The Allies and NOT Faking the Holocaust August 4, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Several emails about the horrific photograph of the murdered woman and child at Ivangorod. Many of these emails went around the idea that this photograph was a misunderstanding (an idea that we have now argued against under the post itself) or that it was a fake. Certainly, if you stroll around the internet there are many accusations that the Western democracies faked pictures during the war and why couldn’t this be one: an attempt to put the German army in the worst possible light? The following post has a very simple point: the Western Allies would never have bothered to fake a photograph of this type.
Now, there is no question that many war photographs are faked or staged. The majority of ‘combat’ photographs and an important minority of non-combat photographs are, shall we say, ‘managed’. Of course, many of the photographs in our family collections are ‘managed’ when it comes down to it: ‘you move over there, you smile, if you don’t stop crying I’ll send you to bed, CHEESE!’ There is also the point that the Western Allies unquestionably faked things. Britain in 1940 or the United States in the spring of 1942 found themselves in unpleasant and dangerous waters. But if the Western democracies faked photographs why not this one?
The truth is that Britain and later the United States did not, in their ‘propaganda’, concentrate on the atrocities carried out by the Nazis in occupied countries and at home: Japan was sometimes a different matter, but that is not relevant here. Of course, there was a general understanding that the Nazis were bad. But atrocity stories were felt not to have much traction over democratic populations. Why?
First, in the western democracies and particularly in Britain and her Dominions there was a long-standing idea that the UK had faked German atrocity stories in the First World War: this is questionable but there certainly hadn’t been many filters put on reliable and unreliable information coming out of France and Belgium in 1914.
Second, many German atrocities were carried out against Jewish targets and Allied governments were sensitive to the charge that their countries were ‘fighting a Jewish war’. This, of course, was there in the waffle of Lord Haw-Haw on the radio. It was there in Hitler’s delirious speeches. But it had also been there in the American isolation movements of the 1930s, which often, though not invariably, had nasty anti-semitic undertones.
Third, much of the information that the Allies had about German atrocities came through decrypts of German killing squads in the east from 1941 onwards: it would not do to give too much publicity to the details because it would reveal the extent to which the Allies had broken German codes. Churchill did make a number of references to German atrocities (including one striking allusion to German murder squads in the east in Parliament): but there were not many.
Fourth, as the holocaust took on better and better organizational form, particularly after Wannsee, the Germans also became better and better at putting a lid on information coming out of their dreadful project. There is a fascinating internal British government paper on mystification at Auschwitz in the last years of the war. There was a failure of information, a failure of imagination and, yes, perhaps, in many cases a failure of sympathy for the fate of those in the Nazis’ camps.
Fifth, this photogaph would have probably invited ridicule in many western countries in 1944. As noted above there was the idea that the Germans had gone to the dark side, but the idea that they were running around murdering women and children was stretching credibility. It was only after the liberation of Auschwitz and other camps that the enormity of what happened was accepted.
Sixth, there is also the point that if this was a WW2 fake (Allied or otherwise) why was it not used before 1969?
We who have come after easily forget that in the West the Holocaust was simply big but not huge news at the end of the war. Of course, there were the dramatic descriptions of the camps from various correspondents. But a global war was winding down and the Holocaust was just one of seven or eight matters, while Tokyo hoved forward on the horizon. It was only in the 1950s and the 1960s (not least and to her great credit in Germany) that the Holocaust was pushed to centre stage. The six million and the many many millions of others who were systematically murdered have become a kind of prayer mantra for the last two generations in the West: ‘studying the holocaust’ at school is for many a rites of passage. There are things that can be said against the way in which the Holocaust is communicated to students. But it is right that a civilization has a symbol for human evil, and we have ours: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
Others may undertake the uphill battle to prove that this photograph was a fake, but they will face two huge problems. First, who would have faked a photograph like this? (The Soviet Union had fakery form, but they did not give much publicity to mass killings either prior to 1945.) Second, would a fake have been so messy? Faked photographs have simple narratives because the planner does not want to confuse. This photograph bears all the marks of an action photograph: it is messy and the group on the right of the photograph continues to be a problem.
Curiously (another post, another day) the one European country that was concerned with the propaganda value of massacres in the war and that tried to make something of them was Germany. Germany took great pleasure in its war of ‘liberation’ (ahem) in the east, in putting together photograph and finding evidence of mass graves from Soviets’ reign of terror. Terrible Katyn was first brought to the world’s attention by the Nazis, who rightly pointed out that the killings had Stalin’s bloody pawprints all over it. Anyone who knows anything about Nazi propaganda will be able to imagine the crude but effective forgeries that the Germans will have indulged in for their ‘subject’ peoples.