A Stroll through Fascism: “Selling War” at Sterling

Fascism + propaganda = a whole lot of scary.
Fascism + propaganda = a whole lot of scary. // Creative Commons

A mildly racist rendering of a black man leads the way. He is dressed in military garb, wearing a red cap set at a jaunty angle. He is leaning forward almost to the point of toppling over, his bayonet driving him forward. Behind him is a soaring eagle, a life-sized, rather heavy-looking cannon clutched in its claws. The man holds a rippling yellow flag, a large “I” stamped upon it.

This scene is from a postcard hanging in a display case in Sterling Library. It is a piece of propaganda made by the Italian government sometime between 1935 and 1941. This postcard and several other artifacts make up an exhibit at Sterling entitled “Selling War: The Use of Propaganda in the Italian Conquest and Occupation of Ethiopia, 1935–1941.”

When you walk into the main foyer of Sterling, head up to the desk, make a right, and walk past the entrance to the stacks, continuing down the sun-dappled corridor. There, in five display cases on the left side of the wall, is “Selling War.” The exhibit is set in roughly chronological order, beginning with early images meant to excite an Italian populace before the invasion commenced. It continues to sample propagandistic images — mostly postcards, but also books, photos, beautiful old maps and one incredibly disturbing pillowcase, depicting idyllic children prematurely headed to battle. The objects span Italy’s entire military invasion of Ethiopia.

The images used fear, patriotism and the nuclear family to enflame and enrapture the public. Symbols of the splendors of ancient Rome, pictures of handsome soldiers and swooning ladies, clear-eyed children and sinister Africans adorn the propaganda. One picture shows a father, bayonet in hand, his adorable son by his side, dressed in his very own little military uniform. Another postcard displays the profile of a shirtless soldier, muscular and bloodied, marching into battle. Yet another is of an eagle gruesomely clawing a lion’s eyes out.

The exhibit — small and out-of-the-way though it may be — beautifully displays the range of propaganda, beginning before the occupation and ending just after it. The images remain consistent in their message — Aryan men (along with some African allies) will triumph over the cunning Ethiopian — but the range of their appeals is fascinating (from display sections labeled “Getting Ready” to “Atrocities”). Furthermore, the exhibit is scattered with helpful historical information and pictures of Mussolini, Haile Selassie and others, giving the viewer a complete sense of the context of the propaganda.

To be sure, the exhibit is not perfect. Many of the images have no captions or labels, making comprehension somewhat difficult. And some of the captions that are present are strikingly biased in their language (“Fascists brainwashed children”). Finally, the exhibit is perhaps too inconspicuous for its own good. Yet that is also why it is worth seeing. Quick and concise, something one could easily absorb in 15 minutes, “Selling War” is a great way to experience a piece of history on your way out of the library.

“Selling War” will be on display from Dec. 13 to April 19 in the exhibits corridor of Sterling Memorial Library.

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