An Execution in China

Arriving to China in the late 1850s, William Saunders was the first photographer in China. He opened his photo studio in Shanghai in January 1862, and his fascination with China led him to document scenes of everyday life which reflected nineteenth century China accurately.

His photos were very popular throughout China, and he contributed regularly to Western publications such as the Far East and the Illustrated London News. One of his most famous photos was that of a public execution during the Second Opium War. The photo, reprinted in many Western newspapers, met his audience’s expectations that the enemy they were fighting was ‘savage’, and justified the British military offensive there.

The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was one of the muddier wars — everyone from Russia to the U.S. was involved in what was primarily a military campaign to guarantee European sovereignty in China, which was already being weakened by the internal Taiping rebellion. In 1860, an Anglo-French army landed in Pei Tang and marched to Beijing.

One of the most dramatic moments of the China War was the execution of Private John Moyse. He refused to kow-tow to his Chinese captors, and was savagely beaten and beheaded in cold blood. When his fellow prisoners were released a week later, the tale of Moyse’s bravery spread and immortalized by Francis Hastings Doyle in the poem, The Private of the Buffs. The poem sensationalized Moyse as a newly-recruited young Kentish farmboy rather than a veteran middle-aged Irishman that he was and was instrumental in uniting the public opinion in Britain against the Chinese.

The Rape of Lvov

Photos can speak a thousand words but sometimes it is unclear what they said. Take the above photo for instance. In 1993, Time magazine published it with the caption, “Jewish girl raped by Ukrainians in Lvov, Poland, in 1945.” An angry outcry by the Ukrainian community followed, and Time magazine had to issue a retraction and an apology. The fact was that the photo was one of the pictures with a murkier history to come out of the Second World War.

The photo was not taken in 1945 but in 1941 in Lvov (its Russian name), or Lviv (its name today), Ukraine, shortly after the Germans captured the city from the Soviets on June 30. The photo is one of a series showing women being stripped, harassed and chased by civilians as chaos led to rapes, pogroms and killings. Some scholars claimed that the women in the photo were Jewish victims of the pogroms in Lvov. The Germans spread rumors that Jews were responsible for the murders of several thousand political prisoners found in the cellars of Soviet NKVD buildings, thus fueling the hatred and the acts of revenge against local Jews that followed.

Other historians insist that the majority of the women pictured in the series of photographs were mistresses the Soviets abandoned when they fled Lvov to escape the German troops. The defenseless collaborators were then attacked by resentful residents for consorting with the Soviet enemy. Some suggests the Nazis orchestrated the entire scene to shoot a propaganda film. Some said the women were not raped, but merely public denounced. Over the years, the perpetrators of the atrocities depicted on the photo included the Soviets, the Ukrainians, the SS and local anti-Semites. Yet, even the Jewishness of the women depicted was called into question, and alas, we will never know.

However, the photo remains prominently in many history textbooks, their respective writers’ narratives and assumptions often belying the true mystery behind it. Time-Life: History of the Second World War (1989) captioned it, “A rape victim in the city of Lvov cries out in rage and anguish as an older woman comforts her. Anti-Semitic citizens rounded up 1,000 Jews andover to the Germans. Life: World War II (1990) also used it, in the chapter titled “1941 Rape of Russia.”

At Vimy Ridge

The above is one in a series of pictures a Royal Canadian cameraman took during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. The photo is regarded as one of the greatest war photos — although its origins are obscure. Some note that it was taken during “pre-battle” training behind the lines. This is not unusual. Because of the primitive photographic equipment available in the field, most photos purporting to portray actual ‘combat action’ during World War I in fact showed troops during pre-war training exercises. Some however note that the soldier going over the top was making a gesture expressing his contempt for the Germans by putting his thumb to his nose. (There is a website refuting this here).

No matter what the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 was considered as a pivotal moment for Canada as a nation; four Canadian Army units fought together as one for the first time. Three thousand five hundred and ninety eight Canadian soldiers were killed during the battle, and four Victoria Crosses were awarded. Indeed, the Canadians captured a strategic area, but it was a minor victory for the losing Allies that spring, and had a negligible effect. The Globe and Mail noted that “if French or British rather than Canadian troops had driven the German enemy off Vimy Ridge, history probably would have forgotten about it.”

Yet, the victory at Vimy become inseparable from the Canadian identity. When there were rumors that the Vimy memorial had been destroyed by Germans during the WWII, the Canadians were whipped fury and hatred so much so that Adolf Hitler’s advisers thought it was necessary for the Nazi leader to be photographed in Vimy at the monument to demonstrate that it was still intact.

Hitler in 1914

The above photo showed Adolf Hitler in the huge crowd which heard the announcement of the First World War outside Field Marshals’ Hall, Munich on 2 August 1914. After the Nazis came to power, Hitler mentioned being outside the hall when the war was declared. A German photographer went back and looked through his photos and found the above picture.

At the outbreak of war, 25-year old Adolf Hitler was an aimless drifter and failed artist in Munich and had previously failed army entry tests because he was too weak to carry weapons. Yet, during the wartime, Germany needed soldiers and Hitler was able to enlist in the Bavarian army; although he was not considered for further promotion because of ‘a lack of leadership qualities’, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, an honour rarely given to a lance corporal (which showed that he did not lack courage). The Great War ended for Hitler inside a hospital where he was being treated for temporary blindness caused by chlorine gas. There he heard the news of German surrender, deeply incredulous; he came to believe, like many other nationalists, that the army, “undefeated in the field,” had been “stabbed in the back” by civilian leaders and Marxists back home.

Hitler returned to Munich after a short failed stint as a borderguard and joined a nationalist group German Workers’ Party (DAP), which was formed by extremists and anti-Semites as a counterforce to Bolshevism. He rose quickly through its ranks and in July 1921, he took over its leadership renaming it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The rest as they say is history.

Mitterrand and Kohl at Verdun

In the entire Europe there is no battlefield more blood-stained than Verdun, where in 1916 nearly 800,000 French and German soldiers were killed or wounded in an inconclusive fight over a few square miles of territory. On 22 September 1984, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met the French president François Mitterrand at the Douaumont cemetery in Verdun. In front of the charnel house in which the remains of 150,000 French soldiers rest, two leaders stood in rain. Mitterrand extended a hand to Kohl, which the latter held in minutes-long gesture which became a symbolic gesture of reconciliation as much as Willy Brandt’s Warsaw Kneefall.

The German Press described the scene as, “A picture that will go down in history”. It was made more powerful by the fact that Kohl’s father during WWI and Mitterrand himself during WWII had fought in the surrounding hills. As Europe’s leading statesmen during the 80s, Mitterrand and Kohl forged close personal ties despite their political differences — there were even allegations that Mitterrand supported secret donations to help finance Kohl’s re-election campaign. Together, they laid the foundations for pan-European projects, such as Eurocorps, Arte, the Maastricht Treaty and the Euro.

The Elderly Butcher Boy of Fascism

Even today, Italy has one of the least free presses in Western world. Although press-censorships were not created with the Fascist state Benito Mussolini forged, Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture — which administrates everything that appeared in newspapers, radio, printed works, theatre, cinema or any form of art — did cast a long shadow. In a move worthy of today’s language bastions, it banned usage of non-Italian words; the ministry’s lackeys were posted to publishing houses to immediately oversee what is being printed, and there were public bonfires of forbidden books. However, noting Italian efficiency, all actions were more Kafkaesque than Orwellian.

In a hierarchical system where the government appointed directors and editors and distributed printing paper, self-censorship was easily accomplished by individuals currying favor with the regime. Although many international publications, writers and photographers were left untouched by censors before the war, the beginning of the WWII changed the landscape.

Working for Time and Life magazines, Carl Mydans arrived in Rome in May 1940. Tensions were high; Mussolini was thought to be on the brink of declaring war on the Allies (although in reality he delayed another month). At the public events, Mydans was repeatedly prevented from taking pictures by Blackshirts who blocked his cameras. He remembers the events that happened next: “On May 9, Mussolini appeared at the Victor Emmanuel II monument to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Italian Empire. A circle of security men barred me from the ceremony. But as Mussolini was departing, he strutted right past me. The security men were compelled to applaud as he went by, and I was able to make one quick frame between their shoulders. The picture appeared across a page of LIFE several weeks later with the caption, “The Elderly Butcher Boy of Fascism”. The photo, which appeared in LIFE on June 24th, caused the responsible staffers of TIME and LIFE being immediately expelled from Italy. Rather than sending a new bureau staff, they closed down the Rome Bureau, writing “In the face of wartime censorship there was no chance in Italy for TIME’s kind of reporting.”

“I’ll be darned”

On April 12, 1951, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was chatting with two French generals and a handful of press representatives on a hilltop near Coblenz, Germany when a reporter informed him that President Truman had fired General Douglas MacArthur, who was fighting the Korean War in the Far East. Associated Press correspondent Dick O’Malley: “General, have you heard the news about Gen. MacArthur?” . Eisenhower: “No, what happened? M: “He’s been relieved of his Far East command by President Truman and replaced by General Ridgeway.” Eisenhower turned away and said, “I’ll be darned.”

The moment was captured by American military magazine, Star and Stripes’ Francis “Red” Grandy, who was anticipating a similar kind of reaction. Although his editors were worried that the photo might offend the general, it ran on Page 1, two columns wide two days later. The photo was picked up by several major news services and published in newspapers across the U.S. It later won many prizes and reappeared not only in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but also in a volume of the best news pictures of a quarter-century published in Life magazine and on Eisenhower’s own obituary.

In fact, Ike served as MacArthur’s aide for grueling nine years during the 30s in Washington and the Philippines. He disliked MacArthur for his vanity, his theatrics, and for what Eisenhower perceived as “irrational” behavior, which culminated in their falling out over the Bonus Army March. MacArthur, who finished top in his class at West Point looked down at Ike, who finished at the bottom and detested resources being diverted from the Pacific theater to Europe under Ike.

Carl Baptiste de Szathmary

The world’s first combat photographs were taken during the American-Mexican War of 1846-1847 by an anonymous photographer. The world’s first known combat photographer was Romanian Carl Baptiste de Szathmary (1812-1887), who took his camera to the Crimea a year before more famous Roger Fenton arrived two years later. In 1853, he was documenting the conflict between Russia and Turkey over Wallachia and other Rumanian territories which would eventually devolve into the Crimean War.

Although the Turks once assailed his wagon, thinking he was a Russian spy, he managed to photograph various troops, both Turkish and Russian, and their commanding officers. When the Turks occupied Bucharest, he managed to get a photosession with their commander Omar Pasha (although Fenton’s photo of Omar Pasha would later become more famous).

He exhibited these 200+ photos at the Paris Exposition in 1855 and presented them to the royals of Europe. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert met him, saw his photos and later dispatched Roger Fenton to Crimea). No copies of his albums survived, and his work lives on only in a handful of photos scattered here and there. See the list here. Like Fenton’s, his own career as photographer was short. Trained as a painter, he later became the official painter of the Romanian rulers. After 1860, although highly celebrated and decorated by the European courts from Moscow to Württemberg, he produced only chromolithographs. In 1866, he was made the Photographer to the Court of Romania, and as one he quietly passed away, his glory days well past.

Jean Moulin

Jean Moulin was one of those who would have made history even if he lived an ordinary life. The youngest prefect in France at the age of 37, the leftist firebrand was thrown in the chaotic annals of history by the German invasion of France in 1940. As prefect of Eure-et-Loir, he attempted to guarantee the safety of his citizens by meeting with German officers. The officers asked him to sign a document confirming alleged atrocities committed by Senegalese French soldiers in the area, which he refused to do without evidence.

Arrested and tortured as a suspected communist, Moulin tried to commit suicide by cutting his own throat but a guard found him and he was taken to hospital, where he recovered. He was released and later joined the Resistance movement. Arrested again, this time he was tortured by notorious Klaus Barbie. A man of acidic wit and iron will until the very last moments of his life, Moulin drew a caricature of Barbie instead of writing down the names of his fellow Resistance men. Klaus ordered Moulin to be scalded, Moulin died outside Frankfurt, and buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Charles de Gaulle called him the Resistance’s primary leader and as President, transferred his remains to The Panthéon. The speech given by André Malraux, writer and minister of the Republic, upon the transfer of his ashes is one of the most famous speeches in French history. A homage of Moulin is held annually at the Panthéon.

Moulin was well-known to the French from the above emblematic photo of “The Man Who Didn’t Talk”. The epithet was a nod to his refusal to betray his friends at the risk of his own death. The photo was taken by a childhood friend, Marcel Bernard, near the Peyrou promenade in the arches at Montpellier and according to Laure Moulin, his sister, it dates from December 1940 — after he slit his throat. (Some said it was taken in late 1939.) After he slit his throat, Moulin would almost always wore a scarf to hide the scar he had given himself. (I saw the yellowed original print in the Musée Jean Moulin. The photo was reversed so that Moulin would look towards the left. Printed during the Resistance for propaganda purposes, it was lengthened to enhance his stature and darkened to accentuate the sombre dangers of the underground.)

Veterans Korea

David Douglas Duncan’s motto for shooting war photographs was ‘‘Be close—be fast—be Lucky, Easy, always remember—be humane, never close-ups of the dead, war is in the eyes’’ (Photo Nomad, 2003, 151).During the WWII, he covered the South Pacific as a second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps and his sympathetic portrayal of the fighting men earned him a position with Life. For Life, he covered Palestine, the Korean War, and the Egyptian military coup of 1952.

On September 4th 1950 Duncan joined the men of Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment as they fought to push the North Koreans back over the Naktong river. The next year, he published This is War: A Photo-Narrative, a book of the haunting images he took of the Korean War. In 1994, a 22 cent U.S. stamp was made to honor those who fought in Korea; ‘‘Veterans Korea,’’ based on one of Duncan’s images, of tired troops trudging a mountain pass on the march seaward from the Chosin Reservoir. The stamp, however, crops Duncan’s original image so that the dead bodies on the ground below the soldiers could not be seen. The stamp was an apt footnote for Duncan, who was criticized for his sensitive, sanitized and even romanticized portraits of American servicemen in Korea. In fact, Duncan indeed took an anti-war position, and said the stamp introduces an idea of “no casualty” war, but many  mistook his pro-soldier pictures for a pro-war attitude.

Duncan later undertook a variety of projects as a freelance photographer, including a collaboration with Picasso, but returned to combat photography, covering Vietnam for Life and ABC News. In 1972 he became the first photographer to have a one‐man show at the Whitney Museum, New York.

The Hague Reparation Conference

I have written before about Dr. Erich Salomon, the man who took photos of unguarded moments inside the League of Nations, the Supreme Court and other exalted corridors of power. His audacity was shocking: when the Kellogg-Briand Pact was being signed in 1928, he just walked into the signing room and took the vacant seat of the Polish delegate. Beruhmte Zeitgenossen in Unbewachten Augenblicken (Famous Contemporaries in Unguarded Moments) was his famous anthology.

The above photos, taken at the Hague are probably Salomon’s most famous. In “Get That Picture! The Story of the News Cameraman,” A. J. Ezickson writes:

The [second] picture had been taken at two o’clock in the morning in a conference room of The Hague. Louis Loucheur, French Minister of Labor, was holding his hands to his weary eyes; French Premier Andre Tardieu was slumped back on a couch, with eyes almost closed, apparently exhausted. Old Henri Cheron, French Finance Minister, seated in a high-backed chair, was dozing off. Between Cheron and Tardieu sat Germany’s Foreign Minister Dr. Julius Curtius, slowly succumbing to the smooth fingers of Morpheus. The light from a huge lamp in back of the couch was softly reflected on the delegates’ stiff shirtfronts and the high foreheads of Cheron and Loucheur. The meeting of men to decide the existences of millions of subjects! Unaware to these leaders, Dr. Salomon had stolen off to one side to focus his tiny camera and they never knew that their picture had been taken. On looking at the picture, the reader could almost feel that he had been present at this momentous meeting.

That was during the intense discussions of the Second Hague Reparation Conference (1930) to address the question of how Germany was to pay annuities of 600 million marks demanded by the Treaty of Versailles. Because annuities could not be deferred and because such a large sum was too heavy a burden, it was decided that Germany make the payment in kind instead of cash.

Yet, what they discussed here would matter little: soon their politics and power were as quaint as their blackties and starched collars. The sun was emphatically setting on the days of power from the dimly-lit rooms of the Chancelleries of Europe. The series of humiliations that the Treaty of Versailles, the Hague Reparation Conferences and its product, the Young Agreement imposed upon Germany were so harsh that she would head into demagogic hands  within three years and Hitler and the assembly line murder he created would soon sweep away all the trappings of gentlemanly diplomacy.

Churchill and Tommy Gun

The above photograph of Winston Churchill with the Thompson submachine gun was taken during his visit to the coastal defense positions near Hartlepool on 31 July, 1940. The prospects were not looking good for the United Kingdom and her new prime minister. Governments in exile were arriving to London while Home Guard was just being established and ill-prepared; For a month, Hitler had been preparing to invade Britain, and the Luftwaffe had been commencing what would eventually be known as the Battle of Britain. Britain had lost the Channel Islands barely a month before, while it looked as if Russia would join the war from the German side.

The Churchill photograph was timely. It was used to convey Churchill as a war leader. Both sides of the war tried to use this picture for propaganda purposes. The British photoshopped out* two soldiers standing next to Churchill, making him look statesmanlike, determined and menacing. On the other hand, the Germans got hold of the photo, and compared it to those of the gangsters of the American West. The Nazis used this photo in their propaganda leaflets airdropped onto Britain during the Battle of Britain (below).

It was ironic that the British tried to render their prime minister more threatening. Churchill had more military experience than any British Prime Minister since the Duke of Wellington. Although he had been the Prime Minister for only 50 days when this photo was taken, he had been a military man throughout his life. He was a member of the Harrow Rifle Corps while in public school. After failing the entrance exam twice, he was admitted to Sandhurst, and graduated eighth in his class (and leading in tactics and fortifications). He saw action in India and South Africa and served as the minister in all three branches of the military before eventually being selected for the premiership.

* Used in a loose retroactive sense.  🙂