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  • Photographers of the Third Reich by Paul Garson

    Images from the Wehrmacht

    What is it about photos that mesmerize us? When even life and death enemies find themselves smiling for their captor’s camera.

    A group of army officers struggle with various types of cameras, likely in France. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    What power do these images hold that in some cases linger with us for our entire lives? Is it because 70% of our sensory input is visual, recorded through our eyes and pasted into the infinite photo album that is our mind? And while we can only “see” a relatively small part of the electro-magnetic spectrum, evolution has seen to vision’s effectiveness as a paramount tool for survival. And then comes the camera and war itself, when first seen only in black and white images, seems to have been leached of color, as it were, of life itself.

    But still, the starkness of the monochromatic slips of paper, many such seen here, possess in many cases even more impact that color. Perhaps it is because at night, life itself is reduced to shades of shadow.

     

     

     

     

    Ica Icarette 500. Produced by the Dresden-based company, the 120 (6x9) roll film Icarette first appeared in 1914. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    My life-long co-existence with the camera, shall we say, first took focus more than half a century ago. I was an elementary school student in South Florida and for some reason had been “recruited” by my peers to the semi-vaunted position of Captain of the Safety Patrols. I was given a white belt with chest strap, a white “sailor’s” cap and a shiny badge, all part of my uniform. So outfitted, I found myself purportedly in charge of a “troop” of my fellows, now responsible with safe-guarding our schoolmates primarily during the morning and afternoon frenzy of “drop-offs” and “pick-ups.” As I recall we apparently adhered to the call of duty and no casualties were recorded.

    One of the perks was a group trip to Washington D.C. for the annual national safety patrol convocation that saw Pennsylvania Avenue inundated with marching safety patrollers gathered from all over the country. As I recall, even the President took in the review.

     

     

    Paris Occupied, May 1940. A wounded German mechanised trooper with what appears to be a Voigtlander or Plaubel large format press camera. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    Such a momentous event found me gifted with a Kodak Brownie camera and rolls of film to record safety patrol history in the making. That little Dakon plastic-bodied camera with its simple fixed focus and single shutter speed (original price of $5.00), found me snapping away in the nation’s capital. While the black and white images eventually were lost in time, the camera would later sprout into a current collection of over 200 vintage cameras, not to mention a number of “modern” 35mm film and digital cameras I would use professionally for some 30 years while working for various magazines. While several hundred of my images would see publication, the ones that would ultimately take precedence, were photos taken by countless others, their names unknown, and who for the most part while wearing the military uniform of several nations engaged in bloody conflict.

    Agfa Karat 3.5 with Deckel Compur Shutter, 1938. The modern-looking German-made Agfa Karat strut-folding camera was produced by Agfa from the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    So what was the segue from camera as a utilitarian tool of my profession capturing colorful images for national consumer publications to a tangential role as a “photo-archeologist” drawn to excavating the imagery found lurking the darkness of the Third Reich and the Nazi era? It also began by chance.

    Some 20 years ago, I came upon a photo of German soldiers aboard a motorcycle, shouldering machine guns and smiling for the camera. It turned into a magazine feature about wartime motorcycles which eventually turned into an unending quest for wartime images that evoked both history and the power of the camera. It was also infused with an intellectual response to history’s greatest crime committed by humans against humans and where in the end, relatively very little justice prevailed, even decades later. And so, lest historical memory fade, I began “collecting” the original photographs literally from around the world. It took years, thousands of hours of scanning hundreds of thousands of images, selecting, not to mention purchasing them. Then thousands of more hours reading hundreds of relevant books and gleaning the historical context in which the images rested. Thus the evolution of my “photo” books.

    U-Boat Commander with Siemens C Model 16 mm Movie Camera. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    This book is actually the fourth in a series published via Amberley, preceded by volumes dealing WWII-era German motorcycles, horses, and police, a fifth following shortly focusing on Children of the Third Reich, all of which are populated by original, one of a kind photographs in my collection of over 3,000 images taken by individuals who lived, fought, killed and often died during the twelve years of Nazi Germany’s reign of terror. In effect, this book can be viewed as the pre-amble to all the other in the series.

    The photos were created by a variety of cameras, some simple, some advanced, a few seen here, examples from my collection, alongside images taken by those handheld light-capturing boxes and in some cases with snapshots of those who pointed the cameras.

    It can be said that the same advanced German technology that created the Panzer and the V-2 rocket also created some of the world’s highest quality photographic equipment feeding into an already world-wide fascination with the camera, millions sold and many taken to war. The Nazis themselves understood that without such imagery they would never have achieved their goals of social engineering a New Germany toward enslaving all of Europe. (Take that one step further, what would the world be like if the now ubiquitous image taking devices were never invented?)

     

    A Russien Army war correspondent poses at the infamous Auschwitz camp, his camera apparently a German Leica. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    What has the camera given us? Indelible images of an era seared into humankind’s consciousness? Yes. Individual time machines that capture a flicker of transient human behavior in all its brutal weaknesses? Yes. Self-fulfilling instruments of documentation of Man’s tendency to apocalyptic self-destruction? Yes. But moreover, hopefully a means of facing those tendencies and overcoming them by staring resolutely into the abyss and no longer seeing a reflection.

    Have we learned from our past? Have old cameras given us new insights? Bring out your own camera and start recording for a future answer.

    In the meantime, dwell on this book and its visual record of a time when a part of the world fell into a fatal obedience and vainly endeavored to snuff out all light, but ultimately failed. As part of that process the camera always refused to turn a blind eye.

    Paul Garson's new book Photographers of the Third Reich: Images from the Wehrmacht is available for purchase now.

  • Warhorses of Germany by Paul Garson

    The Myth of the Mechanised Blitzkrieg

    Nap - A corporal, his rifle clutched against his shoulder and the mule’s reins held in his hand, sleeps sitting on his backpack on a muddy Russian road as his charges eye the cameraman. (Warhorses of Germany, Amberley Publishing)

    The love of the horse runs long and deep in the German culture having arisen from the concept of “blood and soil” percolating up through the rural farmlands of the country, its people traditionally sharing close company with their equine work companions that also served as routine transportation and leisure enjoyment as well as an implement of war as called upon by centuries of conflict within and without its borders.

    German military planners learned from their mistakes of the First World War, realizing that in part they did not have enough horses for the work needed. In preparation for the next conflict Germany began buying up large quantities of horses, in fact, many from Britain where its military planners saw no need for horses as they were certain the next battles would be fought exclusively by machine and thus the English military establishment totally scrapped its cavalry components. Between 1935 and 1940 Germany’s military horse resources swelled from 35,000 to 100,000, and that just the first of millions of hoof beats.

    The various regions of Germany also produced several types of large draft horses, for example, The Black Forest Horse (Schwarzwaelder Fuchs). While strong, durable, healthy, long-living and good natured, many such horses were taken from their farm work to the Front where they encountered conditions for which they were ill-prepared.

    Hooved vs. Tracked - Two cavalry mounts are dwarfed by the formidable Tiger tank. Contrary to the Third Reich’s own massive propaganda programs and decades of post-WWII movies that propagated the image of German fully motorized warfare, horses far outnumbered tanks and other mechanized weapons of the Third Reich. (Warhorses of Germany, Amberley Publishing)

     

    In reality the Wehrmacht was the least modernized of European armies with Third Reich propaganda creating a distorted image of the true state of affairs. 1930s Germany was not supported by a strong motor vehicle or even farm tractor infrastructure that could be militarized for war production, nor were its people “automobilized” to any great extent. By contrast, in 1935 America, there was one car per five people while in German the number was only one car per 89 people.

    The Wehrmacht attempted to augment its mechanization efforts during the war by utilizing Czech and French machines, but there was a language problem when dealing with manuals for the former and a lack of reliability with the latter, especially when facing the demands of the Eastern Front. Some 2,000 different kinds of vehicles eventually took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, the complexity and variation creating a maintenance nightmare. The logistics requirements projected the demand for an additional 2,700 trucks which could not be supplied, thus horses again making up for the shortage. For example, the 9,000 captured French horses proved more enduring than its vehicles. In the final analysis, only some 25% of the Germany army was mechanized while 75% was composed of marching infantry with 70% of all transport and supply including heavy artillery during the war was horse-drawn. Due to their size and the fact they were often tethered to heavy transport wagons and field artillery, horses were left to take the brunt of air attacks while their human counterparts sought cover. In addition the effects of bullet, bomb and fire, the rigors of traversing vast distances thereby suffering the results of climate, disease and food deprivation, those horses deemed no longer suitable for work, were either sold as food or slaughtered on the spot to feed starving troops.

    War on the Eastern Front -March 24, 1942 – Deutsche Illustrated – Berlin - 'Soon Winter in the East will also be Overcome!' reads the caption accompanying the image of Waffen-SS troops who are grinning for the camera despite being caught in the frozen grip of Russia’s lethal 'General Christmas', which is reality was not overcome but overwhelming. (Warhorses of Germany, Amberley Publishing)

    Preparing for war in 1939 the German military counted some 2,740,000 men in uniform, 183,000 motor vehicles, 94,000 motorcycles and 514,000 horses.

    Soldiers rode on horseback in cavalry units and also engaged horses as draft (draught) animals hauling light, medium and heavy wagons transporting ammunition, food supplies, mobile kitchens, medical units, fuel, and heavy artillery, even the horses’ own fodder.

    Horse-mounted troops served principal roles including frontline combat, reconnaissance and anti-partisan warfare as they were often able to traverse topography inaccessible to mechanized forces.

    The number of horses and mules used by the German military eventually amounted to 2,750,000. Of them, an estimated 750,000 died during the war. The number of Russian animals that perished is unknown but estimate as equally massive.

    Behind the Scenes

    Author Paul Garson, a Los Angeles based journalist for some 30 years writing about a variety of subjects, his articles often including his own photography, developed a focus on original Second World War original photos 15 years ago after chancing upon one image. It would lead to the viewing of over one million photos from a dozen countries eventually forming his personal collection of some 3,000 in addition to several hundred research books, documents, artifacts and other items from which to conduct his research. To date, five books relating to the subject have been published, several more in the works, all providing readers with a previous unseen vantage point of the war in Europe including the volume seen here.

    Says Garson, “For years I often spent 12-14 hours, seven days a week searching for the most compelling images, then hours more repairing via digital enhancement those decades old photos, some barely two inches square. Then hours more exploring the image itself as well as relating it to a specific date and location in order to place it within the historical context, all in order to cast some light onto those darkest of times. In this case, I was compelled to write, and show, the fate that befell the millions of horses that were leashed and lashed into the catastrophic war, one whose violence and cruelty spared no living thing …the goal perhaps to offer a visual warning that strips away the “glamour” that war films had often created and to show its true nature …and the pain suffered by non-human combatants who had no voice to share their suffering.”

    Paul Garson's new book Warhorses of Germany: The Myth of the Mechanised Blitzkrieg is available for purchase now.

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