Hilmar Pabel

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The year 1968 began uneasily in Czechoslovakia. The previous October, a group of students in Prague’s Technical University staged a demonstration to protest electricity cuts at their dormitories; their shouts of “More light!” were a pointed rebuke towards the stifling rule by the Communist party. So, when the new year came, the party yielded by electing a new First Secretary, Alexander Dubček.

The 47-year old was a compromise candidate — Dubček had carefully cultivated his bland and ambiguous personality for years. Now, finally with power, he changed positions. A reform program — timid by international standards, but ambitious in the eyes of Communist cadres — was launched to create ‘‘Communism with a human face.’’ The flowering of freedom of speech and press, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities followed, but it was brief. A worried Soviet Union rolled its tanks into Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

On the first day of invasion, German photographer Hilmar Pabel took the photo above of a distraught woman carrying a photo of Dubcek and Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda. Pabel was a man whose stature as a humanist photographer would have been greater had he not been a propagandist for Nazism during the Second World War. In a photoessay for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Pabel documented Jews living in the Lublin Ghetto as shifty and avaricious: living in dirt and hiding consumer goods and foods in the cellars.


After the war, Pabel was briefly imprisoned for his work, but got out to work with Red Cross to photograph children displaced by war to help them reunite with their parents and family. By the 50s and 60s, his reputation has recovered, and his works were published by Life, Paris Match, and Stern.  In 1961, he was the recipient of the Cultural Prize of the German Society for Photography, followed by two World Press Photo awards. Two photoessays he filed from Vietnam (Story of the Little Orchid, 1964 and Thuan Lives Again, 1968) were widely praised, although some critics scoffed that he was reaching back into his propagandist past to portray American army hospital staff as Good Samaritans.


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2 thoughts on “Hilmar Pabel

  1. Thesis an excellent and succinct article Alex, again on a rather neglected photographer, which highlights the ethical and political dimensions hidden in photojournalism (but also all photography). It is hard to judge Pabel’s contribution to the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung on the expulsion of Jews from the Lublin Ghetto on the images alone. The text of the article, which I remember seeing in a display of Nazi propaganda at Städtisches Museum, Göttingen in 1990, is anti-semitic, while I argue (at https://onthisdateinphotography.com/2017/09/17/september-17/) that Pabel’s images are straightforward documentary, though they are printed heavily, emphasising the grimy conditions. ‘Stern’, for whom he also worked, had Nazi roots amongst its founders (remember the ‘Hitler Diaries’ which they claimed would ‘re-write’ the German war, and the revelations of the pro-Nazi interests of their reporters Gerd Heidemann and Niklas Frank). However, one must ask oneself how far Pabel embraced National Socialism, and whether his life since has atoned for any of his misdeeds or misjudgements, or expediencies, of that era. There is no doubt about his talent as a photographer. A more straightforward case of collaboration is Lambertus Jasper (Bart) de Kok (https://onthisdateinphotography.com/2017/09/06/september-6-keyhole/) whose wholehearted Nazi collaboration produced some quite ordinary, but damning imagery.

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