Maps as an Instrument of Propaganda, Part 1

Nov 16, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in December 2012.]


Maps are ideally supposed to be objective depictions of reality, but they can also be used as an instrument of propaganda, portraying the world not as it is but as it is imagined by the cartographer. A recent post on the Russian historical website includes a collection of such maps (posted also on the Propaganda History website), referred to as “symbolic maps”. These maps—often labeled “comical”, “satirical”, or “humorous”—can express rather negative and sometimes even belligerent views towards other countries; unsurprisingly, such maps grew in popularity during World War I (see map produced in 1915, on the left). They were, however, fashionable throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, when maps of this genre were produced in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, and Japanese:


10 English map, 1914 1French map, 1853-1856
5German map 18Italian map, 1870s
12Spanish map, 1915 14Dutch map, 1915
22Russian map, 1915 21Japanese map, 1914




The shapes of countries, sometimes accurate and sometimes twisted and bended, are typically overlaid by images of people, dressed in military uniforms (especially in World War I-era maps) or wearing national costumes, such as the traditional fez headgear for Turkey in the two maps on the left (produced in 1914 and 1915, respectively).













The stereotypical characters inhabiting these “comical” maps are engaged in equally stereotypical pursuits. In some cases, recognizable historical characters are depicted, such as the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, depicted on the map from 1899 (on the left). The Tsar also makes an appearance in the Russian map reproduced above, where he is viewed in much more positive way, accompanied by what appears to be a depiction of Mother Russia, carrying an imperial flag.




Other maps in this genre are inhabited by animals somehow associated with the country in question by the map creators. In some cases, such animals represent “psychological” stereotypes (as in the 1882 map on the left), while in other cases the association is symbolic or even purely linguistic. For example, the French map reproduced above indicates the dual nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a two-headed eagle. In the same map, Turkey is represented by a bird that, through an accident of linguistic history, became associated with that country. The bird species traditionally consumed by Americans on Thanksgiving is native to North America, yet the early European settlers confused it with another bird—the pearl-hen—that is indigenous to Turkey and was thus often referred to as “turkey bird”. Another curious story explains why the Russian map above uses a rooster to symbolize France. The original symbol of Gauls in France was a horse. The association of Gauls and roosters arose during the Renaissance period, when the Latin word Gallus ‘Gaul’ became associated with a Latin homophone, gallus ‘rooster’.


The Gallic rooster also makes an appearance in the map on the left, made in 1914-1919. As in many other “satirical” maps (see, for example, the English and French maps reproduced above), Russia is symbolized here by a bear. Curiously, in the French map above the Russian bear is decorated not only with place names such as “Novgorod” and “Tver” but words “tyranny” and “oppression” appear as well. Also notable are the skulls in what is now Poland. The same theme appears in the German map, reproduced above, with gallows appearing all over European Russia and the subjugation of Siberian peoples depicted in the top right corner. (This map also appears to make fun of its own reliance on stereotypes by picturing Sardinia as a can of sardines.)


Other maps, however, depict Russia as an octopus, extending its tentacles into neighboring countries. The text in the bottom right corner of the map states:

“The Octopus—Russia—forgetful of the wound it received in the Crimea [referring to Russia’s loss in the Crimean war of 1853-1856], is stretching forth its arms in all directions. Having seized hold of the Turk [referring to the beginning of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878], it is eagerly pushing forward in the hope that it may overwhelm him, as it has already done Poland. At the same time, Greece seems likely to annoy the Turk in another quarter. Hungary is only prevented from assisting its neighbour, Russia, through being held back by its sister, Austria. The Frenchman, remembering his late defeat [in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871] is carefully examining his weapons; and Germany is naturally interested in his movements, and holds himself in readiness for any emergency.”

Great Britain and Ireland are eagerly watching the fray—ready, at any moment, at least, to prevent Russia from seizing the Turk’s watch, or interference with Suez. Spain is taking his much required rest. Italy is ruthlessly making a toy of the Pope; and the wealthy king of Belgium is taking care of his treasure. Denmark’s flag is small, but she has reason to be proud of it.”


The resting Spain is a motif found also in the French map from 1870 reproduced on the left, where this country is shown smoking and leaning on the other Iberian country, Portugal. Ireland in the form of a bear is tugging on the leash held by England, an angry old woman. Prussia stretches its arms towards Holland and Austria. Curiously, the Asian and European parts of Turkey are represented as two distinct entities, one smoking a pipe and half asleep and the other one awake and angry. Sweden is likened to a panther. Corsica and Sardinia are depicted as a street urchin laughing at everybody else, while Russia is viewed as a peasant wanting to refill his basket. An image of Russia as a drunkard appears in the following two maps:










The Japanese map created in 1916 (on the left) overlays India with an elephant and Turkey with a tiger. Russia is depicted, following tradition, in the form of a bear, while China is represented by a fat pig with a clock. Note also the observing role of America at the bottom right corner, and also in the Japanese map reproduced above.








In some cases, one satirical map reflects on the propaganda views of another. For example, the Spanish-language map made in 1915 (reproduced above) incorporates as its top half an earlier British map made in the previous year (see the image on the left). The English map is said to represent the British view of Europe at the beginning of the war, while the Spanish addition in the bottom part of the image indicates the British disappointment with the turn of events a year later, when “the reality” sets in.



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