The New-York Historical Society Education Division provides dynamic programming and curriculum resources for students in New York and beyond. The Teen Historian blog features research and writing from high school students in our after-school programs who’ve used these resources to deepen their understanding of American history.
This is Nazi Brutality was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
Written by Nechama Peikes, 12th grade
Ben Shahn’s This is Nazi Brutality illustrates a common, yet horrific occurrence in Nazi controlled Czechoslovakia. Shahn depicts a man in a suit standing in front of two brick walls under a gloomy sky. His hands are clenched, his wrists are cuffed, and the viewer’s eye is almost immediately drawn to the execution hood he is wearing. Superimposed over the painting is a transcribed message from a Radio Berlin program that states, “Radio Berlin.– IT IS OFFICIALLY ANNOUNCED:- ALL MEN OF LIDICE- CZECHOSLOVAKIA- HAVE BEEN SHOT: THE WOMEN DEPORTED TO A CONCENTRATION CAMP: THE CHILDREN SENT TO APPROPRIATE CENTERS– THE NAME OF THE VILLAGE WAS IMMEDIATELY ABOLISHED. 6/11/42/115P.” Above that message in large red letters is the phrase, “This is Nazi Brutality.”
In This is Nazi Brutality, Ben Shahn draws inspiration from the massacre and destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, a small mining town near Prague. In 1941 the Czech resistance, in conjunction with the British Secret Service, began planning the murder of Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Hitler’s right hand man and the deputy Reichsprotektor, or head of state, of Czechoslovakia. He was sent to Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia to quash rising anti-fascist sentiment there, and in less than a year he sent more than five thousand suspected anti-fascist Czechs to their death, earning the nickname “Hitler’s Hangman.” On May 27, 1942, two members of the Czech resistance attacked Heydrich in Prague. His body was riddled with shrapnel and he was rushed to the hospital, where he died from a blood infection on June 8, 1942. After hearing the news of Heydrich’s death, Hitler ordered that anyone who was connected to the assassination be killed in a public and brutal manner to demoralize future resistance. In compliance with Hitler’s orders, on the morning of June 10th, the Gestapo, the German secret police, arrived in Lidice. Nazi officials found a letter sent to a family in Lidice that made them suspect that the town was harboring members of the Czech resistance, and they ordered the townspeople to gather in the town square. By the end of the day Lidice was decimated. The men were shot and killed, the women were sent to concentration camps, and the children were taken to a factory and later murdered in gas chambers. The Gestapo burned and razed the town completely and removed the name Lidice from all government records. The entire massacre was filmed and publicized throughout the Nazi regime in the hopes of discouraging further resistance.
Overseas, on June 13, 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the Office of War Information (OWI), a government office to rally the American public through propaganda. Although propaganda is usually associated with negativity, the OWI and artists like Shahn, used propaganda as a positive force. One of the first OWI campaigns used the massacre of Lidice to gain support for the war effort. To spread awareness, a small town in Illinois was renamed Lidice in a well-publicized ceremony. Additionally, artists, such as writer Edna St. Vincent Millay who wrote The Murder of Lidice and Ben Shahn who created a painting to be used in a propaganda poster, were commissioned to create commemorative pieces. By educating the population about the brutality of Nazism, President Roosevelt hoped that people would realize that the Nazis posed a legitimate threat to America, not just Europe. The Nazis had the power to remove the freedoms that many Americans took for granted, and the only way to stop that was by rallying together in support of the war effort.
Shahn’s painting This is Nazi Brutality reflects the overall goal of the Lidice campaign. The focal point of the painting, the man in the center, is wearing a suit, a garment of clothes that most Americans could relate to. His face is hooded, allowing the viewer to picture themselves or a loved one as the victim of Nazi brutality. Although only two of his works were published by the OWI, Shahn played a crucial role in the way Americans viewed Nazism. A poll conducted by the US Office of Facts and Figures in May of 1942 found that 21% of people surveyed believed that America should focus on combating the Nazis. Following the Lidice awareness campaign, that number jumped to 40%. Soon after the Lidice campaign the OWI shifted to artwork that used patriotism to inspire productivity. Art like Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to join the workforce and Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings sold millions of dollars’ worth of war bonds. Shahn’s deft use of propaganda created a foundation for the fear of Nazism that laid the seeds for the success of further OWI campaigns.
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