The Communist Threat in Interwar France

The Communist Threat in Interwar France

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  • France would go to misery if it allowed Bolshevism to enter ...


  • All the countries of Europe have defeated communism. France alone remains threatened.

    MICH Yo.

France would go to misery if it allowed Bolshevism to enter ...

© Contemporary Collections

All the countries of Europe have defeated communism. France alone remains threatened.

© Contemporary Collections

Publication date: January 2006

Historical context

At the beginning of the 1920s, the spirits were marked by the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917. At the second congress of the Communist International (IC), held in 1920 in Moscow, the European socialist parties became aware of the "twenty and a necessary condition ”to justify affiliation to this“ Third ”International. On the other hand, the parties of the Second International lost their credibility: despite their overt pacifism, they failed to prevent war and rallied from the general mobilization to the "Sacred Union". to found the French Section of the Communist International (S.F.I.C.).

However, the number of S.F.I.C. The Soviet leaders indeed impose, through the Comintern (the Russian name of the CI), the tactic "class against class", accusing the socialists of being "social-traitors" and of representing the enemy of the working class. In France, the rise of the far-right leagues, of which the crisis of February 6, 1934 is the most visible manifestation, further justifies the adoption of the "outstretched hand policy" by Maurice Thorez, the leader of SFIC Socialists and Communists then signed electoral agreements which enabled them to largely win the legislative elections of 1936 and to form a “Popular Front” government.

Image Analysis

The composition of the 1920 image showing France in the midst of fire is particularly original, due to the importance given to writing, which punctuates all the elements of the staged decor. The typographical hierarchy puts on the same level the word “Bolshevism”, famous since the electoral campaign of 1919, and the conjunction “if”. The latter expresses the importance of the choice facing France, between prosperity and "ruin". This is the result of real sabotage, represented here against a backdrop of fields, factories and the Eiffel Tower, like so many symbols of "eternal" France. The colors are worked vigorously so as to highlight the center of the composition. There, fire and smoke unfurl in flames and impressive swirls. In echo, hearths and black smoke veil Paris in the background, on the left; the flames crackle in a factory transformed into a volcano, in the background, on the right.

Right in the center of the poster, in the foreground, a smithy crucible, symbol of "Production", literally explodes. The torch held by the arsonist perverts the torch, the traditional symbol of the freedom that Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty holds out over the world. In continuation of the movement, the eye falls on the hand of the culprit caught in the act. He's a particularly intriguing character if you look at him closely. He is first striking for his age, which contradicts his obvious quality as a soldier. Then, oddly enough, he wears the costume of the Tsarist army, probably the only one whose poster artist had a precise idea. The stereotypes associated with this character are the figure of the Russian anarchist - Souvarine in the Germinal de Zola - and that of the Russian soldier who fought on the Western Front on the Entente side. Finally, we note the presence of the knife, an element henceforth essential to any representation of "Bolshevism"; it is worn on the belt, ready to serve.

Contrary to the image denouncing the burning and bloodshed of France by Bolshevism, the poster which compares communism to an octopus places most of its message on its edges. The term "communism" is devalued by the typography, crushed between "all the countries of Europe" and "France", given as the main stake in the international struggle against the Reds. The map that serves as the background for the scenery perfectly highlights the progress of the invasion: party from the east, on the right, communism is swooping down on its potential victims in the west, on the left. The eye is first captivated by the gigantic head of the octopus, each of whose tentacles it throws across Europe. Communism is clearly denounced by the use of the color red.

However, the clearly distinguishable depiction of the five-pointed star of the Red Army, the sickle and the hammer, is aimed directly at the USSR, the den of the Communist "hydra." The image of the octopus, one of the symbols of capital in Communist, especially Soviet posters, was thus turned against the Comintern. In contrast, most of the supposed adversaries of the Soviet Union are distinguished from each other only by the neutral mention of their names. The white and sky-blue background brings out the red, the use of which is also diverted to the very heart of the poster: the drops of blood which spurt from the tentacles already severed symbolize the defeat of the Communists. In the Iberian Peninsula, a character in whom we easily recognize an anti-Republican phalangist finishes cutting the tentacle that had ventured there. Nothing could better illustrate the fate of the short-lived Spanish Republic. Finally, France stands out frankly from other nations. It is symbolized by the tricolor flag, that of the Nation and the Republic, that Soviet communism tries to tear from its soil.


The 1920 poster was commissioned by the Social Order. Particularly talkative, she is part of the first generation of mass posters of the XXe century, still weighed down by written explanations. The argument, written in conclusion in the lower left part, therefore plays mainly on words, in a simple but perhaps ineffective way for an uninformed public. The drawing, closer to the realistic style than to the press cartoon, is responsible for solving the equation. The anonymous poster artist indeed contrasts terms with images: "work" against sabotage, "capital" against Russian workers, "intelligence" against oriental savagery. The general impression is that France is under siege. Danger from outside threatens the founding values ​​of its identity, as well as the economic activities that are the basis of its prosperity. This poster therefore testifies to the emergence of the communist movement in national politics - before an equally marked decline in the years to follow.

The poster dating from 1936 or 1937 illustrates the major evolution of this type of media in the interwar period. Commissioned by Henri de Kérillis’s National Republicans Propaganda Committee, it is produced by a cartoonist who hides under the pseudonym "Yo." Mich ”. He has authored several posters on behalf of the Committee - including a simplified variation of this one where Europe, tinted green, is likened to a forest set ablaze from the east. Here, the message has become a slogan, the design is less complex, more symbolic. Undeniably, the French public is now fully able to grasp the codes and references that are offered to it. The map depicted contrasts sharply, for example, with the maps usually hung on the walls of classrooms or reproduced in newspapers with a large circulation. Devoid of the border lines that were nevertheless a major issue in international politics of the time, it visually opposes "eternal" Europe to barbarian invasions from the east. The initial anti-Bolshevism here gives way to anti-communism and even anti-Sovietism. The map symbolically recalls the recent history of Europe, starting in Germany with the crushing of the Spartacist revolution of January 1919, followed by the ban on the Communist party K.P.D. by Hitler in 1933. In Turkey, Atatürk’s nationalist war pushes the Red Russians back beyond the country's northern border. In Italy, from 1920-1922, the fascist movement of Mussolini triumphed, a former socialist who had become the worst enemy of the communists in his country. In Great Britain, the repression of workers' demonstrations is relentless, the Communist Party struggles to come out of the shadows, the diplomatic break with Moscow is consummated in 1927. Only Spain and France, both led by a Front government popular, disturb this apparently unanimous rejection of the revolution. In these countries, the launching of mass propaganda campaigns through the media and posters is therefore essential.

  • Bolshevism
  • Communism
  • Third Republic
  • Russian revolution
  • Sacred union
  • Communist International
  • Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, says)
  • Trotsky (Leon)
  • Stalin (Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, said)
  • Hitler (Adolf)
  • Thorez (Mauritius)
  • stereotype
  • propaganda
  • anticommunism
  • Moscow
  • working class


Maurice AGULHON, The Republic, Paris, Hachette, coll. "Pluriel", 2 volumes, new expanded edition, 1990. Jean-Jacques BECKER and Serge BERSTEIN, History of anti-communism in France, volume I “1917-1940”, Paris, Orban, 1987.Philippe BUTON and Laurent GERVEREAU, The Knife Between Teeth: Seventy Years of Communist and Anti-Communist Posters (1917-1987), Paris, Chêne, 1989 Pascal ORY (dir.), New history of political ideas in France, Paris, Hachette, coll. “Pluriel”, revised and expanded edition, 1987. René REMOND, Rights in France, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1982. Jean-François SIRINELLI (dir.), French rights. From the Revolution to the present day, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "History Folio", 1992.Michel WINOCK, Nationalism, anti-Semitism and fascism in France, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "Points", 1990.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The Communist Threat in Interwar France"

Video: National Interest - Video 6 Interwar Years