Germany and National Socialism

“The Symbols are Innocent” – An Interview with Andreas Koop

Coverausschnitt von „NSCI. Das visuelle Erscheinungsbild der Nationalsozialisten 1920-1945“; © Verlag Hermann SchmidtSection of the cover of NSCI. Das visuelle Erscheinungsbild der Nationalsozialisten 1920-1945; © Verlag Hermann SchmidtGraphic designer Andreas Koop has analyzed the visual signature of the National Socialists.

Mr. Koop, you are a graphic designer. As a professional, what catches your eye when you look at the National Socialist period?

That’s very clear: the swastika. Not least because of the vitality of the red and the proportions: red takes up the most space and the white circle further accentuates the swastika. The combination of red, white and the black symbol had an extreme effect at the time.

Why?

Black-white-red is a historical allusion to the German Confederation and the Empire – a brilliant idea, because in this way the Nazis also appealed to those who nostalgically yearned for the monarchy.

If that was so “brilliant”, as you say, it almost sounds as if a professional had thought it out.

It was probably Hitler himself. He had no notion of graphic design, but he understood perception. He simply banked on effect. And willingly accepted the red – it was, after all, the color of the Communists. In Mein Kampf he argues that he thereby symbolized the social dimension of the movement.

“I want it too”

Red also has other references – for instance, blood. And blood played a decisive role in the Nazi ideology.

That was probably not intended, but naturally it fit in wonderfully well with the whole blood-and-soil mind-set; the “honor of the blood” was often talked about. Reportedly, Hitler saw the red at a rally, was impressed and then said: I want it too. It was a means to an end. Just like the swastika.

How do you mean?

The swastika had been a symbol for the völkisch, and often for the anti-Semitic, since the middle of the nineteenth century. It wasn’t original as such, but the particular graphic design was. Hitler wrote that he needed a symbol for his cause.

The swastika and the jagged SS runes have a very aggressive effect. Was that intended?

The symbols to begin with are innocent as such. It’s the context that evokes these associations. But yes, rounder forms don’t come into it. There were round variants of the swastika. Nor can one call broken scripts jagged; I’d say they were rather quaint.

What is typical of them?

They were generally used for centuries in German-speaking countries for everything non-scientific or non-scholarly; they were looked on as “the German script”. They were propagated when nationalism was to be emphasized.

Forbidden scripts

NSCI – Look inside the book; © Verlag Hermann SchmidtThat fits in with the Nazis. But why did Hitler prohibit the broken script?

Quite simple: because it couldn’t be read in the East. And the expansionist drive after 1940 was eastwards. The official reason was that the broken script was “Jewish script” – absurd of course. Hitler himself used the roman script; it was his favorite. He would never have used the initials on the forged Hitler diaries!

Why not?

Not only because they are not “AH” but “FH”. Anyone who knows Hitler and his attitude toward scripts knows that he would never have used a broken, convoluted script.

The logo, the script, the color: was there a centrally controlled plan to establish the visual signature of the Party?

Not really. There were only independent individual parts such as the swastika and a few defined applications such as flags and signs. But not for scripts, layouts and such; the coherent impression is rather a superficial one. One shouldn’t underestimate the fact that there was no one who put across such specifications.

Wouldn’t that have been the job of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels?

Yes, that’s what one would think. But he didn’t want anything to do with it. He liked looking after film and radio as media of manipulation.

The uniform seems to be a result of the same principle of chance. Its dirty brown color didn’t fit in at all with the black-red-white.

Right, that was also an accident. The SA had no money in the beginning and had to make do with remainders. And that meant brown. Astonishing how soon they put together a uniform: brown lederhosen and a red armband sufficed. The armbands were something like the minimum requirement for making up a uniform – that was simple, cheap and practical.

Context determines effect

Cover of the book NSCI; © Verlag Hermann SchmidtCan you say when this “brand” was visually established?

Probably round 1929, at the latest 1930/31 when the Nazis had their first successes in the state parliaments. And after 1933 there were no longer any rivals. I speak deliberately of a CI, a corporate identity, and not only a corporate design. Corporate behavior is also part of a corporate identity, and in the case of the Nazis this was the tremendous “conviction” with which they wore and used these symbols.

What effect do the colors and script have today?

Take the broken script. It had of course a very different effect in 1933 than it has today on a can of beer. But if you use it to write the word “honor” or “pride”, then that’s something else again. It depends on the context.

And what about groups like the “German Apple Front”, who respond to dim-witted neo-Nazis by satirizing them? For example, they chant “Heil Boskoop” and wear red-white-black armbands with apples instead of swastikas on them. They play with the high recognition value of Nazi visuals.

In principle, you simply can’t use a white circle against a red background in the well-known proportions any more. Caricaturing quotations can also be very dangerous. If you have or develop no symbol of your own, you only strengthen the old symbols.

Andreas Koop, born 1970, graduate in graphic design, independent designer and university lecturer, is author of the book NSCI. Das visuelle Erscheinungsbild der Nationalsozialisten 1920-1945 (i.e., NSCI. The Visual Signature of National Socialism, 1920-1945; Verlag Hermann Schmidt, 2008, 152 pages, 29,80 euros). He is currently working on the relation between scripts
Anne Haeming
conducted the interview. She is a freelance writer for print and online media living in Berlin.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2009

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