University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Visual Sources: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!”

Nia Picton-Phillips, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on a Nazi propaganda poster featuring Adolf Hitler for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. Nia discusses the ways in which the image was used to promote various aspects of Nazi ideology. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth. 

The use of visual sources as a means of understanding the past has transformed historical knowledge. The ‘pictorial turn,’ as suggested by W. J. T. Mitchell, was “declared a new cultural phenomenon: a transition from a culture dominated by the book to one dominated by images.” [1] The value of visual sources is particularly prevalent in the study of Nazism. As John Tosh has noted, research “has been deepened by the study of official propaganda,” allowing scholars to understand how such propaganda was used to sustain the Third Reich. [2] The source in question is a propaganda poster of Adolf Hitler with the central slogan “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!” (One People, one Country, one Leader!), which was widely distributed in Germany in the years after its commission in 1935. [3] As shown in this source, the Nazis manufactured propaganda to encourage confirmation from the public of a ‘national community,’ with the urge “to put ‘community before the individual’ […] and to place its faith in slogans”. [4] This poster, serving as a popular example of propaganda, as well as an attempt to restructure the ‘weak’ German society that was said to have been caused by the old Weimar system, enriches historians’ understanding of Nazi Germany through its symbolistic content. This source, and visual sources in general, highlight the benefits of the employment of visual sources to aid comprehension of the past.

The uses of symbolism in visual sources, especially within the context of Nazi Germany, act as interpretative measures “which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion.” [5] Politically, the slogan emphasised the desire for Nazi Germany to be a homogenous community, particularly racially. [6] This left an “indelible mark on the minds of most Germans who lived through the Nazi years,” because it appeared on a myriad of propaganda posters, as well being disseminated orally through speeches; an art of persuasion to transform the Third Reich into one total state. [7] The religious undertone of this source is reinforced when coupled with Hermann Göring’s comments that “God gave the saviour to the German people. We have faith, deep unshakeable faith, that he [Hitler] was sent to us by God to save Germany.” [8] The implication is that Hitler was ‘chosen’ to act upon God’s will.

This poster of Hitler contains two significant aspects of Nazi symbolism: the swastika and Reichsadler (‘Imperial Eagle’). To understand the visual source, it is important to place these symbols in context, questioning why and how they became the most significant symbols of the Nazi party, stigmatised by connotations of genocide, hatred and racism. In this source, Hitler wears a red swastika armband around his left arm, as a representation of the Nazi party, an image which was “crucial to the spread of Nazi success.” [9] In Mein Kampf Hitler gave a National Socialist meaning to images such as this: “in red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalist idea, in the swastika the mission and the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.” [10] Although this turned the ancient swastika into a symbol of hatred, as a symbol for Nazi rule, it provided the visual identity and national image for success. The Reichsadler, seen upon Hitler’s brown tie, had been a symbol of national unity for many years. It originated from the Holy Roman Empire and was used in its original form until 1935. However, a different edition of the Reichsadler, combined with the Nazi swastika, became the national emblem during the Nazi movement, as ordered by the Führer. It is, then, integral to consider symbols within an image. In this instance they reveal to historians a great deal about Germany as a nation, Hitler as its leader, and the sense of ‘national community’ being promoted within Germany.

As a consequence of the introduction of Mitchell’s ‘pictorial turn,’ the use of visual sources has been vastly debated amongst historians, such as Peter Burke, Stephen Bann, Francis Haskell and Peter Claus. Since the late eighteenth-century, “visual propaganda has occupied a large place in modern political history.” [11] Before its association with negative connotations, propaganda was deployed to promote “a particular goal […] desired by the propagandist.” [12] This goal, relating to this source, was to unify the German population with the creation of an intensified national awareness through the central idea of ‘ein Volk’ under the dictatorship of one leader. Claus recognised that to use visual sources appropriately, means to historically contextualise them beyond doubt, ensuring the sources can accurately enrich historical understanding. [13] Therefore, historians must place the source within its historical context but without limiting it. In this sense, “room should also be left for what Francis Haskell has called ‘the impact of the image on the historical imagination’.” [14] This extension of Burke’s argument allows historians to witness forms of past cultures, such as political life, religion, knowledge and belief. Bann noted that images bring us “face-to-face with history,” whereas Burke debates this usefulness. [15] The ‘silence’ of visual sources makes understanding their testimony difficult for historians, because sources “may have been intended to communicate a message of their own,” a message of which is not the historian’s. [16] This aspect, however, is sometimes ignored to ‘read’ visual sources “between the lines,” therefore distorting the meaning of the visual sources and thus distorting the historian’s understanding. [17] With sufficient analysis, and placed in their historical provenance, visual sources can and have provided historians with great insights of the past, further enhancing their understanding of particular issues.

Ultimately, the Nazi propaganda poster analysed in this blog highlights the efforts of Hitler and the Nazi party to initiate conformity to a ‘national community’ with the idea of a great leader. This was a leader who would be “hard, ruthless, resolute, uncompromising and radical’; a leader who would be a “ruler, warrior and high-priest like.” [18] This was an ideal of leadership which Nazi propaganda proved effective in portraying in the form of Hitler. This effectiveness casts light on social ‘rationality’ in this period, and allows us to understand why Hitler was as highly regarded and supported by the German population as he was. Many people in Germany believed that Hitler would be the leader to resolve the mistakes of the weak Weimar system. Symbolism in visual sources is thus integral to understanding the meaning and purpose of the source, and in this instance that symbolism is used to illuminate the idea of Hitler as a significant leader during the Third Reich. While there are obvious risks in using visual sources for historical understanding, as Katy Layton-Jones has rightly noted, their use “by academic historians has become not only acceptable, but actively encouraged.” [19] Nonetheless, they should always be analysed critically with regard to the context and agenda of the producer, or propagandist, as in the example used in this blog.



[1] Sol Cohen, “An Innocent Eye: The “Pictorial Turn,” Film Studies, and History,” History of Education Quarterly 43, no. 2, (2003), 250.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of History 6th ed. (London: Routledge, 2015), 208.

[3] Heinrich Knirr, Color poster with a portrait of Hitler and the Nazi slogan: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer, 1935, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn516176, last accessed 30 January 2018.

[4] David Welch, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), 61.

[5] Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 7.

[6] Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer, https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn516176, last accessed 30 January 2018.

[7] Joseph W. Bendersky, A Concise History of Nazi Germany, (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 105.

[8] Gabriel Wilensky, Six Million Crucifixions: How Christian Teachings About Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust, (San Diego: QWERTY Publishers, 2010), 86.

[9] Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris, (London: Penguin, 2001), 320.

[10] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, (London: Pimlico, 1992), 497.

[11] Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence, (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), 79.

[12] Aristotle A. Kallis, Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War, (Basingstoke: Macmillian, 2008), 1.

[13] Peter Claus and John Marriott, History: An Introduction to Theory, Method and Practice, (Essex: Pearson Education, 2012), 263.

[14] Burke, Eyewitnessing, 13.

[15] Burke, Eyewitnessing, 13.

[16] Burke, Eyewitnessing, 14.

[17] Burke, Eyewitnessing, 14.

[18] Ian Kershaw, “How Effective was Nazi Propaganda?”, in Nazi Propaganda: The Power and the Limitations ed. David Welch, (London: Croom Helm, 1983), 185.

[19] Katy Layton-Jones, “Visual Quotations: Referencing Visual Sources as Historical Evidence,” Visual Resources 24, no. 2, (2008), 189.

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