Re:view: what ‘Design in the Third Reich’ teaches us about design and ideology

This week I visited the Design of the Third Reich exhibition which is currently on at the Design Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It has been enormously popular, with time slots selling out completely even on weekdays. Though in the run-up to the exhibition there was much hand-wringing in the media about the controversial subject, since the exhibition opened in September, criticism has generally disappeared. What the exhibition proposes to do, and what I think it achieves in many ways, is offer an objective overview of objects produced and designed by the Nazis from a genuine desire to understand the past. This then offers us valuable instructions to consider the relationship between aesthetics and ideology in the present. After all, in a world in which big brands have taken over our lives and perfect Instagram lifestyles are flaunted as something to aspire to, it’s becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between adverts and reality. In addition, phenomena like cancel culture show a trend towards uncritical boycotting of people without giving them a chance to explain themselves, which I personally find worrying. Nuance quickly disappears in favour of clear-cut ideas about what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, safe versus dangerous, rather than true or false, often dictated by ‘influencers’ whose numbers of followers gives them that authority.

First, let me paint a general picture of ‘Nazi aesthetics’ as shown in the exhibition – what we would nowadays call their brand strategy. With unambiguous symbols like the swastika, the eagle, and the lightning-bolt SS logo, as well as the attention-grabbing red, white and black colour palette, the Nazi aesthetic was recognisable from the start. It has been copied by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Pink Floyd to Star Wars as a visual shorthand for evil. Other typical elements included a love of visual symmetry (rows upon rows of identical Panzer tanks, Volkswagen cars, or soldiers) and of gigantic neoclassical buildings, which architect Albert Speer envisioned as beautiful ruins even before they were built. On the other hand, the Nazis also adopted, magpie-like, romantic and anti-industrial elements that directly opposed these visions of progress and modernity, like objects made by craftspeople, strict gender roles, and folkloristic ‘Germanic’ music and imagery. The exhibition showed pretty well how these polar opposites began to blend as the Nazis came to power, as both served the same purpose: the creation of an idyllic future that excluded any unwanted and impure elements. As a result, all objects to come out of the Reich, from chairs to helmets, cutlery to automobiles to art, were created with the underlying thought that good design would create ‘good users’ – healthy, hard-working, modern citizens of the Nazi state. Visual and mental purity was the goal.


The symbolic power of uniforms

Though I was impressed with the overall scope and the collected artefacts, frankly, I had expected the exhibit to pay more attention to uniforms. Much could have been said, for example, about Hugo Boss, the famous fashion designer, whose company produced uniforms for the SS, SA, the Hitler Jugend and the Wehrmacht. But there was only one black SS uniform of this type on display, laid next to an SS handbook and a typewriter, as well as one green NSDAP uniform. I think uniforms are the best example of objects that are designed according to an ideology, and the people who wear them its most visible supporters. Almost every museum dedicated to WWII features glass cases with mannequins wearing uniforms from the different countries and service branches: these uniforms tell us all we need to know about who participated in which battle.

Uniforms are great unifiers—when used as an adjective, ‘uniform’ suggests anonymity and automatic action. They instantly make clear what a person’s role is, erase their personal identity, and mark them as one part of a much bigger whole. For many people during the war, most notably women joining the workforce, wearing a uniform made them feel proud and important, though it’s safe to say that uniforms automatically bring with them the idea of hierarchy. (This led Virginia Woolf to muse, in 1941, that “the love of medals and decorations” must be rooted out to prevent “a subconscious Hitlerism” growing in the hearts of people everywhere.) Nazi uniforms especially can be seen as representative of the whole Nazi ideology. They were designed to impress: to inspire admiration in women, awe in children, jealousy in men, and a respectful terror in everyone. A beautiful, well-fitting uniform gives its wearer authority and dignity: even the lowest Wehrmacht soldier looked every bit the Aryan Übermensch. The SS uniforms in particular show how the Nazis brought together the folkloristic and the industrial: they are sleek, modern and imposing, and made SS-members look identical, at least at first glance. At the same time, the SS were Heinrich Himmler’s elite fighting force, his own Order of the Teutonic Knights, built upon a centuries-old Germanic warrior tradition.

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SS uniforms, proudly made by Hugo Boss.

Preserving the illusion

Overall, Nazi design was used to make the mythical future they had in mind a reality. Their dedication to preserving the illusion that this future was actually happening worked remarkably well. The exhibition’s texts pointed out that even today we still believe in the efficiency of the Blitzkrieg (which was invented by accident) and in the Nazis’ industrial power (when they used mainly horses in their Russian campaign). The clear symbols we associate with the Nazis – the Panzers, the steel helmets – remind us of industrial perfection and progress. Even if they lost the war, they’ve succeeded in preserving their illusion, at least on the surface.

As I said at the beginning, I think the exhibition did a good job at urging us to consider how objects and buildings can help create the illusion of a certain ideal lifestyle, even a kitchen chair or an ‘exit’ sign in a museum. The idea that the products we use are a gateway to a certain type of lifestyle has only become bigger in our late-capitalist age.  Many people dedicate their lives to having a certain aesthetic in their homes and their closets. Their goal is to be as authentic as possible, and leave out anything that does not conform. For instance, I follow a number of people on Instagram who are dedicated to living a ‘vintage’ lifestyle, dressing in authentic 1940s clothing and posing before a suitably timeless backdrop, like a garden or a forest path. Us followers are happy to suspend the illusion of modernity (it was posted from a smartphone, after all!) because we admire and appreciate the lengths to which these people go to appear authentic, not just in their own lives but in their photos as well. But it’s not just vintage fans: many Instagrammers spend a lot of time planning and carefully editing photographs which they then pass off as true and authentic (#nofilter!), removing all ‘unwanted elements’ from their illusion of visual harmony and symmetry. Though so much of what we see on Instagram isn’t real, many people choose to believe it, with devastating effects on mental health all over the world. Sound familiar yet?

Fashion and nostalgia

Still, the ‘vintage corner’ on Instagram seems to me quite harmless. It’s mainly a place where collectors and people who love to play dress-up (to put it irreverently) meet. Many are nostalgic for the days when to go out meant you made a real effort to look chic: dresses, hats, gloves, handbags, ties, two-tone shoes and suits. In addition, there is a strong element of ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’-nostalgia here: while modern clothes are often designed to last only x years, forcing us to keep buying new ones, in the past companies used to boast that their coats, hats or shoes would last a lifetime. The emergence of repair cafés all over the world, a counter-movement against endless capitalist consumption, reminds me of the ‘make do and mend’-campaign that ran in Britain during WWII, though of course at the time repairing your old clothes was born out of necessity and wartime austerity rather than personal choice.

Romanticising fashion from the past is something of all ages; as long as new styles continue to be born, there will be people longing for the return of past styles. It only becomes problematic, in my opinion, when we’re not just talking about vintage clothes, but clothes that aren’t neutral – uniforms, in other words. The other day I read an article in The New York Times about the new US Army dress uniforms (‘army greens’, the military equivalent of a business suit), which will be inspired by US Army uniforms from the 1940s. Says the NYT: “The Army hopes that bringing back a service uniform styled like the one worn in World War II can refresh its public image.” In other words, by re-using the aesthetic of the last time the US celebrated total victory in a war, they are hoping to manipulate the public and the service people themselves into seeing modern US soldiers as sharing the same ideals as the ‘Greatest Generation’. If Nazi uniforms instantly spell ‘evil’, the 1940s US Army uniform is meant to spell ‘hero’: “World War II is seen as a just war, a good war. This uniform says, ‘We are the good guys.’” That this myth still lives on is evident at events such as the yearly D-Day celebrations, where thousands of people dress up as Allied military personnel – and mainly as the paratroopers from Band of Brothers.


Of course, after Vietnam and the Middle Eastern wars, people no longer automatically associated US Army uniforms with authority, trust and power. In fact, in the article, a historian of military dress says: “’That 1950s was my favorite uniform, very modern, very smart, very American. . .But it’s too tied up in associations with Vietnam. And it became the prototype for the uniform of nearly every dictator in South America and Asia. So I suppose it’s best to move on.’” Here, we see again how uniforms can either embody or eclipse unwanted elements from history: design is a propaganda tool that nobody is entirely immune to. By appealing to the public’s nostalgia for the halo of selfless sacrifice that surrounds WWII veterans from the US, the blunders of Vietnam and the Middle Eastern wars can be overwritten. Tellingly, the article says that army greens were hardly worn at all during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In our day and age of perfectly polished Instagram pictures masquerading as truth, it can be difficult to think critically about what is real, what isn’t, and why we often prefer to be ignorant of the often harsh truths behind a person’s ‘aesthetic’. It can also be difficult to see through propaganda like the US Army’s, which is still in the vein of good design creating ‘good users’. What the Design of the Third Reich exhibit will hopefully do for many people is make them aware of how products for every day use can still embody an ideology, subtly influencing how we think of certain brands and companies, and how easily they can mislead us. Especially since many try their best to hide from us in the Western world the suffering of exploited workers, targeted civilians and duped landowners that lies behind much of what we consume. The Nazis rose to power through political means, but they stayed there because of their material means: those who supported their charade were unwilling or unable to realize fully what lay behind it.

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