A snapshot album of Germany in 1939
“In Russia everybody takes everybody else for a spy, and in the United States everybody takes everybody else for a criminal.”
There’s something strange about these photos. At first glance they look like ordinary tourist snaps but they were taken by at least two Turkish people in Germany in the summer of 1939, just three months before the start of the war. At that point it was inevitable; intentions had been made clear and alliances confirmed. Britain and France were only waiting for Germany to invade Poland and if their intelligence was good they would have known Hitler intended to move in late August. Ordinary civilians didn’t know that. So far as they were aware, the invasion could happen tomorrow, which, you would think, made tourism unfeasible.
But are they merely tourists? This is the Krupp shipyard in Kiel; to give it it’s full name, the Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft, where at the time the photo was taken U-boats were already being built (one is in the dock). Alfred Krupp was a strident Nazi sympathiser and made no secret of the fact that his company was developing the German war machine. The British and the French would have already had their eyes on the shipyard and you’d also think, wouldn’t you, that the neighbourhood was crawling with spies. It seems odd that anyone would be able to photograph the shipyards without formal permission; if for example they were engineers or architects on a fact finding junket.
It is entirely possible that’s what they were. Most of the photos are of structures. I don’t know if that means anything except that neither photographer appears to have taken shots of any obvious tourist sights. Pre war, Germany was Turkey’s most important trading partner, more out of economic necessity and historical allegiance than political sympathy. Turkey also had one of the few reserves of chromite, which Germany needed to manufacture steel. In October 1939 Germany signed a pact with Russia to carve up post war Europe among themselves. Turkey immediately signed a mutual assistance pact with the Allies. In June however it was still open to doing business with all sides.
One of the photographers used a folding Kodak autograph camera, which allowed him to write inscriptions on the negatives. I don’t know what the other used, it isn’t that important, but both showed a good eye for photography. I have to give the edge to the one not using the autograph camera, if only because of the blurred bike rider or trolley pusher in the scene above and the view of the Grünentaler bridge over the Keil Canal.
It’s tempting to see an architect’s eye behind a lot of these photos, especially this one of the bridge dissected by the cordage, but since we don’t know whether this was the image the photographer actually wanted or the only one that could be taken it is best to leave it as a good photograph. So long as you know what you are looking at, it isn’t that hard to take a good photograph regardless of your day job.
With hindsight you probably expect a bit more evidence of what was about to happen from these photos but the evidence – the swastika above the building at the top left for example – is thin. Why should it be any other way? The people who took these photos had to be aware of what was unfolding but, being Turkish, their principle concerns were commercial. War hadn’t yet been declared and people could still persuade themselves that it wasn’t going to happen. There can’t be many photographs of Germany on the eve of war taken by such disinterested observers – if they are that disinterested. We still can’t say for sure what they were doing in Germany or why they were given the access they had.
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