John Heartfield mostly created his art under adverse conditions: his life was marked by persecution and exile. He used art as a propagandistic "weapon" against social injustice and political opponents and in particular the National Socialists. It attracted the attention of the censorship authorities and had to be viewed in secret – yet it reached an audience of millions. Over 6,000 works, fragile objects made of paper, survived war, flight and exile, and are now kept by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. Luck and coincidence played a role that is not to be underestimated, as did friends and acquaintances who took pieces of works into their care; and last but not least, two boxes of works were passed down, which had been stored in Moscow since 1931 and found their way back into Heartfield's possession in 1958. Heartfield himself made sure to keep his artistic oeuvre together. As far as we know, he was reluctant to part with works and usually did not create them for the purpose of sale, but rather as templates for reproduction (if possible, mass reproduction) and thus the dissemination of a particular political message.

After his return from exile in England to the GDR in 1950, Heartfield only gradually gained a foothold as an artist and initially faced great opposition from party functionaries. He was only admitted to the Deutsche Akademie der Künste (German Academy of Arts) as a full member in 1956 and remained faithful to the institution thereafter. In 1964, he appointed the Academy in his will as sole heir to his artistic legacy after the death of his wife Gertrud, known as "Tutti" (1910-1983). As early as six months after Heartfield died in April 1968, the John Heartfield Archive was set up and continued to be managed by Heartfield's widow in her capacity as trustee of the estate until the end of 1983. The approximately 6,200 works of visual art and archival records were then relocated from their apartment on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin to the archive premises at Luisenstrasse 60. An initial sorting of the archival holdings according to classification groups and archival indexing had been carried out by Elisabeth Patzwall since 1971. She created an initial index of the archive’s holdings, though this was never published. Up until the renovation of the archive premises on Luisenstrasse, the collection was stored on the ground floor. Gertrud Heartfield and the staff of the Heartfield Archive sought to fill gaps in the archival holdings through purchases, in particular of books designed by Heartfield that were missing from the collection.

In 1991, the archival holdings were split up: 17.6 linear metres of written documents, the written legacy of John and Gertrud Heartfield and around 3,000 photographs of works and people went into the care of the Archive's Fine Arts Department; the visual arts portion remained in the art collection. After the death of Gertrud Heartfield, the Academy added further objects from the legacy to the museum collection affiliated to the art collection, including Heartfield's extensive glass and ceramics collections, work materials and furniture. Until 2013, Heartfield expert Peter Zimmermann managed the archival holdings. His analytical expertise of both the form and content of Heartfield's oeuvre resulted in numerous discoveries and an archival index that provided the basis for this archival holdings catalogue. These include historical classifications, the detailed identification of the persons and subjects depicted and – a particular passion of his – the identification of cross-connections and curatorial comments, which were included in the online presentation.

Although the publication of the online catalogue means that works by John Heartfield can be studied in detail using digitised media (while at the same time allowing the original to be conserved), it will still be possible to view individual original works by appointment at the Akademie der Künste study room.