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Imaging Axis Terror: War Propaganda and the 1943 “The Nature of the Enemy” Exhibition at Rockefeller Center

Christof Decker

Pages 85 - 101



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

In the summer of 1943, the Office of War Information (OWI) staged an exhibition titled “The Nature of the Enemy” at Rockefeller Center in New York City. It included huge photo-murals showing the destruction and displacement caused by the global conflict of World War II and six scenic installations depicting the cruel practices of the Axis powers. In this essay, I analyze the exhibition, which was designed by OWI Deputy Director Leo Rosten, as an instance of propaganda, relating it to a series of posters on the same topic produced at the OWI by the American artist Ben Shahn, but never shown to the public. Rosten’s exhibition depicted the enemy’s actions and alleged nature in a prestigious urban location and provocative style, combining elements of instruction with thrilling entertainment. I argue that it signified an important yet ambiguous and contradictory attempt to represent the horrors of war from a “comfortable distance.” While Shahn’s poster series aimed for empathetic identification with the victims of terror, Rosten’s exhibition promised the vicarious experience of cruelty through the juxtaposition of enemy statements and installations depicting scenes of violence.

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