Puppet theatre on the front

by | Apr 14, 2021 | A look in the depot, time of remembrance 2020

War Front Puppet Theatre. War diary with photos

On Monday we presented our object of the week – a puppet from a prisoner of war camp. This sounds a little unusual perhaps, however historical research has shown that puppet theatre was and is still performed by some when they find themselves in extreme situations, for example: in prisoner-of-war camps, in the trenches or in military hospitals. The people themselves carved and built puppets to pass the time, with which they performed their own and traditional plays. There are various examples of such figures in our collection.

A few years ago, the diary of a marine came into our collection, showing how he and some others built puppets together and then performed with them in military hospitals. You can see the photos of the figures (they were playing the old puppet play of Dr Faustus), which unfortunately have not been handed down.

Diary of a Marine from the collection of

KOLK 17 Puppet Theatre & Museum

A good overview of the subject of puppetry in wartime is still offered by the Standard Work, the catalogue of the 1997 exhibition of the same name in the Berlin Puppet Theatre Museum. Here, the complexity surrounding the phenomenon of war-front puppet theatre is explained clearly: while on the one hand, puppet theatre was practised by amateurs to pass the time, professional puppet theatres were also involved in many ways.

It was not only on the German side during the Second World War that puppeteers were deployed to bolster the troops morale, but everywhere.

Henryk Jurkowski impressively describes how puppet theatre was not only used for recreation among the Allies, but also “proved to be a useful instrument of psychological warfare”. On the other hand puppet theatre during the war played a role in civil defence and was certainly a way of strengthening hope and dignity in prisons and concentration camps” (AK Frontpuppentheater 1997: p. 154).

Picture material from the exhibition catalogue War-Front Puppet Theatre (Frontpupentheater) by Dorothea KollandWhile HItler’s Institute for Puppetry tried to push the potential for propaganda in this art form from the German side, the Polish acted subversively with, for example such plays as Szopka 1943, which combined Nativity play motifs with satirical-political interludes.In Great Britain, a series of characters were created in 1940, with which the events of the war could be thematised in a punch-and-judy style while satirising the political actors. Jack Ketch, the executioner, wore the features of Adolf Hitler and, as usual, ended up on the gallows himself.In Slovenia there was Partisan theatre. On the Soviet side, where puppet theatre had been heavily promoted by the state since the Russian Revolution, the State Central Puppet Theatre organised propaganda programmes that were performed everywhere.

The puppet theatre, which is generally understood to be an art form “above suspicion” and “childlike”, shows it’s duplicity here: giving comfort in extreme situations, making laughter possible and in this way bringing about relief. Just as likely however, is the possibility to use puppet theatre in a manipulative way and as an instrument of propaganda.

Further reading on the subject of front puppet theatre:

Exhibition Catalogue (AK) War-Time Puppet Theatre. Puppeteers during Wartime. Hg. Dorothea Kolland and Puppet Theatre Museum Berlin, Berlin 1997 

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