Protest posters are valuable witnesses of the struggle for human rights. The complex juxtaposition of increasingly differentiated political demands, conflicts of interest and ideas of equity in post-war Europe is the result of pluralisation and polarisation in modern societies. Contradictions and conflicts therefore emerge with increasing visibility, showing the fundamental differences between the social movements in western and eastern Europe.
Civil and political rights
The Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights of the French Revolution (1789), which stated that all human beings are born and remain free and equal in rights, is one of the most important human rights documents in European history. In 1989, 66 international artists were commissioned to create original posters celebrating 200 years since the 1789 Declaration. Here is one of those posters. It compares human rights to a weighing scale, which balances all differences.
In the early 20th century, the struggle for women’s rights was centred around demands for universal suffrage and the rights to education and work. The changing depictions of women in poster history reflect the historical transformation and reorientation of feminism. It continues to evolve, putting new aspects of equality on the agenda.
In the 1960s, European gay rights groups accelerated in tandem with the US civil rights movement and women’s liberation. Anti-discrimination protections were finally enshrined in European law with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999. Nevertheless, LGBTQ+ rights and protections still differ widely across the continent.
This poster depicts the venerated Black Madonna of Częstochowa, with halos painted in rainbow colours, a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. It was created as a protest against homophobia in Poland. The artist was put on trial for offending religious feelings but was eventually acquitted.
Racism persists in Europe. Institutional and activist initiatives attempt to raise awareness of xenophobic and racial prejudices that influence thinking and behaviour in European societies.
The Roma communities have a long history in Europe, dating back many hundreds of years. Having faced genocide and forced sterilisation during the Second World War, as well as segregation and multiple laws barring them from entering various countries, they continue to face great prejudice and violent attacks. A poster for the Coalition for the Integration of Roma children in Europe asserts that Roma children deserve a future. It features a child’s drawing of proud figures in colourful garments with their heads held high.
Freedom of expression
Images can trigger harsh reactions against freedom of expression. As ideologies clash, political regimes and the population at large have used censorship as a tool of oppression. Today, social media and new technology have transformed the ways that information, misinformation and propaganda are disseminated. Authoritarian tendencies gain ground with manipulation and fake news, exacerbated by public indifference and increasing polarisation. This puts the foundation of open societies, and even peoples’ lives, in peril.
This design was used as part of solidarity campaigns with the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo following a terrorist attack at the magazine’s office. Cartoons mocking religion have been defended as freedom of expression in Europe. To others, the blasphemy is enough to incite murder.
This Polish poster calls for the release of Russian women’s rights activists ‘Pussy Riot’, who were arrested in Russia. It references the actions of the Femen, a Ukrainian group who protested for women’s rights by showing their breasts.
Economic and social rights
‘Europe will become what we shall make it’. This slogan, used on a poster during the first European elections in 1979 to encourage Dutch trade union workers to vote, shows the active engagement of European societies in improving rights for workers. Many posters from this era emphasise cooperation and unity to envisage a brighter tomorrow.
Against Soviet supremacy
In 1968, attempts to liberalise Czechoslovakia were suppressed by a cruel Soviet invasion. Self-made posters were a crucial means of protest.
Solidarność (‘Solidarity’), the trade union founded in 1980 in Gdansk, was instrumental in initiating change across the Soviet bloc. Their iconic logo, designed by Jerzy Janiszewski in 1980, was an important part of the campaign’s international impact and ultimate success.
In Eastern Germany, small groups of dissidents created small counter-public spheres, for which posters were a means of communication.
The figure of the Red Army soldier pointing with his finger at the viewer is taken from Dimitri Moor’s iconic propaganda poster of 1920 [Posters that talk]. This reference and the assertive text give exceptional pungency to this poster.
With his unconventional composition of the Solidarność logo, designer Jerzy Janiszewski created a distinctive symbol for this social movement that was often adapted and is now well known. As he recalls, he was searching for a design that would give power to the strikers: as ‘people in a dense crowd support each other’, the letters of the logo should do too. He added the flag to accentuate that Solidarność was no longer a small circle of people but it concerned the general public.
In the poster below, the artist used Goethe‘s famous sentence Wo viel Licht ist, ist starker Schatten (‘Where there is much light, the shadow is stronger’, from the first act of Götz von Berlichingen) to describe Socialism, the euphemistic name used by the Eastern Bloc regimes. By using Goethe’s words and literary authority, the harsh political comment gains in depth and refinement, while making it more difficult for the GDR regime to contest it.
Protesting for peace
The years of the Cold War were accompanied by the fear of an impending conflict, especially of a nuclear war. Demonstrations and protests were organised in the western countries against nuclear weapons. In the countries of the Eastern Bloc, the official propaganda was a message of cooperation and peace.
2022 – War in Europe
On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. As part of the war effort, many Ukrainian artists started creating posters to mobilise public opinion within their country and beyond. Artists from all over the world joined in and raised their voices against the war. The resulting posters denounce the invasion and encourage resistance. They can be seen on billboards in cities and are widely shared on social media around the world.
Since the beginning of March 2022, it has been forbidden in Russia to talk about the Ukraine conflict using words like ‘war’ and ‘invasion’. Such terms are labelled fake news. In a country where even demonstrations are suppressed, anti-war protesters choose to hold up white placards in opposition to the war. They are being arrested, a fact that proves the immense power of even a blank poster.