Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
An enduring myth about the Second World War is the canard that the Germany Army, the fabled Wehrmacht was an apolitical organization largely innocent of Nazi crimes. In his definitive The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, Wolfram Wette dismissed this view: while the Wehrmacht treated prisoners of war on the Western front honorably, on the Eastern front, its campaigns were barbaric.
This was a view that the Germans themselves were uncomfortable with, until very recently. When an exhibition “The War of Annihilation. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944” opened in Hamburg in 1995 and toured 33 German and Austrian cities in the following two years, it was greeted with protests, denunciations, and even violence in Munich and Bavaria.
At the center of controversy were photos taken by Gerhard Gronefeld, showing an execution in the Yugoslavian town of Pancevo on 22nd April 1941. They showed an ugly, uncomfortable truth: that the ordinary soldiers were just as lethal as the SS in exterminating Jews and civilians. In the photos, executed civilians lie next to a cemetery wall as a Wehrmacht officer pointed his gun at the dying, as a SS-officer looked on. Thirty-six civilians were executed — 18 men were shot, and 17 men and one woman were hanged. The “most terrible scene which I photographed ever,” Gronefeld recalled, and he did not submit the photographs to the army magazine for which he was working. He secreted the photos until 1963, when they were published.
Controversial though it was, the 1995 Exhibition was a landmark moment. As it toured across Germany and Austria, many veterans, ex-servicemen, and their families donated letters and photos and came forward to recall how the army had been deployed as state executioner. Gronefeld’s photo ran on the cover of Der Spiegel on 19th March 1997. Christian Social Union, the natural party of government in Bavaria, denounced it as an insult to the Wehrmacht, as neo-Nazis marched through Munich to protest the exhibition. An academic at Germany Army’s Bundeswehr University came out defending Pancevo as an act of defense, allowable under the international law*. As for Pancevo, it was once again in the news in the 1990s as the Balkans spiraled once more into a fratricidal war.
* See: Franz Seidler, Crimes Against the Wehrmacht (1997). p.18-19.
The Smithsonian called it “among the key documentary images of American modern art”. On 18 October 1963, at the Pasadena Art Museum, Time’s Julian Wasser took a photo showing Marcel Duchamp playing chess against a totally naked young woman, Eve Babitz.
It was an iconic juxtaposition, of the nude bride and the bachelor Duchamp (who remained unmarried for most of his life), of black and white pieces, of man and woman. Symmetries and asymmetries abound: of young vs. old, of faced vs. faceless, of Duchamp’s aged body vs. Babitz’s full figure (enhanced by her birth control). Looming over them was Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even — a fitting piece for Eve, who would go on to have affairs with Jim Morrison, Ed and Paul Ruscha, Steve Martin, and Harrison Ford.
By 1963, Duchamp, one of the fathers of Dadaism and conceptual art, was semi-retired and had turned his focus to playing chess. But that year, when the Pasadena Art Museum staged his first retrospective, the elderly artist was having a renaissance. He appeared playing chess in the documentary made to coincide with the retrospective. The avant-garde art world of the 1950s found in him a kindred spirit. His 1917 work, “Fountain” — a piece which he deliberately crafted to offend — ironically became a highly sought-after art piece after the second world war, and Duchamp issued three authorized copies in 1950, 1953 and 1963. The next year, Duchamp was to replicate his important works into 12 replicas.
It is hard to find a photographer who embodied his nation as perfectly as David Rubinger did with Israel. Born in Vienna in 1924, he emigrated to British Palestine in 1939, and began his career in photography serving in the British army’s Jewish Brigade. By the time he died this week, he had been the official photographer of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, where he was the only photographer whose work is on permanent display.
In between, he married a concentration camp survivor and took intimate photos of Jewish establishment, often in their private moments. Golda Meir blew smoke into middle distance. David Ben-Gurion and Ariel Sharon surveyed Israeli defense lines. He followed soldier and archeologist Yigael Yadin into caves above the Judean Desert. He was the only photographer to be permitted to enter the Knesset cafeteria.
But Rubinger’s most famous photos were taken in wartime. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he took photos of the Egyptian gunners from a helicopter (carrying the Israeli chief of General Staff) which was hit. Earlier, during the 1967 Six Day War, he took his most famous photo, Paratroopers at the Western Wall (above).
Between 1949 and 1967, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were controlled by Jordan as part of the armistice between two countries. Jordan’s ruling royal family had always wanted to claim the entire Jerusalem to make up for the family’s lost guardianship of Mecca, which was lost to Saudi Arabia, and when Egypt and Syria invaded Israel in 1967, Jordan swiftly moved in to annex the entire Jerusalem. Hand-to-hand fighting between Israeli and Jordanian soldiers ensued on the Temple Mount. Rubinger was there to capture the end of fighting; he recalled heading back from the Sinai front:
“That night I heard some talk on the command radios about something happening in Jerusalem. I didn’t hesitate and just snuck into a helicopter that was evacuating wounded soldiers. When I got to Jerusalem, I heard gunshots, so I ran to the Western Wall, maybe 20 minutes after it was taken. I laid down on the ground and these three soldiers just passed by. I didn’t think much of the photo at the time.”
[The army’s chief rabbi arrived, below]. I thought that would be ‘the shot’. When I developed the photos at home, I told my wife: ‘Rabbi Goren, that’s a great photo, historical.’ But my wife pointed at the image of the soldiers and said: ‘that’s a nice photograph.’ And I told her: ‘What nonsense.’ Part of the face is cut off one the right said, in the middle the nose protrudes, and on the left there’s only half a face… photographically speaking, this isn’t a good photo.”
But others thought different; the photo was widely reprinted — mostly due to the fact that Rubinger had previously agreed to give his negatives to the government in exchange for front-line access — and eventually, he relented. He put it on the cover of his autobiography, and in 2002, he re-staged it with three women to raise awareness for gender equality. In many ways, it was a fitting photo for Rubinger, whose photo career took off in 1954 after taking the photo of a Catholic nun searching for a hospice patient’s dentures which had fallen out the hospice’s window into Eastern Jerusalem, then Jordanian territory.
Although he had been dead nine days earlier, the news of Werner Bischof’s death arrived to New York on the same day that it was announced the legendary Robert Capa had been killed in Vietnam. For their employer, Magnum photo-agency, it was a shocking double-blow.
On May 16th 1954, Bischof was travelling in the Andes with a Swiss geologist and a Peruvian driver when their Chevrolet station wagon slid off the road between Chagual and Parcoy and plunged 1,500 feet into a deep ravine.
Unlike Capa, Bischof chased the tranquility of tradition in his photos, eschewing news events. Trained as a painter, he offered a unique perspective, as he transversed Europe as an independent photographer and a photojournalist for Picture Post, documenting the war’s devastating effects on European culture and life. Orphans looked out forlornly from a train window in Hungary. The Reichstag stood in ruins. In Greece, prefabricated houses were built.
In 1949, he became the sixth member of Magnum Photos and traveled to India and Far East, working for Life, and Paris Match. In Bihar in India, he documented a famine. His wife, Rosellina, recalled their trip to Japan in a diary entry: “It is snowing today – Tokyo is enchanted – Werner and I visited the Meiji shrine in Tokyo. The mood is magical, the snowfall swallows the noise of the city. Everything appears just in black and white. Suddenly Werner runs away with his camera. I stop, terrified. What happened? He comes back after a little bit. Still out of breath but overjoyed he admits: I just took the picture of Japan!”
But the photo he was mainly remembered for was the last picture taken on that fatal trip to Peru: a little boy walking between the Andean village of Pisac and the town of Cuzco playing the flute. Posthumously, it became one of the symbols of Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition, a showcase of commonalities that bind people and cultures around the world.
When Picture Post published “Back to the Middle Ages” November 26th 1938, the magazine was less than two months old. Launched on October 1st, it was from the very beginning staunchly anti-fascist, thanks to the editorship of Stefan Lorant, an Hungarian refugee who had been previously imprisoned by the Nazis in Munich.
Situations had gotten worse in Germany that November. An assassination of a German diplomat in Paris provided the Nazis with the pretext for the Kristallnacht, an antisemitic pogrom. To cover the event, Lorant thought he should juxtaposed the faces of the Nazi leadership alongside those of the writers, actors and scientists they were persecuting.
Four central figures loomed large above the headlines, three still well-known, one less so. Alongside Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering was Julius Streicher whose newspaper Der Stürmer was the centerpiece of the Nazi propaganda. A former schoolmaster who was expelled from his profession, Streicher was anti-Semitic, almost to a comical degree: he wrote anti-Semitic books for children, and frequently repeated the medieval accusation that Jews killed Christian children to make matzoh. An early practitioner of what you would today call ‘Fake News’, Streicher argued that since his articles were based on race, not religion, they were protected by the German constitution.
When Picture Post went to press, Streicher was at the height of his noxious power: at Nuremberg, where he was the local Nazi party chief, he was treated almost as an absolute monarch. During Kristallnacht, he ordered his followers to sack the Great Synagogue of the city. But Kristallnacht also proved to be his downfall: he was accused of keeping Jewish property seized after Kristallnacht in November 1938, and his enemies within the Nazi party hierarchy — especially Goering whose daughter he once accused of being conceived by artificial insemination — were all to glad to denounce him. Hitler also grew tired of Streicher’s hysterical tirades, and would travel to Nuremberg only in secret, in order to avoid having to dine with Streicher.
In 1940, Streicher was finally stripped of his party offices, although his paper continued publishing until the war’s end. But Der Stürmer, like its publisher, itself limped into the 1940s. Once its pages were full of denunciations of Germans who were friendly to Jews or patrons of Jewish businesses, and exaggerated stories about misconduct and crimes by Jews, but as deportation of Jews intensified and Jewish life all but disappeared across Germany, there was little material for the paper. After 1940, this was literally true as paper restrictions were imposed on Der Stürmer.
The photo on page 19 read: Humanity at its Lowest. Young Nazis look on smiling while Elderly Jews are forced to scrub Vienna streets. On the back of this picture, the agency circulating it had felt it necessary to print: “Under no circumstances whatsoever may the source from which this picture was obtained, be revealed.”
Are there faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations?
In the late 70s and the 80s, “Vietnamese” was almost invariably followed by the term “boat people”. Between 1975 and 1992, around two million people (nearly four percent of the country’s population) fled Vietnam by boat to escape poverty, oppression, and war. It was a perilous journey — up to 250,000 people died at sea from storms, illness, food shortages, and piracy.
Photographer Eddie Adams, now better known for another iconic photo, remembers being on the frontline of this exodus, and getting into a refuge boat which was turned away:
No one, no country, was letting the refugees land. You couldn’t even find out about them. At first, I went back and said the story was impossible to cover. Then I had an idea and got in touch with the Thai Marine police (I knew Thailand very well) who had been shoving the boats right back offshore to certain death. I told them would like to go with them on patrol in the Gulf of Siam.
They OK’d it, so we headed for the most likely point in northern Thailand, getting there at 4am when a refugee boat had just pulled in; the Thai authorities were getting ready to cast it off again. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1977. I suddenly asked the Vietnamese if I could go with them— I bought gas and rice – they had no fuel or food. There were forty-nine people aboard that fishing boat, including children— in the hold that same day a baby was born. The Thais towed us back out to sea and set us adrift. On that boat, there was no room to lie down, so they all had to sit up straight, waking or sleeping. I cannot describe the despair. There were dramatic pictures of mothers with half-dead children in their arms but something even worse was there.
Whenever you go to refugee camps in a war zone where terrible things have happened, where bodies might be stacked up, and disease everywhere, you still find children who gather before the camera with a smile. This was the first time in my life that no child smiled. I called the pictures, “the boat of no smiles.” The boat was hardly moving- they didn’t even know where to go.
Then we were approached by another Thai boat with a megaphone ordering me off at gunpoint— they were afraid someone would let them dock knowing there was an American aboard. I had mixed feelings about getting off. I wrote the story and sent the pictures immediately, and they ran. Peter Arnett did a story also and a few others. Within a couple of days the administration asked the AP to present the photos to Congress. And Carter said let them come to America. The Congress had been thinking about it, sure, but the pictures did it, pushed it over.
The photos convinced the American government to allow 250,000 refugees to enter into the United States. Tragic drownings were to mobilize public opinion and a coordinated plan led to resettlement of over 1.3 million refuges across the developed world (China also took in 300,000 Vietnamese of Chinese blood).
In 1978, Adams and Arnett traveled to the Malaysian island of Bidong, “once a paradise with blue waters, white sandy beaches fringed by coconut palms, topped by a verdant hillside,” but by then one of the most crowded refuge encampments in the world — where 40,000 refugees huddled in a space the size of football field.
Here, tales evoking Sophie’s Choice were played out, as the developed nations selected who could migrate where, with varying criteria. For instance, the United States gave priority to those who had served in the South Vietnamese military and their families. An acquaintance of mine had to choose between migrating and his 10-year old brother-in-law (as the latter, not being his blood relative, was not accepted by the US). Making the choice all the harder, his newborn son was dying from dysentery: it was a decision between leaving behind a 10-year old boy or condemning their newborn child.
It has perhaps glib to compare the boat people to modern refuges, except to note that migrant experience was never easy. Yet there are faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations: in both United States and Australia (where the Vietnamese were the first non-European emigrants of significant size), the arrival of foreigners who worshiped different gods, from a country which espoused an ideology antithetical to Western values, and a country which until recently had been at war with them, initially caused great social disquiet.
Four decades on, these fears are a distant memory. By forgetting them, however, we condemn ourselves into repeating same mistakes over and over again.
This week, the world paused briefly to remember 27th January 1945 when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. The press release from the White House, now improbably occupied by a man who has surrounded himself with anti-Semites, did not even mention the Jewish victims of the said concentration camp.
Yet this has alarming parallels dating back to 1945. While 1.1 million (90 percent of whom were Jewish) died at Auschwitz — 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust perished in its gas chambers — its significance was downplayed immediately by the Red Army which saw the atrocities first hand. In a new narrative that Soviet Union was writing, the Jewish suffering was to be downplayed, even as Soviet sacrifices were hailed.
As Richard Levy wrote in Antisemitism, as “many Soviet citizens …. benefited from the Nazi extermination of Jews — taking over abandoned Jewish houses, stolen property, and vacated jobs”, they feared the return of Jewish refuges. In such a climate, the Soviet control of Eastern Europe depended on hiding the true extent of the Nazi horrors. Pravda’s short initial report on Auschwitz on February 2nd 1945 did not mention Jews; a detailed coverage wasn’t made until Ogonyok’s March 20th article, which did mention Jewish deaths.
Not liberated alongside Auschwitz was Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish inmate who was forced to take photographs of Auschwitz during the war. Along with thousands of other Auschwitz prisoners, Brasse was moved to Mauthausen concentration camp by the Nazis as the Red Army approached Auschwitz.
While at Auschwitz, Brasse was ordered by the SS to photograph “prisoners’ work, criminal medical experiments, [and] portraits of the prisoners for the files.” He took “identity” portraits of the prisoners “in three poses: from the front and from each side, taking about 40,000 to 50,000 of them from 1940 until 1945.
These images, of which only a few survives, form a powerful visual legacy, enlivening the victims of the Holocaust into people who lived and loved, rather than as numbers and statistics. Among the most haunting was the portrait of Czesława Kwoka, a 15-year old girl, whom Brasse recalled:
She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo [a prisoner overseer] took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything.
Kwoka would perish in the camps just a few months later. It is depressing to commemorate Auschwitz, even as tolerance dims in the United States with each stroke of the presidential pen. We have largely shied away from discussing modern politics on this blog, but this is no time for decent men, of any political stripe and especially of the president’s party, to remain silent.
Cruel. Inhumane. Lacking in Empathy. Enacted without due process and deference to legality. These are some words that come to mind when we reflect on the Executive Orders of last few days. We must not confuse religious, political, or ideological differences with disloyalty. There is a fine line between national security and infringement of civil rights, and between protecting and persecution citizens — and the president has stepped over it a week into his term.
We worry about the remaining 207 weeks of his administration. That’s we are going to put a link to American Civil Liberties Union’s donation page here.
Power of photographs is often debated, but in some areas, their influence was undeniable. One of the most shared images on Iconic Photos in last 12 months have been this picture of a Faroese whale hunt.
Similar outrage was had in 1969 when Duncan Cameron took a picture of a Canadian seal clubber in Northumberland Strait. Photography as a medium is always at its most powerful when it deals with ‘anterior future’ — images which foreshadows a future event good or ill (but mostly ill), such as photos taken before executions, at firing squads, or in disaster zones. Cameron’s image is one such: the ice floes looked so spotless, the baby seal so innocent, and the longing look of its mother in the background so heartrending that the anterior future here was particularly cruel.
The photo bookended a debate which began five years earlier when a Montreal cameracrew took similar pictures. Many consumers stopped buying fur, and some countries banned seal-fur imports from Canada. Jack Davis, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries noted, “A lot of young people in distant countries now think of Canada only in terms of seals,” and in October 1969, Canada banned the killing of month-old seal pups and banned clubbing seals of any age to death.
A total seal hunting ban proved to be more difficult. Older seals had fewer defenders. Davis added, “the animal is no longer as cute as it was,” and the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau noted “Those who protest won’t be shown the same photographs of baby seals with their big blue or brown eyes.” Protests by environmental activists in the 1970s and the 1980s led to many seal hunters, some of them indigenous peoples, leaving their local community and selling their properties to oil drillers, causing unintended environmental damage.
In December 1934, a border dispute between Abyssinia and the Italian Somaliland led to a small war. Haile Selassie, the emperor of Abyssinia, sought the help from the League of Nations. The League — dominated by European powers — responded by banning arms sales to both Italy and Abyssinia, a move which harmed the latter greatly.
Instead, the League, an international body founded after the First World War to arbitrate international disputes, reverted back into settling disputes a la Concert of Europe: Britain and France, both worn out by war and depression, secretly agreed to give Abyssinia to Italy.
Emboldened, Italy sent a 400,000-strong army into Abyssinia even as the League re-elected the Italian Marquis Alberto Theodoli, as chairman of the Permanent Mandates Commission, an important League body. That winter, however, the opinion turned as the Italians bombarded villages, used poison gas and attacked Red Cross hospitals.
While it was a conflict fought mostly out of the world’s eyes, photography played a significant part. The uneven terms of the conflict were made clear in the photos of Alfred Eisenstadt, working for Berliner Illustriete Zeitung, who saw the poor benighted country before the Italian army arrived. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s Italy attempted to use Abyssinia’s own poverty as a justification for an invasion. Reprinted were postcards and photos of nude locals, to lend credence to the narrative that Italy was “intervening only to bring law and order to a backwards, warlord-ridden, and slave trading land,” as Susan Pedersen notes in The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, her excellent account of diplomacy in the interwar years.
Eisenstadt’s pictures proved more powerful. His picture of the bare feet of an Abyssinian soldier was reprinted around the world but censored in Italy. In fact, the worldwide sales of his photo enabled Jewish Eisenstadt to emigrate from Germany. Although later to be often miscaptioned as the feet of a slain soldier, mud-caked feet wrapped in dirty WWI-era puttees belonged to a soldier participating in a rifle practice.
Public opinion did turn against Italy, but it was too late: the Italian conquest was nearly complete. The League voted for economic sanctions onto Italy in May 1936 but by this time, Italy had already walked out of the League Council. Following Japan and Germany, which withdrew from the League in 1933 rather than to submit to its decisions, Italy left the League in 1937. Fascist Italy was now inexorably allied with Germany and Japan and contours of a global conflict were slowly settling.
(continued from a previous post)
As the Italian state unraveled in ever-widening gyre of political choas, that other threat to law and order was again resurgent in the south. In Sicily, the Commission — a central organization of mafiosos — was resurrected. Several competing factions were now preparing to fight and claim territories for protection rackets.
At the center of this was Letizia Battaglia, a journalist and photographer for L’Ora newspaper in Palermo. For eighteen years, she documented mafia murders of judges, politicians, police, and members of rival families. She would find herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day. Here, she remembers taking the photo above (link)
They murdered Nerina, a young prostitute who had started drug-dealing independently from the mafia cartel, and her two male friends. Allegedly, she had disobeyed the mafia’s code of honour. Naturally, the killers were never found.
It was 1982, and I entered this little room in Palermo against the will of the police. They did not want me – a photographer and a woman – at the crime scene. When I realised there was a woman among the victims, I started shaking. More than usual, I mean. I was overcome by nausea and could hardly stand. I only had a few seconds to take a couple of pictures: there were men shouting at me to work fast.
It isn’t easy to be a good photographer when you’re faced with the corpses of people who were alive and kicking only minutes before. In those situations, I would often get all the technical things wrong. But I did my job, I photographed, trying to keep the image in focus and the exposure correct.
Since Nerina, who is slumped in the armchair, had been the main target, I found myself thinking about her. In that small room, her still body was at everybody’s mercy, more objectified than ever. My contact with her lasted only a few moments and was filtered through the lens of a cheap camera. But I saw her alone, lost in an eternity of silence. In that short time, I started to love her. I find women beautiful and courageous, and I love photographing them. They hold so many dreams inside themselves.
It was just one of 600,000 photos she took of mafia crimes; throughout her career, Battaglia received many death threats, but continued on. Her “Archive of Blood”, as she called it, grew and grew as the mafia activity spread. Judge Cesare Terranova, a member of the Anti-Mafia Parliamentary Commission, was killed in an ambush in 1979. Battaglia remembers: “This was one of the most important men in Sicilian politics. When he was killed, I said nothing worse could happen. Nothing. It was not true.” [Photo below, graphic].
The Italian state, which had unscrupulous connections with the mafia, was slow and reluctant to respond, even when the mafia detonated a half-ton of explosives under the highway in May 1992 to assassinate a judge (who was a close friend of Battaglia). The next year, Giulio Andreotti, who had been prime minister of Italy seven times, was indicted for corruption.He had flatly denied ever meeting or having any dealings with the mafia, but among Battaglia’s archives were photographs of Andreotti and other Christian Democrat party leaders with Nino Salvo, a powerful Mafia figures who was believed to have been a principal link between the Mafia and Andreotti.
Battaglia has recently published a book “Anthology” which recounts these haunting years. (Amazon).
With yesterday’s UN vote urging Israel to end to its illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, we look back at one of modern Israel’s earliest settlements.
David Seymour wrote to his sister in 1951, “You can imagine how everything here is emotionally charged and moving”. The Magnum founder was standing in the middle of a Jewish settlement near Golan Heights when he took the photo of Baby Miriam, the first ever child born into the settlement of Alma (above).
Alma was a melting pot of Yemenite Jews, Tripolitanian Jews from Libya, and immigrants from Southeast Italy, most notably from the small village of San Nicandro. Twenty years earlier, a group of Italian Roman Catholics in that village underwent a mass conversion to Judaism under the influence of Donato Manduzio, a crippled war veteran turned mystic who self-taught himself the Old Testament.
For Seymour, born Dawid Szymin in Warsaw, whose Polish Jewish parents killed by the Nazis during the Second World War, Israel was an emotional place. After the war, he documented post-war Europe for UNICEF and frequently traveled to newly-formed Israel to photograph settlements and kibbutzes being set up.
Amidst the scenes of weddings, dancing, and olive groves were the snapshots of those improbable days: women carried water in brass jugs from reservoirs miles away even as Baby Miriam’s father supervises a pipeline construction work which is going to bring water from the source. A hardscrabble garden was planted on desert terrain. A tractor is paraded through the streets of Tel Aviv on Independence Day. Soldiers patrolled the border between the Negev Desert and Jordan. A woman mourned graveside at the funeral of a watchman killed during a border conflict.
Seymour himself was sucked into one of those conflicts; in November 1956, he was killed by Egyptian machine-gun fire four days after the armistice of the 1956 Suez War.
A week after this photograph was published in the Corriere d’Informazione, Umberto Eco wrote, “Remember this image, it will become exemplary of our century.” Such a sentiment was inevitable in Italy in 1977, after a decade of political turmoil later known as The Years of Lead — a Manichean violent struggle between neo-fascists and radical left to control the political future of the Italian Republic.
Conflicts of 1977 began in February with a student occupation of the University of Rome to protest education reforms; a fortnight later, a demonstration devolved into a four-hour long guerrilla battle with the police in the streets of Rome. Political parties and trade unions were drawn into this turmoil, which soon spread to other great Italian university towns. In Bologna, a student-run radio station was closed by the carabineri, which shot and killed a student. Another student was killed during a demonstration in Rome in May; it was unclear who shot him, but armed policemen in plainclothes were observed during the demonstration, leading to riots.
The photo above was taken by Paolo Pedrizzetti in Milan during those riots: the young man in a ski mask and bell-bottom jeans was a member of a far-left organization which pulled out their pistols and began to shoot at the police, killing policeman Antonio Custra on May 14th 1977. This was a fitting photo of The Years of Lead, which also began in Milan with killing of another policeman in November 1969.
The fact that Custra left behind a pregnant wife galvanized the press. The man in Pedrizzetti’s photo was identified as 18-year old student Giuseppe Memeo; this was the first time he had held a gun, and he was not the killer. (Two years later, Memeo shot and killed two, including a secret service agent). The killer was not identified until the other photographer (who was seen in Pedrizzetti’s photo) came forward twelve years later, having hidden his negatives for fear of reprisals.
That was 1977 — the year that came to be known as the time of the “P38”, referring to the Walther P38 pistol. There were 42 assassinations and 2,128 acts of political violence. For Italy, the worst was still to come, but the tide was turning for the protesters. The next year, the prime minister was kidnapped and executed by militant communists — a senseless act of violence which resulted in a loss of popular support. More lenient sentences in exchange for collaboration or “dissociation” followed: the pentiti program enabled the state to hunt down most of the militants. By mid-1980s, Italy was en route to overtake UK in nominal GDP to become the world’s fifth largest economy.