May 8th marked the 68th anniversary of the Allied victory against Nazi Germany. Though the theater of war had closed, the liberating armies – and the rest of the world – experienced a new kind of shock and horror as evidence of a carefully planned, technologically sophisticated genocide against European Jews and other groups began to emerge.
“The things I saw beggar description,” wrote Eisenhower in a cable to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, describing his reaction to his visit to the Ohrdruf concentration camp:
The visual evidence and verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, [US General] George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.’
Eisenhower was deeply shaken by this experience, and soon after, requested that a delegation comprised of congress members and journalists see for themselves what he saw. Not long after the world learned the terrible truth, the inevitable question was asked: what did the German people know of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews and when?This was also the first time in history that propaganda was treated as an instrument of war crimes, with prominent Nazi propagandists put on trial and convicted alongside other senior party officials at the Nuremberg tribunals2.
This is not to say that there was no debate over these forced viewings. The displayed footage did provoke discussion among the POWs and the German population, albeit with unintended consequences: wary of being manipulated by images and media again, many Germans argued that it was the Allies who were now tricking them with their propaganda. “They showed us ghastly photos of corpses piled up in the concentration camps,” writes diarist Ursula Von Kardoff, a native of southern Germany, “But the people here who saw them said that they were really pictures of the bombing of Dresden. This is the result of Goebbles’s propaganda. These people no longer believe anything and mistrust everything and everybody.”
James Agee, American author, screenwriter and film critic, made the point in his May 19, 1945 article for the Nation that the forced viewing of these films and sites of atrocities was a method to pin the guilt on the whole of the German people, justifying what he called a “hard peace” against them. Ultimately, he argues against a passion for vengeance because it is:
…a terrifyingly strong one, very easily and probably inevitably wrought up by such evidence, even at our distance. But however well aware I am of its strength, and that in its full immediate force and expression it is in some respects irrelevant to moral inquiry, I doubt that it is ever to be honored, or regarded as other than evil - and in every direction fatally degrading and destructive; even when it is obeyed in hot blood or in a crisis of prevention; far worse when it is obeyed in cold blood and in the illusion of carrying out justice.
The photos below give two perspectives on one such viewing in which German POWs on American soil are forced to watch scenes from concentration camps. The photographs are taken at different angles: one depicts the back of the POWs’ heads, so that they are faceless, leaving only the projected image on the screen to provide context; the other depicts only the faces of the POWs as they react to the footage.
The two photographs and this old newsreel video are an excellent springboard for discussion regarding the role of propaganda in shaping war memory, and the role and responsibility of victors in the stabilization and reconstruction of societies ravaged by war and conflict. In the larger context of the Allied efforts to rebuild Germany, these programs of "forced remorse" point to the social complexities of post-war reconstruction: the balance between the need to teach the truth about the horrors of genocide in hopes of creating a stable society and an immediate imperative to satisfy the need for justice or even vengeance.
1. P. 142, State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda, Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach; published by USHMM in conjunction with an exhibit by the same name, 2009-2011.
2. The most prominent among them - Julius Streicher, editor of the rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which routinely printed explicit calls for the death of Jews - was sentenced to hang.