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An unusual map from the Cold War - Mapa Humoristico da Europa em 1953

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Zoomorphic maps, maps were countries are depicted as animals, are quite common in the history of cartography. Often animals were used that symbolized a country, and usually they were drawn in such a way that their form followed that of the country they depicted. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that after WW1, such maps became a lot less popular. Maybe the satirical view of differences or conflicts between countries was not appropriate any longer, after the horror of WW1.

This Portugese map - Mapa Humoristico da Europa en 1953 - is a very rare exception. A high-resolution zoomable map can be found in the gallery.

It is a humorous depiction of the tense situation in Europe in 1953. Europe is presented as a circus, with countries from the West of Europe and from North, Central and South America as spectators. There is an iron fence between the East and the West. It resembles the cage in a circus. The ringmaster with the whip is Russia. The animals representing the Soviet satellite states behind the iron curtain are forced to perform a show. But our eye is drawn to the most dramatic events: Germany and Austria are caught in the fence: the left leg of tiger Germany is caught in the East, as is the tail of the weasel Austria.

To be honest, the artistic quality of the drawings is debatable. Some animals are difficult to recognize. Fortunately, there is a legend in Portugese. Let us walk through the map, following the legends in the right lower corner.

The translation is 'mine' (well, my free interpretation of Google Translate, to be more exact).

"This humoristic map of Europe depicts a circus in which the tamer with his trained animal appears inside an iron curtain, with stalls and completely filled stage boxes."

The artist starts by literally setting the stage. We have a ringmaster (tamer) behind an iron curtain. We have spectators in the stalls (Europe) and spectators in the stage boxes (from the Americas). He continues:

"There is also an orchestra, police, a firefighter, doormen, the sandwich boy or the ice-cream seller."

OK. Let's find them: The orchestra is sitting in front of the weasel depicting Austria. In fact, the weasel is conducting the orchestra. The police is the giraffe depicting Norway, the firefighter is the elephant Sweden. We can identify two doormen: Turkey and Denmark. There location is chosen to represent the beginning and end of the curtain in Western Europe: The Danish guard is watching over the Kattegat, the strategic important sea street to the Baltic sea. The Turkish guard is watching over the Dardanelles, the entrance to the Black Sea. The sandwich boy is Finland, and - of course - ice cream is sold by Italy.

The artist now draws our attention to the spectators in the boxes:

"In the boxes, in the first place, the lion can be seen. Observing, with American-made binoculars, all the movements of the tamer. Next to him, are the inseparable Canadian walrus and the Mexican horse."

The Americans are closely watching every movement made by the Russians and their satellite states. Well, there was after Stalins death a lot to observe: the power struggle within the 10 men Soviet Presidium was intense. Malenkov, Beria and others struggled for power. Nikita Khrushchev won, quite unexpectedly for Western observers. The United States are probably depicted as a lion to underline their powerful role in the world after WW2. Relations between the US and Mexico were very good during WW2 and the Cold War, as were relations between the US and Canada, so the artists places al three animals in one theater box.

"In the second gallery we can find the following characters: the Peacock (Cuba), the duck (San Salvador) and the vulture (Nicaragua). In the third gallery the dove (Bolivia), ara (Ecuador), turkey (Peru), marabou (Venezuela), rooster (Bolivia), stork (Paraquay), parrot (Brazil), blackbird (Uruguay), condor (Chile), and pelican (Argentina)."

I am not an expert in Central and South American ornithology, but most birds seem to represent their natural habitat. An interesting, but completely irrelevant, detail, is that in Portugese a turkey is called a péru. So the English believed turkeys came from Turkey, and the Portugese believed it came from Peru.

I do not know why Chile and Brasil seem to have a one-on-one, while all the others are watching.

We now move to the stalls and stage, as the legends continu - in Portugese alphabetical order - with the the European countries:

"This is followed with the help from the stage:

ALBANIA - As the stagemaster orders, the bear performs outside the circus.

GERMANY - The tiger tries to get up, but his broken and bleeding leg still makes it impossible.

AUSTRIA - The weasel conduct a waltz, but at a cost, his polished tail is sacrificed by the iron curtain.

BELGIUM - The smart rabbit accompanies all movements.

BULGARIA - The farmer-bear will have to bear the cobs in order to please.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA - The bear is responsible for balancing the armament.

DENMARK - The watch dog, was commissioned as a guard, to take care of the Kattegat .

SPAIN - With great knowledge of these kind of shows, this honored one looks thoughtfully at the performance.

ESTONIA - Despite being small, the bear also has to show its skills.

FINLAND - All vain, this valiant penguin with its excellent character, provides sandwiches and pastries.

FRANCE - The beautiful French cat seems indifferent, about to fall a sleep.

GREECE - The old and helpful donkey is also very interested in the performance.

NETHERLANDS - The precious cow is delighted with the show.

HUNGARY - The tamer wishes the the bear will maintain his difficult position in the "big mine".

GREAT-BRITAIN - The famous bulldog is watching on your balcony.

IRELAND - The popular pig lets the harvest rest, and watches carefully at what is happening in the ring.

ICELAND - The seagull has found an excellent reason to pause, and show his message.

ITALY - The deer with is graceful manners, sells the famous Italian ice cream.

YUGOSLAVIA - The clever gorilla is no longer a bear, because he managed to saw the chain that tied him to the performance.

LETLAND - The juggling bear must be very careful not to fall.

LITHUANIA - Playing along is the only job for this bear.

LUXEMBURG - The little mouse shows interest in what is happening on stage.

NORWAY - The giraffe is on duty and because of his physique he is made for the job.

POLAND - The tamer wants to force the bear to dance on a tightrope.

PORTUGAL - Liked by many, the friendly cod looks over the Atlantic, as if to say "I am a faithful friend".

ROMANIA - The tamer demands the bear to balance for oil.

RUSSIA - The bear tamer, with violence but great caution, does al he can to get assistance, but in vain.

SWEDEN - The peaceful elephant is the peace soldier, ready with his snout to fight the start of a fire,

SWITZERLAND - Aware of the show, the fox fixes a watch, the subject of his specialty.

TURKEY - The always correct sheep is the porter who guards the entrance to the Dardanelles. Whoever attacks him will be brought down with a hammer

A lot of text, for a lot of countries. Some sound as a riddle to me, but that has most likely to do with my inability to understand Portugese, or by my lack of knowledge on international relationships during the early Fifties. It is however evident that on the European continent we have actors, personal and spectators.

The personnel we already discussed. Some were chosen for association with their country, whereas others (especially the elephant and giraf) were chosen because they enhance the image of their function: the elephant with his trunk as a firefighter, the giraf with its long neck keeping an eye on everything from above. We have one extra helper: Iceland holds the map title emblem, but plays no role in this performance.

Most spectators (Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, Luxemburg) are very interested in what is happening in the East-European countries. The Swiss fox has some interest, but in the meantime is fixing a watch. The French cat has lost interest, and is falling asleep. I do not understand why France is depicted as having limited interest in the situation at the Eastern borders of Europe. French official government policy supported the United States, and was weary of communist support to uprising in its colonies. Only later, when de Gaulle returned to power, did the French move away from the US and NATO.

Portugal and its neighbor Spain are getting a special treatment: liked by many, the faithful friend, knowledgeable and looking thoughtfully. Well, it may have been wise for the artist to depict his home country like this: the authoritarian regime of Salazar was not used to much criticism. Spain was still under the reign of Franco: everyone with a different political view than his was either suppressed or controlled with all means necessary. The role of Portugal and Spain in the early days of the cold war was limited.

The German tiger is caught in the fence. It is one of the most powerful cartographic images of Germany being torn up between East and West. I wonder why a tiger was chosen to represent Germany. Many animals were chosen because of cultural association (the Dutch cow, the Spanish bull). But Germany and tigers? Or could it be a hint to the German Tiger tanks from WW2? It is the only thing I can think of. And a weasel for Austria? Why? could it be the black and white that resembles the tuxedo of a conductor? Or does it has something to do with the connotation the word has in English-speaking areas, where weasel is used as an insult for someone regarded as sneaky or untrustworthy. 1953 was a turbulent year. Joseph Stalin died, and Nikita Khrushchev became the fist secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Austria and Germany were still occupied, but with the death of Stalin, and the end of the Korean War, the relationship between "East" and "West" became a little bit less tense. Additionally, the newly elected Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab, carefully instituted a more neutral policy, which resulted in the demilitarization of Austria, and, two years after this map was made, in 1955 its official independence as a unified country. The West German government, which had regained independence earlier in 1955, was shocked. Konrad Adenauer felt too much concessions had been made to the Soviet Union. So, maybe the artist makes a very informed allusion to Austrian politics at that day.

Now the main actor: the ringmaster, the tamer, the bear with his whip. He is dressed in the traditional Cossack uniform. Everyone will recognize him as Russian on first sight. He makes the other bears perform with 'violence and caution'. He controls the other bears not juist with the whip. The drawn gun in his left hand is threatening with penalties worse than being whipped.

On his right foot there is a chain that leads to the bear turned into a gorilla (thank God for the legend on this map...) The gorilla represents Yugoslavia, that is outside the iron curtain, and was able to free itself from the Russian chains with a hacksaw. This refers to the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, when Yugoslavia steered an independent course. Yugoslavia thought of itself as an ally of Moscow, while Moscow considered it a satellite state, and behaved accordingly. Tito was however also not eager to become too much under American influence as well (for instance, he refused to join NATO in 1953). With this independent course of Yugoslavia, Albania became isolated from the other satellite states of the Soviet Union. That is why the Albanian bear is performing outside the circus.

The Baltic states are depicted as juggling bears. The Polish bear is walking on a tightrope hanging between the chimneys of two factories. From 1947, Poland was more and more transformed to the classic communist vazal state. The Czechoslovakian bear is performing a balancing act with a bullet, a knife and a sprocket. This symbolizes the importance of Czechoslovakian industry for the Soviet Union. After the communists came to power in 1948, the industrial sector was reorganized and focused on metallurgy, heavy machinery and mining. The Hungarian bear is balancing atop of a mountain, probably the Mecsek mountain range in the Pécs and Komló region, which was rich in coal.

The Romanian bear is balancing on top of an oil well. In fact, during WW2, Romania was the largest oil producing country in Europe. Romania remained under the direct military occupation and economic control of the USSR until the late 1950s, that is why there are tanks drawn in this country. The Bulgarian bear is shown around cobs. After WW2, Bulgaria became highly dependent on Soviet patronage. Soviet technical and financial aid enabled it to rapidly industrialize, but in the early 1950s, it was primarily an agricultural state.

Now, who was this artist? The map is signed "Star". But unfortunately I was not able to find anything on this artist. It was published by Ediçao J.R. Silva. This publisher published several more conventional atlases and maps. Rod Barron, from Barron Maps, believes the map was issued as a supplement to the children's magazine Mundo de Aventuras, which was published by J.R. Silva. In fact, Mr Barron has written an excellent background article to this map, which can be viewed here. I must admit, that in my opinion the topic and the way it is depicted seems a bit unlikely for a children's magazine. And if it was a supplement to a very widespread children's magazine, why are there so little examples of this map known? Of course, it may have something to do with the quality of the paper. The map is printed on extremely thin and vulnerable paper: you can see right through it.

The artist has found very strong and convincing ways of depicting the political situation in the early post-WW2-period. At the time this map was published, it was 7 years after Winston Churchill's used the term "iron curtain" in the context of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.

"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."

This map is quite unique in showing us the political situation in 1953, a world slowly settling to its definitive East-West division. A division that would last for over 35 years after this map was published.



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