Sterling Czechs: the role of exiled Czech cartoonists in Britain during the Second World War is often overlooked.
Much has been written about the heroic Czech airmen who flew for the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain and their compatriots who fought for the Allies in other conflicts during the Second World War. However, it is perhaps less well known that a number of exiled Czechoslovakian cartoonists also made a significant contribution to the British propaganda war.
Czechoslovakia (as the Czech and Slovak Republics were then known) has produced many fine cartoonists. One of the earliest in the 20th century was Josef Lada (1887-1957), best known for his humorous illustrations to Jaroslav Hasek's comic 1920s novel on the First World War, The Good Soldier Svejk. In 1931 Frantisek Bidlo (1895-1945) produced a series of strip cartoons lampooning quotations from Goebbels' novel Michael, and the writer Josef Capek (1887-1945, brother of the novelist and playwright Karel Capek), was also a distinguished cartoonist. Bidlo and Capek were later among the contributors to Das Dritte Reich in der Karikatur (The Third Reich in Caricature, 1934), which had an introduction by Heinrich Mann. This was a collection of anti-Nazi images published in Prague and based on an exhibition by various artists that was held at the Manes Arts Club Galleries in the city in the spring of 1934. Another collection, entitled Juden, Christen, Heiden im Dritten Reich (Jews, Christians and Heathens in the Third Reich, 1935) featured grotesque anti-Nazi cartoons by 'Bert' with captions in German, English and French.
A notable Czech cartoonist who worked in Britain during the Second World War period was Oscar Berger (1901-77). Born in Presov, he won a scholarship to the Berlin Art School (1920) and later joined the city's largest daily paper as a staff artist, sketching Hitler and his associates at their trial in 1923 following the failed Munich Putsch. He later left the country and eventually arrived in London in 1935. During the Blitz in 1940 he drew Winston Churchill as he stood talking with Cabinet colleagues in a corridor of the House of Commons. As he later recalled:
The raid was heavy; hundreds of bombers came over in waves. As the ancient buildings shook under the impact of bursting bombs, I saw Churchill's heavy jowl set with determination. I trembled as I sketched. Churchill never winced, but seemed to gather new strength as he spoke.
Berger remained in England throughout the war years, working for the Evening News, Sunday Dispatch and other publications and later moved to the USA where he became a naturalised US citizen in 1955.
'Z.K.' (Zdenek Kolarik, 1900-43), a corporal in the Czechoslovak Army, was born near Pilzen and studied painting in Prague. In 1938 he left the city and eventually reached London where he worked as a journalist and cartoonist on the staff of Nase Noviny--the newly founded newspaper for the Czechoslovak Forces in Britain--until his sudden death on March 1st, 1943. The exhibition of cartoons held at the Czechoslovak Institute--supported by Nase Noviny and opened on September 23rd, 1943 by the celebrated cartoonist David Low--was dedicated to his memory.
The other contributors to the London exhibition--which led to a tie-in book, Jesters in Earnest (1944)--were Walter Trier, Adolf Hoffmeister, Antonin Pelc and Stephen Roth.
Waiter Trier (1890-1951) was born in Prague but in 1910 moved to Berlin and joined the staff of the satirical weekly Lustige Blatter. In 1929 he was elected Vice-Chairman of the Association of Illustrators of Germany and the same year illustrated the classic children's book Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner (the first of 15 titles he would illustrate for the author between 1929 and 1951). Also in 1929 he painted a series of comic frescoes in the lobby of Berlin's Kabarett der Komiker. As Kastner later recalled:
Before 1933, Trier's enchanting music-hall frescoes delighted the patrons of the Kabarett der Komiker on Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. His orchestra made music without any instruments--the clarinettist was playing his own nose--and flamingoes formed the high-kicking chorus line.... But Hitler invaded the Kabarett der Komiker. One day, workmen came and scraped this joyful beauty off the walls. Another artist, of proper racial ancestry, was willing to disseminate with his brush another kind of cheerfulness, this time of the state-approved variety. The result was hopeless ... there was no substitute for Trier's art.
A number of books featuring Trier's drawings (including Emil and the Detectives) were among those burnt by the Nazis in Berlin's Opernplatz on May 10th, 1933 as 'subversive' literature. Trier moved to London in December 1936, drawing title cartoons for Pinewood Film Studios and beginning his long association as cover artist and cartoonist for Lilliput magazine (1937-49). During the Second World War he also produced political cartoons for the London-based German weekly Die Zeitung, (1941-45). He became a British citizen in 1947 and later the same year emigrated to Toronto, where he died on July 8th, 1951.
Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-73) was born in Prague and studied law at the Charles University. A founder member and first secretary of the Devetsil Arts Union, he worked as a journalist (interviewing James Joyce in 1934) and artist in Prague and was also a contributor to the antiNazi cartoon exhibition at the Manes Arts Club in the city (which was eventually closed down by the authorities after complaints from the German ambassador). Writing of his style in 1927 he said:
The less is better. A line is enough, but many lines are too little. The more lines there are, the more the immediacy of the impression is delayed.
In 1938 he wrote the libretto for Hans Krasa's celebrated children's opera Brundibar (Bumblebee) for a competition run by the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Education. However, he was forced to flee the country before it was performed and Krasa himself was interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. (Here it was famously performed 55 times before Krasa died, in Auschwitz, in 1944.) Hoffmeister arrived in Paris in 1939 but was later arrested and imprisoned for seven months. Escaping via Portugal and Morocco he eventually arrived in New York in 1941. Here he was employed by the Office of War Information and Voice of America while also working as a writer, painter, illustrator and caricaturist. After the war he returned to Czechoslovakia, working with UNESCO, and later served as Czech ambassador to France. He died in Rickach on July 24th, 1973. Antonin Pelc (1895-1967), was born in Lisany and studied painting in Prague. As a political cartoonist he worked for many leading Czech papers and magazines and also contributed to the Manes Club anti-Nazi cartoon exhibition. Like Hoffmeister he later emigrated to the USA, working under the pseudonym 'Peel', but many of his wartime cartoons were also reprinted in London for the weekly Cechoslovak and the Central European Observer.
Stephen Roth was born in Czechoslovakia in 1911. He moved to Prague in 1931. Here he drew sports cartoons, joke illustrations and portraits for various papers and magazines before becoming political cartoonist on the anti-Nazi weekly Demokraticky Stred, edited by Dr Hubert Ripka (later head of the Czechoslovakian Propaganda Department in London during the Second World War) in 1935. Forced to leave in 1938, he went to Poland then Sweden before arriving in London only days before war broke out in September 1939. By 1941 he was contributing political cartoons, as 'Stephen', to the Ministry of Information, Central European Observer and Norsk Tidend (the Free Norwegian newspaper). His popular series 'Acid Drops' began to appear in the Sunday Pictorial in 1942 and he also contributed to the Star, Lilliput, Daily Mirror, Daily Mail (sports cartoons) and others. During the war years he produced three collections of his work, Divided They Fall (1943), My Patience is Exhausted (1944)--with a Foreword by the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister in exile Jan Masaryk- and Finale (1944). One memorable futuristic cartoon by Stephen was 'Cairo Reunion 1955' (Courier, April 1944), produced for a special spoof April 1st, 1955, Air Mail Edition which was printed inside each copy of the magazine. In the drawing Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt are seen walking past the Pyramids as a street vendor tries to sell them copies of Mein Kampf. Churchill says to the other two wartime leaders: 'Remember that man--Hitler?' However, the April Fool's prediction of a joyful reunion would prove false--by 1955 both Roosevelt and Stalin were dead.
Most of the Czech cartoonists working in Britain during the war years preferred to avoid the grotesque and instead simply made fun of the Nazis, believing this to be a more powerful propaganda weapon. As David Low said in his preface to Jesters in Earnest (1944), the book based on the exhibition which he opened at the Czechoslovak Institute in London the previous year:
A Czech enduring the last few years might be excused for picturing, immoderately, the world as black hell and all men as devils. I note with relief that our Czechoslovak cartoonists keep their sense of proportion and have not forgotten to be artists as well as ideographers.
However, he ended his short essay by adding that, in wartime, 'cartoonists will always be inspired to aim well and fling their inkpots in the tyrant's face'.
Mark Bryant is the author of Dictionary of 20th Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists, Wars of Empire in Cartoons and other books.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2009|
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