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 year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).
That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).
Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.
The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.
During the mid-20th century, street photography is a term normally strongly associated with Paris; but interesting street photography work was being done in other countries and cities too.
One such work was that of Thurston Hopkins who documented everyday life of post-war Britain. Hopkins worked for Picture Post, now largely-forgotten British equivalent of Life magazine. Hopkins’ obscurity is more total than that of Picture Post. As of February 2014, Hopkins does not even have a wikipedia page.
But to forget someone like Hopkins is too forget important work he did in post-war Britain; in 1950, Hopkins joined Picture Post after a stint with the RAF photographic unit during the Second World War (allegedly creating a dummy issue of Post using only his photographs and words). For the magazine, he contributed such important photoessays such as Children of the Streets in 1954, A British Colour Conflict in 1955 and Liverpool Slums in 1956. These were portraits of a bygone Britain, a traumatized post-war nation slowly coming to terms with immigration, loss of empire, and shoots of prosperity that the prime minister would dub ‘never-had-it-so-good’ in 1957.
[Most of the information here is through an article from Guardian when Hopkins turned 100 in 2013. This is the only article on Hopkins online. A slideshow of many Hopkins photos can be found here. The whole Picture Post archive is online, but not searchable behind a paywall at Cengage Learning. ]
There are some people still alive today who were present at the last public execution in France. Actor Christopher Lee, for instance. In the early morning of 17 June 1939, Eugène Weidmann bowed down before the blade of the guillotine, the last person to do so publicly.
Weidmann was the last person to be executed before a crowd in France. He had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and murders, including that of a young American socialite. His trial was a sensation in that tense summer of 1939; the Frankfurt-born Weidmann was quickly dubbed “Teutonic Vampire” by the tabloids. His execution outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles was a noisy affair.
In the days following the execution, the press was especially indignant at the way the crowd had behaved. Paris-Soir denounced the crowd as“disgusting”, “unruly”, “jostling, clamoring, whistling.” Among the sins the lofty paper found unforgivable was the crowd “devouring sandwiches”. More shockingly for the authorities, the unruly crowd delayed the execution beyond the usual twilight hour of dawn, enabling clear photographs — and one short film! — to be taken. The government regretted that public executions which were intended to have a “moralizing effect” now produced “practically the opposite results.” President LeBrun signed an order to hold executions only behind closed doors.
By this time, France was already an anomaly; the proud tradition of macabre spectacle dating back millennia was fast becoming forbidden in the West. Most German states banned public executions in the 1850s. England carried out her last public execution — that of the Fenian agitator Michael Barrett — in 1868, and most of her dominions followed. From then on, momentum was with ban of public executions. Liberal Denmark banned public executions in 1882, and abolished the death penalty altogether in 1933. In 1936, Kentucky became the last American state to ban public executions.
In 1960, a group of firebrand Congolese managed to outmaneuver the Belgian government into giving them independence, rather than a phased transfer of power it envisioned. Prospects for the country were bleak: in the country of 14 million people, there were only three native Congolese in its 1,400-strong civil service, and two were recent appointments. In 1960, only 136 children completed secondary education and thirty graduated from university. There were no Congolese doctors, no secondary school teachers, nor army officers.
In many ways, the Congo was just a mining camp. It was uranium from Katanga region in the Congo that fueled the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country produced nearly 10% of the world’s copper, 60% of its uranium, 70% of its cobalt, and 70% of its industrial diamonds, all of it under auspices of the Union Miniere which reported annual sales of $200 million USD in 1960. The company was loathe to give it all away and urged the resource-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai to secede.
The war was bloody and would claim over 100,000 lives. The United Nations intervened, but Congo’s new Prime Minister Patrick Lumumba quickly antagonized the UN mission, led by the respected Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. Despite his later mythic status as a secular saint of anti-imperialism, Lumumba was far from an agreeable figure. He hated and later purged other moderate politicians. On his only visit to the US, he shocked the officials by demanding a female companion for him — ‘une blanche blonde’ he specified.
Meanwhile, the secessionist war accelerated. Lumumba’s battles against Baluba tribes took on genocide fervour according to the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Among the western casualties was an American journalist named Henry Taylor, his death magnified and scrutinized even more for he was the son of the American ambassador to Switzerland. Taylor was killed in a clash between government troops and Baluba tribesmen — a scene (above) well-documented by Paris Match photographer Andre Lefebvre who was traveling with Taylor at the time. The United States was now slowly being sucked into the conflict, not least by arrival of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops into the Congo on Lumumba’s invitation.
The Eisenhower administration supported a palace/army coup in the Congo; Lumumba first sought asylum in an UN compound, and then headed off to Stanleyville, his power base; in a characteristic move, he made frequent stops to give fiery speeches to local villagers along his trip. He was denounced, arrested and handed off to Baluba soldiers. On the night of 17th January 1961, he and two others put on the back of a pick-up truck headed to a remote clearing and — eternity.
Other players from that tumultuous year not long survived. Hammarskjold was next to go — he died in a plane crash en route to mediate the Katanga ceasefire talks. The mining state itself was wound up in late 1962, when the United Nations put an end to its secession in a series of decisive raids. On December 31, 1966, the Congolese government nationalized the Union Miniere, the powerful conglomerate that started it all, seizing over $800 million of the company’s assets.
Not much is known about Andre Lefebvre (1919 – 1984). His photos from the ambush that killed Taylor were grisly, and showed government troops machine-gunning and bayoneting the Balubas. Lefebvre himself took a bullet to his feet in the crossfire. He retired from Paris Match in 1968.
Vietnam was to be a photographer’s conflict. A familiar tread for many struggling artist, photographer, or bohemian was the offices of the Associated Press in Saigon, where the legendary photo editor Horst Faas held court. Among many who came to Faas in 1966 was a petite 21-year old French girl named Cathy LeRoy. Defying her factory-manager father, she worked 18 hours a day as an interviewer in a Paris employment agency to save for a one-way ticket to Saigon. She only carried $200 and a Leica M2. Faas gave her three rolls of black and white film and assurances to give her $15 for each picture used.
The U.S. Army was skeptical of LeRoy at first. She didn’t speak English (apart from four-letter words she would soon pick up from the Marines); she was 5ft, 85-pounds, comically carried cameras and equipment close to her bodyweight, and trundled around with size-6 combat boots too big for her size-4 feet. She was also soon be banned from the frontline for six months for cussing a senior officer. But she spent more time at the front — three weeks a month — than any other woman journalist in Vietnam, and a year later, she became the first accredited journalist to participate in a combat parachute jump, joining the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Her pictures from Vietnam were stunning. Her photos from Battle of Hill 881 evoked “ghosts of Iwo Jima and Pork Chop Hill,” Time magazine wrote in May 1967. Her photos of corpsman Vernon Wike during the battle was a triptych of an all-too-familiar scene: in the first, Wike has two hands on his friend’s chest, trying to staunch the wound; in the second, he tries to find a heartbeat; in the third frame, “Corpsman In Anguish”, he realized the man is dead.
LeRoy herself came very close to death two weeks later. Her Nikon barely stopped a piece of mortar shrapnel that ripped open her chest. She said that she thought the last words she would ever hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” During the Tet offensive in 1968, LeRoy was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese during the battle for Hue. LeRoy’s photos of her captivity later made the cover of Life, ‘A Remarkable Day in Hue: the Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture‘. She was the first person to take photos of North Vietnamese Army Regulars behind their lines.
In 1972, Leroy shot and directed Operation Last Patrol, a film about Ron Kovic and the anti-war Vietnam veterans. She was in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city in 1982. Her pictures there were equally poignant. LeRoy died in 2006.
Another year came and went.
I am still here. I didn’t post often last quarter. I have just been quite busy. There is always an expectation that after you haven’t posted a while, the new post have to be long, thoughtful, better, etc. That was a daunting task. Especially now that the blog is nearing its fifth birthday, and I have pretty much covered and retreaded a lot of topics.
This blog has always been about history as much as it is about photos. My interpretation of recent history will chafe a lot of hardcore academics but popular history as a genre exists for a reason.
Lastly, a journalist based in Montevideo has requested to translate some of my work on IP into Spanish. Thomas Lyford-Pike has done a great job and now you can read Fotos Icónicas in Spanish here (Although I suspect you don’t really need to, since you are already reading this in English!) I guess it is a good thing that photoliteracy is reaching a wider audience.
That’s all for now.
Since 1941, Ho Chi Minh had been rebelling against the French colonial rule in Vietnam. Sixty years ago, that struggle reached its climax at a broad vale known as Diên Biên Phu. The French, fifty thousand of whom ruled over the colony of 20 million people, grossly underestimated their enemy’s strength and capabilities, initially unaware that the Vietnamese had been supplied with anti-aircraft and heavy artillery by Red China. In fact, as the first French paratroops were dropped into the valley in November 1953, the French government hoped for a swift victory that might just win back public support for the war in Indochina.
It turned out to be a heroic, if foolhardy, last stand. Generals responsible raised doubts whether a defense was feasible as early as January 1954. President Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about warring, privately despaired that the fort was indefensible. But media coverage was almost mythic. Paris Match called Diên Biên Phu ”the capital of heroism”. For Time magazine, the attacking Vietnamese general was a ‘Red Napoleon’, and as it was during equally bleak sieges of Lucknow and Cawnpore, Christian iconography was invoked. French papers frequently termed the fort a ‘calvary’. Geneviève de Galard, the only female nurse inside the garrison, became an ‘angel’ (and found herself plastered all over magazine covers [below, middle] and honored with Légion d´honneur and Congressional Medal of Freedom).
Meanwhile the situation on the ground was spiraling out of control. A group of firebrand paratroopers took over combat operations from the camp’s reluctant aristocratic commander General de Castries and were becoming de facto leaders of the camp. By mid-March, Vietnamese artilleries encircled the camp and made the airstrip unusable. By the end of that month, all supplies had to be made without landing. The garrison, however, stood for further forty days, before falling on 7 th May 1954.
An international peace was quickly drawn up: Vietnam was to be partitioned and granted independence. The end tally was bloody. The battle cost France sixteen battalions, two artillery groups, and a squadron of tanks. Some 12,000 French soldiers were imprisoned for a few months in camps where mortality rates exceeded 70 percent. On the Vietnamese side, the losses were above 20,000: many perished even before the battle began to hurl up cannons into the mountain pass; “death volunteers” threw themselves at French defenses with TNT strapped to their chests.
The defeat at Diên Biên Phu was seismic for both Paris and Washington and put them en course towards bloodier conflicts. In France, the Fourth Republic fell and General de Gaulle was returned to power. Soldiers from France’s African colonies in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal who fought at Diên Biên Phu and saw the imperial power brought low returned home to begin their own independence struggles, and France decided to quietly withdraw from Africa. The French military, however, took the setbacks in Vietnam – and two years later, in Suez – bitterly. It would soon defy both public and political opinion to mount a scorching war in Algeria.
As for the United States, the war was an unsettling development. Its policy of containment could not work if newly independent countries were to choose Moscow-educated leaders, as with Ho in Vietnam, Nassar in Egypt, and Lumumba in the Congo. Diên Biên Phu itself was a symbolic domino, chosen precisely to cut off the Communists from entering the neighboring kingdom of Laos, and its fall was alarming. But coming as it did so soon after an inconclusive conflict in Korea, there was not much political will in the Congress for yet another foreign entanglement. An especially vocal critic, the one who argued against letting the French use American air fields, was an ambitious senate minority leader from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson.
The siege of Diên Biên Phu was widely covered in the French press; L’Aurore on 24 March published the first photos, which were sent back with letters and evacuatees. The most extensive coverage was in Paris Match, France’s equivalent of Life magazine, which published 144 photos from Diên Biên Phu between 20 March and 15 May, and devoted five front covers to the battle. Its headlines were equally grand: ‘L’épopée de Diên Biên Phu (The Epic of Diên Biên Phu, 8th May); Le Calvaire et la Gloire du Général de Castries (The Sacrifice and Glore of General de Castries, 13th May); and ‘La Tragédie des blesses” (The Tragedy of the Wounded, 22nd May).
Match had an inside man, literally. Its photographer, Daniel Camus, was doing military service with an army cinema unit when he was parachuted into the garrison. His photos covered about the action of the siege and the desperate intimacy of the besieged, as was in the above photo of the paratroop “mafia” of young airborne officers who had effectively taken control of the fortress (Langlais, Bigeard, Botella, Brechignac, Touret, de Seguin-Pazzis et al). Camus and another photographer Jean Péraud sent back photos from inside the siege until the garrison fell and they were sent to a reeducation camp. During the 300-km march to the camp, Péraud was killed when trying to escape with paratroopers’ commander Marcel Bigeard. Camus was released four months later from the camp.
There is currently a fascinating exhibition going on in Paris at oft-overlooked Musée de l’Armée. “Indochine: Des Territoires et des Hommes, 1856-1956” follows a century of French colonial rule and runs through Jan. 26.
We live in the age of compulsive looking; photographs are everywhere, some iconic, many others mundane. Whether they be tweeted from idyllic beaches, from totalitarian pariah-states or from the great unknown, they are so effortlessly delivered onto our papers, tablets, and phones that sometimes it is easy to forget and worthwhile to reflect that there are men and women behind those pictures who dared and died for their art. Just after this post has gone to (word)press, I learnt John Dominis, who photographed the famous black-power salute, has died.
Many greats from the Golden and Silver Age of Photojournalism had been thinning out for years. This year, we lost a few more: Bill Eppridge, the great Life photographer best remembered for his photos of slain RFK and of New York drug addicts; Wayne F. Miller, who covered bombed-out Japan and black America; Hector Oaxaca Acosta, the great Mexican photographer; Fred O. Waters, who covered the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and Enrique Meneses, who introduced the world to Fidel, Che, and their revolution.
We bid adieu to several great portraitists too: Willy Rizzo and Bert Stern, two of the last men to photograph Marilyn Monroe; Lee Tanner, a bard of jazz age; Lewis Morley, the man who immortalized the Profumo Scandal; Jack Mitchell, whose Nov 1980 photo of John and Yoko would have been on their Christmas card, had John Lennon not been shot a week later; and Ozzie Sweet, whose celebrity portraits featured on over 1800 magazine covers.
Many of departing giants are pioneering women photographers. Editta Sherman, better known as the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall,” chronicled that bohemian enclave and celebrities who passed through it from the 1940s until 2010. Deborah Turbeville used her fashion photography to comment on fashion’s distorting hold on women, by manipulating her negatives with scratches, dusts, tears, and distress. Abigail Heyman, one of the first female members of Magnum, was known for her book Growing Up Female which had a self-portrait of her abortion. Equally personal was a photo Helen Brush Jenkins took of her son just moments after she had given birth to him. Sarah Charlesworth of The Pictures Generation was an ardent photographer and commentator of newspaper front-pages.
Also gone are photographers whose names aren’t household but whose works are: Harry Goodwin photographed every single act that entered the Top 30 of the UK Singles Chart (bar two) from 1964-1973. George Hunter was a wildlife photographer who images graced the Canadian five, ten, fifty dollar bills. Officer Alan Wood supplied the flag for the iconic Iwo Jima photograph.
Haitian Thony Belizaire covered the most important stories of his country for three decades. Denis Brodeur was one of hockey’s finest photographers. Robert E. Gilka had a formidable tenure as director of photography for National Geographic for 27 years, overseeing the magazine’s evolution into a photographic powerhouse. Allan Arbus (better known as psychiatrist Maj. Sidney Freedman on M*A*S*H) was a close collaborator of his wife, Diane. Balthazar Korab and Keld Helmer-Petersen brought lyrical modernism to architecture photography.
In 2014, there would be no photos courtesy of Benoit Gysembergh, Piero Cristaldi, Allan Sekula, Burhan Doğançay, Kate Barry, Monte Fresco, David Vestal, Saul Leiter, Ron Davies, Robert Häusser, Robert Trotter, Robert R. Taylor, Gunnar Høst Sjøwall, Leif Preus, Jagdish Mali, Deng Wei, Gabriele Basilico, and many others and we will be poorer for it.
And lastly, there were those who fell in combat; 2013 was the second deadliest year in living memory for reporters. Over a dozen photographers were killed in action, some chasing pop stars, others chasing bigger stores. Olivier Voisin died of shrapnel wounds in Syria. Two amateurs killed in Syria — Abu Shuja, 26, and Molhelm Barakat, 17 or 19 — sums up a war that devours its own youth. More blood will be spilt in 2014; the war in Syria will rage on for its fourth year. Already two new sectarian and tribal conflicts are unfolding in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. They will a claim a few more fearless reporters and photographers — and countless more innocent civilians.
Many who criticize the communist regime in Cuba compare it with the halcyon days before the Revolution. However, Cuba of Col. Fulgencio Batista was no picnic either. In 1952, when he staged a coup, Cuba was relatively prosperous country, whose GDP per capita was roughly equal to that of Italy. However, the society was deeply unequal — as it is often the case in many one-crop economies. Landlords, plantation owners, and union bosses controlled all the wealth and power. Batista tackled the problem by introducing a service economy in the form of legalized gambling. Havana became a centre of gambling, prostitution, and drugs. Meanwhile, Batista was never coy about his own extravagance ; he used a gold-plated telephone presented to him by the United States. He and his wife were exempt from all taxes.
Fighting this capitalist system was a group of guerrillas in Sierra Maestra mountains, for long a bed of insurgency; their leader was a bearded, bespectacled figure largely unknown to the outside world. Fidel Castro was an illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, who had already spent time in jail for an attack on a barrack. As Cuba’s press was censored, Castro contacted foreign media to spread his message. After 1957, his fame was on its ascendant; a New York Times journalist came to interview him for a story which would become widely publicized.
Also in Castro’s hideout was a young photographer from Madrid. Enrique Meneses spent a few weeks in Havana unsubtly asking about the rebels before finding someone to take him to the rebel-occupied area. He spent a month photographing the rebels; a young woman, smuggled his film out of Cuba to Miami in a petticoat. His editors at Paris Match were pleased. On the cover on the magazine on April 19, 1958 was a gun-toting Castro, taglined “the Robin Hood of the Sierra” and “Le Maquisard” (a French resistance fighter during the Nazi Occupation). Batista and his feared secret police were less pleased; they arrested and tortured Meneses.
But his sultanistic regime was now in its final months. The U.S. government ceased supplying him weapons. General strikes surrounded him, and many of his soldiers had defected to Castro. By November, the rebels controlled half of Cuba. On New Year’s Eve, Batista fled, taking with him $300 million from the treasury.
Enrique Meneses died in January 2013. His work was credited with introducing the world to the Castro Brothers, Che Guevara, and the Cuban Revolution.
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.”
Not many people today remembers George Lincoln Rockwell; he should be well remembered — but not remembered well.
In the above photo taken on February 25th 1962, Eve Arnold captured a surreal scene: that of Rockwell, flanked by members of his American Nazi Party, listening to Malcolm X’s speech to black Muslims at the International Amphitheater in Chicago. It was an obscure episode in American history, when Rockwell’s white supremacists and Malcolm X’s National of Islam took segregation to its extreme ends and called for independent nations, separated by skincolour.
Rockwell was comfortable being a caricature. He believed all blacks should be deported to Africa; every Jew dispossessed and sterilised — hatreds dwarfed only by his disdain for ‘queers’. He also wanted to hang “traitors” such as former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. When Playboy sent a black journalist to interview him, Rockwell sat for the interview with pistol on the side table.
It is unfathomable today that within fifteen years from the Second World War, someone (and a war veteran at that) would found an American version of the Nazi Party, call himself the American Hitler, and brandish Nazi insignia widely in public. But those were curious days. Partly due to government efforts to exonerate ordinary folks (who were now their allies in the Cold War) and partly due to lack of widespread mass media, it took a while for people to understand the enormity of the Holocaust. Many, even soldiers who saw the atrocities first hand, believed the Nazis’ persecution of Jews as part of their general campaign for oppression and starvation in Europe.
But by the time this photo was taken, such opinions are evaporating fast. The Eichmann trial in 1961 revealed one sordid detail after another. With each passing day, America moved away from the one he envisioned. Increasingly paranoid Rockwell himself was assassinated in 1967 by a disenchanted ex-deputy. His party is still alive today and tweets. Such a discordant divide between the 21st century technology it uses and the 19th century ideology it promotes.