Helmi Saukkoriipi, Unto Vanhamäki and Mia Teppo
War propaganda in the Coppet poster collection:
Students explore the special collections
The career skills course in the cultural heritage study module offered by the University of Helsinki allowed us a more in-depth look at the collections of the National Library of Finland than is afforded to the average library visitor. Our explorations focused on the special collections, which consist of a varied group of compilations of rare text and images, including legal deposit copies of works by minority ethnicities in Russia from the period of Russian rule over Finland, 1828-1917, collections donated by private individuals, and collections compiled by the National Library itself. The collections are in different languages, from different parts of the world, different eras and different disciplines, featuring literature from Europe and Asia, children's literature, original illustrated editions, scientific texts on anything from medicine to the arts, texts related to the women's rights movement, old dissertations and correspondences, as well as texts on different religions. One interesting curiosity is the Tibetan collection, comprising sacred texts wrapped in cloth as dictated by tradition.
In addition to texts, the collections of the National Library include a great deal of pictorial material, such as maps, posters, teaching charts and sheet music. The extensive poster collection features theatre and film posters as well as travel and other advertisements. Ephemera such as pizza delivery ads are collected in the ephemera collection. Our interests were piqued particularly by the Maurice de Coppet (1868–1939) poster collection. After serving as the French ambassador to Finland, Coppet bequeathed most of his personal library comprising approximately 11,000 books to the University of Helsinki. In addition to books, Coppet's collection included a large amount of different types of hitherto unresearched visual material from the time of the First World War, with material both from the Allies and the Central Powers. The collection features war and propaganda posters from the UK, USA, France, Italy and Germany. In addition, the collection has non-propaganda posters related to rationing, travel, food and health. The posters in the Coppet collection are interesting in terms of their subject matter and visual appearance, but they are also an excellent research topic thanks to their obscurity. In addition to this, we realised that this year marks 100 years since the beginning of the First World War.
The First World War (1914–1918) saw battles fought between the Central Powers (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) as well as the Allies (particularly the UK, the Russian Empire, France and the USA). Old political grudges and the heightened arms race in industrialised Europe led to a war waged with huge but clumsy military forces. Even though the war centred on Europe, its colonies in Asia and Africa saw their share of destruction, and are appropriately represented in the posters of the Coppet collection. For example, one French poster depicts a military troop marching in Africa, led by a local soldier. The cost of the First World War was massive for all those involved. Approximately 21 million people lost their lives and several governments were toppled while others, such as Finland and the Soviet Union, were created. After the loss of the Central Powers, the war ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 – although peace was not to last for long. Hatred towards Germans is apparent in the war-time posters of the Allies. Germany was vilified, with far-reaching results.
Like many of the special collections, the Coppet collection suffers from a lack of cataloguing. The National Library's resources and staff competences are not sufficient for a comprehensive linguistic and historical analysis of all special collections. As a result, the collections are catalogued slowly, one by one. We now wish to do our part to raise awareness of this poster collection which is a veritable treasure trove for researchers in history or art history.
The French posters can be considered the most visually impressive war posters in the Coppet collection. They are professionally crafted and seek to appeal to the viewer's emotions with their touching subject matter. A common subject is defenceless civilians, mothers and children, as well as wounded or dead French soldiers. The posters call on the public to fight for those who have already fallen. In contrast, German soldiers are depicted as cruel exploiters. Often the posters are pencil or charcoal drawings, with the French blue and red used as accents. The French flag proper also makes several appearances. Symbols such as the spiked German helmet, leather boots and other parts of the military uniform are used to infer Germans. One of the posters goes so far as to show a German soldier as a pig.
The French posters clearly show the visual tradition of the great revolution. Many posters feature Marianne, freedom fighter and personification of freedom and reason, as well as an angelic figure leading troops into battle. The posters also show defenceless, vulnerable citizens draped in cloaks and scarves, surrounded by ruins. Their rustic appearance is in direct contrast with the German soldiers in their modern outfits and wielding weapons, clearly holding a position of power. Emotions are evoked with dead children, nursing mothers and rallying slogans. The goal, as before, is the freedom of the nation. In addition to the French themselves, the posters represent their allies: the Portuguese, Romanians, Russians, Belgians and Africans. The poster series entitled "Les hymnes alliés" includes a specific poster drawn for every ally. For example, the Russian poster is entitled "hymne Russie" and depicts a czar on horseback.
The propaganda posters from the United Kingdom are mainly recruitment posters published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee and war bond posters published by the Parliament War Savings Committee. The collection also features some posters from the USA or translated into Gaelic. Some are more like leaflets with information about recruitment dates, but some are skilfully drawn pictorial posters. Particularly the brightly-coloured posters aroused our interest as students with an interest in history and art – partially due to their blatant but cleverly persuasive methods, partially to their spectacular visual appearance. Most of the posters encourage men to enlist in the army by appealing to their conscience, strength, sense of duty and even fear, but the collection also features some anomalous curiosities. For example, poster number 55 has white text printed on a brown background, reading: "To the women of Britain. Some of your men folk are holding back on your account. Won't you prove your love for your Country by persuading them to go?" This recruitment poster calls upon women to prove their love for their country by using their influence – or their so-called feminine wiles – at a time when women's opportunities for being involved in politics were nearly non-existent. The implied message is that women should forgo their love for their men and give priority to patriotic feelings. The realities of war come out in the posters which ask for donations to help rehabilitate the wounded. They depict wounded and tired soldiers on the front, surrounded by a gloomy landscape. The older populace, fearing for their children, are also addressed with posters, such as the one where an older veteran bids farewell to a young man in uniform with the words: "Good bye my lad, I only wish I was young enough to go with you". The poster implies that parents should not fear for the lives of their sons, but only feel regret at not being able to participate.
The German posters approach their subject matter through reason and statistics in addition to emotional appeals. The expressionism typical of the French and Italian posters is abandoned for a more straightforward realism. Unlike the French Marianne motif, the viewer of the German posters is invited to identify with a chiselled, muscular German man, depicted in a masculine uniform, ready to defend his country. Historical themes in the German posters are often Mediaeval and the imagery national romantic: a blacksmith hammers the snake of anarchy in a poster encouraging citizens to work, and a man protects his wife and small child with a sword in an advertisement for war bonds. Unlike posters from the other countries, the German posters from this era often use a Gothic typeface, which serves to evoke a historical atmosphere.
The title of one poster asks: "Sind wir die Barbaren?" ("Are we barbarians?"). A bust of Beethoven is placed on top of a table comparing the German people to the English and French in terms of social welfare, illiteracy, and number of Nobel prizes received. One metric after the other tips the scales in favour of the Germans. The statistic indicates that there are only two illiterate Germans for every 10,000, while the corresponding figure in the United Kingdom is 100.
In the early 20th century, the term propaganda did not yet carry the negative connotations it does today, and it is likely that the posters in the Coppet collection were unquestioningly considered the official truth of the nation. People were not yet politically conscious as they are in our globally wireless age. The flipside of propaganda was the efficient wartime censorship which was used to stop unfavourable news spreading to the home front. Particularly with the advertising industry just starting out and the radio and telephone yet to be widely adopted, these posters were a significant medium of information during the First World War.
The posters in the Coppet collection illustrate the attitudes different nations held towards each other during the First World War. The propaganda and the visual motifs of the posters served to construct the stereotypes of both the countries themselves and their subject matter which are still present today.
The Coppet couple – literature, culture and a connection to Finland
Maurice de Coppet (1868–1930) served as the French ambassador to Finland in 1923–1929. Unlike many other ambassadors, he was an active ambassador, travelling widely in Finland with his wife Yseult (1886–1978), both on the hiking paths and via aeroplane. The Coppets are remembered particularly as avid culture enthusiasts and bibliophiles. The couple's apartments in Kruununhaka and, later, Katajanokka, hosted many different kinds of cultural events. Both Coppets learned Finnish and Swedish, and even attended some lectures at the University. Thanks to his language skills, Maurice Coppet also translated Finnish literature, such as Juhani Aho, into French. During Maurice Coppet's term in Finland, he and his wife developed a unique relationship with the recently independent nation. In addition to admiring nature, the couple studied the many professions in our young country, from reindeer husbandry to bakeries. The Coppets played a significant role in creating the connections needed for cultural exchange between France and Finland. Maurice de Coppet deteriorated physically in late 1929, and he died only a year after the end of his term in Finland in a train accident in Nyon, Switzerland. The widowed Yseult de Coppet later established a grant fund to promote French culture.
The Coppets were avid collectors. The most well-known of their collections is the book collection in the National Library's Coppet archive, comprising approximately 11,000 volumes which were donated by Yseult de Coppet in two instalments after her husband's death in the 1940s and 1970s. The considerably late date of the second donation can be explained by Yseult's enthusiasm as a collector, which continued for many decades. In addition, the archive includes approximately 1,500 photographs from Maurice de Coppet's previous ambassadorial stints and from the French and Belgian fronts of the First World War. Finland is represented in approximately 500 photographs, many of which were taken by Yseult de Coppet herself.
Helmi Saukkoriipi, Unto Vanhamäki and Mia Teppo are students in the cultural heritage study module offered by the University of Helsinki.