World War I Posters

World War I Posters

World War I Posters, by Gary A. Borkan, Schiffer, Military History, 2002; 240 pp., 8-3/4" x 11-3/8", hardcover, profusely illustrated with full-color and other illustrtations, bibliography; ISBN 0-7643-1516-1; $49.95 (publisher's Fax: 610-593-2002).

Not often seen--and more rarely in such a splendid collection--are the propaganda ephemera that motivated citizens of the World War I belligerents to enlist in and financially support the war effort, as well as generally want to destroy the perceived and usually demonized enemies of their states, nations or empires.

With more than 450 World War I posters, and most of them in full-color, this book offers an interesting graphic dimension to our area of study. As background, author Gary A. Borkan notes: "The full color poster originated in the 1890s and quickly assumed an essential role in advertising. Given the proven power of this medium, it is only natural that posters would have a significant role in World War I propaganda. Many of the leading artists and commercial illustrators of the age designed posters for their country's war effort. These artists had the experience and skill to produce bold and effective large graphics that could be absorbed at a single glance..."

The dramatic images that Borkan selected make it easy to understand the importance of the medium, while the apparently pristine posters represented are reproduced with magnificent quality. The reviewer's favorite is a 1916 poster from the (then allegedly neutral) USA, showing a savage gorilla wearing a Prussian spiked helmet and a Wilhelmine moustache, entering American soil carrying a bare-breasted distraught young woman with one arm and holding a club (inscribed with the word 'Kultur' = culture) in the other hand. The text says: "Destroy this mad brute--enlist [in the] U.S. Army." This is speculative, but one could imagine that Merian C. Cooper, a member of the 20th Aero Squadron, USAS, who was shot down and taken prisoner in World War I, may have been inspired by this image for his 1933 film "King Kong"; only the the helmet, moustache and club are missing, and a bit more decorous fabric was added to screen heroine Fay Wray as she was toted by the giant gorilla.

Several good essays could be generated by Borkan's book, not the least of which could be one on sexual imagery. An American poster bearing the legend "Remember Belgium" and promoting the Fourth Liberty Loan bonds shows the silhouette of a brutish, spiked-helmeted, bushy-moustached "hun" with a tight grip on a young girl apparently being led off to some unspeakable fate. Sadly, the few German posters represented in the book show duller images of wounded and interned Germans, as well as the steely-eyed gaze of Field Marshall von Hindenburg. Or, perhaps the Central Powers will be the subject of a most welcome companion volume.

In any event, 'World War I Posters' is a very fine book and is highly recommended.

submitted by Peter Kilduff