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HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY

HISTORY OF

PHOTOGRAPHY

VOLUME 36 NUMBER 3 AUGUST 2012 ISSN 0308-7298

AUGUST 2012


‘Dresden, a Camera Accuses’: Rubble Photography and the Politics of Memory in a Divided Germany Downloaded by [University of Texas at Austin] at 10:18 09 July 2012

Steven Hoelscher This article explores memory, photography and atrocity in the aftermath of war. It takes as its case study the controversies surrounding the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden. One photograph in particular has become the iconic image of the firebombing and of the devastating air war more generally – Richard Peter’s View from the City Hall Tower to the South of 1945. Although arguably less divided today than it was during the Cold War, when the image became seared into local and national memory, Germany’s past continues to haunt everyday discourse and political action in the new millennium, creating new ruptures in a deeply fractured public sphere. By examining the historical context for the photograph’s creation and its dissemination through the book Dresden – A Camera Accuses, this article raises questions of responsibility, victimhood and moral obligation that are at the heart of bearing witness to wartime trauma. Peter’s Dresden photographs have long intervened in that existential difficulty and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Keywords: Richard Peter (1895–1977), Dresden, Germany, cultural memory, rubble photography, atrocity, ruins, World War II

The citizens of Dresden may be accustomed to annual protests marking the anniversary of their city’s 1945 firebombing, but the scale and intensity of demonstrations in 2009 caught almost everyone off guard. An estimated six thousand neo-Nazis descended upon the regional capital during a frigid February morning, setting off street battles that resulted in overturned and burnt automobiles, shattered store windows and hundreds of broken bones. Only a heavy police presence prevented the largest far-right demonstration in Germany since the Second World War from taking an even great toll (figure 1). Although outnumbered two to one by left-leaning counter-demonstrators, the protestors made their presence felt as they marched through the city streets. Clad mostly in black, many carried banners that read ‘Ehre, wem Ehre gebu¨hrt’ (Honour to whom honour is due) and ‘Großvater, wir danken Dir!’ (Grandfather, we thank you).1 The so-called ‘Trauermarsch’ or ‘Trauermarsch fu¨r die deutschen Opfer des alliierten Bombenterrors’ (Grief march for the German victims of the Allied bombing terror) was not an underground operation. Most of the annual ‘grief-march’ demonstrators in recent years have come from the far-right National Democratic Party (NDP), which is part of Saxony’s state parliament. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency may have described the NDP as ‘racist, anti-Semitic, and revisionist’ and members of Germany’s mainstream conservative parties might shun it, but the party enjoyed support within the local governance structure.2 Consequently, NDP deputy leader Holger Apfel’s characterisation of the allied bombing as ‘a unique Holocaust perpetrated on the Germans’ carried the weight of political legitimacy. Equally weighty were the images carried by the far-right protestors and posted throughout Dresden before the ‘grief-march’: photographs of Allied planes History of Photography, Volume 36, Number 3, August 2012 Print ISSN 0308-7298; Online ISSN 2150-7295 # 2012 Taylor & Francis

I am grateful to the following people and organisations for their kind support of this article: Anke Ortlepp, Heike Bungert and Malte Thießen for helping me begin to understand the ongoing legacy of the air war at the 2008 Deutscher Historikertag in Dresden; archivists at the Stadtarchiv Dresden, the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, and especially the Deutsche Fotothek of the Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden; the Harry Ransom Center for funding research travel; and David Crew, Sonja Fessel, Derek Gregory, Mike Heffernan, Liam Kennedy, Randy Lewis, Graham Smith, and Christina Twomey for their feedback on earlier versions. Email for correspondence: Hoelscher@austin.utexas.edu 1 – Photographs of the Trauermarsch and counter protest may be viewed online: http:// www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/fotostrecke39765.html. All translations, unless otherwise noted, are by the author. The 2009 Trauermarsch attracted considerable media attention in Germany, including the following: Cornelia Ka¨stner, ‘Dresden wehrt sich gegen den Missbrauch der Erinnerungen’, Deutsche Welle (14 February 2009), http://www.dwworld.de/dw/article/ 0,,4026560,00.html (accessed 15 February 2009); Veit Medick, ‘Wie Neonazis Dresden zu ihrer Pilgersta¨tte machen’, Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/ 0,1518,607669,00.html (accessed 15 February 2009); and Olaf Sundermeyer, ‘Marsch zuru¨ck in braune Zeiten’, Die Zeit (14 February 2009), http://www.zeit.de/ online/2009/08/dresden-demo-neonazi/ (accessed 15 February 2009). 2 – Bundesamt fu¨r Verfassungsschutz, or The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, noted in its 2006 annual report (page 70) that the ‘agitation’ of the NDP is ‘rassistisch, antisemitisch, revisionistisch und verunglimpft die demokratische und rechtsstaatliche Ordnung des Grundgesetzes’. The 2006 Verfassungsschutzbericht is available as a pdf on the agency’s website: http://www. verfassungsschutz.de/de/publikationen/ verfassungsschutzbericht (accessed 9 October 2010).


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Figure 1. Bjo¨rn Kietzmann, Police Restraining Protestors during the 64th Anniversary of the Dresden Firebombing, 14 February 2009, Dresden, Germany. Courtesy of Bjo¨rn Kietzmann.

3 – Holger Apfel, quoted in Ray Furlong, ‘Dresden Raid Still a Raw Nerve’, BBC News (12 February 2005). http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/ hi/europe/4257827.stm (accessed 9 October 2010).

unloading their high-explosive and incendiary bombs wedged between an iconography of destruction. Most people in Dresden recognised such images as emanating from the ruins of the catastrophic firebombing. Such photographs may be familiar sights in a city that has become a metaphor for German wartime suffering, but one image in particular – showing a statue gazing down upon a rubble-strewn street – stood out as omnipresent during the ‘grief-march’. The photograph circulated widely on the Internet, as well as in leaflets and on advertising posters across the region, in the months leading up to the ‘Trauermarsch’ (figure 2). The image itself was well chosen. It is one that has been part of the German collective remembrance of war since that cataclysmic event’s fiery conclusion. In the hands of the far-right protestors, sixty-four years later, the photograph seemed to present an unambiguous message of outrage and accusation. In this context, it was called upon to condemn the wartime atrocity delivered to the innocent people of an apparently peaceful and artistic city. And, perhaps most importantly, it served visually to bolster the NDP’s efforts to ‘end the one-sided culture of victimhood in Germany, which only remembers victims from other countries and ignores the suffering of Germans’.3 The politics of memory is rarely so straightforward, however; nor are the photographs that sustain it. Paradoxically, the image that marshalled neo-Nazi protestors to the ‘grief-march’ and that many carried was also the one used by their anti-fascist opponents only four years earlier (figure 3). With its aims to ‘strengthen democracy, open-mindedness, courage, tolerance and plurality’, and to ‘counter xenophobia, antiSemitism, discrimination, racism, and violence’, these left-leaning activists commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the Dresden inferno with a two-pronged appeal: to

Figure 2. Unknown graphic artist, Poster Advertising Upcoming Trauermarsch, Dresden, Germany, November 2008. Author’s collection.

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Figure 3. Unknown graphic artist, 10.000 Kerzen fu¨r Dresden: ein Bild geht um die Welt. Photograph by Walter Hahn, Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

remember the lives lost, but also to ‘stand up against the abuse of memory’ by Germany’s neo-Nazis. In February 2005, more than ten thousand candles held by silent residents lit the city’s central plaza, including a large group whose candles, when seen from the historic opera house, spelled the words ‘Diese Stadt hat Nazis satt’ (This city is sick and tired of Nazis).4 An Iron Curtain separating the two German states may no longer exist, but, as the annual protests in Dresden demonstrate, a contested realm of cultural memory still divides the country. My central argument is that photographic images such as these have long animated the politics of memory in post-war Germany. The particular photograph in question – the picture that anti-fascist protesters hoped, with ten thousand candles, would ‘go around the world’ but that neo-Nazis also solicited for their cause – has achieved the status of cultural icon in Germany and beyond. It has been mobilised for all kinds of ideological work and retains the power to evoke intense emotions. It stands at the centre of contemporary debates about German memory of the war, just as it provided a platform for early conversations about the immediate post-war experience. Although arguably less divided today than it was during the Cold War, when the image became seared into local and national memory, Germany’s ‘unmasterable past’ continues to haunt everyday discourse and political action in the new millennium, creating ever new ruptures in a deeply fractured public sphere.5 Exploring the contested terrain of memory, photography and atrocity in the aftermath of war is the focus of this article. 290

4 – Aktion Zivilcourage, ‘’Gehdenken in Dresden!’, http://www.aktion-zivilcourage.de/ Start_GehDenken_in_Dresden.42d757s2459/ (accessed 10 January 2012). The image was distributed by hand and published on a full page in a local newspaper, the Dresdner Amtsblatt 6 (10 February 2005), 4. 5 – Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1998. See also Bill Niven, Facing the Nazi Past: United Germany and the Legacy of the Third Reich, New York: Routledge 2002; Richard Ned Lebow, et al., eds, The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2006; and A. Dirk Moses, German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009.


Rubble Photography and Politics of Memory in Divided Germany ‘Memory Demands an Image’

6 – Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, London: Verso 1994, viii.

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7 – Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind, London: Allen and Unwin 1921, 96.

8 – James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meanings, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 1993.

9 – Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, Berkeley: University of California Press 1997, 7.

10 – Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003, 22. See also Barbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1998, 5–13; and Sturken, Tangled Memories, 9–12. 11 – James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory, London: Blackwell 1992, 47–8.

12 – Barbie Zelizer, ‘Finding Aids to the Past: Bearing Personal Witness to Traumatic Public Events’, Media, Culture, and Society, 24 (2002), 697–714, 698. For a more recent statement, see Barbie Zelizer, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public, New York: Oxford University Press 2010. 13 – Zelizer, Remembering to Forget, 268. 14 – Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, Stanford: Stanford University Press 2003, 9. See also: Paul Antze and Michael Lambek, Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, New York: Routledge 1996; Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press 1995; Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003; and Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2000.

The struggles over memory in Dresden – whether by neo-Nazis pitted against anti-fascists in the twenty-first century or between adversaries on either side of the East–West German border during the Cold War – rely on photography to stake their competing claims. There is a good reason for this. Our ability to remember the past depends on a wide range of mnemonic media, including visual images. Whether those images appear in the form of cinema, television, painting, commercial advertising, sculpture, postcards or websites, scholars such as Raphael Samuel attest to the heavily visual bias of collective remembering. From antiquity to the age of the Internet, Samuel notes, the media of memory are characterised by ‘the primacy of the visual’.6 Visual imagery closes the gap between firsthand experience and secondary witnessing, asit stands infor the larger event or person it is asked torepresent.‘Memory’,Bertrand Russell observed succinctly, ‘demands animage’.7 The primacy of the visual in collective or cultural memory is due, at least in part, to the dependence of memory on the media or technologies that help create and circulate it. Rather than existing purely in the mind, cultural memory exists in the world – it has texture, which contains both tactile and emotional dimensions.8 The texture of memory is critical to the constitution of collective remembrances. Cultural memory, Marita Sturken argues, is produced through images and representations: ‘these are the technologies of memory, not vesselsof memory in which memory passively resides so much as the objects through which memories are shared, produced, and given meaning’.9 Images, whether sculpted in stone or printed on paper, are technologies of remembrance through which people construct the past and give memory its texture. No modern technology or medium is more associated with memory than the photograph. Photographs arrest time and appear to hold memory in place as they provide an immediately accessible vehicle for collective remembrance. Indeed, so effectively do photographs aid in the recall of events, people and things that they have become the primary markers of memory itself. ‘Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround’, wrote Susan Sontag, ‘but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image’.10 If memory itself is transient, photographs’ ability to create a mnemonic frame – to freeze a moment for collective remembrance – points to something else. Unlike the rich complexity of narrative, photographs are necessarily ‘conventionalized, because the image has to be meaningful for an entire group’. They are also, James Fentress and Chris Wickham note, ‘simplified, because in order to be generallymeaningful and capable of transmission, the complexity of the image must be reduced as far as possible’.11 This is not to say that the shared response to a memorable photograph is necessarily commonplace, or that the image itself is undemanding; rather, jointly held images act as signboards or markers, directing people to preferred meanings by the most direct route. Nowhere is the social nature of memory more evident than with the act of bearing witness to historical trauma generated by war, which, as Barbie Zelizer writes, ‘constitutes a specific form of collective remembering that interprets an event as significant and deserving of critical attention’.12 Bearing witness, Zelizer maintains, ‘offers one way of working through the difficulties that arise from traumatic experience by bringing individuals together on their way to collective recovery’.13 ‘Trauma’ initially referred to the physical wounds that cause pain and suffering, but it now suggests an array of cognitiveemotional conditions inflicted by anguish and existential pain. Individual suffering may be the lynchpin of most traumatic experiences, but scholars speak of public trauma or historical trauma as a particular type of cultural memory. When large-scale cataclysmic events such as war and genocide occur, customary notions of ethical behaviour are shattered and people look to the collective – whether atthe family, community or national levels – for assistance in recovery. Indeed, it is precisely ‘the function of public memory discourses to allow individuals to break out of traumatic repetitions’.14 Bearing witness to public trauma necessarily moves memory into the political sphere. It forces one to investigate what Elizabeth Jelin calls the ‘labours of memory’: when people are ‘actively involved in the process of symbolic transformation and 291


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Steven Hoelscher elaboration of meanings of the past’.15 A city like Dresden, after all, does not tell its own past; rather, as Italo Calvino observed, cities contain their pasts, ‘like the lines of a hand’, waiting for people to read them.16 Active agents, in the form of memory workers, map those lines and create a cognitive cartography of the past, rendering it open for interpretation. It is significant that memory work owes allegiance to no one political perspective. On one hand, the labours of politically motivated left-leaning groups, human rights activists, historians, archivists and forensic anthropologists have sought to overcome the trauma-induced silences and the ‘organized forgetting’ so often propagated by political elites.17 Such progressive grassroots ‘memory workers’ in Germany, for instance, challenged the denials and ‘normalization’ of historical state-perpetrated violence by public officials. Their activist commitment to Erinnerungsarbeit (labours of memory) during the 1980s and 1990s led not only to the creation of a vast array of challenging memorials, including Berlin’s Topography of Terror and the recently built Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but also to a new understanding of the social responsibilities of being German. On the other side of the memory divide are the far-right demonstrators in cities such as Lu¨beck, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Chemnitz and, most notably, Dresden, which call striking attention to an intensifying politics of memory. Rubble Photography and the Texture of Memory Those memory politics centre increasingly on the air war and attendant German suffering. As Stefan Berger wrote in 2006, ‘for several years now the Germans have been rediscovering themselves as victims of the Second World War. They remember one of the most gruesome bombing wars ever waged against a nation-state’.18 Mary Nolan puts it somewhat differently, as she paraphrases the German novelist Gu¨nter Grass, arguing instead that the ‘German preoccupation with the Nazi past, with issues of guilt, responsibility, and victimization [. . .] ‘‘doesn’t end. Never will it end’’’. This anxiety over the past, Nolan continues: manifests itself in ever new forms, as different parts of the past, which may or may not have been repressed, come to the fore and are painfully reconstructed, tentatively probed, and reluctantly and often only partially accepted. Each new perspective on the past reorders, sometimes even shatters the previous mosaic.19

Since about 2002, German suffering, alongside German guilt, has become a principal theme in discourses about the past. W. G. Sebald’s essay Luftkrieg und Literatur (Air War and Literature), Grass’s novel Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk) and, especially, Jo¨rg Friedrich’s history Der Brand (The Fire) have played major roles in shaping the current texture of German memory to one that includes victimhood.20 At the centre of these debates – of a changing memory regime in Germany – stands the city of Dresden. It is not hard to see why. Dresden, before the war, was a magnificent city – a tourist centre well known to Germans and foreigners alike as a place where the arts flourished amid stunning architecture. This gave rise to the myth that the city was of no military or industrial importance, which was exploited to perfection by the Nazis in one last great flourish of propaganda. This was clearly not the case, but like the inflated number of deaths during the firebombing – a number first concocted by Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels and accepted uncritically by many thereafter – Dresden’s invention as a militarily innocent setting remains stubbornly intact.21 And, in one apocalyptic night and the following day, its historic heart was destroyed, first by British and then by American aircraft armed with 4,500 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Memorably, if hyperbolically, described by Kurt Vonnegut as ‘the greatest massacre in European history’, the firebombing decimated a city largely spared earlier ravages of war. On 13 and 14 February 1945 the city became, in Vonnegut’s words, ‘one big flame [that] ate everything organic, everything that 292

15 – Elizabeth Jelin, ‘The Minefields of Memory’, NACLA Report on the Americas, 32:2 (1998), 23–9. See also Karen E. Till, The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2005, 18. 16 – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1974, 11. 17 – Milan Kundera, ‘Afterword: A Talk with the Author by Philip Roth’, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, ed. Philip Roth, New York: Penguin Books 1980, 229–37. 18 – Stefan Berger, ‘On Taboos, Traumas and Other Myths: Why the Debate About German Victims of the Second World War Is Not a Historians’ Controversy’, in Germans as Victims: Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany, ed. Bill Niven, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2006, 210–75. On the role of the airwar in creating collective memories in a divided Germany, see Malte Thießen, ‘Gemeinsame Erinnerungen im geteilten Deutschland: Der Luftkrieg im ‘‘kommunalen Geda¨chtnis’’ der Bundesrepublik und DDR’, Deutschland Archiv 41:2 (2008), 226–32. 19 – Mary Nolan, ‘Air Wars, Memory Wars’, Central European History, 38:1 (2005), 7–40, quote on page 7. 20 – W. G. Sebald, Luftkrieg und Literatur, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag 1999; published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction, New York: Random House 2003. Grass, Im Krebsgang, Go¨ttingen: Steidl 2002; and Jo¨rg Friedrich, Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940–1945, Berlin: Propyla¨en 2002. It is significant that both Sebald and Friedrich make important use of photographs. Jo¨rg Friedrich, Brandsta¨tten: Der Anblick des Bombenkriegs, Berlin: Propyla¨en 2003; and Lisa Patt, ed., Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebald, Los Angeles: Institute of Critical Inquiry 2007. The literature on German victimhood in the wake of Sebald, Friedrich, and Grass, in both English and German, is enormous. Among the works I have found useful are: Laurel Cohen-Pfister and Dagmar Wienro¨der-Skinner, Victims and Perpetrators, 1933–1945: (Re)Presenting the Past in Post-Unification Culture, Berlin: W. de Gruyter 2006; Volker Hage, Zeugen der Zersto¨rung: Die Literaten und der Luftkrieg, Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer 2003; Andreas Huyssen, ‘Air War Legacies: From Dresden to Baghdad’, New German Critique 90 (2003), 163–76; Lothar Kettenacker, Ein Volk von Opfern?: Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940–45, Berlin: Rowohlt 2003; Eric Langenbacher, ‘Changing Memory Regimes in Contemporary Germany’, German Politics and Society, 21:2 (2003), 46–68; Bill Niven, ed., Germans as Victims: Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2006; Nolan, ‘Air Wars, Memory Wars’;


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Helmut Schmitz, A Nation of Victims?: Representations of German Wartime Suffering from 1945 to the Present, Amsterdam: Rodopi 2007; and Susanne Vees-Gulani, Trauma and Guilt: Literature of Wartime Bombing in Germany, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 2003. 21 – This is an immensely controversial point that has persisted for the past 65 years. Among the many sources that engage the controversy, Frederick Taylor seems most persuasive. He writes that, given the extraordinary damage of the city, it is easy to forget that ‘Dresden was [. . .] a functioning enemy administrative, industrial, and communications center that by February 1945 lay close to the front line’. He concludes that, while severe and morally questionable, there were clear military reasons for the bombing: Frederick Taylor, Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945, New York: HarperCollins 2004, 416. See also Tami Davis Biddle, ‘Dresden 1945: Reality, History, and Memory’, Journal of Military History, 72:2 (2008), 413–49. In addition to Taylor and Biddle, one book has been especially useful in presenting the historical context of Dresden’s firebombing and its texture of historical memory: Oliver Reinhard, Matthias Neutzner and Wolfgang Hesse, Das rote Leuchten: Dresden und der Bombenkrieg, Dresden: Edition Sa¨chsische Zeitung 2005. 22 – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, or, the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, New York: Dial Press 2009 [1969], quotes on pp. 128 and 227. Vonnegut, of course, was a prisoner of war in Dresden and an eyewitness to the historic firebombing. His meditations on the atrocious event became his bestselling novel, Slaughterhouse Five. For a recent study of Vonnegut’s witness-bearing novel, see Ann Rigney, ‘All This Happened, More of Less: What a Novelist Made of the Bombing of Dresden’, History and Theory, 47 (2009), 5–24. 23 – Like everything about the Dresden firebombing, the death count is profoundly divisive. Numbers as high as 250,000 have been offered, and strategically utilised by Germany’s far right, to relativise atrocity. Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five, cited 130,000 dead, using the notorious Holocaust denier, David Irving’s, calculations. In 2008 a multidisciplinary team of some of Germany’s most distinguished historians and forensic anthropologists produced the results of a four-year scientific investigation into his issue. Drawing on archival sources, many never previously consulted, on burial records, on hundreds of eye witness reports and oral testimony and on street-by-street archaeological investigations aided by a powerful GIS application, the scientists estimated the likely death toll at approximately 25,000. Importantly, this long awaited and extremely important report, although convincing in its triangulating scientific methodologies, has not resolved but only added to an extremely controversial

would burn. [. . .] Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals’.22 The devastated area amounted to thirteen square miles and cost the lives of an estimated 25,000 people.23 In very short order, ‘Dresden’ – at least in Germany – became a byword for the horrors of modern war. Like Hiroshima, ‘Dresden’ stained American and British claims to have a fought a ‘good war’ against fascism. Beginning in 1946 and continuing to the present, citizens of Dresden and Germany have marked the firebombing as a singularly traumatic experience, one that was both avoidable and that caused meaningless suffering. Significantly, the mayor of Dresden, Walter Weidauer, initially blamed the disaster on the Nazi regime for having started the war and on Germans themselves for insufficient resistance to Hitler. He ignored the national identity of the bombers. But soon the memory politics of a divided Germany shifted attention to the Americans and British. In the official discourse produced by the East German state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the bombing of Dresden was conceived as a criminal act perpetrated by the Western Allies against the German people and the Soviet Union. A flyer printed for the fifth anniversary, immediately after the GDR’s founding, described the bombing as a ‘terror attack’, and by the tenth anniversary the bombing was labelled a ‘war crime’, with the American and British perpetrators equated with Nazi criminals. Especially ironic is the fact that the socialist state’s condemnation of the British and American ‘terror attack’ almost perfectly reproduced the Nazi propaganda that appeared immediately after the February 1945 bombing.24 Photography of the rubble-strewn landscape was vital to constructing this complex texture of memory in Dresden and throughout the defeated nation. Professional and amateur photographers appeared on the scene of almost every destroyed city and took thousands upon thousands of photographs that cumulatively developed into a genre known as Tru¨mmerfotografie (rubble photography or the photography of ruins). Hermann Claasen, August Sander, Henry Ries, Edmund Kesting, Kurt Schaarschuch, Walter Hege, Herbert List and Richard Peter are some of the better-known professional photographers, but Germans were not the only ones taking photographs of war-induced ruins. American-based photographers like Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White, and Capa’s European colleagues Werner Bischof, David ‘Chim’ Seymour and Ernst Haas joined the host of local photographers who also pictured the ruined cities. As a genre, rubble photographs typically depicted a ruined landscape devoid of people. Rarely are dead bodies part of the landscape; instead, death is generally implied by absence.25 Apocalyptic, eerie and silent: rubble photography became the most widespread visual symbol of what Germans suffered and lost during the bombing war. They found a ready distribution outlet in dozens of books published throughout both the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR, and they became a crucial visual backdrop to both the working-through process of personal trauma and the ideological work of statesanctioned collective memory.26 Today, with the resurgence in memory of the air war, rubble photographs are returning to prominence, with a peculiar mixture of kitsch and politics, nostalgia and trauma. At the same time that both far-right and anti-fascist activists deploy them for political activity, vendors in cities such as Cologne sell them as tourist postcards, and contemporary German publishers such as Wartberg produce rubble picture books for nearly three-dozen cities and towns (figure 4). A distinctive problem faced by the publishers of such books was that all rubble photographs started to look alike.27 Whether photographers pictured destroyed cityscapes in Koblenz, Leipzig, Lu¨beck, Mainz, Nuremberg, Berlin or Hamburg, they inevitably produced similar images of rubble-strewn streets, shattered buildings and gutted churches. Heilbronn, in the photograph by American combat photographer Harold W. Clover, bore an eerie resemblance to pretty much any German city in 1945, a point not lost on local inhabitants (figure 5). In a country where attachments to local place run deep and where specific historical buildings and landmarks are central to that identity, the destruction of entire cityscapes led to paralysis. Residents who had lived their entire lives in a city were unable to recognise 293


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Figure 4. Steven Hoelscher, Rubble Photographs for Sale as Postcards in Cologne, June 2003.

it in the bombing’s aftermath. Hans Erich Nossack described how, upon his return to Hamburg, one day after his hometown’s 1943 destruction, ‘what surrounded us did not remind us in any way of what was lost [. . .] In areas I thought I knew well, I lost my way completely’.28 Rubble photography thus threatened to reproduce this sense of profound disorientation. If it was to be at all helpful in assisting Germans make both political and personal sense of the ruins that encompassed their lives, some sort of visual resolution to the problem of sudden placelessness was necessary.29 Very early on, publishers of the photography of ruins determined that aiming the viewfinder both back in time and forward to the future would offer such a solution. Bilddokument Dresden, 1933–1945, one of the first such rubble photography publications, appeared shortly after the end of the war and is representative of the genre. Published by the Dresden City Council in December 1945, the large-format book was comprised almost entirely of before-and-after photographs of the city’s many famous landmarks such as the Zwinger, Altmarkt, the Rathaus and the Frauenkirche. The City Council utilised the historical and contemporary images of local photographer Kurt Schaarschuch to illustrate the book, which contained very little text apart from minimal captions. That text, although brief, suggestively hints at the intended message of the book. Written by Kurt Liebermann, a local official in charge of the Dresden News Authority, the four-sentence preface notes that the: picture of our city, which for centuries bestowed its own unique appeal, shall not be understood only through loss and damage, and through an increasing knowledge of the Nazi warmongers, but it shall also spur active and ongoing collective effort.30

Blame for the Dresden atrocity is levelled at the Nazi regime, while hope for the future is found in memories of landscapes past and in plans for their rebuilding, already underway. One photographic pairing illustrates Schaarschuch’s approach – and shows the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It depicts the monument to Martin Luther, standing 294

matter. The massive-scale 2009 far-right protests were launched after the book’s publication. Rolf-Dieter Mu¨ller, ed., Historikerkommission zu den Luftangriffen auf Dresden zwischen dem 13. Und 15. Februar 1945 (Dresden Commission of Historians for the Ascertainment of the Number of Victims of the Air Raids on the City of Dresden on 13/ 14 February 1945), Dresden, Rat der Stadt Dresden 2008. 24 – On the anniversary commemorations of the Dresden firebombing, see Matthias Neutzner, ‘Vom Anklagen zum Erinnern: die Erza¨hlung vom 13. Februar’, in Das rote Leuchten, 128–63. Also useful are several important articles by Gilad Margalit: ‘Der Luftangriff aus Dresden: seine Bedeutung fu¨r die Erinnerungspolitik der DDR und fu¨r die Herauskristallisierung einer historischen Kriegserinnerung im Westen’, in Narrative der Shoah: Repra¨sentationen der Vergangenheit in Historiographie, Kunst und Politik, ed. Susanne Du¨well and Matthias Schmidt, Paderborn: Scho¨ningh 2002, 189– 207; ‘Dresden and Hamburg: Official Memory and Commemoration of the Victims of Allied Air Raids in the Two Germanies’, in A Nation of Victims?: Representations of German Wartime Suffering from 1945 to the Present, ed. Helmut Schmitz, Amsterdam: Rodopi 2007, 125–40; and ‘Dresden und die Erinnerungspolitik der DDR’, http://www.bombenkrieg. historicum-archiv.net/themen/ddr.html.


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Figure 5. Harold Clover, Heilbronn in a Panorama, April 1945. National Archives and Records Administration, ARC identifier: 559236.

25 – This is not to suggest, of course, that photographs of bodily ruin were absent from the visual archive of the air war. As I indicate below in the case of Dresden, photographs of corpses were extremely important. However, as a genre, landscape photographs dominated and circulated more widely. Although long neglected, the photography of ruins has attracted scholarly attention in recent years. I have learned much from two scholars in particular: Ludger Derenthal, Bilder der Tru¨mmer- und Aufbaujahre: Fotografie im sich teilenden Deutschland, Marburg: Jonas Verlag 1999; and Jo¨rn ¨ berlegungen Glasenapp, ‘Nach dem Brand: U zur deutschen Tru¨mmerfotografie’, Fotogeschichte, 91:24 (2004), 47–64; and Die deutsche Nachkriegsfotografie: eine Mentalita¨tsgeschichte in Bildern, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink 2008. The examples of postwar photobooks that used rubble photographs are legion. For a useful introduction to the kind of books produced at this time, see Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, ‘Memory and Reconstruction: The Postwar European Photobook,’ in The Photobook: A History, vol. 1, London: Phaidon, 2004, 186–231. Two typical examples are Werner Gauss and Arthur Glo¨ggler, Alt-Heilbronn, wie wir es kannten und liebten, Heilbronn am Neckar: Gauss-Verlag 1952; and Willi Ruppert, . . . und Worms lebt dennoch, Worms: Wormser Verlagsdruckerei 1955. 26 – Derenthal, Bilder der Tru¨mmer- und Aufbaujahre, 87–98. 27 – David Crew, ‘Mourning, Denial, Celebration: The Visual Work of West German Reconstruction after 1945’, in Wiederaufbau der Sta¨dte: Europa seit 1945, ed. Georg-Wagner Kyora, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2012.

and then fallen, before the city’s principal landmark, the Frauenkirche. In the ‘before’ photograph, Schaarschuch positions his camera well below Luther, and, with an impressively large depth of field, he leads the viewers’ eyes skyward and to the Frauenkirche, which looms directly behind the Reformation leader (figure 6a). The ‘after’ photograph depicts Luther, lying flat on his back, prostrate and staring glassy-eyed to the sky (figure 6b). The Frauenkirche is still there, but only partially so, and is reduced to one more pile of rubble. Only dates serve as captions for Schaarschuch’s photographs: 1933 in the ‘before’ picture, and 1945 in the ‘after’. The intervening period – the rise of the Nazi regime and its accompanying terror and war – is not commented upon but is clearly somehow responsible for this decline and fall. This ‘before’ and ‘after’ pairing might very well be the most striking in the book, and it successfully conveys a strong visual sense of the city’s loss. But loss, for Schaarschuch’s Bilddokument Dresden, is limited in its focus on high culture, elite architecture and Christian piety. Roughly three years later, a local publisher, the Dresdner Verlagsgesellschaft, wanted to reissue the photograph book, which, by then, was out of print. This plan was met with important opposition, however. Despite its impressive sales, which numbered in the tens of thousands, by 1949 local officials and city administrators did not consider Bilddokument Dresden to be a publishing success. For one thing, the sole photograph of efforts at rebuilding the city seemed insufficient. More importantly, the book did little to fuel the emerging sense of moral outrage in the GDR. Its perceived flatness and dispassionate approach, one that emphasised architectural heritage but had little to say about human loss, made it seem dated. This, combined with the revelation that Schaarschuch had illustrated a Nazi-published book in 1937, further eroded the credibility of his rubble photographs.31 Much more in step with the changing political climate was another Dresden photographer, Richard Peter. While Schaarschuch’s images have virtually disappeared in a sea of rubble photographs, Peter’s have endured to such an extent that for many people they have come to define the 1945 firebombing. Viewers might not recall Richard Peter’s name, but they remember his photographs. 295


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Figure 6. (a, b) Kurt Schaarschuch, 1933 and 1945. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

Dresden, a Camera Accuses One photograph in particular has become the iconic image of the firebombing and of the air war (figure 7). By all measures, Peter’s photograph –‘Blick vom Rathausturm nach Su¨den’ (View from the City Hall Tower to the South) of September 1945 – is a cultural icon of the first order. Following the work of Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, I mean something quite specific by the term ‘icon’: those photographic images appearing in print, electronic, or digital media that are widely recognized and remembered, are understood to be representations of historically significant events, activate strong emotional identification or response, and are reproduced across a range of media, genres, or topics.32

Although a number of images meet some of these criteria, very few images meet them all. In the context of the United States, Hariman and Lucaites point to such images as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), Joe Rosenthal’s Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945), Nick Ut’s Accidental Napalm (1972) and Stuart Franklin’s Tiananmen Square (1989) as examples of photographs that are at once aesthetically familiar, are capable of performing a role in shaping public discourse, are complicated enough to be open to multiple and often inconsistent perspectives, can trigger an affective response in their viewers, and are resources for the mediation of social conflicts.33 Peter’s image has been reproduced in countless print sources, beginning with Axel Rodenberger’s 1951 Der Tod von Dresden (Dresden’s Death), David Irving’s inflammatory 1963 The Destruction of Dresden (subtitled The Most Appalling Air Attack of World War 2), multiple German editions of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, as well as more recent popular and academic histories, including the cover of Der Spiegel’s 2003 special issue on the air war (figure 8).34 Dozens of 296

28 – Hans Erich Nossack, The End: Hamburg 1943, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2004, 37, 41. This book, a classic in the air war literature, was first published as Der Untergang: Hamburg, 1943, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 1948. 29 – Or, perhaps more accurately, ‘place annihilation’. Kenneth Hewitt, ‘Place Annihilation: Area Bombing and the Fate of Urban Places’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 73:2 (1983), 257–84. 30 – Kurt Schaarschuch, Bilddokument Dresden, 1933–1945, Dresden: Hrsg. vom Rat der Stadt Dresden 1945, 1. 31 – Derenthal, Bilder der Tru¨mmer- und Aufbaujahre, 67. 32 – Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2007, 27. 33 – Ibid., 29–37. 34 – Two recent English-language books that use an unattributed photograph of this scene (actually, by Walter Hahn) are: Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang, Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945, Chicago: I.R. Dee 2006; and Marshall De Bruhl, Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, New York: Random House 2006.


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Figure 7. Richard Peter sen., Blick vom Rathausturm nach Su¨den, 1945. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

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Steven Hoelscher other German photographers have, over the years, followed Peter’s steps up the city hall’s stairs to re-photograph his celebrated image. Among those was Dietmar Alex, whose photograph of August 1961 suggests a telling sequence of Dresden’s post-war rebirth (figure 9). Interestingly, a contemporary of Richard Peter, the Dresden-based photographer Walter Hahn, seems to have been the first photographer to record this view. The Deutsche Fotothek archive in Dresden contains a 1928 image by Hahn from the City Hall (‘Blick vom Rathausturm’). With a statue framing the right foreground, the view shows the city below with a zeppelin circling above. More strikingly, Hahn also photographed the exact scene made famous by Peter at roughly the same time. His 35 mm transparency depicts the ruined city in landscape orientation from the same vantage point on the city hall tower. But what really distinguished this photograph from Peter’s is the red swastika painted directly onto the ruins, suggesting a clear line of responsibility for the destruction (figure 10).35 Peter’s photograph is everywhere. It has been called the ‘icon of the German rubble photography’, and that is certainly true, especially considering the powerful affective role of such images.36 For the German art critic Wolfgang Kil, Peter’s images were ‘landscapes of the soul’, pictures that, for an entire generation, found their experience of the war visually preserved and, indeed, constructed. Another German art critic, Richard Hiepe, describes how the photograph is ‘burned into the consciousness of modern humanity’.37 With a view over the shoulder of the nearly intact statue looking down over a landscape of ruins, the photograph achieves its power through the profound juxtaposition of order and disorder, light and darkness, harmony and dissonance, proximity and distance, and personified virtue and death. Many viewers read the statue as an angel (cultural critics are quick to point out that it reminds them of Walter Benjamin’s famous reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus),38 but in fact it depicts the allegorical figure Goodness (Allegorie der Gu¨te), a symbol of good government positioned near the top of the city hall. The precise identity of the statue seems to matter less than the way it stands in for the photograph’s imagined viewer, reaching out, as it were, to the ruins below. As powerful as such visual binaries are, they represent only a portion of what makes the image iconic. A second consideration must emphasise what it does not show; or, put somewhat differently, what it does not say. Although seemingly trying to communicate, Goodness herself is silent. Are viewers supposed to hear a lament or an accusation? If this is an accusation, who is responsible for the destruction below? Hitler and the Nazi regime that took power in 1933? Those who abetted the regime during the years leading up to the war? Or the Anglo-American bombers who delivered their arms with chilling effectiveness? Could the statue’s gesture downward be a form of finger-pointing of indictment, or reaching out to the thousands upon thousands of lives lost? Is it a warning of the disastrous consequences of human hubris? Or is it a visual metaphor of human sin? Because the ‘Angel of Dresden’ is as mute as the stone it is made of, every viewer can hear what he or she wants.39 Such questions point to the multiple interpretations inherent in this extraordinary image. Richard Peter’s ‘Blick vom Rathausturm nach Su¨den’ does what especially powerful photographs invariably do: it suggests clarity but resists onedimensional understandings. This is made all the more ironic by the photograph’s time and site specificity. Originally, it was just a picture, one of many, made by a dedicated and persistent photojournalist. Here is how Richard Peter described his project: Thousands of pictures were part of single-minded and tireless work. At the time I did not know what would eventually come of them. I only knew that in time they would become valuable historical documents and would be used: used as documentation of the time, as symbols of absolute evil and the celebration of infernal triumph, and as evidence of the effects of a megalomaniac and the infected group of disciples who followed his madness.40

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35 – Little is known about the superimposed symbol and questions immediately are raised about responsibility or timing of the act. Wolfgang Hesse, email to the author, 20 October 2010. 36 – Derenthal, Bilder der Tru¨mmer- und Aufbaujahre, 68; Christoph Hamann, ‘Der ‘‘Engel’’ der Geschichte: Das kanonische Bild’, Praxis Geschichte, 4 (2004), 48–9; and Martin Kemp, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, New York: Oxford University Press 2011, 202. 37 – Wolfgang Kil, Hinterlassenschaft und Neubeginn: Fotografien von Dresden, Leipzig und Berlin in den Jahren nach 1945, edited by Werner Wurst, Leipzig: Fotokinoverlag 1989, 20–1; and Richard Hiepe, ‘Aus der Kriegsfibel (u¨ber Richard Peter)’, Arbeiterfotografie, 47 (September/Oktober 1985), 2–5. 38 – See, for example, Michael Neumann, ‘Genealogie einer Geste: ‘‘. . . Eingebrannt in das Bildbewußtsein der modernen Menschheit’’’, in Die Zersto¨rung Dresdens: Antworten der Ku¨nste, ed. Walter Schmitz, Dresden: Thelem 2005, 159–70, 160.

39 – Wolfgang Hesse, ‘Der glu¨cklose Engel: Das zersto¨rte Dresden in einer Fotografie von Richard Peter’, Forum Wissenschaft, 22:2 (2005), 30–5.

40 – Richard Peter, Richard Peter Sen: Erinnerungen und Bilder eines Dresdener Fotografen, edited by Werner Wurst, Leipzig: Fotokinoverlag 1987, 58.


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Figure 8. Cover, Der Spiegel, 6 January 2003. Courtesy of Spiegel Verlag Rudolf Augstein GmbH.

Figure 9. Dietmar Alex, Blick vom Rathausturm, 1961. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

Figure 10. Walter Hahn, Blick vom Rathausturm mit einmontiertem Hakenkreuz, 1945, 35 mm transparency. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

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The transition from documentary evidence to national icon is, in many ways, an unfortunate one, since the photograph’s historical context is largely forgotten. That context, however, is vital to a deeper understanding of this remarkable photograph. Richard Peter was a photojournalist and member of the Communist Party before the war. Characterised as an ‘engaged documentary photographer’ who readily took on issues of political importance, he was a frequent contributor to Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Worker’s Illustrated Magazine), or AIZ, an influential German weekly that was well known for its anti-fascist commentary.41 Although barred from working as a press photographer when the Nazis rose to power in 1933, he continued his anti-fascist work, smuggling out photographs to the exiled AIZ in Prague, including some rare images of Reichskristallnacht in 1938. Although his activities during the war are not clear, according to his autobiography, Peter returned to post-war Dresden in September 1945, after spending time as a prisoner of war among the American military. Upon his return, seven months after the inferno, the photographer found the city and his own photographic archive completed devastated. ‘When I emerged from the skeleton-like train station,’ he remembered: my eyes wandered over a desert of grotesque ruins, wrecked houses, and towering stumps of junk. Over there, where the chaos of unending debris was lost in the gray haze, between the torsos of what remained of staircases and eerie towering chimneys, back there was the grave of all efforts of decades of my life.42

Using a borrowed Leica, he set out to record the devastation. This project lasted four years and produced several thousand images: urban ‘canyons’, car wrecks, shattered buildings of all varieties; corpses from failed air raid shelters and the refugees flooding into the city; and, finally, the city’s efforts to rebuild. Peter’s photographs of ruins, which he donated to the regional archive, culminated in what has become one of the most-discussed German publications of the post-war period: Dresden – eine Kamera klagt an (Dresden, a Camera Accuses).43 ‘Every German should have this book,’ its advertising poster claimed (figure 11), and there is evidence to suggest that many did. With an astonishingly large initial print run of fifty thousand, Peter’s book served as witness to the effects of the firebombing and indictment against so-called ‘Bombenterror’ (initially Hitler’s

41 – U. Breymeyer, ‘Der engagierte Dokumentarist: Richard Peter, sen, 1895– 1977’, in Fotografen in Deutschland um 1945, ed. K. Honnef und U. Breymeyer, Berlin 1995, 184–7. Andre s Mario Zervigo´n, ‘Persuading with the Unseen? Die ArbeiterIllustrierte-Zeitung, Photography, and German Communism’s Iconophobia’, Visual Resources, 26:2 (2010), 147–62. The best source to-date on Richard Peter is his autobiography: Peter and Wurst, Erinnerungen und Bilder eines Dresdener Fotografen. Also extremely useful is the website of the Dresden-based Deutsche Fotothek, http://www.deutschefotothek.de. The Deutsche Fotothek is home to the Peter photograph archive, which numbers more than 6,500 images. 42 – Peter, Erinnerungen und Bilder eines Dresdener Fotografen, 55–6. 43 – Ibid., 58. Richard Peter, Dresden, eine Kamera klagt an, Dresden: Dresdener Verlagsgesellschaft KG 1949. The book has gone through several subsequent editions, including 1980, 1982 and 1995, and remains in print today with Fliegenkopf Verlag. For background on the book, see: Wolfgang Hesse, ‘Der ‘‘Engel’’ von Dresden. Tru¨mmerfotografie und visuelles Narrativ der Hoffnung’, in Das Jahrhundert der Bilder, ed. Gerhard Paul, Go¨ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2009, 730–37; Derenthal, Bilder der Tru¨mmer- und Aufbaujahre, 67–74; Glasenapp, Die deutsche Nachkriegsfotografie, 121–32; and Christiane Hertel, ‘Dis/ Continuities in Dresden’s Dances of Death’, Art Bulletin, 82:1 (2000), 104–10.

Figure 11. Advertising poster, Dresden – eine Kamera klagt an, ca. 1950. Courtesy of Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Bildarchiv.

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44 – This is a finding of both Derenthal, Bilder der Tru¨mmer- und Aufbaujahre; and Glasenapp, Die deutsche Nachkriegsfotografie.

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45 – ‘Bombing U.S.S.R. Sought is Turned Against U.S.’, Life Magazine (10 May 1954), 50.

46 – Peter, Dresden, eine Kamera klagt an. Interestingly, whether out of embarrassment for the poem’s blatant and wooden appeal to emotions or out of its political datedness in a post-Cold War world, Zimmering’s short contribution is no longer included in the book’s current edition.

47 – Karl Gernot Kuehn, Caught: The Art of Photography in the German Democratic Republic, Berkeley: University of California Press 1997.

term) wrought by Britain and by the United States. Among the many books that documented the destruction of German cities, Dresden – eine Kamera klagt an stands out for its long-term influence. Only Hermann Claasen’s 1947 book on Cologne – Gesang im Feuerofen – matches its impact.44 During the Cold War, the photographic book became ammunition in the global ideological struggle, a point quickly discovered by reporters from the magazine Life. When the staff photographer Ralph Crane visited Dresden in 1954 to include the city in a special issue devoted to German reconstruction, an East German official told him: ‘you will find that the people of Dresden do not like Americans’. Crane’s journalist companion wrote: ‘what differentiates Dresden from other bombed cities in Germany – and several were bombed more heavily and more often – is the hatred cultivated in the ruins’. Visitors to Dresden, the Life journalist reported, ‘are thoughtfully given a book of photographs, The Camera Accuses, which shows the chaos after the bombing as well as bodies being incinerated in the streets’.45 This accusatory tone is set forth at the beginning of the book with a prose poem by the socialist writer Max Zimmering. Serving as the book’s preface, the brief poem – entitled ‘Dresden’ – attempts to fix a particular, highly charged meaning. Dresden, the poem begins: ‘the radiance that was once in your eyes, lit by music and painting, had to give way’. And who was responsible for this ‘shame’?: ‘it goes by the name Wall Street’.46 Such textual defamation is rare in Peter’s book, however, as words are kept to a minimum. Instead, the argument is presented visually. The book’s 104 photographs are laid out on eighty-six pages with minimal text, apart from a handful of captions and chapter titles. There is a clear narrative structure to the book, much more so than in Schaarschuch’s, beginning with three full-page nocturnal views of pre-1945 Dresden, when life and the city remain intact. Immediately following this prologue is the first substantial section of the book, which consists of sixty-nine photographs of the three distinct components of loss: the bombed and destroyed city, the dead and survivors. The second part of the book displays thirty-two images of post-war reconstruction, or, in the language of the GDR, Aufbau (construction), which is meant to signify the construction of buildings, infrastructure and institutions, as well as the new socialist state.47 Peter’s iconic image appears at a crucial point in the book, for it marks the first and most important transition zone of the visual narrative. After three pages showing lovely views of the peaceful city at night (figure 12), the next image makes a stunning impact. On opposite pages are a night view of Dresden as it sleeps and Peter’s View from the City Hall Tower to the South. The cumulative effect is striking. Using only visual images, Peter’s message is plain: a once sleeping, ‘innocent’ and peaceful city became a sea of ruin. In the pages that follow, readers see destruction in a multitude of forms. Peter may have captioned one early image, also taken from the city hall tower in the opposite direction to the north, as ‘overall the same picture’, but that is not quite accurate (figure 13). His photographs document a vast range of ruinous landscapes: churches, train station, castles, marketplaces, beer halls, government buildings, coffee houses, homes, factories, offices and monuments. Some photographs are distant, panorama views of streets and buildings blown to smithereens, while others offer detailed, magnified images of clocks, rubble and fractured statues. Ranging in approach from view photography to the extremely sharp close-ups of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), Peter documented the destroyed city in multiple perspectives; he photographed everything he saw while walking the city’s streets, ducking into rubble-strewn interiors and climbing its crumbling towers. Sandwiched between images of the destroyed cityscape and a section on survivors or ‘people after the destruction’ is a section that stands out within the genre of Tru¨mmerfotografie. It begins with another famous Peter image, Der Tod u¨ber Dresden (Death above Dresden), one of the few photographs to receive a title in the book (figure 14). In the photograph, the silhouette of a pacing skeleton stands before a 301


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Figure 12. Richard Peter sen., Dresden, Zwinger mit Kronentor und Figure 13. Richard Peter sen., Blick vom Rathausturm nach Norden, 1945. Courtesy of Sophienkirche, 1932. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek. Deutsche Fotothek. Figure 14. Richard Peter sen., Der Tod u¨ber Dresden, 1945. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

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48 – Klaus Werner, Edmund Kesting: ein Maler fotografiert, Leipzig: Fotokinoverlag, 1987, especially pp. 26–41. An example of Kesting’s series may be viewed online: http:// www.deutschefotothek.de/obj32024333. html. 49 – Peter’s photograph and those of other photographers documenting the handwritten messages in the rubble of catastrophic ruin bear striking similarity to those found in lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in New Orleans after Katrina. For a provocative account of the latter, see Richard Misrach, Destroy this Memory, New York: Aperture 2010.

50 – Peter, Erinnerungen und Bilder eines Dresdener Fotografen, 57.

damaged window frame, which, in turn, opens a vista to the ruined Frauenkirche and city hall. Peter gives no indication of where the photograph was taken from, instead allowing the frightening image, along with its suggestive title, to speak for itself. Death is seen not from ‘above’ the ruined landscape, but next to it, suggesting that the ‘above’ refers to the historical airstrike that brought death to the once peaceful town. Some viewers might have recognised the location as the interior of the Dresden Art Academy, and some might know that the skeleton was used by students as a model. Some viewers might even recognise the vantage point as one also used by the art photographer Edmund Kesting in his contemporary series ‘Totentanz Dresden’ (Dresden’s Death Dance) of 1945–46. Kesting, a former student of the Art Academy who specialised in photomontage and surrealist art, arranged the skeleton in at least a half-dozen positions to produce a series of haunting images that would seem to have more in common with the collages of Kurt Schwitters than documentary photography of Richard Peter. Whether they recognised the location of the photograph or its avant-garde heritage, viewers of Peter’s Death above Dresden see an image that is quite distinct from his more typical ‘straight’ photography, one that provocatively opens the door to the book’s most troubling section.48 This photograph faces one showing a house wall covered in chalk graffiti, search messages by survivors, new addresses, and anxious questions: ‘where is Frau Braunert?’, ‘Heinrich Singer lives’, ‘P. Frey is now living at Robert-Koch Straße 6’, ‘Clara is among the rubble’ (figure 15). These graphic, hand-written messages overwhelm the enamel plaque from the pre-attack days advertising ‘piano, voice, accordion on third floor’.49 The caption on this page – itself a clear articulation of an emerging Cold War ideology – refers not to this image but to the next three that follow: ‘The tragedy of the opened basements may not be withheld from mankind confronted with the question of conscience – war or peace’. In a challenging articulation of what might have become a tedious genre, Peter then changes the thematic register of rubble photographs from destroyed urban space to the fate of its inhabitants. After dozens of pages of landscape ruins, the ones that immediately follow – of bodily ruins – are shocking. The first two show full-page portraits of corpses who suffocated in basements: on the left a woman and on the right a man with a swastika armband, the sole indicator in the entire book of a Nazi presence in Dresden (figure 16). The next two pages show a full-page image of a dead German soldier and, on the right side, two half-page captioned images by Peter’s fellow Dresden photographer, Walter Hahn, representing the incineration of corpses in the city’s Altmarkt Square. It is not entirely clear whether Peter himself wrote the Cold War-inflected caption that introduces these images, but the effect of what he saw in the ‘opened basements’ clearly made a deep personal impression. For several years after the February 1945 bombing, recovery teams (‘Bergungskommandos’) searched the failed air raid shelters throughout the city, finding the remains of people who suffocated in their basements. Peter describes how he was kept constantly up to date, ‘always on the alert’, with the recovery efforts so that he ‘hardly missed a chance to record the indescribable horror in the air raid shelters’.50 Making stunning use of photographic narrative, Peter constructs a visual argument that, in death, all are equal – woman, Nazi, soldier, the anonymous mass – and all are victims. Any possibility that victim may also be perpetrator is foreclosed. Such a foreclosure may not be explicit in the images themselves, but it is made necessary by the book’s erasure of Dresden’s political culture during the Nazi years. Critical here are those first three nocturnal images. Before the dreadful night in February 1945, Dresden, Peter’s book implies, was characterised by the high culture of Gottfried Semper’s neo-Baroque opera house and the Gemu¨tlichkeit of tavern life, devoid of the toxic politics that condemned the city to its ruin. After these gruesome images of the dead, a new chapter of survival begins, including the fate of the many refugees who had flooded into Dresden and the 303


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Figure 15. Richard Peter sen., Suchmeldungen an einem Wohnhaus Dresden, Winckelmannstraße, 1945. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

Figure 16. Richard Peter sen., Totenkopf und Leiche in Uniform (mit Hakenkreuz-Binde am ¨ rmel) in einem Luftschutzkeller, 1946. A Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

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Rubble Photography and Politics of Memory in Divided Germany

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Figure 17. Richard Peter sen., Einwohner verlegen ein Gleisjoch auf Tru¨mmerschutt fu¨r die ‘Tru¨mmerbahn’, ca. 1946. Courtesy of Sa¨chsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universita¨tsbibliothek Dresden, Abt. Deutsche Fotothek.

collective efforts at rebuilding the ruined city. These photographs seem oddly perfunctory. True, pictures of the city’s reconstruction are essential to a narrative of hope on which the book must conclude. But, of all the photographs in Dresden – eine Kamera klagt an, the civilian armies of men and women working in unison to remove rubble are the least memorable and most easily interchangeable with those of nearly any other German city in the immediate post-war years (figure 17). Conclusion

51 – Hauptmann, Sa¨mtliche Werke, Band XI, Frankfurt am Main: Propyla¨en 1974, 1205.

52 – Sontag, Regarding the Pain, 22.

53 – Derek Gregory, ‘‘‘Doors into Nowhere’’: Dead Cities and the Natural History of Destruction’, in Cultural Memories: The Geographical Point of View, ed. Mike Heffernan, Peter Meusburger and Edgar Wunder, Heidelberg: Springer 2011, 249–86.

The playwright Gerhard Hauptmann, himself a survivor of the February 1945 firebombing, wrote shortly thereafter what has become a literary shorthand for the catastrophic event: ‘Wer das Weinen verlernt hat, der lernt es wieder beim Untergang Dresdens’ (Whoever has forgotten how to cry will remember how to do so at the sight of Dresden in ashes).51 The photographs by Richard Peter have become the visual culture equivalent – a powerfully compressed technology of memory that continues to trigger public feelings across a vast spectrum of political actors. Indeed, Peter’s photographs in conjunction with the various writings that have accompanied them have played an especially important role in shaping historical memory. ‘The photograph’, Sontag wrote, ‘is like a quotation, or a maxim, or a proverb. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it’.52 Peter’s rubble photographs have provided, for countless people, the ‘sight’ of Dresden in ashes and the quickest way of apprehending the events of February 1945. Apprehending something, however, is not the same as understanding, and, for all its emotional impact, its mnemonic qualities and its widespread dissemination, Peter’s image sheds little light on the important questions of responsibility, victimhood and moral obligation that are at the heart of bearing witness to wartime trauma. Perhaps inadvertently – for Richard Peter was no friend of the Nazis – this combination of a denied past and shared victimhood paved the way for all subsequent conversations about the controversial firebombing. If W. G Sebald overestimates the sense of collective amnesia in post-war Germany, he was certainly correct in emphasising the supreme struggle to make sense of those ruins or of ‘the existential difficulty of recognizing the ruined landscape as the product of human action’.53 Peter’s Dresden photographs have long intervened in that existential difficulty and, if the ongoing struggles over memory are any indication, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 305

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Hoelscher dresden a camera accuses  

‘Dresden, a Camera Accuses’: Rubble Photography and the Politics of Memory in a Divided Germany Steven Hoelscher

Hoelscher dresden a camera accuses  

‘Dresden, a Camera Accuses’: Rubble Photography and the Politics of Memory in a Divided Germany Steven Hoelscher

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