A Study of German Photographs from World War II in relation to pre-war European Visual Culture

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Over the summer I have been quite busy with a new research project! Well, not entirely new. As a University Honors Scholar this year, I am expanding my study of WWII German photography into new dimensions.

In 2004, Thomas Eller published a series of photographs by Willi Rose, a German soldier in a motorcycle brigade station in both western and eastern Europe during the Second World War. Rose was Eller’s great uncle. It was not until 2000 when Eller’s grandmother showed him Rose’s photographs, which captured the expanse of the Soviet Union, his unit, destroyed vehicles, barbed wire, and Soviet prisoners of war.photo1-3

Of the 1.5 million German troops that invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, it is estimated that 100,000 brought cameras with them to the front, a number that grew with the invasion of other territories. Some of these men were members of specialized propaganda units; others were unofficial, many times amateur photographers who took private pictures for their own personal use, just like Willi Rose. Often these photographs did not surface until the later 20th century; some are still hidden away in boxes stored in attics.

Many scholars charge that these German images embody Nazi ideology and are therefore tainted by it. Some even aim for an aesthetic appreciation of the private images, by publishing them in artistic coffee-table book format. Rather than looking at these photographs purely for their aesthetic content or ideological charge, this project aims to situate these images in terms of their continuities (and discontinuities) with pre-1933 German and broader European photographic trends, some of which were already highly racial and ideological in nature. By examining primary sources in the form of photographs, photo albums, advertisements and newspapers, this project will examine these photographic trends; trends that encompass visual content and framing, the ideological representation of racial others in earlier images (particularly those by Colonial powers), and the ways in which war had been represented before and during WWII. Finally, by situating these photographs in the secondary literature, this project will also determine how a study of photographic trends fits into the historiographical debate surrounding the meaning of German photographs from this period, and how they can be used as historical evidence.

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