The Unknown War: Comics as Propaganda in WWII

  • Date: –17:00
  • Location: Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES) Gamla torget 3, 3rd floor, IRES Library
  • Lecturer: Michael Scholz is historian and research fellow at IRES.
  • Website
  • Organiser: Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES)
  • Contact person: Jevgenija Gehsbarga
  • Phone: 018 471 1630
  • Föreläsning

Cultural, political and social messages have been spread in and by comic strips and comic books for the past century. In this seminar we will explore how comics were used as propaganda during the Second World War – their usage as a favoured medium to spread both harmful and beneficial agendas. One of the aims of the presentation will be to demonstrate that comics can be valuable primary historical sources.

As the threat of war in Europe turned into reality in 1939 comics in the United States incorporated stories from the European war(s) into story lines. On the whole, comic book artists and writers were, unlike most Americans, in favour of American intervention. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, nearly the entire nation rallied behind the war effort. In June 1942, comics officially became part of the US's psychological warfare, when the US government founded the Office of War Information (OWI), to coordinate media policies during the war. The OWI asked the entertainment industry to raise American morale, encourage public cooperation and participation in the war effort, identify the menace of the Axis powers, and inform audiences about the progressive war aims pursued by the United States and its allies, all in ways that cloaked propaganda within the context of good entertainment as much as possible. Comic books became one of the most popular forms of reading material and by that a perfect medium for war propaganda and for psychological operations. The comics encouraged hate towards fascism and Nazism by giving a face to an enemy who was oceans away, an enemy of unparalleled evil: saboteurs, “filthy, brutish Japs,” and treacherous Nazis.  As OWI recommended, the comics promoted the achievements of the allies. In case of the Russian ally, the image changed dramatically during the war, from an inhuman warmonger at the beginning of the war to a friendly and heroic ally, and after the war back to a cruel enemy. In Sweden a friendly image of the USSR and the Soviet system was a delicate matter for OWI. Comics could spread a good image of the British ally; but their positive image of the Soviet ally was not welcome here.  As a matter of fact, even in Sweden the popular comics had become part of the psychological warfare even earlier. During the first war years, publishers supported the government’s “Swedishness” propaganda by publishing comics after Swedish national epics. But in 1943 all nationalistic propaganda was discarded and comics from the USA were most welcome. Already part of the psychological warfare, these comics could spread American propaganda without censorship. Besides racism and hate against the enemy, they spread American values and influenced numerous readers in Sweden towards democracy.

Mapping the interests of different publishers, domestic and abroad, and by pointing out the diversity of the target audiences, comic studies can broaden our understanding of the Second World War. As "cultural artefacts" comics can say a lot about the time and the society in which they were created. As primary historical sources they should be given more scholarly attention.  

Michael F. Scholz is professor of Modern History at IRES, Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University- Campus Gotland.

1981–1986 MA in history and Scandinavian studies at the University of Greifswald; 1986–1999 lecturer, 1990 Dr. phil. in History; 1999 2nd Dr degree (Dr. phil. habil.) at the Greifswald University; 1999–2000 researcher at the Centre for Anti-Semitism Studies at the Technical University of Berlin; 2000 associate professor at the Gotland University; 2005–2010 Head of Department of History; 2009–2010 Chair of the Faculty Board (UFN) at the Gotland University; 2008 Professor of Modern History; 2013–2018 at the Department of History, Uppsala University; since 2019 at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University.

Besides exile-studies and studies in German-Scandinavian relations, he conducts research on comics as historical sources and as means of propaganda. This has resulted in a number of presentations and publications, academic courses, as well as exhibitions. Results have been presented at historical conferences in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Israel and Germany. He has contributed to publications such as Lexikon der Comics, Jahrbuch für deutsche Comicforschung, Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, Die Sprechblase, Bild & Bubbla, Deutschland Archiv, Historisk Tidskrift, European Comic Art and Routledge Advances in Comics Studies.