It is not known whether people in the Paleolithic period amused themselves by ridiculing others on cave walls, stone tablets, or bones. But there is nothing to prevent us from thinking that it could have been the case.
In fact, social and political satire, as we still know it today, originated in Greece with Homer’s poem Margites. Athenian poets such as Aristophanes, Phrynichus, and Eupolis made satire a literary genre and wrote comedies that exposed corruption and the corrupt. Their popularity led to the emergence of the first Greek satirical drawings, which illustrated the themes of comedies on ceramic vases. In Poetics, Aristotle proposed to study this further and summed up the significance of these drawings in one sentence: «Laughter is inherent in human nature.»
Roman poets like Plautus – the father of comedic irony, Horace, and Petronius, rekindled the flame of satire with his famous work Satyricon. In the Roman Empire, political satire was so popular – graffiti and caricatures of the rulers appeared on city walls – that the renowned rhetorician and educator Quintilian wrote: «Satura tota nostra est» («Satire is ours»).
In medieval Europe, the satirical tradition survived through the goliards and jesters, the origin of the famous Carmina Burana, the nomadic poets who mocked the corruption of the clergy, charivari, carnivals, and numerous plays. Then, through literary works such as well-known medieval tales of Reynard the Fox, a political and religious satire written by various authors between 1175 and 1250, and the verses of Dante or Boccaccio.
The first modern book of graphic social satire was Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494), illustrated by the great German artist Albrecht Dürer. Similar to Greek and medieval satirical plays and stories, graphic satire embodies a political and moral stance – fundamentally, it is a counterforce, a highly effective weapon. The principle remains the same: to condemn any form of power, inequality, and hatred through laughter and humour – even of the dark and vulgar kind.
The population was so influenced that graphic satire soon became a weapon, and political satire was corrupted into propaganda caricature. The goal is to boost morale within one’s ranks by ridiculing the enemy through all possible means and stereotypes and praising one’s own side.
Martin Luther extensively used caricatures in his fight against the Pope, with the help of artists like Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein. They initiated the first «caricature war» between Protestants and Catholics. Since then, satirical illustrations and caricatures have been used to combat all powers (religious, military, economic, and political) with such success that the authorities responded with censorship, punishment, imprisonment, or even the assassination of the authors.
However, as always, such tools can also be used as propaganda, combined with censorship of any possible or real opponents, especially in times of conflict. For example, graphic caricatures were successful during World War I and have been and continue to be widely used by regimes, including the Nazis, Italian and Spanish fascists, Russian communists, or now, the Iranian regime, which uses the Iran Cartoons association, its competitions, and websites to convey messages and fight against the regime’s enemies. But graphic propaganda also serves democracies and their fight against adversaries.
In our new era of hybrid wars, such as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, information becomes a crucial battlefield, and thus comics, graphic satire, and caricature gain power not only as a weapon against the enemy in an information war but also to strengthen the morale of the people and soldiers.
Since 2014, Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in a limited culture war, primarily through manipulating historical memory and controlling editorial production to align it with their respective political and national discourses.
In Russia, after years of increasingly restrictive access to information, censorship laws have been proclaimed since the beginning of the invasion to suppress independent reporting, criticism, and dissent, with offenders facing up to 15 years in prison.
Roskomnadzor (Russia’s oversight and surveillance body for communication, information technology, and mass media) has blocked Russians’ access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many foreign media outlets. They have attempted to manipulate Wikipedia articles about the Russian invasion, prohibited the publication of Ukrainian and Western comics, and extensively used their own media and social networks for propaganda in Russia and worldwide.
Opponents, critical journalists, and comic artists have been forced into exile or imprisoned. However, many have accepted collaboration out of nationalist reflex because anyone opposing the war is declared a «foreign agent» and loses many rights. For example, in comics, a group of Russian authors organised a «funny paintings» exhibition against Ukraine. The exhibition’s press release stated:
“The exhibition is dedicated to the special military operation (SVO – специальная военная операция) in Ukraine. The White Room of the Journalist House showcases 32 works by ten artists from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Volgograd, and Feodosia. Among them are Vladimir Moskalyov and Igor Smirnov from the Russian Academy of Arts, artists and comic creators Mikhail Serebryakov, Roman Pesjkov, Sergey Repyev, Sergey Tyunin, Grigory Timofeev, Alexander Zudin, Igor Kolgarev, and Lev Vjaznikov.
On the opening day, the participants discussed the revival of Russian caricature and the political manifesto, gently reminiscing about the famous Soviet satirical magazines Krokodil and Pepe, Kukriniksij, Boris Efimov, and other renowned political cartoonists. It was suggested that the Ministry of Defense should take the artists under its wing.
In Ukraine, censorship of Russian media and social networks is also part of the information war. Since 2014, Ukrainian authorities have banned several social media platforms, online newspapers, and websites deemed to spread Russian propaganda. In 2017, they blocked access to major Russian websites, primarily Vkontakte, the second most visited social platform in Ukraine after YouTube. Since the outbreak of the war, the country’s five free TV channels have been required to broadcast the same news bulletin mandated by wartime laws, resulting in the disappearance of opposition channels. Many artists, comic creators, and illustrators consider themselves soldiers in this information war.
European countries and the USA have censored official Russian media outlets like Sputnik and Russia Today. In 2015, the EEAS (European External Action Service) established the East StratCom Task Force to combat disinformation, particularly of Russian origin. However, a predominantly positive narrative about Ukraine is portrayed, while critics are subjected to covert censorship, accused of being the voice of Moscow.
Real press freedom?
This practice can be understood in the current wartime situation, but it raises many questions about the actual existence of press freedom, a cornerstone of our democracy that EU countries claim to protect. This reminds us of an anecdote from World War I: in the fall of 1914, Georges Clemenceau’s magazine L’Homme Libre (The Free Man) was shut down by the government for reporting on the immense French and English losses and the poor conditions experienced by wounded soldiers. The following day, in opposition to censorship, Clemenceau established a new magazine: L’Homme Enchaîné (The Enchained Man). Three years later, in November 1917, Clemenceau became the leader of the French government, and when a journalist asked him if he would do something about press censorship, he replied, «Do you think I’m stupid?»
However, we cannot expect governments and companies committed to upholding the Declaration of Human Rights to behave in such a manner in our countries. They should exercise their power over the public sphere according to the open standards of the rule of law, without discrimination, using legitimacy and the law. Otherwise, they will never be able to promote freedom of expression and respect for human rights in the future, as they claim to support, without legitimizing critics’ accusations of hypocrisy. As John Milton pleaded during the English Civil War in his book Areopagitica (1644), the first publication defending press freedom: «Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.»