The 1937 World Exposition: Pre-War Posturing

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A ‘world exposition’ aims to showcase the greatest cultural, scientific and industrial achievements of humanity. In practice, they have often fostered international competition rather than cooperation. Many countries have used the event to assert their cultural and technological superiority, pouring inordinate resources into creating the most spectacular exhibits. In the tensions of pre-Second World War Europe, this competition was taken to new extremes. As the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany anticipated a war over the future of the continent, they fought a now-forgotten symbolic battle at the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale.

The 1937 world exposition was not the first of its kind. Europe has had a long history of trade fairs dating back to at least the 12th Century. Such fairs were doubtless inspiration for the Great Exhibition of 1851– the first ‘World’s Fair’. Its exhibits, housed within the magnificent ‘Crystal Palace’, recognised the achievements, capabilities and industry of all nations.

The event served to underline Britain’s industrial superiority, as, in almost all fields of manufactured good, from textiles to telescopes, British products dominated the market. This was no accident, as a desire to emphasise Britain’s industrial prowess was always the main intention. This would be far from the last time a world exposition was used to project an image of strength.

The Great Exhibition began a Golden Age of world’s fairs, with each successive exposition grander and costlier than the last. However, this Golden Age was brought to a premature end by the First World War. The immense economic strain of the conflict meant that such extravagant vanity projects were no longer an affordable or acceptable expenditure of public funds.

Although the inter-war expositions never came to match the scale and splendour of their pre-1914 forebears, world’s fairs continued to occupy an important place in the public psyche, still drawing millions of visitors from around the world. Thus, the role of the exposition as a propaganda tool was not diminished.

As the world exposition came to Paris in 1937, many of the new fascist and communist governments of the world planned to capitalise on its immense propaganda potential. Nazi Germany in particular hoped to score a victory over their great ideological rivals, the USSR.

However, once the expo opened for visitors, one nation somewhat undermined Germany’s plans for a propaganda coup. Spain was at the time locked in a brutal civil war between the Italian and German-backed Nationalists and the Soviet-backed Republicans. Contrary to the customary projections of power, Spain used its pavilion to exhibit its ongoing struggle for survival. The month before the expo opened, in April, German and Italian aircraft had infamously carpet-bombed the town of Guernica in northern Spain, causing civilian casualties in the hundreds, if not thousands. In response, Pablo Picasso painted his now-famous Guernica, which captured the horror and brutality of the attack. The painting featured prominently in the Spanish exhibit alongside other art pieces which drew attention to German and Italian atrocities.

German leadership faced another, possibly more grave, issue. Prior to the exposition they found out that the event’s planners had placed the German and Soviet pavilions directly opposite each other, straddling the Trocadéro and the River Seine. Any differences between the German and Soviet pavilions would be obvious, and so there was a risk that Germany would be embarrassed if their exhibit was outdone by the USSR.

The Soviets, of course, were planning a pavilion of immense proportions. Designed by architect Boris Iofan, it consisted of a monolithic base encased in red marble (somewhat reminiscent of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow), atop which stood a statue by sculptor Vera Mukhina. Named Worker and Kholkhoz Woman, it depicted a factory worker and collective farm peasant thrusting the hammer and sickle into the sky. Their billowing attire exerted an imposing sense of movement, and still today it is considered one of the finest examples of Socialist Realism. After the exposition, the statue was relocated to Moscow, where it remains to this day.

The Soviet pavilion

Due to the placement of the German and Soviet pavilions opposite one another, Hitler had initially wanted to withdraw from the exposition. However, Albert Speer, his infamous favourite architect, would later reveal in his autobiography Inside the Third Reich that before the event began, he had been able to secretly examine the Soviet plans and design the German pavilion accordingly. This put the Führer’s mind at ease. 

Speer’s design, as was common with Nazi architecture, featured an imposing neoclassical façade encased in Bavarian granite, topped by the symbol of the Nazi state – the eagle perched on a Swastika. The sculpture Comradeship by Joseph Thorak stood at the base, depicting nude ‘Aryan’ men clasping hands in “racial camaraderie”. Much like the ‘Cathedral of Light’ at the Nuremburg rallies, the German pavilion was nocturnally illuminated with powerful floodlights.

The German pavilion

By contrast, the pavilions of other attending nations were far more humble in their size and scope, only increasing the grandeur of the German and Soviet exhibits. Indeed, on the day the expo opened, their pavilions were the only completed ones. This was due to the ongoing ramifications of the Great Depression which meant that, now more than ever, state spending on such extraneous things was curtailed. While Germany exhibited a Mercedes-Benz racecar, Britain, initially one of the greatest sponsors of world fairs, showed pottery.

When the pavilion finally opened, the results of Speer’s subterfuge were clear: the Nazi eagle, stared down on the hammer and sickle from above. It was a view that would prove to be an ominous sign of the war to come.

Herbert, J., 1998. Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition. Cornell University Press.