Signal. Sonderausgabe der
Berliner Illustrirten Zeitung.
Deutscher Verlag Berlin,
1940 – 1945.





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[ Articles ] → The Soviet Union in Signal

The Soviet Union in Signal
(France, October 1940 — June 1944)

by Sébastien Saur

(This article, first published in Histoire de Guerre, issue 38, July/August 2003, is the abstract of a university thesis written in 2002, which has now been published in full by Éditions Anovi).

      Signal is no doubt the most famous magazine of World War Two. Being the finest production of German propaganda, it still represents the largest photographical treasure on the Axis side, especially in colour, of which some photos are the most famous of the period. Designed for foreign countries, the magazine must, beyond the simple demonstration of the Wehrmacht’s power, justify for the readers the German political choices, which were particularly contradictory in regard of the Soviet Union – first ally, then mortal enemy of the Reich. The aim of this article is to highlight how Signal portrays the Soviet Union, essentially in its human and political aspects. The military operations have been deliberately ignored here, in order to address some of the less noted aspects of German propaganda.

      The German-Soviet Pact period

      Between April 1940 and May 1941, Signal endeavours to justify the alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union. The articles concerning this subject are quite rare at this time, being rich of military events, with the victorious campaigns of the Wehrmacht taking up a very large portion of the magazine, but they allow to get a good idea of the way the pact is justified. To do so, Signal resorts – above all – to history in trying to show that Germany and Russia were always friends in the past. In doing so, it doesn’t hesitate to use a title like «Why Germany and Russia go hand in hand? The lessons of History»[1], in an article about the relationship between Russia and Germany in the 20th century. According to the magazine, England, who in this period is the main target of Signal’s attacks[2], always tried to limit the Russian influence in Europe, while Prussia, and then the Germany of Bismarck, always took care of securing the Russian interests. Germany, who acts as a foil to perfidious England, is supposed to have always, through its neutrality and diplomacy, helped Russia to get out of the difficulties she was confronted with.
      Only one recent event covered by Signal during this period relates to the Soviet Union: the visit of the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Molotov, in Berlin from November 12 to 14, 1940, which is the subject of an illustrated report. Paradoxically, the length of the report, no less than three pages, and the space occupied by the photographs stacked against the text, is used to mask the failure of the conference. The commentary is particularly evasive and deliberately avoids speaking about the matters discussed during the talks. The only important thing proposed in this report is the friendship between the USSR and the Reich[3]: it is known that Molotov comes to Berlin «to deepen by a personal and renewed contact the current communication of the ideas within the framework of the friendly relations between the two countries»[4]. Nothing whatsoever is revealed about the agreements between the two countries. The sentence «the historical resolution of the Führer and Stalin in favour of a friendship between the two large countries which, today, are once again becoming close, is one of the most decisive elements of world importance, of the continental reorganization of Europe»[5] again does not bring anything to the reader in terms of future intentions of the two allies. Even the meeting with Hitler, which should occupy the first place, is relegated to the fringe, leaving the central place for a meeting with Göring. On the discussions with Hitler, the commentary is content to announce they were «rather long»[6]. The remainder of the report is without interest: it is merely a continuation of receptions, where more emphasis is laid on the people attending said receptions than on their discussions. One photograph is striking because of its insignificance: beneath that of Molotov and Hitler, a stereotype introduces the members of the Russian delegation awaiting the end of the reception between Molotov and his German counterpart, Ribbentrop. It seems that this group was put there to fill a vacuum, for want of anything better[7].

      Justification of the aggression

      By the first issue from June 1941, that is to say three weeks before the effective beginning of the war in the East, the Soviet Union is presented like an enemy of the Reich, in an article depicting the last night of the Yugoslav government, the day before the marching in of German troops in the country. An alliance had then been signed between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, which went against the provisions of the pact between Ribbentrop and Molotov signed in 1939[8].
      In the first August issue from 1941[9], Signal unmistakably enters the war in the East[10], and gives a new version of the facts concerning the German-Soviet pact: it would have formed part of a plan by Stalin to save time at the onset of the war, which «came too early for Moscow [...] one [Stalin] did not yet feel strong enough to enter from the very start into the great game»[11]. The alliance with Germany would thus have made it possible for Stalin to "place his pawns" for the future confrontation with his ally[12]. The war that had begun in 1939 would itself be the result of a Machiavellian plan of the USSR to weaken the European countries by playing them off against themselves. During this time, the Soviet Union could have made preparations «to strike at the time it desired»[13] against the West, and to invade Europe. The symbol of this purported expansionist will, the occupation of the adjacent states on the USSR[14] is presented like a succession of operations intended «to take Germany from the rear»[15]. From now on, the Soviet Union that Signal had presented earlier – for a few months – as a traditional and natural ally of Germany, becomes the «old enemy of Europe»[16], which aspires to carry out a project described as «one of the most harmful and vile ever conceived»[17], that is to say the invasion of Europe, and then of the world, by the «Bolshevist hordes»[18], symbolized through a colour image printed on the centrespread of the first issue from July 1942, showing the paperboard of a gobelin intended for the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin, representing the Mongols of the Golden Horde[19] vis-à-vis with the German warriors[20]. The symbolism of that image is clear: the latter ones are magnifying the fight of Germans for their freedom and their survival, compared to the Mongols representing the Soviets: new «hordes coming from the East to threaten Europe»[21].

      Soviet combatants and prisoners of war

      These «hordes», now confined to the defensive, appear in their physical aspect during the time of combat and at the time of them being captured as prisoners of war. The Soviets, denounced by Signal from the very start of the German aggression as invaders, and being in superior number and of greater power, ready to wash across Europe, show, quite paradoxically, a surprising stealthiness in the combat presented by the magazine. If on one side the allusion is created of a disordered mass, a «human wave»[22], and on the other it is insisted on their stealthiness – the magazine says that the Soviets would hide to strike by ambushes, often at night, casually attacking Germans «in the back»[23]. In parallel, these men are described as tough, if not courageous combatants. The attacked villages «are strongly defended»[24], the more so as it seems that the civilian population partakes in their defence, surrendering «just like the others [soldiers of the Red Army] after being completely encircled»[25]. Certain soldiers, however, do not exhibit such courage, and present themselves in front of drunken Germans «arm above, arm below [...] singing with raucous voice and holding up their weapons»[26], which might bolster the idea of «hordes» of barbarians ready to storm towards the West.
      The prisoners generally appear in various groups; the individual portraits of prisoners are rather scarce, and are only used to present stereotypes. Two photographs are representative in this respect: the cover of the first January 1941 issue, under the title «their reserves», present a group of Soviet prisoners captured «within the last weeks»[27]. The prison camps are presented in the most cynical way imaginable. Whereas in reality the living conditions of the Soviet prisoners were inhuman, Signal reports in its second issue from November 1941 on the life in a prison camp[28]. Sufficient example of this cynicism, a photograph presents a distribution of bread among the prisoners, but this photograph has been staged: the Wehrmacht had deliberately omitted to take steps for the provision of the Soviet prisoners of war.

      A backward world

      Progressively with the advance of the German armies toward the East, there is increased coverage on the life in the Stalinist realm, which makes it possible for Signal to increase its articles on the topic "here is the fate which Europe so narrowly escaped". These descriptions of Soviet villages and cities, accompanied by photographs, show a backward world, in which even in the cities buildings of some importance are rare, «only in the neighbourhoods of the stations, one encounters buildings with several floors: two, three, six concrete cubes are used to accommodate the administrations»[29]. When concerning the domestic living conditions, they are more than precarious: «each small hut houses a dozen people, two or even three families»[30].
      The physical vision that Signal gives of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union is influenced by the apocalyptic vision which it gives of the country. Thus the whole of the population is depicted as a «human current whose mass invades the streets [of the cities]»[31]. The individuals are described as «dull beings, confused»[32], who «are not much more than shadows of themselves»[33], the peasants even give the impression of «beggars»[34]. For Signal, the Soviet system, in «eliminating any character, removing any sign of intellectual life, while killing even the beauty»[35], makes the populace similar in its physical appearance to the country in which they live. The women themselves, usually representing beauty, are only «mummies»[36], although «the very girls of the last generation»[37], are exceptions from that rule.
      Parallel to this presentation of a Soviet Union made unbearable by its own leaders, Signal shows the beneficial effects of the German occupation for the population[38]. Besides the photographs of churches reopened by the Germans, and of religious positions filled by «the handful of [priests] which could escape the Soviet torturers»[39], the principal aspect of the German occupation presented by Signal relates to the life in the campaigns, and the land reform which must lead to «the end of the system of the Kolkhozes in the occupied Soviet territories»[40]. According to the magazine, the peasants are happy to embrace the freedom of work, which appears to be evident from photos of such public rejoicing. This jubilation is however under severe monitoring, as the furtive presence of the German military police force evinces in one of them[41]. In any case, according to the magazine, the Soviet farmer «will never forget about what helped him to create a suitable existence again»[42]. A prediction which will be fulfilled at the end of the war, when the Soviet soldiers, the greater number being of rural origin, will strike on the German farmers to avenge the occupation of their country...

      Collaborations in the East

      For Signal, the German occupation in the East enables the inhabitants of the occupied territories, beyond the improvement of living conditions in their country, to work under good conditions in the weapon factories in Germany. The life of the Ostarbeiter[43], as it is presented by the magazine, corresponds in no way to reality, of course. Workers are thus shown walking to the castle of Potsdam, others in the courtyard of their factory, with smiling faces. The majority of the workmen featured do not wear the Ost badge[44], which in theory however was mandatory for everyone, and which was to be worn on clothing. This badge, visible only on the clothing of some, is qualified by the magazine as an «honorary mark»[45], whereas in reality it corresponded more to the defamatory yellow star carried by the Jews than with a mark of national prestige[46]. The extremely idealized living conditions seem to be an invitation for the readers of Signal to come as a worker to Germany.
      Another type of collaboration, this time sometimes truly voluntary, the Osttruppen[47], indigenous troops utilized by the Wehrmacht, initially in an illegal way within the frontline units, then with the support of Hitler from the summer of 1942[48]. Signal then changes its vision of the soldiers of the East: on one side, the Soviet soldiers remain dreadful, bloodthirsty, savage soldiers, and on the other side those collaborating with Germany become the symbols of the national minorities of the Soviet Union in their grand fight against the Bolshevist oppressor. Among them, the majority is comprised of Cossacks, follow-ups of the chimerical «National» Russian Army (ROA) of General Vlasov. These two principal groups are always presented in an individual way, whereas the soldiers stemming from other various national minorities of the East are typically presented in summarizing articles and reports, in which they are featured together.

      A new threat: the East-West alliance

      When the defeats start to build up on German side, Signal commences a propagandistic shift: the articles concerning the ground war become virtually non-existent (in regard to the East at least, while the other fronts continue to be covered), this happening in favour of political articles aiming at making the reader believe that the Allied victory could only end in a Soviet invasion of the West, with the complicity of the Western powers, who would relinquish Europe to the Soviet Union, a «tentacle-like monster who fidgets in the East in the shape of an enormous octopus of virulent venom»[49].
      For Signal, the first signs of the Soviets assuming power in Europe begin with the Allied landings in North Africa, in November of 1942. De Gaulle’s Algiers committee is presented as «an appendix of Moscow»[50]. Spurred by the early recognition of the committee of Algiers by Moscow, followed by the return of many Communists formerly banned from their nation such as Andre Marty, and finally by the sentence of de Gaulle qualifying the Soviet Union as the «Best friend of the Algiers committee»[51], Signal paints an apocalyptic picture of a future, liberated France. For the magazine it is clear that, «if Gaullism were ever to become established in France, this would be equivalent, in the current state of the things, to the dictatorship of the Commune[52] , and with all the consequences that would arise for the subdued French population»[53]. De Gaulle and Giraud would be eliminated by the Communists, who would then seize the power. For Signal, that situation already exists in liberated Algeria, where the Communists are supposed to have seized control of the government. According to Signal, the Communists would proceed with arrests and executions in a regular fashion, thus preparing their seizing of power in soon-to-be liberated France. These alarmist articles are published from the point of view of the imminent Allied invasion in France, from which they try to discredit to the utmost extent the representatives of Free France.
      To make the fear of the Soviet invasion even stronger, Signal makes extensive use of the Katyn mass graves in eastern Poland in April of 1943, which contained the bodies of «twelve thousand Polish officers assassinated by the Bolsheviks»[54], murdered shortly after the occupation of East Poland by the Red Army in 1939. These pages, arguably the most gruesome that Signal has ever published, are partly combined with a page depicting the corpses of victims of an Allied bombardment on Paris, with the obvious aim of showing what horrors the Allies are capable of, no matter if Soviets or Western Allies, who use «as means of war, the massacre of thousands of defenceless human beings»[55]. Thus the reader is invited to reflect on the total lack of morals and pity of the Soviets, and – a recurring topic – on the fate that would befall Europe in case the Allies were to win the war.

      Racism and anti-Semitism

      Until now researchers always held as an established fact that Signal represented a «sweet» version of Nazi propaganda, and that anti-Semitism and racism – which otherwise so principally characterize the Hitlerian ideology – were missing. Admittedly, a cursory glance at the magazine tends to give such an impression. Closer examination, however, cannot support this opinion: a thorough reading of Signal reveals a magazine strongly tinted by racism, this notion being gradually eclipsed and replaced by less and less dissimulated anti-Semitism as the outcome of the war is becoming more and more clear.
      The Untermensch[56] is described in a particular way in Signal. Admittedly he never appears as such on photographs, and no article makes an allusion to his existence, but certain expressions make it possible to discover the concept: the prisoners are regarded as «primitive beings, half-savages»[57], the cities and villages «are devoid of any trace of civilization»[58]. Thus the war on the Soviet Union is not a traditional war: «it is civilization itself which fights against cruelty. It is a question of life and death»[59]. The war in the East is thus a racial war, the European civilization set against a racial conglomerate.
      Bolshevism itself is described as «the fundamental alien element»[60]. Thus, the victory of the Soviet Union, whose inevitable consequence would, according to Signal, be the Sovietization of Europe, is presented as «the victory of continental Asia over our ways of living, our thinking and over our methods of education»[61]. To put an end to any ambiguity, Signal even states at the beginning of 1944 that the world was created for «the white race [i.e. the Aryan race]»[62], as a way of justifying the war in the East.
      As the war progresses, and obeying to the logic of Hitler, which upholds that the main enemies of the Reich are the Jews, and that their elimination will essentially solve all the problems of the country – including military ones – in an instant[63], Signal, using a vocabulary worthy of Mein Kampf, now launches blatant attacks against the Jews, portrayed as henchmen of Stalin[64]. The Soviet Union thus becomes the «centre of action of the international Jewry hostile to the nations»[65], of which the goal would be «one of the most horrible crimes of the world’s entire history: the conquest of the world by the international Jewry»[66], verbalisations that speak for themselves.


      Signal thus appears, in the light of this small study, much more complex than its main purpose as a propaganda magazine of the Wehrmacht might indicate. In addition to the particular topic of the Soviet Union, the magazine approaches the majority of the items related to the Second World War, whether they are military, political or economical in nature. In addition to that there are rather surprising topics, such as art, fashion, history or cinema. Far from merely being a collection of excellent photographs from the war, Signal constitutes a mirror of a certain vision of the life in Europe during the last World War, which truly makes it a fabulous subject of research.

1 Signal 4/41, p.4-5.
2 And which is accused of having triggered all the European wars, including the one of 1939.
3 Signal 17/40, p.12-14.
4 Signal 17/40, p.13.
5 Idem.
6 Idem.
7 Idem.
8 In my opinion, this article was placed here on order of the OKW, which thus wished to prepare the readers for the invasion, which began on June 22.
9 Cover.
10 The delay compared to the beginning of the invasion is due to a certain prudence concerning the operations in progress, with Signal always omitting to announce a victory too early, and due to the time necessary for the photographs and articles coming from the front to arrive in Berlin.
11 Signal 15/41, p.4.
12 Which does reflect reality, but not with an offensive aim as Signal claims it. The territorial annexations carried out by the Soviet Union during the period of the German-Soviet pact rather indicate the will of Stalin to ensure the safety of its Western border than an obscure offensive intention against Germany.
13 Signal 1/42, p.3.
14 Eastern Poland in September and October of 1939, the isthmus of Karelia (to the detriment of Finland) in March of 1940, the Baltic states in June of 1940, Bessarabia (to the detriment of Romania) at the end of June, 1940. These annexations were carried out within the framework of the German-Soviet pact, in agreement with Germany.
15 Signal 15/41, p.4.
16 Idem, p.5.
17 Signal 8/42, p.5.
18 Signal 23-24/41, p.4.
19 Mongol realm (XIII-XVIth centuries).
20 Signal 12/42, p.20-21.
21 Idem, p.20.
22 Signal 22/41, p.15.
23 Signal 16/41, p.51.
24 Idem, p.21.
25 Idem. p.23.
26 Signal 7/42, p.8.
27 Signal 1/42, cover.
28 Signal 22/41, p8 and 16.
29 Signal 7/42, p.8.
30 Idem.
31 Signal 21/41, p.2.
32 Signal 23-24/41, p.10.
33 Signal 18/41, p.21.
34 Signal 19/41, p.12.
35 Signal 21/41, p.2.
36 Idem.
37 Idem.
38 Of course Signal never speaks about the extermination measures against the peoples of the East launched by Hitler.
39 Signal 23-24/41, p.16.
40 Signal 41/42, p.33-36. The system set up by the German forces and the Kolkhozian system essentially are two sides of the same medal - the peasants swapped one slavery for another.
41 Signal 12/43, p.30.
42 Signal 14/42, p.33-36.
43 Literally workers of the East. They were inhabitants from the occupied territories of the East, primarily women, deported to the West and employed in the weapon factories of the Reich. Living conditions of these workers were very difficult.
44 For Ostarbeiter. The Polish workers carried a badge marked "P" instead.
45 Signal 24/43, p.44.
46 The goal was the same: to make it impossible for these "ungermanic" elements of the population to mix with the Germans.
47 Literally troops of the East.
48 It is, by the way, in August of 1942 that these groups appear for the first time in Signal.
49 Signal 7/44, p.10.
50 Signal 23/43, p.2.
51 Idem.
52 The Commune was a short-lived Communist government in Paris in 1871, at the end of the French-German war.
53 Signal 23/43, p.2.
54 Signal 11/43, p.16. In fact, the number of corpses discovered near Katyn was 4363, of which 2730 could be identified. This discovery, immediately and fervently grasped on by the German propaganda, caused the rupture between Stalin and the Polish government in exile in London, which demanded from Stalin accounts on the 10,000 officers captured by the Soviets, and from whom there had been no news since 1939. The Soviets only admitted their culpability in this massacre in 1990.
55 Signal 11/43, p.16. Notice how this is exceptionally cynical, especially when compared to the horrors perpetrated by the Germans - particularly in the Soviet Union.
56 Literally subman. Thus the Nazis indicated the "Slavic" ones, in opposition to the "higher race" supposedly represented by the "Aryans".
57 Signal 8/42, p.6.
58 Idem.
59 Idem.
60 Signal 5/42, p.8.
61 Signal 9/44, p.11.
62 Signal 11/44, p.20.
63 From which stems his growing eagerness to exterminate them.
64 Who himself was characterized by his anti-Semitism.
65 Signal 24/43, p.8.
66 Signal 24/43, p.6.

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