Posts Tagged ‘Second World War’
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.
I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.
After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.
In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.
And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.
Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.
Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in history. For six months in 1942/43, Nazi Germany waged a total war on the city; over 1,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the city in the initial assaults alone, reducing Stalingrad’s city centre into rubble. These scenes of devastation were covered by Emmanuil Evzerikhin, among whose most memorable photos was that of Barmaley Fountain, a miraculously intact statue of children playing in front of a destroyed city square.
Evzerkhin was a Soviet Jew who had already been disgraced once, for a surreal Soviet offense. In 1939, he was purged for staging a photo: while photographing factory workers, he wrote down that he took photos at 1 p.m. However, the time on the clocks suggested 7 a.m. By “staging” the clocks, Evzerikhin was guilty of subverting the system: the purpose of his assignment was to prove that all workers were already at their places at 7 a.m. When the war with Germany began, he was rehired as a war photographer. His poignant photos from Stalingrad — such as a musician saving his instrument (below) and a girl sheltering in bombed ruins — were widely printed in the press; he received an Order of the Red Star and “For the Defense of Stalingrad” medal.
After Stalingrad, Evzerikhin went on to document Ukrainian and Belorussian fronts. He saw the liberations of Minsk, Warsaw, Konigsberg, and Prague. On his return to Russia, however, he found opportunities fast evaporating. He was after all, a Jew; soon afterwards, he demoted again in anti-Semitic purges .
Russians viewed and remembered the Second World War differently, not in sallow faces of Holocaust survivors or the horrors of concentration camps freed, but in sieges endured, and fathers, husbands, and sons lost. Victories at battles of Moscow and Stalingrad were refashioned as truly ‘Russian’ victories, as opposed to Soviet victories. Soviet Russia did not suffer total occupation, as had the Baltics, Belarus, or Ukraine, nor was it much marked by the Holocaust compared to Ukraine or Belarus. This distance from the horrors of the Holocaust was to deny Russia certain lessons; when the war ended, Stalinist antisemitic pogroms were just around the corner.
Soon after the war, Stalin cancelled a Soviet documentary on the Holocaust, which highlighted that the “victims of fascism” were primarily Jewish. By 1953, the Soviet leadership was drafting Jewish denunciations which lifted phrases straight from Nazi propaganda. A fitting epigraph was penned by Vasily Grossman, a Jewish writer soon to be denounced; in sequel to his monumental novel of the Battle of Stalingrad, For a Just Cause, he had a Gestapo officer quip, “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”
During the last days of the Second World War in Italy, Benito Mussolini attempted to escape the advancing Allied Army by hiding in a German convoy headed toward the Alps. Partisans stopped and searched the convoy at a small village on Lake Como; in the back of a truck, they found a private suspiciously wearing a general’s pants under his overcoat. It was, of course, Mussolini.
The partisans took him prisoner and he was later joined by his mistress, Clara Petacci. The council of partisan leaders, lead by the Communists, secretly decided to execute Mussolini and 15 leading Fascists. They were executed on April 29, 1945, and their bodies were brought back to Milan, where the fascist dictator’s meteoric rise to power began two decades ago; the bodies were hung from an Esso gas station in the Piazzale Loreto, the scene where Mussolini’s own fascists executed fifteen partisans (the so-called Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto) the previous year.
The photos of Mussolini’s gruesome demise was widely reproduced and sold to many Allied soldiers. Meanwhile in Berlin, Hitler heard how Mussolini was executed and vowed he would not let this happen to him. The end was near and Gotterdammerung was about to begin. (See an extremely gruesome picture of Mussolini’s defaced (literally) body here).
Mussolini’s body was buried in a secret grave, but fascists found the body and removed it a year later. A small trunk containing the remains moved from a local convent to a monastery to a police constabulary until it was finally returned to Mussolini’s widow in 1957, and was buried at Predappio, Il Duce’s birthplace.
Seventy-one years ago today, Adolf Hitler accepted the surrender of the French government at a ceremony in Compiegne, France. On June 21, 1940, Hitler melodramatically received France’s surrender in the same railroad car in which Germany had signed the 1918 armistice that had ended the First World War, thereby adding an additional flourish to century-long rivalry between France and Germany. (In 1918, the Armistice was singed in that railcar because it had once belong to Napoleon III, who lost the Franco-Prussian War).
It was an episode full of pointless symbolism. Hitler sat in the same chair in which Marshal Foch had sat when he faced the defeated Germans in 1918. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler – in a calculated gesture of disdain to the French delegates – left the carriage, leaving the negotiations to General Wilhelm Keitel (who ironically would sign a surrender of Germany five years later).
After stepping outside, while talking to his generals and aides, Hitler stepped backwards; however, this is not what audiences in the Allied countries saw. John Grierson, director of the Canadian information and propaganda departments, noticed that Hitler raised his leg rather high up while stepping backwards. He looped this moment repeatedly to create the appearance that Hitler was childishly jumping with joy.
In those days of newsreels before films, the scene was played over and over again in movie theaters, and served the purpose of provoking popular disdain towards Hitler.
The Armistice site was destroyed on Hitler’s orders three days later; the monuments, which included a German eagle impaled by a sword, and a large stone tablet which read “Here on the eleventh of November 1918 succumbed the criminal pride of the German Reich, vanquished by the free peoples which it tried to enslave”, were destroyed. A statue of Foch was left intact so that it would be honoring a wasteland. The Armistice carriage was taken to Berlin, but later destroyed in war. See here for Hitler’s reaction to the Armistice site.
May 22, 1943. Podgorica, Yugoslavia. From left to right, Italian Cdmr. Escola Roncagli; Waldheim; German Col. Hans Herbert Macholtz and General of the 7th SS-Division, General Artur Phelps.
In 1986, four years after his tenure as the UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim made a bid to lead his native Austria. During his presidential campaign, the press released documents indicating that he had, contrary to his claims, been aware of and perhaps involved in war crimes, including the deportation of Jews to death camps when Waldheim was a lieutenant in the German army during World War II. For decades, the charming, worldly diplomat insisted that by serving in the German Army, he was protecting his family; and that he never even knew that the Jews of Salonika — who accounted for one third of the city’s population — were being shipped off to Auschwitz.
But as an adjutant on the staff of Alexander Löhr, an Austrian General who was executed for war crimes, Waldheim must have known more than he admitted. Waldheim nonetheless denounced the scandal as a conspiracy to defame Austria, and as directly motivated by the UN’s denunciation of Zionism as racism during his tenure. Selective memory, on Waldheim’s part and on many Austrians’ part, would prove to be very dangerous indeed: some of his own generation felt that he was, like them, simply a man who had been conscripted into the Nazi German army and forced to serve. His utterances, “Ich kann mich nicht erinnern” (“I cannot remember”) and “Ich habe nur meine Pflicht getan” (“I only did my duty”) resonated. They saw the attack on him as an attack on Austria. They did not want outsiders telling them whom they could or could not vote for. For many Austrians, Waldheim’s tales — no matter how tall they seemed to outsiders — aligned with their own recollections, and he won the election in a nation that remained unsure how to confront its demons.
While Germany bore the brunt of the blame for the Holocaust, other villains and collaborators slipped away unnoticed. In a country of less than seven million, there were more than 500,000 registered Nazis in Austria at the end of the war. Austrians were greatly overrepresented in the SS and among concentration-camp staff. Over 38% of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra were Nazis, compared with just 7% of the Berlin Philharmonic. Jane Kramer notes in her book Europeans (1988) that although most Austrians today have never met an Austrian Jew, polls repeatedly show that about 70% of Austrians do not like Jews and a little over 20% actively loathe them. A poll by the London Observer, conducted shortly after Waldheim came to power, revealed that almost 40% of Austrians thought the Jews were at least partly responsible for what happened to them during the war and 48% of Austrians still believed that the country’s 8,000 remaining Jews — about 0.001% of total population — still enjoy too much economic power and influence.
Media quickly termed the inability to remember what you did during the war “Waldheimer’s disease”. An international panel concluded that Waldheim was not guilty of any war crimes, but seriously cast doubts of his claims of ignorance. It also pointed out that he was guilty of lying about his military record. In his memoirs Recht, nicht Rache, Simon Wiesenthal, the Jewish Nazi hunter, devoted a whole chapter to the Waldheim affair, noting Waldheim was neither a Nazi nor a war criminal. Regardless, Waldheim became a pariah on the world stage. His European neighbors had shunned him, and in 1987 he was put on America’s ‘Watch List’ of undesirable aliens — a signal humiliation. Thus, he became the first leader of a friendly nation to be barred from entering the U.S. He decided not to seek re-election for a second term, and quietly faded away.
Today marks the 70th Anniversary of the German Invasion of Poland. Although the above picture lacks the iconicity of many WWII pictures, it had an immense documentary and propaganda values. It was copied and reproduced again and again on many textbooks.
However, the photo of German troops parading through Warsaw after the surrender of Poland probably taken as late as September 30th, 1939. The invasion won’t end until early October 1939, shortly after the Soviet Union invaded the country from the east and subsumed the Baltic States. The devil’s pact between Hitler and Stalin (Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact) enabled these cataclysmic events to unfold and pushed the world into another world war.
Seventy years later, the invasion is still a contentious issue. In August 2009, the parliamentary assembly of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) equated the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany but noting that Stalinism is as bad as Nazism. The resolution drew ire from the Russian government.
See scenes from the Invasion of Poland in September 1939.
October 1, 1940. The image of a child breaking free of his mother’s hold to reach out to his father became one of the enduring images of WWII. It was taken by Claude Detloff at Columbia and 8th Street in New Westminster, Vancouver as the soldiers of the Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles marched off to fight in the Second World War.
The mother’s outstretched hand and the swirl of her coat, the boy’s shock of white hair and his own reaching hand, the father’s turning smile and the downward thrust of his own outreaching hand (he has shifted his rifle to his other hand to hold his son’s for a moment) and the long line of marching men in the background combine to make this an unforgettable image, a masterpiece of unplanned composition, a heart-grabbing moment frozen for all time.
The next day, the picture appeared in the Canadian Newspaper Province and the family, Jack, Bernice and their son Warren “Whitey” Bernard were suddenly famous. The picture was given a full page in Life, was portrayed in Liberty, Time, Newsweek, the Reader’s Digest and the Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbook, not to mention dozens of newspapers. It was hung in many schools in Canada during the war. First grader Whitey became the face of ‘Bring My Daddy Home’ War Bond drives. He finally did in October 1945, and Detloff took a photograph of their reunion.