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Saturday, 22 January 2011


Snapshots from a German officer's photo album

"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil."

Hannah Arendt

What did you expect?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?
Leonard Cohen; All there is to know about Adolf Eichmann

These snapshots come from a wallet sized album containing 32 photographs that belonged to a Nazi officer. There are no inscriptions on the back or on the album to give us any idea who he was or where they were taken (presumably though not necessarily in Germany). Most of them are of ordinary domestic scenes with a few of his fellow soldiers but there is no triumphalism in those images, though this shouldn’t surprise us. They are no different to the photographs that French, British or American soldiers were taking. The impact, the punctum if you want to be technical, resides in the swastika armbands. The swastika is the most potent symbol of evil that emerged in the 20th century but then if you regard its presence in these images as sinister you ought to also ask yourself what kind of man takes photos of his girlfriend, his dog or his friends playing cards?

Among the millions of images we have of Germany in World War 2 - Hitler, Nazi parades, the concentration camps and battle scenes - family snapshots like these are scarcely considered. For a long time we weren’t allowed to unless we were prepared to be accused of attempting to show ‘the human face of Nazism’ but it is also the case that they lacked the graphic impact of other images. The point however is not that they stand in opposition to those photographs, or even that they support it, rather they are as integral to our conceptions. Given that every other detail of Nazism has been so thoroughly analysed, domestic snapshot albums like this remain the last artifacts deserving our consideration. One thing this album reveals, and admittedly it’s no great discovery, is that love of the Fuhrer and the glory of the Third Reich were not uppermost in the soldier’s mind. He had other things to worry about.

That people could be much more concerned with maintaining order in the household or a semblance of humdrum routine than they were in the state of the nation is still problematic for some scholars. Like the stories of villagers living alongside concentration camps who claimed to know nothing of what was going on inside them, it suggests wilful ignorance but then how many alternatives did they have? Once they acknowledged that something terrible was happening across the fields they had to ask themselves what they were going to do about it. Sustaining a sense of domestic normalcy is a survival mechanism. It stops people from descending into paranoid madness. Maybe the camera becomes a tool in that struggle. Photograph the everyday as proof of its importance and it offers protection against all the other images flowing in. A snapshot of his dachshund doing tricks becomes evidence that life can still be banal under extraordinary circumstances.

Hannah Arendt’s credibility as a critic of Nazism has been called into question in recent years and her term ‘the banality of evil’ has been overused to the degree it is in danger of becoming a cliché, yet her basic argument remains intact. Stripped of his power and facing a court in Jerusalem, Adolph Eichmann had become a shabbily ordinary man, banal in the way that shopkeepers and minor government clerks were supposed to be. Arendt singled him out but didn’t think he was unique. All the Nazi leaders possessed the same ordinariness. None of them was particularly gifted intellectually. Even their vision of eternal world power was timeworn and conventional in a way that any middling petit bourgeois could understand. If not, it could never had had what success it did. The original owner of this album might have been just such a person, or his thinking may have been more nuanced. Whatever the case, his response was familiar.



  1. It is always so hard to look at photos such as this when we have a historical perspective.

    I remember when one of my cousins was young he proudly showed me what appeared to be a bubble gum card of Hitler in a car. He giggled when he showed it to me. He was young and had no context within which to mentally frame the photo. I asked him, " Do you know who that is?" He said no. I then wondered if I should tell him. I did. He promptly, without my suggestion, tore the card into small pieces. Never been sure if that was the right thing to do. But because of that image he suddenly learned about the dark world he wasn't aware of.

  2. Something I didn't mention in the post is the hugely inflated prices for Nazi ephemera, where a snapshot of a German soldier with a swastika on his armband is valued far above one of an American GI. Who is driving that market? It can't just be neo-nazis. We can't help mythologizing the things we find repellent.

  3. That is interesting about the pricing and does make me wonder why. Who is pushing this market? I can imagine collectors in the US paying premium prices simply because it would be such a rare thing to come upon. Photos of GIs are pretty common place.


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