Posts Tagged ‘WWII’
Addison Beecher Colvin Whipple, writer and censorship fighter, died on March 17, aged 94.
“Words are never enough,” wrote Life magazine in an editorial when it finally got the approval to reproduce the pictures of dead American soldiers in September 1943 (more). That permission, which came all the way from the president, would have been all but impossible if not for the tenacious efforts of Cal Whipple, Life’s Washington correspondent.
Rules then prohibited the publication of photos of the American dead, lest they damage morale on the home front. In his own words, Mr. Whipple, “went from army captain to major to colonel to general until [he] wound up in the office of an Assistant Secretary of the Air Corps.” to argue that these photos were what the home front needed. The Secretary decided to forward the photos to the White House, where President Roosevelt agreed that the American public has grown complacent about the war and its horrific toll, and cleared their publication.
As the consequence, war bond sales boomed, and although the censorship rule regarding the home front morale was abolished, the censorship itself would prove to be enduring. Censorship and self-censorship continued with the pictures from Dresden, Hiroshima, and even Auschwitz. The rule not to show faces of the American dead existed until the Korean War, which saw bans on photos showing the aftermaths by US bombings in North Korea, and of political prisoners.
It all changed in Vietnam, which would come to be known as the “first war to take place in America’s living rooms.” It was a conflict whose course unfolded in iconic photos, from the beginning to the end. After Vietnam, the military would never again allow journalists to have free rein in covering a war. The golden age of war photography, which nurtured such figures as Larry Burrows or Francoise Demulder, ended as abruptly as it began. In modern wars, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in smaller conflicts in Grenada and Panama, reporters would be corralled into press pools or embeds and frequently threatened with revocation of credentials if they strayed from guidelines.
With various newspapers looking back on Iraq War on this 10th Anniversary of its beginning with grand pictorial sideshows, it is sometimes very easy to forget what we see is more often than not authorized, sanitized, bowdlerized.But it is also comforting to remember that for images hidden away from us, there is always someone like Cal Whipple fighting for their inclusion into the recorded memory.
As the Second World War came to a close, a wave of suicides swept Berlin and other parts of Germany. Hitler was a lifelong admirer of Wagner and his climatic opera, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) where the heroine Brünnhilde returns the stolen cursed ring to the River Rhine and hurls herself onto her dead lover Siegfried’s funeral pyre. This immolation unleashes a fiery conflagration that topples the stronghold of the gods, Valhalla. According to a dispatch from a Japanese diplomat in Berlin, Hitler initially planned “to embark alone in a plane carrying bombs and blow himself up in the air somewhere over the Baltic” if the Allies enter Berlin. His motive was to suggest to his supporters “that he had become a god and was dwelling in heaven” — a Brünnhildean self-sacrifice, in a Messerschmitt.
In the end, his suicide was less grandiose and ignominious — although it didn’t stop some of his fervent followers from believing that Hitler had escaped unharmed from the wreckage of his 1000-year Reich. But Hitler was not the only Nazi to follow Brünnhilde’s example. Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler all committed suicide, as did Justice Minister Otto-Georg Thierack and Culture Minister Bernhard Rust. Eight out of 41 regional party leaders, seven out of 47 senior SS and police chiefs, fifty-three out of 553 army generals, fourteen out of 98 Luftwaffe generals and eleven out of 53 admirals killed themselves. Housing Commissar Robert Ley strangled himself awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Goering would follow him when the Nuremberg judges denied him the firing squad he requested.
This suicidal impulse was not confined to the Nazi elite. Ordinary Germans in untold numbers responded to the prospect of defeat in the same way. At the Berlin Philharmonic’s last performance, which coincidentally but not too surprisingly was Götterdämmerung, the audience was given potassium cyanide pills. In April 1945 there were 3,881 recorded suicides in Berlin, nearly twenty times the figure for March. Untold numbers of victims of rape by the Soviet Red Army also committed suicide, and news of violence and rape further propelled mass suicides in villages all over Germany. Although the motives was widely explained as the “fear of the Russian invasion”, the suicides also happened in the areas liberated by the British and American troops.
Mass suicides that created a sensation were those of Leipzig burgomaster’s family, that was captured by Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller. The photos showed a different approach between this two great female war-photographers. Bourke-White, a meticulous observer as always, kept her distance from the tragedy, even taking photos from the gallery above. Miller moved in closer; a fashion photographer covering the war for Vogue, Miller’s photo of the body of burgomaster’s daughter was almost a fashion shoot of a wax mannequin — her Nazi armband immaculately displayed, her lips parted as if waiting for a true love’s kiss that would revive her.
The Second World War claimed the lives of at least forty-one million Europeans, more than half of them in the Soviet Union. Between 8-9 million soldiers in the Red Army were killed, and 18 million more were wounded. Between 16-19 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Estimates of the total Soviet casualties are around 25 million, five times that of the Germans, and even this rough number was deduced only by reducing the total population figures at the next census.
Although the Soviet hagiographies conveniently ignored it, there was more than a whiff of self-destruction in these numbers. Employing an insulating jargon that removed them from realities and incomprehensibilities of war, Soviet commanders asked ‘How many matches were burned?’ or ‘How many pencils were broken?’ when they wanted to know about their losses after a battle. For all his charisma, political awareness, and good sense of military strategy, Stalin remained, in the words of the acclaimed Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov, “an armchair general”, who had ‘fathomed the secrets of war at the cost of bloody experimentation.” His planning was erratic, and his measures ‘to combat cowardice’ were extreme. According to one especially infamous order, Number 227, every army was to organize units which would move along as a second front behind the first wave of attack, and shoot down any soldier who hesitated or retreated.
The huge toll in human lives paid for Stalin’s ‘brilliant strategy’ was captured in Dmitri Baltermants’ photo, ‘Grief, or Searching for the Loved Ones in Kerch’. Before ultimately reaching Berlin like the Red Army itself, Baltermants covered the battles of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. Grief was taken at the Crimean front, where he went upon his release from the hospital after seriously wounding himself in Stalingrad.
The photo depicts a 1942 Nazi massacre in the Crimean village of Kerch. Village women searched for the bodies of their loved ones. The contrast between the oversaturated sky above and the bodies haphazardly strewn in the foreground underlines the poignancy of the moment, but for the same reason, the photo was censored in the Soviet Union where authorities only published the photos that could help boost morale; ‘Grief’ reflected nothing but harsh tragedies of war, and it wasn’t seen by the general public until the 1960s.
The photo was allegedly cropped, and oversaturated sky itself was either the result of studio error or deliberate manipulation by Baltermants. Like so many tales originating from behind the Iron Curtain, these stories were of course unverified.
Travelogues tend to be disappoint. Instead of travelogues that tell gripping stories about both people and history of a particular locale, travel writing these days obsesses itself with how to travel cheaper and faster, and with some architectural minutiae that fail to interest anybody but third year arts students. I was in Moscow to meet some Russian government officials earlier this summer and they put me at a huge hotel complex outside the city at Partizanskaya. I have been there several times before — Partizanskya being the site of a massive souvenir market — armed with varying guidebooks, but what they failed to tell me was that the distinctive looking statue at Partizanskya Metro Station was that of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, once one of the most revered martyrs of the Russian State.
I first met Zoya several years ago in David Plante’s novel The Age of Terror. The picture above of Zoya’s corpse spurs the novel’s young American hero to travel to the then slowly collapsing Soviet Union in search of identity. When I read it the book, I thought the photo was made-up. It was not, but scholars still debate how much of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya story is. For some, it bored all the fingerprints of the hagiographers of the godless Soviet Union who were all too happy to create martyrs.
The official Soviet story went something like this: When the Nazis invade Russia, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya quit the tenth grade at Moscow. Hair-cropped, and in men’s clothes, the 18-year old joined the Resistance and became one of its most celebrated heros. The Germans finally captured her in November 1941, and subjected her to various tortures — which included belts, punches, lighters, saws and bayonets. She refused to talk and the Germans led her to the gallows with a card inscribed “Guerrilla” about her neck.
There, at the village square of Petrisheva, Zoya gave her courageous speech: “You hang me now but I am not alone. There are 200 million of us. You won’t hang everybody. I shall be avenged. Soldiers! Surrender before it is too late. Victory will be ours.” She was hanged, and the Germans left the body hanging on the gallows for several weeks. Eventually she was buried just before the Soviet liberation of Petrisheva in January 1942. The above photo of her body were later found on the body of a dead German officer at Smolensk along with three other photos of the execution process.
Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya became popular with a Pravda article was written by Pyotr Lidov, who had heard about the execution from an elderly peasant. Yet many doubted this official version; they noted that ‘Kosmo’ and ‘Demyan’ were both proper first names, which had been combined to make an all-inclusive family name with the feminine ending kaya (much like Jane Q. Smith). Others said the Soviet authorities were pulling America’s leg with a ridiculous sounding last name that sounded almost like ‘Damn Yankee’. Later, there were acrimonious debates on whether it was just local peasants who hanged Zoya after she destroyed their property. Some questioned whether Zoya myth was created to draw attention away from the other heroine of the Resistance who happened to be a Jewess. No matter what, Stalin immediately named her a Hero of the Soviet Union. Many young soviet soliders carried a photo of her, and the words ‘For Zoya’ were also written on Soviet tanks and planes heading to Berlin. Streets, kolkhozes, Pioneer organizations, a mountain and a minor planet were all named after Zoya. The ultimate accolade came when she was reburied at the Novodevichy Cemetery. There she rests now, surrounded by many Russian luminaries, whose works she allegedly enjoyed in life.
(One source I find online says a Pravda photographer named Sergej Strunniknow took the above photo. I find this a little hard to believe but there it is).
Interestingly enough, when Hiroshima was atom-bombed, the Tokyo government radio told the people that a “new type of bomb” had been used. The real horrors in Hiroshima were unknown to the wider populace; since the city was utterly destroyed and communications were hard, even the imperial government was not totally of what happened there. Two days would pass before the government met to discuss the new developments. In the wider world, the situation was quickly changing too; the Soviet Union’s declaration on war on Japan threw a wrench into both American and Japanese strategies.
On the American side, the decisions to use two nuclear bombs — to show than American has more than enough supply of such weapons — had been agreed upon since April 1945. Only the potential targets were debated upon, so that the U.S. could ban conventional attacks on those cities — in part so it would be easier to measure the destruction from the atomic bomb. The top choice was the emperor’s place in Kyoto, but the decision was vetoed by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who spent his honeymoon there and enjoyed the city. (Another thing Stimson considered was that if the emperor were to perish, it would have hardened the Japanese resolve and precluded a surrender.) Top targets became Hiroshima and Kokura. However, August 9th 1945 was a particularly cloudy day in Kokura. The bombing carrying the bomb gave up on Kokura and went on to its secondary target, Nagasaki.
The Japanese Supreme Council received the news that Nagasaki had been destroyed while they were just debating the terms of surrender. Now, surrender was not only inevitable, but also the only route for survival. On August 15th,the Emperor’s surrender speech was broadcast over the radio — this was the first time an Emperor of Japan had deigned to speak through a radio.
On the day after the Nagaski Bombing,a military photographer Yosuke Yamahata took over a hundred photographs of the devastated city. His photographs, taken in an interval of twelve hours in the afternoon of August 10th, were the most extensive record of the atomic bombings. In between Japan’s surrender and arrival of the American Occupation Forces, these photos were widely circulated; for instance, the 21 August issue of Mainichi Shinbun printed them. The Western audience would, however, have to wait further seven years before the censorship was lifted and they appeared in the 29 September 1952 issue of Life, together with Yoshito Matsushige’s photos of Hiroshima. The same year they also appeared in the book form.
Some say it was taken in Toulon as the French soldiers leave for Africa. Some say it was taken as Nazi tanks rolled into Paris. Others claim it was taken in Marseilles as historic French battle flags were taken aboard ships for protection against the conquering Nazis. No matter what incident prompted him to cry, the French civilian cries across decades from his faded photograph. He cries not only for his generation, but also for his century. The photo, one of the most heart-rending pictures of the Second World War, was possibly taken by George Mejat for Fox Movietone News/AP.
The fall of France, only six weeks after initial Nazi assault, came as a shock and surprise to many. Contrary to popular beliefs, the Maginot Line wasn’t exactly circumvented by the Nazis through Belgium. The Nazis, in fact, broke through the strongest point of the Maginot Line, Fort Eben-Emael, which connected the French and Belgian fortification systems. The fortifications were unequipped to defend against gliders, explosives and blitzkrieg. The Luftwaffe simply flew over it. When the Allied forces reinvaded in June 1944, the Maginot Line, now held by German defenders, was again largely bypassed, a clear indicator that this line, designed with a WWI-like trench warfare in mind, was never actually going to work no matter where the Nazis attacked.
The fall of France was the first crisis for the new coalition government of Winston Churchill in London. For next 20 months, the Great Britain and her Empire would stand alone against the Nazi armies. Not until D-Day, 6 June 1944, would an Allied army return to Western Europe. Greatly emboldened by their success, the Germans would gamble even more heavily on their next major operation – the invasion of Russia. This time they would be less lucky.
Jack Sharpe was sent to Singapore just a few days before the Japanese invasion there, and captured by the Japanese. He was sent to Thailand to work on the notorious Burma Railway and was nearly executed over an attempted escape. Before his court martial for escape, Sharpe defiantly proclaimed that he would live to see all of Japan surrender and that he would walk out of the prison on his own two feet.
Sharpe was sent back to the Outram jail in Singapore; almost no one survived it for two years, and it was from this infamous prison that Sharpe was liberated in August 1945 with the dubious distinction of being its longest survivor. True to his words, he walked out of the gates on his own two feet, and collapsed immediately afterwards. During his captivity, plagued by scurvy, dysentery and scabs, Sharpe saw his weight decreased from 70 kilograms to less than 25 kilograms. In September 1945, the world was stunned by the publication of Sharpe’s skeletal figure cheerfully smiling from the end of his bed. The photo told the story of appalling Japanese treatment of their prisoners, and also the indomitable spirit of Jack Sharpe, who eventually lived to be 88.
One in three POWs under the Japanese during the war perished — seven times that of POWs under the Germans and Italians. In fact, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died on the Burma Railroad alone. The Japanese, coming from a shame culture which would rather commit suicide, never understood the concept of surrendering, and treated their prisoners with the greatest of contempt.
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.”
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.”
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. 🙂
A newspaper that tells only part of the truth is a million times preferable to one that tells the truth to harm its country, once wrote The Sun. The Picture Post would have disagreed. “Responsibly Awkward” had been the motto of the Post, Britain’s answer to Life magazine, throughout the Second World War. With the nation engulfed in the greatest conflagration it had ever seen, humour was in low supply but the Post steadfastly provided it with pictures of dozing soldiers, sleeping people in underground shelters, and amusing street graffitti. When the Germans were preparing to invade Britain in the darkest days of the war, the paper calmly produced an 8-page feature titled, “How to Invade Britain”, an account of Napoleon’s grandiose but scuttled plans.
Paper-restrictions reduced it to mere 28 pages (from 104 pages before the war), but its patriotism was never in doubt–the paper set up a training school for the Home Guard while its manufacturing units were alloted to create cheap mortar. The issue Picture Post was confronted again and again was that of censorship. This absurdity was exposed in one issue by running multiple images of black-out photos (like above). Below these “Pictures We Would Like To Publish,” captions read:
“Some of the Leaflets our Airmen Dropped on Germany: Our country has at least done something in propaganda. Our planes have dropped leaflets over Germany. But the leaflets are a dead secret. Only Germans may read them. Britons may not. We asked to be allowed to show them to you. Permission refused.”
“British Airmen Shoot Down German Planes: A German raider crashes into a hillside — only one of dozens of pictures we should like to publish. We cannot. we can see the need of a reasonable censorship. We can’t see the need of a black-out. Can you?”
“British Troops Are in Comfort in the Front Line: So well-built are the lines which British troops have occupied in France that even in recent floods they are bone-dry. You see troops enjoying lunch — or would if we are allowed to send a cameraman. Repeated requests to War Office produce nothing but courteous acknowledgments.”
Only picture printed on that page was this one which the original captions scathingly read:
“Our Thanks are due to them for the pictures on these pages: the picture censorship department of the Ministry of Information. Lord Raglan (centre) and two colleagues in the department of the Ministry of Information, which decides which pictures the press may have and which it may not. WIthout their cooperation and far-seeing initiative, we could never have presented these exciting pictures of Britain at war.
The public and authorities were able to laugh these censorships off with typical British “Mustn’t Grumble”. The Post‘s publication peaked at 2 million copies a week in 1943, but it eventually overstepped itself. The government cancelled its subsidies the Post after it questioned the quality of some military equipment in the Middle East. Its last crusade was to release the photos of the destruction of the Farringdon Market by one of the last German V2 raids (March 8 1945), which didn’t happen until 1948!
If a single individual could be held up to “personify” the Holocaust, that person would be Anne Frank. On June 12th, 1942, Anne received a modest red-and-white-checkered, clothed covered diary for her 13th birthday. On that day, she wrote in neat schoolgirl hand: “I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.”
Three weeks later, to escape an order of deportation to Germany, Anne and her family went into hiding. Their home for the next 25 months was a secret attic behind a bookcase at an old building at 263 Prinsengracht Street in Amsterdam (now renamed Annefrankhuis, and is a memorial to the 100,000 Dutch Jews who perished in concentration camps). Anne Frank retained both her diary and sunny look to life behind her confined quarters. Her ambition was to be a writer and she used her diary to deal with both the boredom and her youthful array of thoughts, which had as much to do with personal relationships as with the war and the Nazi terror raging outside.
On Tuesday, August 1st, 1944, Anne wrote her final entry in her faithfully kept diary. The hiding place that Otto Frank found for his family, the Van Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer was raided by Nazi forces three days later. They were betrayed by Gestapo informers and its occupants were deported to Auschwitz. The Allied forces which had landed in Normandy two months before arrived too late to save the Franks. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen three months before her 16th birthday.
Her diary was discovered by friends, and published by her father, the only member of the family to survive. The Diary of a Young Girl, published in 1947, includes photos of Anne and the people she hid with, plus a map of the secret annex in the house on Prinsengracht. On the cover was the above haunting photograph taken by an automatic photovending machine in 1939. The simple photograph of Anne gazing away with wistful innocence into distant dreams that never materialized seems to be asking ‘why?’ to incomprehensible horrors unleashed by the Holocaust.