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.

In Quai d’Orsay

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Dr. Erich Salomon was the father of candid photography–in fact, the phrase was coined for him by the London Graphic after French PM Aristide Briand’s 1930 quote that unless a ministerial meeting were documented by Salomon no one would believe it had happened. A close friend, Briand held Salomon with deepest respect; he reportedly shouted at an important conference, “Where is Dr. Salomon? We can’t start…. What’s a meeting that isn’t photographed by Salomon? People won’t believe it’s important at all!”

Above, in the French foreign ministry, Quai d’Orsay in August 1931, Salomon prepares to snap one picture of a group of five politicians standing in a circle in a corridor. Ten-time Prime Minister of France (and then Foreign Minster) Briand noticed him and exclaimed: “Voila le roi des indiscrets” (“There he is, the king of the indiscreet”) as Salomon captured the moment. When an exhibition opened at the Jeu de Pomme Museum on Salomon’s life, it was aptly titled, “Erich Salomon, Le roi des indiscrets, 1928-1938“.

From left to right, Paul Reynaud, Ministre de l’Outremer (Minister of the Colonies); Aristide Briand, Foreign Minister; Auguste Champetier de Ribes, Ministre des Pensions (Minister for Pension Funds); Edouard Herriot, Briand’s predecessor as Foreign Minister; Léon Bérard, Deputy Head of Government and Ministre de la Justice (Minister for Justice).

From Erich Salomon Archives / Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur.


Reception in Berlin


Albert Einstein engaging in animated conversation with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, surrounded by a group of luminaries including the Nobel Prize-winner Max Planck, far right, and other German political and business leaders, smoking cigars and sipping cognac. The reception was given by Reich Chancellor Brüning in honour of the visiting British Prime Minister in August 1931. [A few days after his return from Germany, on 24 August, MacDonald resigned as the Premier over the budget cuts]. From left to right Planck, MacDonald, Einstein, Finance Minister Hermann Dietrich, Privy Counsellor Schmitz (of IG Farben) and Foreign Minister Julius Curtius.

“You have no idea with what affection I am surrounded here, they are not all out to catch the drops of oil my brain sweats out,” Einstein noted.

Photo by Erich Salomon

Supreme Court in Session

German-born pioneer of photography, Dr. Erich Salomon was one of only two known persons to have photographed a session of the U.S. Supreme Court. Salomon, the father of ‘candid photographs’ had an eye for photo opportunities–a hollowed out book on mathematics enabled him to take pictures of gambling rooms in Monte Carlo; a floral arrangement at a Washington banquet gave him a close-up of Herbert Hoover; a hole in his bowler or fedora enabled him to take photos inside Berlin courtrooms. He was daring too; he used a window washer’s ladder to spy an international conference in the Hague, while for the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, he simply walked into the signing room and took the vacant seat of the Polish delegate as well as several photos. For the Supreme Court, he faked a broken arm and a sling over it concealed his camera well.

The photo appeared in 1932 Fortune magazine. The Supreme Court at the time was made up of four conservatives (McReynolds, Butler, van Devanter, Sutherland), three liberals (Brandeis, Stone, Cardozo) and two moderates (Chief Justice Hughes, Roberts). Five years later, another concealed picture of the Supreme Court (this time in its new chambers) was taken. It was by “an enterprising amateur, a young woman who concealed her small camera in her handbag, cutting a hole through which the lens peeped, resembling an ornament. She practiced shooting from the hip, without using the camera’s finder which was inside the purse”.


Hoover and Lavel

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In its 9th November 1931 issue, Time magazine reported, “President Hoover might never have allowed Dr. Erich “Candid Camera” Salomon in the White House if Premier Laval of France had not politely insisted. Like Benito Mussolini, Ramsay MacDonald, and Chancellor Brüning, Pierre Laval has become convinced that Dr. Salomon’s spontaneous snapshots are historic documents to be preserved for posterity.”

Visiting the U.S. with Pierre Laval, Erich Salomon asked the permission of the Frenchman to take the pictures on board the special train to Washington. “First, I must get acquainted with President Hoover, whom I do not yet know,” replied the premier. On the last day of the visit, the permission was granted. President Hoover is well known to dislike almost all Frenchmen, and the President and Premier posed stiffly side-by-side in the Lincoln study of the White House. Salomon asked them to be ‘natural’ and to start talking. They agreed and this ‘candid’ picture was born.

When Time made Pierre Laval its Man of the Year in 1931, the picture was on the cover of the magazine. It further explained: “[He] wagged an explanatory finger at President Hoover. The keynote of 1931 was sounded by Man-of-the-Year Pierre Laval as he sailed for Washington: ‘A severe correctional and disciplinary period is indicated’.”