this image, virtually beckoning the viewer to study the ruptured edge of Zörgiebel's head or the slice of white paper that abruptly terminates Heartfield's coat jacket and joins with Zörgiebel's removed-then-replaced shoulder. It's a severe interruption, this space, a disturbing but strangely seductive, speechless passage that adds little in the way of signification, though it further articulates the process of construction.

This visible process of making foregrounds violence, not simply because Heartfield's act of beheading literally does so, but also because the semantics of rips, fissures, gaps, hastily cut-and-patched passages convey a rhetoric of savagery, and issue a disturbing psychic charge. The photomontage vehemently asserts its rupture; the scissors declare their ability to maim. This self-portrait exults in the materiality of its production-this is cut and paste. The picture has been manufactured, one piece at a time, by human hands intervening in the impersonality of the photographic reproduction and mass circulation upon which the montage relies.

Exploiting photography's status as an empty sign, Heartfield preys upon those awkward and unfortunate moments of the snapshot and recontextualizes the police chief's downcast eyes to signify death. With Zörgiebel's eyes thus shut, his head recoded as a lifeless skull, the petrified portrait of the "social fascist" contrasts with the Monteur's blazing vigor and becomes an emblem of exacted revenge, representing the localized violence of Bloody May while it universalizes the brutality of the Socialist police against the radical political factions (the Nazis loathed Zörgiebel for similar reasons). Zörgiebel's head thus oscillates between photographic representation and symbol, balancing the subjectivity and uniqueness of individual physiognomy with a sign of communism's mortal enemy.

Heartfield's beheading is of course a fantasy-the fantasy of the disenfranchised, a fantasy about power, a fantasy regarding the agency of the artist. Between the bloodshed of Blutmai and the appearance of Heartfield's advertisement in the AIZ, the Communist Party paper Die Rote Fahne was banned not once, but twice, per order of Police Chief Zörgiebel for "the protection of the Republic."56 The Communist paramilitary organization Rote Frontkämpferbund (RFB) was also prohibited, while the Nazi equivalent-the Sturmabteilung (SA)-and the Socialist equivalent-Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold-remained legal. These are examples of the Weimar's asymmetrical justice system, which tended to punish the radical Left while often turning a blind eye to infractions of the radical Right. The RFB continued to function illegally, however, purportedly stockpiling weapons for a potential armed uprising.57 In 1929, the German Communist Party was thus a party under siege, and not merely in its own estimation. Its response was to adopt and mobilize the indignant, militant tone peculiar to those under threat, the Party's imagery and language reflecting and reinforcing a sense of embattlement among its constituents.58

Heartfield's fantasy was, nevertheless, a publicized fantasy (available for 20 pfennigat all newspaper stands) that intervened, albeit four months later, in a highly sensationalized event. And it is within this political climate that John Heartfield's 1929 self-portrait would have resonated. Using scissors as his weapon, John Heartfield resolutely combats police truncheons-scissor violence against the so-called Gummiknüppelherrschaft, the billy club reign, of the late Weimar Republic. The viewer summoned by this image is incensed by the street violence, is a witness to its inequities, and is galvanized by its vengeance, delighting in Heartfield's violent Zusammenstoss. He or she is, I imagine, much like the witnesses we see in a photograph of the May Day riots, published on the front page of the AIZ in the first week of May (fig. 15). Here, two policemen and a stout man with shiny boots and a bowler hat arrest an unarmed protester, the omnipresent billy club hovering menacingly above his unprotected head. These passersby look on helplessly, open-mouthed and grim-faced, their motionlessness akin to a film still, in frozen contrast to the busy tangle of police arms and rubber truncheons. For a moment, then, Heartfield's self-portrait provides resolution, satisfaction, retribution, pleasure.


On page 17 of AIZ, no. 37 (1929), we are offered only assertions of power rather than testimonies to the emasculated force the Communist Party was in danger of becoming during this moment of the fragile Weimar Republic. In the face of a regularly censored press, a ban on public assembly, escalating unemployment for the KPD's constituents, and police aggression, the journal page asserts, "Use photography as weapon!" not once but twice, framing the portrait of Heartfield's artistic violence in the upper left. Our eyes register three sizable clenched fists raised by three robust workers in a row, urging the viewer to vote for the KPD. An outsized grasping open hand confronts us energetically, five times, each gesture punctuated by the number 5, like the period completing the exclamation point. This was Heartfield's popular 1928 election poster The hand has five fingers! Thus we are presented with three fists, five hands, and a ninth pair decapitating a Social Democratic police chief. Then, MURDER. CHINA'S EXECUTIONER. CANONS AGAINST WAR. These are the bellicose words that penetrate the glancing eye, frame the exhibition of Heartfield's work, and assert Communist Party power.

The self-portrait in the context of page 17 is more about amplifying Communist vigor than about promoting John Heartfield's photomontages in any historically immediate way. The Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung had, in fact, ended four weeks earlier on August 15, 1929. Any AIZ reader wanting to view these forceful works would have been disappointed in the second week of September. The point of page 17, it appears, was not to publicize the show per se, but to propagate its ideological message. Moreover, the exhibition photographs published in the AIZ look remarkably similar to the photographs taken of the exhibit of Heartfield works at the groundbreaking Film und Foto (FIFO) show, which was on view for three weeks in Stuttgart from May 18 to June 7, 1929 (fig. 16).59 Sponsored by the German Werkbund, FIFO was a showcase of modern photography, from avant-garde innovation to journalistic documentation, with works from sources and producers as diverse as Atget, Florence Henri, the Bauhaus, Soviet photographers, and the New York Times. Importantly, an entire room was dedicated to John Heartfield's works, ranging from book jackets to political posters, signaling Heartfield's prominence and the valuation of his work in avant-garde circles. Although the AIZ page implies that what we are looking at are Heartfield's works exhibited in August in Berlin, they are in fact exhibition photographs of FIFO in May. Since Heartfield's name did not appear independently in the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung catalogue (he exhibited under the auspices of the leftist Novembergruppe), his share of the exhibited works was probably modest-certainly not as substantial as the FIFO photographs document. In other words, the entire montage of page 17 was an artificial construction intended primarily to assert Communist might. The self-portrait brings a specifically political meaning to an assemblage of heterogeneous pictures, synchronic cross-sections of Heartfield's life and work in 1929. It represents, through the syntax of juxtaposition, a series of past events that is calculated to profess Communist strength in the present.


John Heartfield and the Communist Party

Looking at page 17 in AIZ, no. 37, one might assume that Heartfield's relation to the Communist Party was unproblematic. His dedication seems unassailable, and that, I suspect, is the whole point. By 1929, after all, his contributions to the KPD propaganda effort were myriad, including several front-page designs for Die Rote Fahne and its monthly illustrated supplement, Der Rote Stern, multiple contributions to the KPD satirical paper Der Knüppel, and the wildly successful election poster The hand has five fingers! of 1928 (fig. 17). The poster's compelling design conflated the ballot number of the Communist Party (it was 5) with a forward-thrusting open hand, its five fingers forcefully spread, thereby unifying in a single sign the laboring hand with the radical labor party.60 The message could be grasped in a split-second glance, its impact indelible. On page 17, the poster's fivefold replication-three larger and two smaller versions-reasserts that meaning. Heartfield's election poster spawned a popular street greeting in Bavaria-passersby thrust their hands out at each other in salutation.61 The advertising journal Seidel's Reklame singled out Heartfield's poster design as the most successful of the entire election campaign, while the poster took pride of place in the Bauhaus recreation room in 1928.62


Not only Heartfield's KPD propaganda posters but also his Malik Verlag book jackets constituted the basis for his extraordinary showing at FIFO. That Heartfield was assigned his very own room, with no fewer than 110 frames of newspaper and magazine pages, book covers, and posters and four display cases, signals his mainstream acclaim, even before he produced the AIZ work that would make him a household name among the Left. As Tucholsky famously stated, "If I weren't Peter Panther, I'd like to be a dust jacket at the Malik publishing company. That John Heartfield is really a small wonder of the world. All the things that come into his head! What magical things he does! I've had one of his photomontages framed, and one wants to keep nearly all of them."63 By the time Heartfield cut-and-pasted his self-portrait in the late summer of 1929, his successes were many, ranging from popular appeal to mainstream approval. The majority of this work was produced to further the Communist cause.

Although most written chronicles hail Heartfield as the model Party artist, verbal portraits culled from interviews conjure a man who was more a Gefühlskommunist, or a radical left-wing humanist driven by his deep sense of injustice, than a dogmatic devotee of the party of the working class. Such alternative narratives, and certain vexing historical clues, suggest that Heartfield's relationship to the Communist Party was more complex than postwar accounts assert. With the 1929 self-portrait as a starting point, I aim to complicate previous portraits of Heartfield, interrogating the assumption that his relation to the KPD was untroubled. I mean not to depoliticize John Heartfield, but rather to repoliticize him, positioning the artist in a more critical dialogue with the KPD in the Stalinizing Third Period. The period 1929-39 the years of Heartfield's AIZ collaboration, represents the most brutal decade of Stalinism. The era from the First Five-Year Plan to the Great Purges included forcible collectivization, breakneck construction and industrialization under often-inhumane labor conditions, large-scale Party cleansing, and the incarceration and execution of tens of millions in the gulags-a grim context that brings the disturbing question of Heartfield's conformity to the fore. Heartfield's eight-month visit to the Soviet Union, from April 1931 until the spring of 1932, only thickens the plot-one discussed in its context in chapter 3.

Why he chose not to leave the KPD during the mounting dogmatism of 1928, as his friend George Grosz did, is an important question, and it has to do, I think, with his seemingly unshakeable commitment to the idea of communism, beyond its particular bureaucratic manifestations, as well as the identity structures that it provided. Communism, as Raymond Aron and François Furet have observed, involved a psychological investment akin to a religious faith. Passionate evangelists proselytized others to the cause, an opiate for many a mind. To its acolytes, Communism represented an inevitable coming of historical progress in which the proletariat was the savior, a representative of humanity, and the "trustee of universal values," in Aron's words, while the bourgeoisie symbolized decadent modern society and the forces of oppression, stupidity, and small-mindedness.64 Class war represented the coming of a new, just world, the great utopia. As a synthesis of all the principal themes of progressive thought, Marxist belief became a motivating force, a doctrine giving both history and the future a meaning, and justifying the means to the honorable end.65

The fulcrum upon which my speculations hinge is the 1928 Wittorf Affair, a significant and complicated web of events and affiliations that linked Heartfield with a dissenting Party faction during a tremendously fraught episode of KPD cleansing and Stalinization.66 Briefly told, the KPD chairman, Ernst Thälmann, was aware that John Wittorf, the secretary of the Hamburg KPD, had embezzled Party funds, but in deference to the upcoming elections, he maintained silence. Thälmann's cover-up was discovered and he was suspended from office. Stalin, however, directly intervened and reinstituted his protégé Thälmann a few months later. The Wittorf Affair, as the scandal was called, became a catalyst for Party cleansing, to "liquidate all fractional groupings," as formulated by the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI).67 The ultraleft faction of the KPD, to which Heartfield had connections, became its focus.68 His links to the Versöhnlergruppe, as the faction was named, would complicate his entry into the German Democratic Republic (GDR) nearly twenty-five years later. His fear of being further stigmatized possibly explains Heartfield's silence about Stalinism.69

During the Third Period, the unity and purity of the Party became paramount. Those who disagreed with the Party's radical shift or who were even remotely affiliated with known dissenters could be branded as suspect. Such was the fate of John Heartfield, who through his work for the KPD Department of Agitation and Propaganda became associated with Hugo Eberlein and the brilliant but controversial Münzenberg, both of whom belonged to the faction that wanted to oust Ernst Thälmann from the Party chairmanship.70 Münzenberg presided over an extraordinarily powerful and influential pro-Communist media conglomerate, often called the "Münzenberg Konzern," the modest counterpart to the powerful right-wing "Hugenberg Konzern." In a comment evocative of the era's political caprice, Heartfield's third wife, Gertrud, later observed: "One day Heartfield woke up to find himself a Versöhnler," the designation thus assigning Heartfield a conciliatory or placatory role vis-à-vis the Communist Party (versöhnen means "to placate or appease").71

After the 1928 Wittorf Affair, the presence of Heartfield photomontages dwindled in the KPD organ Die Rote Fahne; instead, his efforts were increasingly channeled toward the Münzenberg press-the Neuer Deutscher Verlag (NDV)-for which he began manufacturing montages in 1927. This gradual move toward the Münzenberg media could be interpreted as Heartfield's attempt to distance himself from the KPD while still remaining a loyal agitator for the revolutionary cause. No contracts or payment records exist to explain away Heartfield's shift in financial terms, nor can his subsequent exile in 1933 be the key, since Die Rote Fahne also relocated to Prague. In 1929, the AIZ expanded from sixteen to twenty pages and, hence, expanded its production apparatus as well.72 Perhaps Heartfield's regular work for the journal in the same year merely coincided with this expansion. Yet given the charged and delicate circumstances in the wake of the Wittorf Affair, a political motive is conceivable. Odd coincidences such as these, and elliptical statements such as "Am Party-loyal, not Thälmann-loyal" (Bin sehr parteifromm, nicht Thälmannfromm), penned in a 1927 letter to George Grosz, intimate a degree of ambivalence toward the direction the KPD had taken-in the case of the letter, even before the Wittorf Affair.73

Münzenberg's Neuer Deutscher Verlag was, as noted earlier, Communist in its orientation but not directly affiliated with the KPD; it was answerable instead to the Comintern in Moscow-a distinction that Münzenberg always emphasized.74 In addition to ensuring the journal's insistently international rather than national orientation, this independence from the KPD provided the AIZ with a significant measure of organizational liberty and bureaucratic independence-a freedom that the KPD organ Die Rote Fahne and its monthly illustrated supplement, Der Rote Stern, did not enjoy.75 In contrast to Die Rote Fahne, the AIZ self-consciously oriented itself toward a mass leftist audience, and was designed to circulate among "non-party members, the agrarian sector, and the petit-bourgeois."76 Decisively a part of the Illustriertenkultur, or mass culture of illustrated magazines (to which I turn in the following chapter), the AIZ emphasized easy reading and looking, while Die Rote Fahne continued to publish its clogged, politically-orthodox prose in the relatively difficult-to-read Fraktur.

Münzenberg similarly made certain to establish the NDV's independence from the KPD press, the Internationaler Arbeiter Verlag (IAV).77 The NDV-IAV agreement made clear that the AIZ was a Communist paper that spread the word more effectively to broad, non-Communist masses than the KPD press and should be respected as such. It also insisted on the distinction between KPD financial accounts and NDV accounts-their coffers were not to be mixed or exchanged in any spirit of communist communality.78 Neither press was to encroach on the business prospects of the other; thus all promotional activities of one, such as book readings, were to be confirmed by the other. To maintain a degree of unity, however (and this is where boundaries blurred), not only did each press agree to promote the new releases of the other, but the NDV was required to publish a significant part of its printed materials on the Party presses.79

Münzenberg's massive media empire, the growth of which was fueled by its independence, must have been extraordinarily appealing to the Comintern in the mid-1920s and early 1930s. But with increasing Stalinization, the conglomerate's liabilities must have begun to outweigh its benefits. By 1936, at the time of Münzenberg's exile in Paris (where he had established Editions du Carrefour), his differences with the Comintern began to cause him appreciable trouble. By 1939 he was excommunicated from the Communist Party. In June 1940 Münzenberg was found dead in a French forest; he had been killed allegedly while attempting to escape from the Chambaran Concentration Camp, though some surmise he was assassinated by Stalin's henchmen. Arthur Koestler, one of Münzenberg's collaborators in Paris, harbored no doubts: "Willy's spectacular successes, his unorthodoxy and ill-disguised contempt for sycophancy and hairsplitting, earned him the heartfelt hostility of the Party bureaucracy. The German bosses in particular-Ulbricht, Pieck, Eisler, and Co.- . . . were permanently plotting his downfall."80

To pin down the position of the AIZ vis-à-vis the Comintern is difficult, and opinions differ. The long-held "top down," totalitarian model, supported by much hard evidence, asserts that Stalin exercised total control over the Comintern's activities (and, hence, Münzenberg) and little deviation was possible. More recently, however, "bottom up" theories have questioned the model of a monolithic, omnipotent institution, and argued that although Stalin's word on general strategy was decisive, he was heavily engaged elsewhere, turned up unexpectedly, and could hardly control Comintern activities in detail.81 "The result," writes Kevin McDermott, "was a kind of vacuum at the heart of the Comintern, which encouraged caution, confusion and indecision, but which also gave the leadership a certain leeway in interpreting directives from above."82 Securing solid proof of AIZ circumvention in the Comintern line is difficult; such action, speech, and documentation occurs in oblique, coded, and ambivalent form. AIZ politics may have shifted and adjusted with changes in Party line, subtly distancing itself here and adhering there, throwing out the occasional decoy to keep suspicion at bay. As Theo Pinkus, a former AIZ Kolporteur noted, newspapers would alter or even sabotage Party perspectives when they disagreed with them.83 Münzenberg, for his part, officially promoted the position of Party neutrality when he announced at a 1927 conference for Communist photographers: "We must clearly emphasize again, that our work must be free from Party politics. Everyone who wishes to join us is welcome."84 That this statement preceded widespread Third Period conformity may undermine or underscore Münzenberg's long-term position of independence; such is the ambiguous nature of historical interpretation of this moment, leaving more questions than answers.

In a January 1973 special issue focusing on the AIZ, the editors of the then-West German Ästhetik und Kommunikation argued that the Münzenberg journal was philosophically Communist but not in ideological lockstep with the latest position of the Central Committee; the AIZ did not regularly follow the social-fascist line.85 Certainly, Heartfield's work deviated in crucial moments, as chapter 3 reveals, and subtly offers a countermodel to the dominant Socialist subject, as chapters 4 and 5 suggest. However, while the AIZ might have been independent from the organizational apparatus of the KPD in word, in practice the AIZ editors, as Eckhard Siepmann points out, consisted of KPD members.86 Münzenberg himself was very active in the KPD apparatus, as a member both of the Reichstag from 1924 to 1933 and of the KPD Central Committee after 1927. Thus, his insistence on independence occurs in the fraught context of belonging to and participating in the bureaucracy of Germany's Communist Party.

Before Heartfield collaborated with the NDV, however, he was long involved with the Malik Verlag, which cultivated even greater autonomy from the KPD and Comintern, but like the AIZ, consistently promoted a Marxist view for a broad audience in its publications. This orientation imbricated the publisher with the Party in complicated ways, both financial and ideological, but their interactions were riddled with periods of palpable friction.87 The Heartfield-Herzfelde relationship with the KPD was by no means consistently harmonious. As an independent press without direct Party funding or the benefits of the Party distribution network, the Malik Verlag was obliged to survive in the free market, often selling its products through booksellers hostile to its political orientation.88 Heartfield's task was to design dust jackets that would appeal to a broad audience, would encourage booksellers to display the books prominently, and would sell the books. He responded by fusing avant-garde means-photomontage, experimental typography, and innovative composition-with market ends to develop a unique, widely emulated, and highly successful formula for book jacket design. Both Heartfield and Herzfelde were thoroughly aware that advanced aesthetics conflicted with the KPD's ambitions, which promoted traditional, realist "fine" art rather than artistic innovation. Like the Malik Verlag, the AIZ allowed Heartfield greater creative leeway, which the Münzenberg journal prized and ultimately profited from, for Heartfield's satirical photomontages became one of the journal's unique selling points.

I want to suggest that the 1928 Wittorf Affair and its political implications reframes Heartfield's self-portrait yet again. The self-portrait, surrounded by Heartfield's other Communist montages, can be understood not only as an assertion of Communist vitality during a time of embattlement but also as a declaration of Heartfield's Communist allegiances after being stigmatized by the Wittorf Affair. In other words, perhaps this vicious execution of a "social fascist" police chief is a conciliatory gesture authored by a Versöhnler, intended as an appeal in a Comintern journal and a distanciation from the KPD. As Thomas Kurz notes, during this time of Communist Party cleansing, the more frequently the concept of social fascism was invoked, the better.89 In such a context, the assertiveness of cut-and-paste-those insistent signifiers of an authored utterance, the material markers of "I did this"-read as a purposeful declaration of Heartfield's allegiance. Although it is not entirely clear when Heartfield woke up to find himself a Versöhnler-as Krejsa notes, the transformation may very well have gone unremarked by Heartfield at first-the hypothesis that Heartfield's self-portrait asserts his dedication to Communist ideals while subtly distancing him from the bureaucratic apparatus of the KPD is worth considering.90

Heartfield's affiliation with Münzenberg would later become grounds for political suspicion by the postwar Communist Party, a regrettable result of the vagaries of leftist ideology and of Cold War politics. In Heartfield's application for entry into the fledgling German Democratic Republic, he omitted mention of his entire AIZ opus, accentuating instead his work for the Malik Verlag, his posters for the KPD, his film projects, and his theater collaborations, both in Weimar Germany and in London.91 In view of Heartfield's prolific and significant AIZ work, this elision is shocking. Consider these excerpts from the protocol of his hearing before the Zentrale Parteikontrollkommission in November 1950, which would determine the outcome of his request to move to East Germany:

Question: Did you work at the Arbeiter Illustrierte in Prague?

Comrade Heartfield: Yes. That was this protest against Hitler.

Question: Did you work together with Münzenberg?

Comrade Heartfield: Münzenberg was not in Prague. I never worked together with Münzenberg. I was in Agit-Prop and always in opposition to Münzenberg.

Question: The Neuer Deutsche Verlag was Münzenberg's and the other was your brother's?

Comrade Heartfield: Münzenberg was in opposition to us. When he sniffed out what we were doing, Münzenberg did it too. . . . There was the Malik Verlag and the Knüppel Verlag. That was our paper. Babette [Münzenberg's partner] said, that is a satirical paper [Witzblatt], the AEZ [sic].92

If we are to believe his testimony, for Heartfield in 1950, the AIZ was but an antifascist "Witzblatt," its name hardly worth repeating accurately, and Münzenberg an adversary, all affiliations with him denied. As an émigré from the West, and with potential contacts to Western secret service agencies, Heartfield was already suspect. His former associations with Münzenberg only complicated matters. Eventually granted permission to move to the GDR, John Heartfield was admitted neither to the East German Communist Party, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) nor to the Akademie der Künste, and therefore denied official recognition-a grievous fate for a man who had dedicated his life to the Communist cause. Only Stalin's death in 1953 precipitated a change in policy. In 1956, Heartfield was invited to the Akademie der Künste, and his Party membership, considered uninterrupted as of December 12, 1918, was consequently reinstituted.93


With his 1929 self-portrait, John Heartfield established the founding fictions of his artistic identity in the late Weimar Republic and dramatized the socially committed artist who wields everyday matter as a radical Left weapon. Both anticipatory and retrospective, the montage prefigures his motivated political practice on the groundwork of provocative Dadaist performativity. Although the premises of his 1929 self-presentation differ significantly from the spirited self-portraits of his Dada years-Heartfield as anarchic town crier, for example, slick head thrown back in wailing protest, suit and tie signaling the accoutrements of a dandy, accentuated by delicate ring on small clenched finger-the theatrical staging of identity with the camera as witness originates here in 1920 (fig. 18). The viewer is of secondary importance to the 1920 picture's performative bluster, however. Although on public view at the First International Dada Fair and slated for circulation in the magazine Dadaco (never published), the 1920 self-portrait is primarily about the presentational aesthetics of protest; its pictorial ruptures-in this case neatly delineated white fissures-construct a visual frame that anchors Heartfield's torso. These gaps supply structure and compositional solidity rather than issue provocation. The emphasis of the self-portrait is on its means rather than its ends, its tone rather than its target. In 1929, by contrast, Heartfield interpellates his audience with his gaze and his gesture; the semantics of cuts, fissures, and rips, imported from Dada montage, articulate his political vehemence.


Heartfield's activism was differently conceived after 1929, paving the way for a repertoire of grim-faced frontal portraits that announce the seriousness of his enterprise and his resolve. Witness Heartfield in a 1931 portrait, a hint of melancholic concern haunting the vaguely focused eyes beneath the furrowed brow (fig. 19). Taken during Heartfield's trip to the Soviet Union, this photograph later appeared as the frontispiece to Sergei Tret'iakov's 1936 monograph on Heartfield, operating in this context as a representative image of a Communist photomonteur. The touch-ups discernible on the original print seek to heighten the black-white contrast in his face so as to harden contours, solidify physiognomy, and portray the resolve of the revolutionary artist.94


To support my claim that Heartfield's artistic identity shifted by 1929 in keeping with the intensified political culture of the late Weimar Republic and his activist role within it, I point to the contrast between the 1929 self-portrait and an earlier portrait, which also appeared in a mass-circulation journal. The year is 1927, and the economy of the Weimar Republic is relatively stable, as are its politics. We are in the midst of the so-called Golden Twenties, and although economic prosperity is far from universal, mass consumption of entertainment, goods and services, and leisure is steadily on the rise. Therefore, this time, the portrait did have explicit links to the advertising industry, published as it was in Die Gebrauchsgrafik, an upscale journal for the "advertising arts" (fig. 20). The self-portrait headlined an article about John Heartfield written by the journal's editor, H. K. Frenzel, in which numerous examples were reproduced of Heartfield's Malik Verlag book covers, among other samples of his graphic designs.


Hair freshly cut, white collar crisply starched, wearing a coat, tie, and vest: John Heartfield at thirty-six gives a surprisingly fragile and boyish impression. This time, it is not his address to the viewer, but the stiffness of his body and the tenseness of his pose that register the camera's presence-those glinting scissors poised at a perfect forty-five-degree angle so as to parallel the page to be (unconvincingly) cut. His unfocused, slightly vague gaze into the distance echoes the infinitude of the sea behind him, an image chosen to elucidate Upton Sinclair's The Millennium, translated as Nach der Sinflut, after the apocalyptic flood. Heartfield's self-representation functions both as book promotion and as artistic exposé, with the book jacket that Heartfield designed given prominence by the book's tilted angle. Although there are many similarities between this self-portrait and that of 1929-perhaps it was a model for the later self-depiction-notice that the belligerence of 1929 is conspicuously absent, as is the urgency of the viewer's presence; the 1927 portrait relies instead on the tropes of romantic interiority that often accompany the genre of self-portraiture.

In 1929, by contrast, we find John Heartfield in a watershed moment of artistic identity marking the beginning of his work for AIZ, which would lend him mass-media renown far beyond that won by the inventive book jackets he created for the Malik Verlag. In this public self-portrait, albeit sequestered on page 17, Heartfield is eternally captured in an activist moment of politicized violence, enunciating a shift in his identity as artist and citizen and fiercely responding to the contingencies of the political present through a medium of mass consumption. This marks a moment of self-portraiture in the age of its technological reproducibility, at a critical juncture in European politics, when it was simultaneously aware of itself as a staged photographic performance-a construction, a form of play-and as an authentic, deadly earnest propagation of political allegiance and outrage. Soliciting viewer complicity both in its imaginary "as if" and in its serious partisan commitments, the montage initiates the continual relay between illusionism and the real, fantasy and truth, that Heartfield's subsequent AIZ montages would throw into high relief week after week, simultaneously imitating and interrogating the terms of mass-media information distribution. Under the auspices of left-wing truth-telling, however, Heartfield perpetuated some highly potent fictions of his own, and was as guilty of reinforcing mythic structures within the mass media as those he admonished.

Heartfield's shift in artistic subjectivity intersects in significant ways with the identity culture of the Communist Left, a narrative conjunction that Herzfelde and Heartfield reinforce in their post-1950 accounts. The Communist Party, as Weitz notes, was a place for individuals to "forge identities, to have an impact on their world, to improve themselves."95 Communism as an ideology offered Heartfield and his work a sense of stability and orientation, lending his artistic identity and the force of his montages a legitimacy and analytical backbone that were difficult to secure in the volatile social climate of the late Weimar Republic. But the plotline of Heartfield's biography strikingly resembles the narrative thread that Weitz detects in working-class autobiographies: "Communists also acquired their individual identities through struggle and solidarity-a leitmotif of working-class autobiographies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and of the KPD's proletarian novels of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Struggle against poverty, oppressive households, exploitative foremen and bosses, tyrannical fathers, policemen, and judges-the forces of oppression run together in communist literature. In struggle, the individual is united with the party, class, and history, and thereby achieves his (and it is most often his) identity through the collective."96 Thus Herzfelde's narrative of the travails of two orphaned brothers-who developed an extremely close, loyal relationship with each other (but were seemingly uninvested in their two sisters, not even mentioned by name) and who united against the forces of oppression in their youth and in their working lives-is sutured with this Communist literary trope. Concealing the actual fate of their parents, who later resurfaced in psychiatric institutions and, in the case of their mother, actively sought contact, the narrative adeptly seals the tale of inveterate fraternal union.97 "Already in Salzburg, there was more than a brotherly bond between my brother and me," wrote Herzfelde, "it was a kind of alliance against adults who, even when they were friendly, were difficult to judge."98 By weaving aspects of their personal history into a broader, collective narrative, Herzfelde not only fortified their allegiances with fundamental Communist ideals but reinforced an identity formation that is stitched into the Communist narrative.

Indeed, we are "sutured" into subject positions through discourse, often on an unconscious level. This repeated chaining of the Heartfield-Herzfelde subject position to the discourses of Communism began early on in their mutual and individual biographies and calcified over time, often occluding the moments of dissonance; it was an elemental part of their public and private identity construction, in which aspects of their subjectivity were yoked, consciously and unconsciously, to structures of ideological meaning. This identification most likely impelled them to negotiate and absorb the intransigence and inconsistencies of Third Period politics, rather than overtly and decisively rejecting that mounting orthodoxy as Grosz did. As Judith Butler has argued, repeated performances of thought and belief through language, bodily self-presentation, and gesture constitute the subject's identity and symbolic social positioning over time.99 According to this model, identity is a social and historical construction, an active process of embodiment. Indeed, Grosz's contrasting autobiography and self-presentation are interwoven with tales of subversive mutability rather than dogged loyalty or moral authenticity; Grosz shifted costume, social identity, and even accent when circumstances or whim required.

Weitz's observation that "Heartfield's representations depict the virulence of struggle and struggle as a social act, almost invariably of men," suggests a further dimension of Heartfield's self-fashioning of 1929.100 The KPD had the most masculine electoral profile of any party in the Weimar Republic, and intransigence and the culture of political violence were, though contested, central to that male identity.101 Although Heartfield's coat and tie lift him out of an assertively working-class symbolics, and thus address a broader sympathetic audience, and although a female gaze can equally be interpellated by and thus rejoice in Heartfield's act of beheading, a dimension of his 1929 performance, surrounded by clenched and grasping fists, would have resonated productively within the aggressive, masculine identity culture of the KPD.

The Semiotics of Rupture: From Dada to the AIZ

The claim that the production and reception of photomontages involve a degree of violence is not a novel one. Indeed, critical viewers, both then and now, have made this observation. Walter Benjamin, for instance, wrote of Dada montage as having the effect of a bullet.102 Brigid Doherty writes about "montage as violent vivisection" in her accounts of Berlin Dada.103 Maud Lavin, to cite a third case, remarks on the disruptive and violent effects of Hannah Höch's photomontage and the allusive readings and aggressive responses they solicit from the beholder.104 These interpretations correlate the disruptive experience of modernity-technologized warfare, rationalized production, and destabilized gender roles-with the aggression of photomontage, both in its manufacture and in its consumption. I contend, however, that the terms and tone of that violence shifted and were redefined by the cultural system of the late Weimar Republic rather than by the conditions of the immediate postwar period. That shift, as proposed by the 1929 self-portrait, moves from the chaos and generalized discontent of a fledgling democracy to the consciously targeted radical, polarized politics of the late Weimar Republic, from the cut-and-paste broadsides of Dada to the carefully composed photomontages that the following chapters scrutinize. Violence brazenly penetrated the 1930s social fabric, and the brutalization of politics and everyday life were an aftereffect of war and revolution and fueled the flames of profound social unrest. Curiously, Heartfield's retrieval and embrace of the ruptured photomontage aesthetic from his Dada past was short-lived. He developed a different set of pictorial tactics for his Malik book jackets involving narrative condensation. His 1929 self-portrait is one of the final instances of the rhetoric of rupture, to be succeeded by sutured seamlessness in the very next montage of his manufacture, considered at length in the following chapter.

Heartfield drew sustenance from the Dada idiom in three final AIZ montages, however, for it offered a pictorial language of instability and disruption with which to malign the Socialist order. More conceptually assimilable and politically specific than the centripetal compositions that typified Dada montage, these late Weimar montages exploit the scattered, cut-and-paste Dada aesthetic in order to cut the Socialist press to shreds, both literally and metaphorically. Vandervelde or The absolute lack of shame of May 1930 pillories the socialist system by way of an information overload of strewn newspaper headline clippings whose sharp edges and visible truncations wrought by scissor blades mimic the violence imposed on the surrounding bodies (fig. 21). Heartfield encloses Emile Vandervelde, the Belgian Social Democratic leader, in a chaos of press cuttings in German, English, and French and photographs legible in any language, to indict the violent conflicts in capitalist countries. The superimposed press fragments, accumulating with increasing density as we "read" from top to bottom on the page, project a sensory cacophony of visual intensity, linguistic exigency, and physical claustrophobia. These press fragments accumulate, overlap, and supersede one another, vying for the viewer's attention. Their suffocating proximity, crafted by furious accretion, summons a haptic sense of enclosure or entrapment that imprisonment, physical pursuit, and police seizure imply. Barred, semicircular prison windows echo Vandervelde's interpellative gaze at the top of the image, suggesting continuities of entanglement; the next two photographs that vie for our attention depict blurred receding bodies fleeing police blows; below them, our eyes are arrested by the defiant, penetrating gaze of a man captured by uniformed police-a gaze punctuated by the ragged, bloodied stump of a decapitation victim in the lower left. This last image is a brutal, visceral full stop to the picture's beseeching argument. Only in this particular photographic fragment do the newspapers encircle rather than overlie the figure, insisting that the image compete in emphatic admonition with Vandervelde's dominant forward-striding form. The Social Democrat has blood at his feet.


Heartfield has extended the sensorial aspects of Dada montage in this picture by refining the persuasive power of text-image syntax through a developed sense of material affect-a visual skill honed through years of book jacket design in which language and image often operated as independent persuasive components. In the Vandervelde montage, text fragments extricated from thin newsprint take on a corporeal three-dimensionality, their perimeters and edges lifting, touching, and corralling other semiotic units like symbolic building blocks of confinement, while the politician's speech discharges from his mouth as a nonorganic, prefabricated projectile, as if transmitting routine phrases. Photography's precision and imprecision-its claims to verisimilitude and its unique ability to blur-simultaneously puncture and evade our comprehension in this montage. The arrested man's gaze and the mangled stump of a neck shock with their emphatic, still presence; the haze of bodies fleeing punishment evokes contingency, speed, and hope, for unlike their counterparts below, their fate is not yet determined; the vague, occasionally blurry prison in the background haunts the montage like a dream, or rather, as a constituent part of a political allegory that begins with imprisonment and concludes with death. Heartfield's utilization of the material components of photomontage is strategic, mobilizing both medium and content in the service of persuasion.

Similarly, One must have a special disposition to suicide . . . of early April 1931 is a threshold image, looking back while gesturing forward, referring to Heartfield's early pictorial idiom while decisively ensconced in the political context of the late Weimar Republic and Heartfield's AIZ production (fig. 22). Its leitmotifs, like themes in the Vandervelde montage, are the Socialist violence and chaos flowing from Third Period policy. The image offers the last instance in which Heartfield explicitly uses the aesthetic he developed in Dada collage. Two years later, on June 29, 1933, John Heartfield gave Dada a final, knowing wink in Everything's fine! in which flat newspaper clippings and their textual overload have solidified into solid objects-broken pillars, wooden debris, the refuse and wreckage of capitalism (fig. 23). "Six million pounds of coffee destroyed," declares a single headline, rather meekly, teetering on the material destruction that surrounds it. From the viewpoint of his Prague exile, where the travesty of social fascism must have been amply clear in the wake of the National Socialist takeover, it is capitalism, rather than Socialism, that bears the markers of chaos. The AIZ article on the facing page incriminates the London World Economic Conference, to which this montage responds.


In 1931, the aim of One must have a special disposition to suicide . . . is to evoke pathos in the viewer, interpellating him or her through empathy rather than through heady disorientation, as did Dada montage. Thematizing the years 1918 to 1923, which represent a period of unsuccessful Communist uprisings, it is inadvertently self-reflexive, roughly delineating Heartfield's years of involvement with Berlin Dada. The corpse of Karl Liebknecht, "patron saint of German communism," to borrow David Evans's phrase, is covered with strewn newspaper clippings from the SPD organ Vorwärts, which collectmuch like flowers tossed by mourners onto a grave.105 These flowers would have thorns, however: the clippings are a collection of slanderous attacks characterizing the Spartacists as robbers and plunderers and thus justifying the SPD's military repression of Communist revolutionary efforts. Referencing the violent circumstances of his death, Liebknecht's dead body is framed by the Eden Hotel in the upper right, where Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were captured by the right-wing SPD-endorsed Freikorps in 1919, and by the "Maschinengewehrnest der Noskegarden" (machine-gun nest of the Noske troops) in the lower left. The body of Liebknecht is the pictorial dead weight, as it were, fixing the gaze, determining the organization of the photomontage. The dates, like thumbtacks, pin the image temporally: 1918-1923. Its immediate context, however, is 1931, with its attendant polarization and loss of a political center. Its impetus: a provocative statement by Theodor Wolff, the editor of the Berliner Tageblatt. "One must have a special disposition to suicide," wrote Wolff, "to forget that Social Democracy was needed very urgently in the period of Spartacism and not to bear in mind that perhaps one day it will be needed even more urgently."

Wolff wrote his editorial, excerpted above, in response to the events of February 10, 1931, when the nationalist factions of the parliament-the National Socialists (NSDAP) and the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP)-walked out in protest of a ruling prohibiting members of parliament from having any editorial connections with a newspaper or magazine. This decree was an attempt by the majority coalition (the SPD and Zentrum party) to curb the manipulation of parliamentary meetings for radical left-wing and right-wing propaganda (the DNVP chairman was the powerful right-wing media magnate Alfred Hugenberg), thereby protecting the immunity of individual members of parliament. The parliamentary boycott by the nationalist factions brought a return to normalcy for a few weeks.106 It also dramatically shifted the balance of power within the parliament, resulting in a theoretically "Marxist" majority, with the Socialists and the Communists holding 230 seats. Contrary to what Heartfield's photomontage would have us believe, Wolff hardly mentioned the Communists in his editorial. The thrust of his argument was directed at the politically indecisive and economically threatened middle classes, whose panic had secured Nazi parliamentary gains only six months earlier. In the bloody election campaigns of September 1930, the Nazis became the second most powerful party in Germany. The temporary parliamentary change of February 1932 offered the KPD an opportunity to harass the SPD, taking advantage of the sudden turn in power relations to further destabilize the governing regime.

Heartfield's photomontage capitalizes on this period of instability, using a pictorial semantics of disruption to take potshots at the Socialists. He cannily returns to an idiom of photomontage heavily reliant on newspaper clippings, a materially apt response to a ruling on parliamentary press relationships. Sadly, in the face of the absence of right-wing votes, this parliamentary moment was one in which the Communists could have unified with the Socialists, rather than exploit them. Instead, in Heartfield's photomontage, Wolff's phrase is taken out of context and twisted to support Third Period social fascism, underscoring the impossibility of unity with the SPD, the "lies" of the press, and the distortions of journalism, and asserting the continued suppression of the Communists by the Social Democrats. Key sections of Wolff's invective were omitted in order to displace the author's statement from a specific argument directed at a wavering industrial middle class, to a general offensive against Communists. Heartfield emphasizes the double entendre of Wolff's statement, which reminds the German bourgeoisie that the SPD "saved" them from Communism in 1918. In a montage meant to ignite fury about press slander, Heartfield produces and disseminates mass-media defamations of his own, in line with Stalinist propaganda.

Heartfield did not snip the Wolff quote directly out of the newspaper in 1931, even though the photomontage aims to simulate such a real and immediate source. Rather, it is a pseudo-documentation, rendered believable through typographical expertise. Heartfield fabricated this 1931 image by cutting out pieces of a two-page centerfold he produced in 1927 for the satirical Communist journal Der Knüppel, entitled Brotherly Greetings from the SPD. What in 1931 looks like random fluttering of individually cut newspaper articles is in fact an abridged copy of an earlier rendition, transferred to the AIZ. This would explain the staid treatment of newspaper and photo fragments as compared to the Vandervelde montage, in which they are deployed to greater effect.

To reduce the image from the double-page spread of Der Knüppel to the single-page format of the AIZ, Heartfield condensed it by cutting away parts of pictures, so that we see only a small fragment-a pictorial clue-of what was in the earlier rendition. Although most of the textual information of 1927 is present in 1931, the pictorial information has been condensed or deleted altogether in order to simplify the visual storyline while maximizing psychological friction. In 1931, the corpse of Liebknecht would call to mind photographs often reproduced in the illustrated press of victims of Nazi or Communist violence. Photo-essays documenting violated Communists or Nazis in their coffins-faces bruised, split, restitched, disfigured-victims of a brutality called down on them by their respective mortal enemies, were a common sight in the press of the late Weimar Republic. Heartfield's Liebknecht photomontage, unfortunately, falls into what Rosenhaft calls the "pathetic celebration of the Communists' own victimization." As she notes: "Martyrs were at a premium. Each murder of a Communist or major incident of SA-terror sparked off a series of protest meetings and fund-raising campaigns in which a direct emotional appeal was made to the collective outrage of the listeners. Funerals of the fallen were early recognized as an important focus of propaganda and agitation. Photographic exhibitions and the use of portraits of the SA's victims on the Party's fundraising stamps encouraged a sense of identification with the bandits."107 At the same time, however, one must take seriously the very real question of the means of resistance during this period of political radicalization, without lumping together all violent forms of opposition as terror. The issue of violent struggle in the streets was neither easy to resolve nor easy to moralize-indeed the KPD repeatedly changed its mind on the matter. And in the end, the KPD (and most everyone else) were victims of Nazism. Thus, the corpse of 1919 is intended to resonate in the life of 1931, not to be forgotten as historical refuse, but to endure and prevail, igniting political passions. In addition to being a montage of quotation and condensation, therefore, this is montage as memory, recollection, and retrospection. These newspaper clippings were political artifacts and souvenirs in 1931, historical residue intimately tied with the corpse of a murdered Liebknecht. The image functions as a photojournalistic archive of Communist struggle and the injustices borne against them. They are remains that are supposed to resonate forcefully in the present-a present context of clashing bodies and combative politics, more polarized, vicious, and integral to everyday life than ever before in the widening political and economic schism that characterized the late Weimar Republic.