War propaganda posters using children first appeared during World War One (1914-18) when the USA government used them not as a technique to legitimize their war efforts but as a means of selling war bonds.
But as the war dragged on and enlistment numbers for all combative countries began to dwindle, propaganda posters began to focus on messages aimed at attracting volunteers or justifying the war itself. But while most nations produced flag-waving, tub-thumping artwork, the Americans and the British came to realize that a more personal and emotional appeal to their citizens worked best. They were particularly radical by introducing posters of children into their propaganda efforts, realizing that these had a wide-ranging appeal to non-military civilians as much as those in uniform.
Guilt as a propaganda tool
War propaganda focused heavily on creating a feeling of responsibility amongst adult males.
American and British propagandists used children to make positive statements using familiar and straightforward language. The artwork was never realistic. The text was memorable and direct. “Pride” and “Guilt” were the two overwhelming emotions portrayed by these posters. Guilt-inducing messages such as “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” played on the man’s masculinity and natural desire to defend his children. When this poster was first introduced in Britain in 1915, volunteer recruitment figures increased for the first time in months.
War propaganda posters using children presented a carefully crafted image of manhood defining ‘real’ men as those who fought for their families, for King and Country. This poster is an excellent example of an image that was designed to question a man’s sense of self-worth. These propaganda posters all displayed a common trait. A refusal to admit, or even suggest that there was another side to the argument. Because of this trait, they were not universally admired. British Labour Party leader Keir Hardie said that his sarcastic reply to the question of the little girl in the poster would have been, “I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.”
How to generate emotional investment in war
The two dominant principals for these War propaganda posters using children were firstly to rely on raw emotions, never an academic argument, and secondly to reach groups as well as individuals.
Most American’s had families. They were fathers, mothers, grandparents. The undoubted appeal of these posters was in their immediate portrayal of a situation familiar to everyone with children, and Their allure was almost primal.” Hands off our Children.”
Dictators as “Father” figures in war propaganda posters using children
Other Nations were slow to catch up with the Americans and the British. But by World War II, the Nazis had also come to appreciate the power of depicting children in propaganda posters. Reich Minister of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels became the first politician to approach propaganda as a science. “Politische Plakat” was one in a series of textbooks and manuals issued by him through the Reichspropagandaleitung. These publications featured rules and suggestions for the use of children in poster artwork and sloganeering.
Goebbels, in his inauguration address of the “Mutter und Kind “(Mother and Child) organization, on February 24, 1934, stated, “Mother and Child are the pledges for the immortality of the nation.” This slogan was to address one of Hitler’s primary concerns over the falling German birth rate. There was a spate of posters issued by the ministry depicting “pure” German children alongside their wholesome parents.
War propaganda posters using children were particularly appealing to counties with Totalitarian regimes. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China all employed children in propaganda campaigns with varying degrees of success. There is no doubt that Nazi Germany was at the forefront of the use of children as a source of unifying the nation around a single father figure. Nazi Germany produced some of the most effective and haunting war propaganda posters using children. The Fuhrer was portrayed as the “father of the Nation,” and Nazi posters expressed their satisfaction in having found a leader who was a symbol of absolute authority. Fascist and Communist posters invariably portrayed their leader as a Great Father or patriarch to be worshipped as an all-wise Messiah, bringing solace and salvation to his sorely tried children. Hitler took all responsibility for their welfare. In return, what they had to do was to give him “implicit faith and blind subordination.”
The Soviet Union, Italy, and China, on the other hand, used far more brutal images. Ultimately these were less effective as a means to get their message across.
The Soviet Union, in particular, produced posters that seemed to veer between the hackneyed cliche and the downright bizarre.
Children as cultural hostages
Posters of children are the most potent of propaganda weapons for several reasons. Children act as cultural hostages. There is an inherent inclination in every civilized society to protect them. This ruse often inhibits robust adult arguments against the slogans or politics the posters are portraying. Additionally, the fact that children represent the future of humanity delivers a punch to the solar plexus of adults, leading to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and self-recrimination if they do not “pitch-in” and do their bit for a country’s war effort. As with virtually every war propaganda poster, in the end, it’s all about guilt and obligation.
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