Inhumanity Depicted

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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In the ongoing war against war, photo books—large and small—have proven effective evidence in indicting perpetrators and aggressors. But often the victors get to say who the aggressor is. A victor is not always righteous but to it goes the spoils. The winner of the Spanish Civil War was Nationalist/Monarchist rebels. Yet a 1938 book (below), Bombardeos Aereos En España, produced under the auspices of the democratically elected (and bloodily defeated) Republic, showed the carnage that the victorious rebels unleashed on civilians. It documents the Franco-fascists’ capacity for human and material destruction and is a condemnation of their evil.

Another book against evil, a thin Dutch volume (bottom) titled Nazi Hel, casts the Germans as barbaric criminals, and war as their weapon against humanity. For those who supported these crimes—and there are plenty of those—it is proof of unfathomable success. But as one of the most unforgettable collections of images to emerge in postwar 1945, it is both a guilty verdict and warning that it could happen again.

Curiously, owing to the poor reproduction quality of both books, the monochrome images read as Bosch-like paintings—nightmarish but definitely real.

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Nazi Hel (Hell) by Willem van de Poll, published in Amsterdam in 1945 by Van Holkema and Warendorf, may be one of the most important photo books of the postwar period.

When the Nazi death camps were liberated by the allies in early 1945, photographers Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller and George Rodger, along with official military photographers and regular GIs, shot the horrors they found. As was said of the work, “These photographs are unquestionably a milestone in the visual history of the 20th century.” Nazi Hel reveals distressing images of Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, along with an image of the notorious commandant of Bergen-Belsen, Josef Kramer, who was convicted of war crimes and hanged. This collection of 28 black-and-white photogravures is partially attributed to Dutch photographer Willem van de Poll and to soldiers in SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force).

Many of these images have since become the iconic narratives that characterize the criminality of the German Nazi state and its followers. Others have not been seen before.

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Cover design by Mohr.

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In The Swastika, Steven Heller traces the history of the mark, from religious symbol to reviled icon—a powerful examination of the impact of one graphic symbol on society.