John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld) (1891 – 1968)

It is extraordinary that although John Heartfield was in exile in London for twelve years, he is hardly known about here, never mind celebrated. Probably the most famous of the German anti-Nazis artists, a founder of the Dadaist movement, a pioneer of photomontage and friends of Brecht, Ernst Toller, Georg Grosz and Piscator, who used art as a political weapon against the Nazis, he continued his anti-Nazi activities insofar as possible while in exile in the UK but it is as if he never had lived here.1 No doubt being a founder member of the KPD didn’t help. The British State, having tried to stop him coming here, spied on him whilst here, then basically threw him out after the war. Despite – or should that be, ‘because of’ – the continuing poignancy and immediacy of many of his political images, he has remained hidden ever since.

Heartfield pioneered the use of art as an anti-Nazi weapon. With Heartfield, the purpose of art is not as before to reify bourgeois relationships but to comment on politics and encourage political action. Heartfield used modern popular media, such as cuttings and photos from newspapers, montage and slogans to create an easily recognised but damning critique of Nazism. But, as Kay argues, the way Heartfield used montage – the combination of the recognisable and of ‘deception’ made “the absurd appear true and the true appear absurd’, thereby demystifying the ‘appearance’ of leading Nazi figures 2 

His father was a socialist writer (and historically Jewish) and his mother a textile worker and a trade union activist. As a result of their politics, the family was forced to flee Germany to Switzerland in 1896. In 1916, back in Berlin, Heartfield, disgusted with the anti-British fervour sweeping Germany informally changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld to John Heartfield! He was drafted into the Army in 1915 but succeeded in evading military service, possibly due to simulating a mental condition. In the early interwar years, the turbulence of German politics and the horrors of the war provided yeast for remarkable left-wing committed art: Berlin Dadaists, (who came out on the side of Luxemburg and Liebknecht), whose techniques of connecting photographs, newspaper cuttings, and magazine advertisements in photomontages deeply influenced Heartfield, the work of George Grosz (whose work also influenced him but who was never as much a KPD loyalist as Heartfield), Kathe Kollwitz, Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator and the Russian constructivists.3

In December 1918, Heartfield joined the KPD the day after it was formed! According to his brother, they both initially became interested in the radical left when they heard Karl Liebknecht’s anti-war appeal in 1916. Heartfield then began to support the USPD (Independent Socialist Party) and the Spartacists. The Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 further inspired Heartfield and his brother. 4 In 1919, Heartfield was dismissed from the commercial film service because of his support for the strike that followed the assassination of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

Heartfield’s work can only be understood in terms of his commitment to revolutionary politics: an expression of his hatred of Nazism, militarism and imperialism. In the second half of the 1920s, Heartfield directly worked for the KPD, designing election posters and creating photomontages for particular political issues set out in the newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag).

I made posters for party meetings, for demonstrations and elections, for the party’s agit-prop, designed the emblem for the Red Front… and edited the party’s satirical comic paper ‘Der Rote Knuppel’ (The Red Stick)

After 1929 Heartfield concentrated on photomontage for the Arbeiter-Illustrierter-Zeitung (AIZ), an ostensibly independent newspaper, in fact financed and indirectly controlled by the Comintern and not by the KPD. Fortunately for Heartfield, it was directed by Munzenberg who appears to have found Heartfield’s unconventional talented propaganda appealing. AIZ had a readership of up to half a million! In 1927/28, Heartfield worked in the KPD’s Central Committee agit-prop section. But this was not an unproblematic relationship. Surely humour isn’t compatible with disciplined party politics. God forbid, Der Rote Knuppel smacked of individualism and modernismand aazingly, lasted for a few years!5 I But these debates were soon to become centre stage in the arguments about social realism: this run-in presaged future disagreements in which the agitprop section ‘loyalty’ was viewed with suspicion6

Heartfield created hundreds of popular images and produced 35 front-covers for AIZ, some still recognisable. In the years around 1928/29, before Nazis had become such an obvious threat, his extraordinary photomontage played on the horrors of the first world war. But soon, his photomontages for AIZ focused on the threat of Nazism and became part of the KPD’s attempt to win the elections of 1930 and 1932, the KPD leadership having woken up to the potential power of art as propaganda.7 (Apparently, his work was so ‘successful’ that a number of industrial companies tried to tempt him to work for them with large amounts of money. He refused.) His other job was to design many book jackets for the newish Malik Verlag publishing house which he and his brother had founded about ten years earlier.

This poster is from the first edition of ‘The Red Stick’:8

I include the following image from 1927 because of how much the man depicted on the left looks like Hitler which I doubt was coincidence!

From April 1931 to January 1932, Heartfield worked in the USSR where he exhibited his work, gave lectures and courses on photomontage, designed a couple of magazines and helped with stage sets. In Odessa, he worked with Piscator on the film ‘The Revolt of the Fishermen’. This reproduction reveals both how far he stuck to photomontage but also how very much more ‘realistic’ it was in its implementation!

Back in Germany, Heartfield continued to produce hundreds of anti-Nazi photo-montage images (see below). It is too easy to look back and assume Heartfield would focus on undermining the growing threat of Nazism. But remember that for the KPD leadership, it was the ‘social fascist’ SPD who were the main enemy, not the Nazis. Heartfield’s political nose was, fortunately, sharper than theirs.

in April 1933 when the SA and SS broke into his flat, he saved himself by jumping from his balcony, spraining his ankle; he was apparently number five on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list. The Nazis made a search of the courtyard but failed to spot an old metal dustbin. For the next seven hours, Heartfield hid amongst the rubbish. But ‘the barbarians’ did succeed in destroying his entire work up till then.

According to his ‘Lebenslauf’ of 1951, the Party then ordered him to emigrate. He somehow made contact with the underground network that would soon smuggle him on foot through the Sudeten mountains and over the border into Czechoslovakia. (It always worth noting how which refugees escaped Germany by walking, out they were afraid of being caught by the Gestapo, SA or SS if they caught a train. Those who caught trains did not think they were in immediate danger .) He had no documents.

The photomontage of ‘Adolf the Superman’ from 1932 satirises Hitler by showing an x-ray view of his spine constructed out of gold coins and thus fuelled by capitalist interests. Try not to look at this with the eyes of somebody almost 100 years later. This supposedly- and apparently actually- helped undermine the myth Hitler was constructing of himself.

In this photomontage from 1934,  Göring: The Executioner of the Third Reich, Heartfield exposed Hermann Goering as the Third Reich’s executioner. Goering had blamed the Reichstag fire that helped Hitler seize power as the work of Jews and communists.

Heartfield denied Party membership in Prague, but this was probably a tactical decision, especially as the Czech government had put out a memo warning of refugee subversives. Indeed the Czech government although offering a limited sort of sanctuary, as early as 1933, issued a warning about the influx of German communists and Jews.10

Heartfield continued to produce anti-Nazi photomontages for AIZ which started being produced in Prague from 25 March 1933. As previously, the main source of funding was Munzenberg. Heartfield was prolific in Prague, producing many coverpiece photomontages for AIZ, now called Volks-Illustrierte. Heartfield concentrated his attacks on Hitler and on the industrialists who supplied the Nazi state with arms. However, it was very difficult to smuggle the magazine back to Germany and circulation dropped dramatically. AIZ limped on till November 1939.

Heartfield’s participation in the International Exhibition of Caricatures in Prague in 1934 then led to Germany threatening to discontinue diplomatic relationships with Czechoslovakia! The Nazi Government tried to persuade the still independent Czech government to throw Heartfield out. The Czech government first agreed to ban Heartfield’s work but after an international outcry, a ‘compromise’ was reached: only some of Heartfield’s work was taken down! Heartfield’s friends in Europe also helped to get published eight photomontages on the Spanish civil war in an anti-Franco magazine; The World in Pictures11

Although Jewishness had never been an apparent concern or theme in Heartfield’s work, at this point, against the background of rising anti-Semitism in Germany and beyond, some of Heartfield’s photomontages targeted the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, a focus he was to continue in London.12 The Nazis certainly did not miss an anti-Semitic trick and in 1938, Nazi propagandist, Erwin Schockel, denounced Heartfield as a disorderly Jew dressed in dirty clothes and lacking originality. Heartfield produced a Nazi photo featuring a German peasant having his nose measured and his last photomontage in London in December 1939 for Reynolds News ’Reservations’ showed Himmler standing over a fenced-in mass of people swinging a whip and holding a dagger in his hand.

Heartfield then went to Paris for six months where his work was exhibited and where he participated in the ‘First international Writers Congress for the Defense of Culture’. At this point, he also designed the book cover for Munzenberg’s ‘Brown Book’. 5

Heartfield had to flee for a second time, afraid of what would happen when the Nazis arrived. He was rescued from Prague with the help of the British Committee for Refugees, entering Britain on an interim Czech passport.13 Also apparently giving him support was the British group, Artists International, adherents of the CP and strongly pro-Soviet. They listed the artists at risk in Prague, putting Heartfield as their first priority. They found Gilbert Murray, a friend of Heartfield’s, to stand surety for him. Heartfield was then able to leave Prague on 6th December 1938.

He first stayed here with Yvonne Kapp, a Czech journalist and active member of the Communist Party.14 After an initial refusal, it took a request by Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson, for a visa to be granted without delay. It was then issued for a mere two months.15 16 The Party group of exiles, in the person of Koenen (see separate biography), organised accommodation for Heartfield with Fred Ullmann, the refugee painter and member of the SPD who was the Chair of the Free German League.

MI5 viewed Heartfield with alarm. This was fulled by Krivitsy who identified him in February 1940 as an agent of OGPU (later KGB, the Russian secret police) (National Archives, KV 2/802) and as a former GRU (Russian Secret Intelligence) agent who also had contacts with the CPer, Yvonne Kapp. (Krivitsky, who had turned from being a Soviet to an American spy, had a predilection for naming unlikely people as spies, including my mother!) MI5 also spotted Heartfield’s subsequent involvement in the “Free German League of Culture”, which, as they put it, was a KPD “front” organisation. Hiller, whom we shall meet again, reported to MI5 on Heartfield.

Heartfield was interned as an enemy alien in 1940, and though it was only for six weeks, he passed through three different camps and his health began to deteriorate. (He suffered from intermittent epilepsy.) Again the MP, Ellen Wilkinson, and also MP Eleanor Rathbone17 raised questions in Parliament which led to his release. (Imagine what would have happened if he had not been so famous.) MI5 opined he should be re-interned forthwith but the Home Office demurred (an interesting disagreement but not one that concerns us here).

Indeed, Heartfield remained in constant fear of being re-interned until a letter from the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees in January 1941 informed him that his case was closed. However, his permit to reside in Britain was dependent on a decision to be taken by the Czech Refugee Trust Fund in London, to which he wrote increasingly desperate letters begging for permission to stay. Finally, he received a certificate, confirming his status as a ‘political refugee, because of the danger in which he stood as a result of his political activities’.18

Being an avowed communist did not help. He had difficulty placing his work. In addition, like other refugees, he was not allowed to get paid work. And, although he did continue his anti-Nazi ‘propaganda’ he became less productive, as so often happens in exile, when people are ‘derooted’. But over the next few months, his work did appear in the left-wing ‘Reynolds News’, and the newspaper: Lilliput.19 On 23rd September, 1939, Picture Post used one of Heartfield’s earlier anti-Hitler photomontages. His work was also shown in the London and the Arcade Galleries. The Free German League also mounted a number of small exhibitions of their members’ work: he got a one day show, sub-titled: ’One man’s show against Hitler!’! His aim was to make the public aware of the threat of Nazism both within Germany but also to Europe as a whole. But, a committed Communist, the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939/40 upset him.20

He spoke at political rallies, organised anti-Fascist groups, and co-organised the political cabaret, ‘Four and Twenty Black Sheep’ for the Free German League of Culture. This drew heavily on the traditions of German political cabaret, was itself in German and had as much to do with the experience of the refugees themselves as it was geared to an English audience. The audience here were not that responsive to Heartfield’s photo-montage, partly because it was primarily aimed at galvanising a German audience and partly because the cultural ‘elite’ here were not acquainted with this sort of imagery! Moreover, the artistic establishment judged refugee ‘art’ on ‘artistic criteria’, which cannot have helped their understanding of Heartfield’s work!

Heartfield threw himself into the League’s activities and can be seen as one of their leading lights. He created stage designs for the League’s ‘little theatre’, wrote articles for its journal, and gave lectures. In June 1941, the League held an exhibition of his work to celebrate his fiftieth birthday.21 In July 1942, again under the League’s umbrella, Heartfield organised the successful and popular exhibition ‘Allies Inside Nazi Germany’ (with Hans Fladung as its director), attended by about 15,000 people. The striking image by H A Rothholz on the front of Steve and my book on ‘Anti-Nazi Germans’ was taken from one of the exhibits.22Allies Inside Germany’, sought to draw attention to the resistance of anti-fascists in Germany and abroad, The message that Germany was worth liberating (remember this is 1943) was well received.23 During the war, Heartfield was also an active member of the Artists International Association. 24 Heartfield’s work here does not deviate from the defeat of Hitler. Not for him a softening of the edges or a concern with Britain.

Despite extensive efforts and various letters of reference, Heartfield did not obtain permission from the Home Office to work as a ‘freelance cartoonist’ until January 1943. 25 (It is often forgotten that one of the Home Office’s tricks was to refuse a work-permit to many of the refugees, seeing them as a source of competition for British workers, though this position was no doubt laced with a good dose of racism and on some occasions, anti-Semitism.) He was therefore forced to explore other possibilities. Although he received a grant from the Czech Refugee Trust Fund, it did not cover his expenses. His finances become so desperate, he attempted to learn how to become an inspector in the metal industry, a course run by the League. Finding work was hard. He then found work as a graphic designer for English publishers, including the new publisher, Lindsay Drummond Ltd, thanks to the influence of Ian Carlile. Lindsey Drummond, together with Victor Gollancz, were the first British press to publish anti-fascist books. After his work permit finally came through in July 1943, he was able to get a fixed contract with them which lasted until the publishing house closed in 1950 and which allowed him to become a production manager! From mid-March to June 1950, Heartfield also worked for the prestigious Penguin Books, a job he received through Uhlman.26 He also produced political covers for the publication of the Free German League youth organisation in 1943: ‘Inside Nazi Germany’, ten years after the Nazis took power. Altogether, Heartfield produced over 200 covers for books while in London. But by now his work has lost some of its ‘bite’.

To keep himself busy and earn money, he gave lectures, for example on Daumier (whom he saw as an inspiration), and the work of his friend Grosz. Heartfield also collected the anti-Nazi cartoons of David Low but although both shared sympathy for the USSR, Low’s work was rooted in an ‘Englishness’ to which Heartfield did not aspire. (He also had little talent as a cartoonist!)

After the war, he designed a series of propaganda brochures for the Soviet news. But Heartfield was denied his written applications to remain in England for “his work and his health”, despite his appeals to the Czech Refugee Fund, who appear to have withdrawn their support from him.27 The Cold War was starting to heat up and here, Communists were even more ‘persona non grata’. In this post-fascist world where Heartfield would not have been willing to lend his art to anti-Sovietism and where there was anyway little demand for his work, Heartfield was not doing well.

In 1947, he was offered a professorship in satirical graphics in the Department of Applied Arts of Humboldt University, East Berlin. But Heartfield was hesitant about returning to East Germany. Did he have a sense that he would also not fit in there? He is quoted as querying as to why he had to become a professor! The British security service was still interested in him. They report checking his mail and phone calls in October 1949, which produced interesting but not conclusive results.28 But after accepting the appointment, Heartfield does go to East Germany, though not till 1950. To what degree he is forced to leave and to what degree he chose to leave is unclear but it has certainly been suggested that he was essentially thrown out.

In 2019, his grandson, Bob Sondermeijer, gave an interview to Ralph Keuning, one of the principal organisers of the putative exhibition of Heartfield’s work in 2020/21, which sheds some limited light on Heartfield’s decision to leave the UK. It seems his wife, Tutti, very much wanted to return to Germany, though she later said it was her biggest mistake. In addition, in London he did not have a high profile and they still hoped for more in East Germany.29

But East Germany treated him shabbily: in their view, he had stayed too long in the West and was a traitor.30 His admission to the SED, and then to the East German Academy of Arts only took place following the personal intervention of Brecht in 1957. Heartfield’s work appears to veer towards a more social realist style even if certainly not one that most social realists would appreciate

There is something horribly familiar about Heartfield’s life and the degree to which the British artistic establishment have chosen not to remember him. That this was connected to his politics is unquestionable. That Heartfield continued to be productive after being forced to flee on two separate occasions, having to learn a new language, make new friends and adapt to new political situations, is remarkable. And although East Germany was a form of return, it was to a very different land to the one he knew up till 1933. Heartfield was a product of his time: an implacable fighter against Nazism. The post-Nazi Cold War was not such an obvious target for him (and, lest we forget, he was already about sixty the year he went to East Germany). Now it is time for us to recognise and celebrate him.

1 It is possible I just could not find it but there does not appear to have been an exhibition of Heartfield’s work here, except at the ICA in 1969, fifty years ago, which had an accompanying booklet, or any comprehensive British published study of his life and work in the UK. (There are both German and American studies, though Heartfield’s art as propaganda for the KPD is often sidelined) I found one short article in a British collection: Anna Schuilz : John Heartfield: A Political Artist’s Exile in London in ‘Burning Bright Book. Essays in Honour of David Bindman’, eds: Diana Dethloff, Tessa Murdoch, Kim Sloan and Caroline Elam, UCL, 2015. There is also an excellent article by Carolyn Kay, Art and Politics in Interwar Germany The Photomontages of John Heartfield , Toronto, dedicated to Timothy Mason, ‘whose encouragement was instrumental’ but which, as the title indicates, is looking at Heartfield’s time in Germany, not the UK. It also touches on the relationship between the KPD and Heartfield’s work, a theme somebody should explore!

Thanks to the present pandemic and the enforced closure of museums etc, the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste—ADK) in Berlin, which controls Heartfield’s estate, has just placed online a virtual, multimedia presentation of photos, documents and audio-visual testimonials dealing with Heartfield’s life and work, though (inevitably?) not as fully as one might wish! It had been due to open at the end of March 2020 and to transfer to the RA mid 2021..

2 Kay, op cit.

3 Heartfield explained in a radio interview in 1966 that the Dadaists were almost all from a bourgeois background, with no connection to the working class. But that they had such an extreme reaction to German barbarity during WW1, that ‘the Dadaistic man had to be a radical opponent to exploitation’. (

4 Kay, Carolyn, Art and Politics in Interwar Germany The Photomontages of John Heartfield , Toronto, p21

6 John Heartfied photography plud dynmie, p43

7 Heartfield unfortunately took the party line on social fascism. In 1930 he created a photomontage for AIZ of a passive, faceless figure, entitled ‘Whoever Reads the Bourgeois Papers Will Become Blind and Deaf Away With the Stupefying Bandages’. The face of the man is wrapped with two SPD newpapers. To the modern eye, it looks as if today’s mass media is stupefying but that was not its original purpose!

8 Both these posters are from the archive of the Imperial War Museum, with my thanks. The museum appears to have dozens of Heartfield productions. Maybe we should all write to them suggesting they put on an exhibition! (,online_chips:john+heartfield&rlz=1C1GCEA_enGB875GB875&hl=en-GB&ved=2ahUKEwjT8tDD9vHpAhXL34UKHX_yDkAQ4lYoAHoECAEQFg&biw=1349&bih=625#imgrc=VOotu2GDO2MisM)

10 John Heartfield, 191

13 The Czechoslovak Refugee Trust was created on 21 July 1939 by the Treasury, the Home Office and three Trustees appointed by the Home Secretary. It developed from the British Committee for refugees from Czechoslovakia, established in October 1938. In some sort of strange financial arrangement, It was funded by the British Government, the Czech government and by private donation. (This formulation raised many concerns as the Czech government was by then under Nazi directorship.) So the British government did not have clear responsibility of the Fund’s operations. Its terms of reference were to rescue those who had challenged Nazism, thereby putting their lives at risk, who sought refuge from Nazi persecution following the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, and the subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The terms of eligibility created were also much argued over. It appears the Czech government wanted to exclude Jews and there was also a question as to whether Sudenten Germans could apply. ( ). In a debate about refugees from Czechoslovakia, it is astonishing to read the Prime-Minister, Chamberlain, informing the House of Commons two week before the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia in March 1939 that no aggression against Czechoslovakia had taken place. ( i.e. that there was no reason to fuss over refugees from Czechoslavakia. It gives a sense of the precariousness of getting into the UK as a refugee. It has been suggested that the Government’s unusual generosity towards refugees was ‘guilt money’ for selling out Czechoslovakia. The British Government’s policy was that the refugees could only be accepted as transmigrants.

By December 1939, the British Committee had brought nearly 12,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain, including 6000 Czechs, 3000 Sudeten Germans, 300 other Czech minorities and 1000 [Reich] Germans, many having to flee for the second time. ( Jana Buresova The Czech Refugee Trust Fund in Britain 1939–1950 I n Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Volume: 11,Editors: Charmian Brinson and Marian Malet) MI5 was deeply suspicious of it, largely because of the numbers of suspected Communists they got out and because British Communists, such as Kapp, were on its staff (at least for some time).MI5 employed numerous informants to spy on its activities.

16 Brinson and Dove, 92,118

17 MP for the Combined English Universities May 30, 1929 – January 2, 1946

18 Schulz, Anna: John Heartfield: A Political Artist’s Exile in London cf earlier footnote

19 He stopped working for Reynolds News after they had split and spliced his work once too often: ‘vandalism’ as he called it, yet another sign of how unappreciative even the left were of his work.

20 In November 1939, Heartfield’s brother Wieland Herzfelde, was denied permanent residency in England but, having ‘accidentally’ been born in Switzerland, he and his family were granted permission to emigrate to the USA. Heartfield applied to follow him, but permission was denied.

21 Op cit 118,119

22 Rothholz fled Germany for the UK in 1933, and was involved with the League.

23 In fact, one of Heartfield’s main montages for this exhibition was not used. It depicts Hitler, Goebbels (with his club foot) and Göring (in uniform) in an attempt to stop a French clock striking twelve. It referred to the launching of the Second Front, requested by Stalin in 1942, but only created in 1944. The fear of it can be clearly seen on the faces of the three Nazis. Apparently similar in style to Heartfield’s earlier work, the decision reminds us of how unsympathetic even his left-wing audience were to his style. On a subsequent occasion, the League banned a caricature of Hitler as a savage, sitting in a gorilla-like manner on a globe and holding a bloody sabre in one hand and a frog in the other, to be used as a book cover.


The Artists International Association, a radically left political organisation, was founded in 1933 and drew in about 1000 people. It held a series of large group exhibitions on political and social themes beginning in 1935 with an exhibition entitled Artists Against Fascism and War. It supported the left-wing Republican side in the Spanish Civil war through exhibitions and other fund-raising activities. It was also involved in the settling of refugee anti-Nazi artists.

26 Jutta Vinzent’ Identity And Image Refugee Artists From Nazi Germany In Britain (1933–1945), Weimer, 2006, P48

27 I have unfortunately not been able to find more detail on this. But, as a generalisation, the political refugees wanted to go back, those who had fled anti-Semitism wanted to stay put. It was unusual to find the (Labour) Government refusing to allow refugees to stay who wanted to.

28 David King and Ernst Vollaed John Heartfield. Laughter is a devastating weapon, p166

29 John Heartfield, Photography plus dynamiter, p243 This is the book that was supposed to accompany the 2021 exhibition at RA.