Petra Bopp
With camera in Combat

Lecture presented at the symposium for the opening of the exhibit Vreemden in het vizier/Strangers in focus, Legermuseum Delft, 26. April 2012


Im very glad that the Legermuseum in Delft is hosting the exhibit about the private photos of Wehrmacht soldiers in part for three months thank you Chris Ronteltap, Franklin van der Pols, Nienke Heesters and the whole staff of the museum as well as the designers Martha Bakker and Frodo Terpstra.

The main idea to show this exhibit in the Netherlands was born when I met Jet Baruch at her exhibit Soldatenkikjes at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in Due to her initiative it was Franklin van der Pols, who reacted at once, visited the exhibit Fremde im Visier in Northern Germany and decided to show it in the Legermuseum. Thank you, Jet, for your wonderful energy caring about our idea and developing it until today to the opening.   

As the Dutch version shows only a small part of the whole exhibit I would like to speak about the idea of the research project and the exhibit shown until now in five cities in Germany (Oldenburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Jena and Peine) with round about 52 000 visitors. The main newspapers in Germany had articles about the impact of the exhibit, that these private war memories become now public. The SPIEGEL and DIE ZEIT made interviews in the exhibit and initiated discussions on their websites.

Ill talk about the beginning of the project and will show you some images of the eight rooms of the original exhibit with a special focus on some photos, which you also can find here in the exhibit.

Since 15 years the discussions revolving around the so-called Wehrmachtsausstellungen have heightened our awareness of the complexities of using photographs as historical sources on the history of World War II. New research on the contexts in which the pictures were taken and the purposes they served, contributes to the further examination of the existing approaches to explaining and understanding these phenomena.

1 - Private war albums

Our soldiers are keen photographers, they take a lot of pictures,[1] the owner of a photo lab told one of his female customers in 1941, as he added photographs by the soldier named Georg into a sample book (Musterbuch) of front-line images that could be ordered by every member of the company. The subject matter of this sample book was described as destroyed villages, farmsteads and sub-humans in Poland, while in France, Georgs camera had captured images of ruins and ethnic types. The image of the enemy was, therefore, not only disseminated by journalistic propaganda in the daily newspapers and magazines; pictures taken by soldiers were also widely used by camera shops and the photographic trade to promote their products. As early as 1933, Joseph Goebbels called upon an army of millions of amateur photographers[2] to educate the nation according to the principles of National Socialist propaganda, and an appeal published in the journal Photofreund at the beginning of the war added force to this demand: At this time it is the unconditional duty of every soldier to keep his camera in action.[3]




The cheap, lightweight cameras made by Agfa, Kodak or Voigtländer made it easier for recruits  to buy and use them. This resulted in vast numbers of private photographs being produced by soldiers during the Second World War in quantitative terms equal to the millions of images taken by the Nazi propaganda units. The occupation of foreign countries was photographed by the participating soldiers on an unprecedented scale, and these images were then compiled into their own war-themed albums. This pictorial script of the German people (Bildschrift des Volkes [4] which the Nazis sought to create was also encouraged by the provision of ready-made war albums bearing Third Reich insignia (swastika, oak leaves or the imperial eagle), in which the blank pages were preceded by portraits of Hitler, Göring and other army generals. Similar to soldiers private photographs of the First World War, the most common images in the Second World War albums are pictures of the invasion of France and the Soviet Union, as well as photographs of individual sectors of the front and scenes from the German occupation of the countries as we can see it in the albums of the Rijksmuseum in the exhibit here. If you are looking on both walls with the reproductions from the Netherlands and the Soviet-Union you may discover for your own the difference of taking pictures either in short moments of the advance and the battles at the Eastern front or during some years of occupation in the West.

2 - The first Wehrmacht-exhibit

What can be termed a semi-private photograph taken by a propaganda unit photographer named Gerhard Gronefeld became an iconic image in the context of the exhibition Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 (The War of Extermination. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944), which was shown in 33 towns and cities in Germany and Austria between 1995 and 1999.




The photograph shows an execution in the Serbian town of Pancevo in April 1941. Executed civilians lie next to the cemetery wall; in front of them stands an officer from the Wehrmachts Großdeutschland regiment with his gun pointed at a dying victim. Next to him is an officer from the Waffen-SS division Das Reich, while in the background others soldiers can be seen looking on. The photograph is from a series of 50 images of the hanging and shooting of Serbian civilians by the Wehrmacht in Pancevo. They were taken in 22 of April 1941 by Gronefeld, who was a former special correspondent of the propaganda magazine Signal. He chose not to submit these photographs to Signal, however; instead he kept them at his home in Berlin. It was not until 1963 that he published some of the images in a book about the Second World War,[5] whereby they did not elicit any particular response. This changed, however, when the photographs were shown in the exhibition The War of Extermination. The German magazine Der Spiegel used the photograph of the coup de grâce as the basis for a hand-drawn cover illustration to accompany its leading article about the crimes of the Wehrmacht, and this prompted a number of people to come forward as contemporary witnesses. More and more private photographs of the executions at the cemetery began appearing from various sources even a film was submitted [6]. Among the many photographs of dead and murdered people contained in the photo album of a former member of the SS [7], which was handed in anonymously by a visitor to the exhibition in Saarbrücken in 1999, there are also images from Pancevo. They show the executed civilians by the wall and those who were hanged in the cemetery. The photographer is standing among the hanged men, and a comrade smiles and waves at him from behind the ropes. Gerhard Gronefeld as an experienced propaganda unit photographer was not the only person to have captured this crime on camera; many soldiers who later said that they had wanted to see what it was like [8] did the same. They not only took photographs but also presented their pictures in the office, where copies were ordered by many of the soldiers in their unit [9]. In this way, the images of murder were reproduced over and over again. And its important to remark, that only now, since some years, this reaction of former soldiers in their high eighties and nineties is possible: a sort of coming out in a mixture of shame and confession.




With my five years long experience as the coordinator of the Wehrmacht-exhibit, knowing that many visitors came to us with their proper war albums of their fathers, uncles, grandfathers I decided after the end of the exhibit to develop a research project about this special type of war photography: the private war albums in nearly every German (and Austrian) family. In difference to the anonymous photos of the Wehrmacht exhibit I was searching albums from the families directly in order to know the origin, the names of the photographers, the biographical traces. I did the research over four years with the German Research Foundation at the universities of Oldenburg and Jena. We collected round about 150 albums and photo boxes from private loaners who came voluntarily and were very interested about the research on these photos of their ancestors. Mostly they came from the second generation of the sons and daughters, but there were also 15 ex-soldiers with whom I made special interviews about their motivation to photograph. The main purpose of the research was to find out the motives of the photos, their aesthetics and the construction of memory with collecting them in albums. From the experiences in the interviews I realised a common interest of many album owners to know more and specific details and facts about the contents of the photos as well as comparing their albums with others. So I decided not only to write a book about the research but also to install an exhibition about this subject. Just from the beginning of the project I imagined/reflected not only how the German soldiers photographed themselves and the other, the enemy, but also how the other regarded the occupier, his enemy. Its a question of looking and counterlooking. René will speak about this

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[1] Photoblätter, vol. 18, 1941, p.  29.
[2] Willy Frerk, Das Erlebnis des Einzelnen ist zu einem Volkserlebnis geworden und das durch die Kamera!, in Photofreund, 1933, p. 417, cited in Timm Starl, Knipser. Die Bildgeschichte der privaten Fotografie in Deutschland und Österreich von 1880 bis 1980, Munich/Berlin, 1985, p. 19.
[3] Herbert Starke, Und trotzdem: Amateurfotografie!, in Photofreund, 1939, cited in Starl, p. 111.
[4] Willy Stiewe, Foto und Volk, Halle, 1933, p. 9.
[5] Hans Adolf Jacobsen and Hans Dollinger, Der Zweite Weltkrieg in Bildern und Dokumenten, Munich, 1963.
[6] This film by Gottfried Kessel was broadcast among others on 13 April 1997 on the German TV current affairs programme Focus-TV. Cf. Walter Manoschek, Beweisaufnahmen, in Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung, Eine Ausstellung und ihre Folgen. Zur Rezeption der Ausstellung Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944, Hamburg, 1999.
[7] Illustrated in Saarbrücker Hefte, no. 81, summer 1999, pp. 3778.
[8] Newspaper report on a doctor who recognised himself in the Spiegel cover image, in Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15 March 1997.
[9] Soldiers letter, 1966, Zentrale Stelle Ludwigsburg, Ermittlungsverfahren 503 AR-Z 88/67, cited in Manoschek, p. 191.