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Cartoons and the historian

by Roy Douglas

Many historical books contain cartoons, but in most cases these are little more than a relief from the text, and do not make any point of substance which is not made elsewhere. Political cartoons should be regarded as much more than that. They are an important historical source which often casts vivid light on events, and which is useful both to the teacher and to the researcher. The essential of a political cartoon is that it is not meant to portray an actual event, but is designed to bring out points which are not adequately made by textual descriptions - or which can be understood by illiterate people, or by people in a hurry.

      The medium of cartoons is a very old one. A famous palette from the dawn of pharaonic Egypt shows King Narmer (Menes) striking what appears to be a defeated enemy in front of a falcon, symbol of the god Horus.(1 ) It is unlikely that Narmer personally dispatched all his enemies, and even more unlikely that he contrived to have a falcon present to watch events. It is much more likely that this was a true cartoon, making an important point of propaganda. Pharaoh has divine backing. For that reason, he has been, and will continue to be, successful against his enemies at home or abroad. It is therefore advisable to support him in all his doings.

      Four thousand years later, similar ideas were repeatedly put forward in the Byzantine empire. To give one of many examples, a tenth-century ivory relief shows the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus crowned by Christ(2 ). As with the palette of Narmer, the artist did not suggest that the incident depicted actually occurred, and yet there are clear political implications. Constantine VII, like Narmer, has divine support and is therefore invincible. So the mosaic also qualifies as a true cartoon.

      A sixteenth-century English woodcut(3 ) shows Henry VIII receiving the Bible from Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, while simultaneously trampling Pope Clement VII, who is being consoled by John Fisher. No such scene could possibly have occurred, and the woodcut seems to have appeared first in the reign of Henry’s younger daughter; but the message to the devout is obvious. Henry was very powerful and very pious and his enemies were neither. No doubt his merits have rubbed off onto Elizabeth. These various points could all have been made in text, but a cartoon is far more vivid and is much more likely to stick in the viewer’s mind, particularly if he happens to be more or less illiterate.

      By taking cartoons from different sources, it is often possible to see how events looked to people with opposing ideas. In Britain, political cartoons of a more or less modern kind received a great impetus during the long premiership of Sir Robert Walpole. There were ways in which criticisms of the government - on the stage, for example - could be at least partly controlled. But cartoons of Walpole - some quite vulgar - could not be controlled.( 4 ) To do so would have required a prosecution in front of a London jury; and there \zwas no way in which a London jury (whose members probably detested Walpole) would have convicted, whatever the evidence. The best that Walpole could do was to hire other cartoonists to glorify himself. The results looked pompous rather than persuasive.(5 ) The floodgates were open, and nobody, not even royalty, was immune. Early in the reign of George III the King’s mother and the Prime Minister, the Earl of Bute, were alleged (probably wrongly) to be lovers. and the cartoons which followed were sometimes crudely obscene.( 6 ) Other scurrilous cartoons about royalty and their sex lives followed later in the reign. What eventually put a stop to that sort of thing was not the law, but changing public tastes.

      Until about 1830, British political cartoons were usually one-off efforts, much too expensive for most people’s pockets. They would have been bought either by comparatively wealthy people, or for display in shops, pubs and similar places. Then, quite suddenly, a number of satirical publications, usually with radical opinions, begin to appear, at prices within the range of the skilled artisan. These sometimes contain cartoons.Figaro in London was one such periodical, and occasionally casts useful light on developing political ideas. A cartoon of March 1833 shows William IV as a puppet controlled by Prime Minister Grey and Lord Chancellor Brougham ( 7 ) - an early recognition of one effect of the Reform Act of the previous year. A Figaro cartoon of April 1837 shows an angry crowd demonstrating for repeal of the Corn Laws, to the high embarrassment of two bakers, Whig Prime Minister Melbourne and his Tory rival Wellington. An anti-corn law association had already been formed in London; but this was a year before the principal Anti-Corn Law League was established in Manchester. It shows that radical London working people were very interested in moves towards Free Trade before the idea had fully caught on with north country employers.

      Punch appeared early in the 1840s, and at first was very radical in outlook. “The home of the rick-burner” in 1844 shows an agricultural labourer, his wife dead in bed, with an empty cupboard and hungry children clustered around him. The Devil, brandishing a burning torch, incites him to incendiarism.( 8 ) The sympathies of the artist are evident. Punch soon became less radical in tone, though it tended to look at events from a more or less Liberal standpoint for a long time to come. Various competitors appeared. Most of these died quickly, but the Conservative Judy, and Fun, whose politics varied from time to time, both lasted from the 1860s into the early twentieth century, with many well-drawn cartoons. By comparing them withPunch, it is often possible to get different angles on controversies.

      During the debate on the Irish Land Bill of 1881, Punch showed Gladstone tendering a bouquet to Hibernia, and thus drawing her attention and sympathies away from the villainous-looking representative of the Land League (complete with dynamite)( 9 ). Judy, by contrast, showed Gladstone and W. E. Forster as “the most liberal of Liberals with other people’s property”, handing title deeds to an Irish peasant, while a wounded landlord looks on.( 10 ) The Dublin Weekly Freeman takes another view of the matter. “The genius of the Bill” is the Irishman “Pat”, who wields a shillelagh marked “Land League” over Gladstone, compelling him to write the Irish Land Bill.( 11 )

      In other countries and at other times, similar comparisons may be made. In the early part of 1941, there was a furious controversy in the United States as to whether or not America should follow the recommendation of President Roosevelt, and render great material assistance to Britain and other Allies through the vehicle of Lease-Lend. The pro-Roosevelt Washington Post featured a cartoon suggesting that the alternative was a globe dominated by Hitler( 12 ), with Uncle Sam sitting miserably on a branch outside. The isolationist and anti-Roosevelt Chicago Tribune ( 13 ) showed an aeroplane labelled “War Bloc”, (meaning those Americans - Democrats or Republicans - who were backing Roosevelt’s policy). It has just bombed the promises of both Roosevelt and his Republican opponent at the recent Presidential elections, leaving 50 million voters in the wreckage. Each cartoon is seeking to point out to Americans the appalling consequences which are likely to follow if its own views are not followed.

      How did the beginning of the 1914 war look to various belligerents? Many British people are familiar with the F. H. Townsend cartoon in Punch ( 14 ), showing a type-cast German, complete with sausages, threatening a boy who defends a gate marked “No Thoroughfare”. The cartoon carries the caption “Bravo, Belgium!” The German attack on Belgium was the nominal cause of British intervention, and it certainly had a big effect on British public opinion; but it would be difficult to find corresponding cartoons in other major countries, Allied or enemy, giving that incident similar importance.

F. H. Townsend's famous cartoon for Punch 14 August 1914F. H. Townsend's famous cartoon for Punch 14 August 1914      

The Germans, by contrast, appear to have entered the war mainly for fear of Russia. A cartoon in the satirical Kladderadatsch shows a young boy brandishing a sword, crying “Up, German brothers, the Huns are coming!”( 15 ) This is probably an allusion to the great battle of 451 - which has been given various names - when Romans and several Germanic tribes joined forces to defeat Attila. (The British called Germans, Huns; the Germans called Russians, Huns. Both were wrong.)

      A Russian cartoon of about the same period in Novoe Vremya takes a very different view of the beginning of the war( 16 ). Here, the other side are the aggressors. A German and an Austrian are on a hunting expedition when suddenly their intended quarry, a gigantic Russian bear, appears in front of them. The Austrian recoils in terror into the arms of the appalled German.

      To the United States, still neutral at that date, the beginning of the war takes on the character of an accident. In a New York Tribune cartoon ( 17 ), Franz Josef of Austria has just pulled out a little rock, Serbia and released an avalanche. Such cartoons illustrate how the same chain of events could look very different from different national standpoints.

      Domestic events are similarly illustrated by cartoons. The long struggle over Irish Home Rule generated many cartoons on both sides of the Irish Sea. To take just one example, shortly before the 1914 war the crucial question was what was to happen to Ulster, or at least the Protestant parts of Ulster, if Home Rule took effect. A cartoon in the Dublin Leprecaun ( 18 ), shows Ireland as a kindly mother with children from the three southern Provinces and also southern Ulster, seeking to encourage “the irreconcilable” north-east Ulster - a sulky little boy - into the family cottage “Home, sweet Home, Rule”. The Belfast Weekly News ( 19 ) shows Prime Minister Asquith and Nationalist leader Redmond with great knives labelled “Home Rule”, and “Rome Rule”, chasing the chicken Ulster. Asquith remarks to Redmond with astonishment, “He doesn’t seem to want to be killed”. The remarkably impartial Belfast Nomad’s Weekly sees matters differently again.( 20 ) Asquith and Conservative leader Bonar Law are in the “Conversation Room”, but their mouths are padlocked, and each is chained in place - Asquith by Redmond, Bonar Law by Carson.

      Sometimes contemporary cartoons give an answer to modern puzzles. Many people today wonder why Hitler was able to secure control of Germany so easily. A cartoon in the Munich periodical Simplicissimus of October 1932 gives an idea.( 21 ) This was at the depth of the depression, and Germany was faring worse than most countries. “Mother Germany” is in the water, drowning and crying for help. Five men struggle furiously for a lifebelt to throw to her: a Communist, a Nazi, a Social Democrat, an old-fashioned Conservative and a representative of the Catholic Zentrum. The message seems clear. The artist, and very likely his reader, does not care much who gets control of the lifebelt, provided that somebody does, and uses it quickly. Three and a half months later, Hitler became Chancellor, and in that sense it was the Nazi who got the lifebelt. No doubt many people who would have preferred somebody else to do so were willing to acquiesce.

      Just when did the erstwhile wartime allies become involved in a “Cold War”? >From 1941 until the end of the war, cartoons in Allied countries were more or less unanimous in emphasising the unity of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the righteousness of their cause. To see what happened thereafter, we have to be cautious in our use of cartoons. British and American cartoons were drawn by artists who sought to express their own opinions, or the opinions of their employers, which were not necessarily the opinions of their governments. Soviet cartoons, by contrast, would never have appeared without official backing. Some British and American cartoons were expressing big doubts about the Soviet Union at an early date, but they were not presenting an “official” view of the matter.

      The first Soviet hint that anything was amiss appears to have been a drawing in the satirical Krokodil of November 1945, which criticises, rather gently, the American refusal to share atomic secrets. Uncle Sam and a female character representing Britain are sitting in a park with a baby, “Atomic Energy”, in a perambulator( 22 ). Bystanders wonder how the child will be educated; the answer is “Privately!” There is a certain disapproval; but cartoons from British and American periodicals which were by no means Communist express similar views. In August 1946, Krokodil featured a cartoon highly critical of anti-Soviet elements in the American press,( 23 ) though not the American government. It was not until the following year that a serious assault was made on official American policies, and when the attack did come it was furious..

      Occasionally cartoons are extraordinarily prophetic. A Will Dyson cartoon in the Daily Herald of 17 May 1919 ( 24 ) shows the “Big Four” Allied leaders leaving the Palace of Versailles. Clemenceau of France remarks to the others, “Curious! I seem to hear a child weeping!” Behind a pillar is a little boy, and over his head are the words “1940 Class” - that is, the class who would be of military age in 1940.

      In 1923, the French occupied the Ruhr in order to compel the Germans to pay reparations. A large section of British opinion deplored this high-handed and unilateral action. A drawing by the great British cartoonist David Low shows Premier Poincaré of France, who has just despatched a vulture labelled “Revanche” to Berlin. The bird turns and says “Righto, Poinc., I’ll take your message, but I’ll come home to roost.”( 25 ) It did.

      Cartoons sometimes say to the modern reader rather more than the cartoonist intended. A German cartoon in Das Reich of mid-1941 shows Hitler and Stalin in the water, clutching each other and each crying “Help!”( 26 ) Another cartoon in the same periodical and probably by the same artist, drawn shortly after the crucial battle of Stalingrad, shows men, presumably meant to be Russians, with knives between their teeth, crouching for the attack.( 27 ) The first cartoon shows the huge confidence Germans were expected to feel at the onset of the assault on the Soviet Union; the second already hints that the war has been lost and that Germans must expect something very unpleasant to happen soon.

      Sometimes the cartoonist makes a point which seemed straightforward enough when the drawing was made, but conveys subtleties to the modern reader. How similar was Italian Fascism to German Nazism? At the beginning of the Italian attack on Abyssinia in 1935, a cartoon in Mussolini’s Il popolo d’Italia , entitled “The aggressor and the victim of aggression” shows an Italian soldier striking off the chains of an Abyssinian.( 28 ) Of course this was propaganda for domestic consumption, and of course the attack was not really designed to benefit the Abyssinian; yet the thinking behind the cartoon was clearly not racist. It is difficult to conceive of a cartoon in Nazi Germany pretending that the 1939 attack on Poland, or the 1941 attack on Russia, was designed to help the people of those countries. Nazism certainly was racist right from the start. Italian Fascist cartoons eventually went the same way, and in 1938 a periodical La difensa della Razza appeared, whose first issue shows a sword between an “Aryan” on one side and a typecast Jew and a black man on the other.( 29 ) Hitler has converted Mussolini.

      Even the absence of cartoons may tell us quite a lot. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, several satellite countries sent troops in support of the attackers. The French “collaborationist” La Gerbe featured a cartoon, “The last Crusade”. Stalin and Litvinov are in Moscow, and see troops advancing towards them. Stalin asks whether the Americans are coming to his assistance. Litvinov replies that he can only see Europe coming.( 30 ) The implication is that many European countries are helping actively in the assault. Yet there is little indication in German cartoons of the period that their European confederates were playing an important part in the operation. A Russian cartoon, “Fascist Kennel”, got it right. Hitler gnaws at a bone, while his tame dogs from the satellites slaver hungrily.( 31 )

      Another significant example of the importance of omissions is the way in which heads of government are portrayed - or not portrayed - in cartoons. German cartoons during the Nazi period did not portray Hitler, Russian cartoons during the Stalin period and for long afterwards did not portray Stalin, even in the most laudatory way. Yet British wartime cartoons repeatedly portrayed Churchill, and American cartoons portrayed Roosevelt, often in a highly unflattering way. When a government forbids cartoons about its political leaders, it is usually a sign that liberty is being eroded in other ways as well.

      Examples of all such uses of cartoons - or the absence of cartoons - may be multiplied almost indefinitely, and applied to a vast range of historical contexts. Whatever else they do, they make us hear people of the past speaking. That is what history is supposed to do. Unlike political speeches, they are difficult to “edit” in order to make the point which the present-day historian considers important.