The Grolier Club is marking the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II with an exhibition The Power of Words and Images in a World at War. On view from May 14th to August 2nd, 2014, the show uses original posters, propaganda leaflets, telegrams, maps, letters and other artifacts to demonstrate how this worldwide conflict was waged, and how it affected the lives of millions.
To many of us, World War II was an unimaginable time. In the United States alone, two-thirds of the national production was devoted to the manufacture of guns, tanks, bombs, planes, and other war supplies. But World War II was as much a war of ideas as of physical weapons, ideas that swayed much of the world’s population, for good or evil, affecting how they thought, how they worked, and how they fought. These ideas, rendered in words and images, still ring with the truth of those times and, in many cases, our times as well. Their force is palpable.
Using powerful and dramatic objects, including posters, broadsides, periodicals, and original letters and documents, the mosaic of The Power of Words and Images in a World at Warwas crafted to reflect the reality of the war, what people were seeing and saying at the time.
The full force of the conformity expected of the German people by Hitler, who sought to control not only their government, their economy and their military, but also their culture and their personal lives, is clear in the signage, the posters and the exceedingly rare exhibition catalogue for the famous “degenerate art” show.
Fear and courage intersected in interesting ways before and after the Fall of France. When a realistic fear settled over one of the great cultural capitals of the world, the efforts of a few to publish Resistance newspapers (for which paper and courage were required in almost equal supply) is as inspiring today as it was at the time. Several Resistance newspapers, as well as German maps of Paris, and dire warnings to the citizens, are a part of the larger mosaic.
The iconography of the war is powerfully evoked by a movie poster for “Casablanca.” This 1942 ‘B movie’ was released just as the Americans were landing in North Africa, which contributed to its box office success. This is how many Americans first visualized the conflict.
The sweep of The Power of Words and Images in a World at War encompasses the Holocaust (with little-known material from the family of Anne Frank); Russia (including German invasion maps); Japan (with rare patriotic banners and magazines); the entrance of the United States into the war (with a telegram announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the teletype of Franklin Roosevelt’s “This day will live in infamy” speech, and posters intended to rally a reluctant nation): the Pacific (including Hiroshima); D-Day (a D-Day map; Eisenhower’s letter to his wife the day before the German surrender, and newspaper headlines announcing “La guerre est finie”).
These iconic objects are drawn from a massive collection of over 7,500 original artifacts, letters and documents held by The Museum of World War II in Boston. Founded and directed by Grolier Club member Kenneth W. Rendell, the Museum of World War II is, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “an unparalleled collection of original letters and artifacts…. The most extensive in the world.”
Today, World War II continues to influence how many people think about global conflict. Seventy-five years after the war, it still has much to teach us about patriotism and nationalism, triumph and defeat, love and loss. The Power of Words and Images in a World at War shows us, in a striking and immediate way, how the war used prose and pictures both to conjure evil, and to defeat it.
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