Erich Retzlaff – Menschen am Werk and Die von der Scholle

Erich Retzlaff is a largely forgotten German photographer thanks to his involvement with the Nazis which has rather destroyed his reputation and credibility. Retzlaff had taken up photography after returning from the First World War and first came to prominence with his book Das Antlitz Des Alters [The Face of Age] in 1930. However, thanks to the humiliation of defeat in the previous war, economic chaos and the polarisation of society between competing violent political ideologies, Germany was in complete turmoil during the 1920s and Hitler promised to restore both order and national pride when he assumed power in 1933. Like his better known contemporaries, such as Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, Paul Wolff  and Leni Riefenstahl, Retzlaff was one of many German photographers who jumped on to the Nazi bandwagon. Whether this was done for purely personal advantage or if they actually believed in the racist Nazi ideology is open to conjecture, but elements of both probably influenced their decision to throw in their lot with the most monstrous of the 20th century’s evil regimes. Whatever the motivation, in 1933 Retzlaff  nailed his colours to the mast and produced Wegbereiter und Vorkämpfer für das neue Deutschland (Pioneers and Champions of the new Germany), a series of portraits of the Nazi big-wigs who now ran the show. (See here for more information about Retzlaff’s legacy.)

Prior to that, in 1931, Retzlaff published two books, Die von der Scholle (Those who till the soil) and Menschen am Werk (People at work), heavily nationalistic bodies of work, published as part 1 and part 2 of the Deutschen Menschen (German People) series. Even though these books predate the Nazi takeover by a couple of years, Retzlaff’s images were clearly appreciated by Hitler’s cronies and probably indicate that he already shared much of their worldview. Like Lendvai-Dircksen, the ultimate effect of Retzlaff’s photography was to present the Germans as an exceptional race. Racist thinking was not just a product of Nazi rule. Racism has deep roots and it was used throughout the nineteenth century by most European countries to justify colonial rule throughout much of the world. It was the late nineteenth century application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to humanity that appeared to offer a ‘scientific’ excuse for unbelievable levels of cruelty and exploitation that much of European prosperity was based upon.

Like many of Lendvai-Dircksen’s works, in Die von der Scholle, Retzlaff presents us with a vision of timeless agricultural harmony; of peasants living contendly on the land which is clearly in line with the heavily romanticised Volkish sentimentality that the Nazis incorporated into much of their ideological thinking.  This is a pre-industrial landscape and no aspect of twentieth century life is permitted to disturb Retzlaff’s photographs of rugged peasants who clearly belong to a different century. The traditional constumes many of the men and women he depicts places these people as belonging to an exceptional group and provides a stark contrast to the decadent excesses of 1920s Berlin that the Nazis despised.

Backward, rural, conservative society was seen as the repository of the true power of the German people. Retzlaff provides us with a fantasy world populated by racially pure people, or Volk, unsullied by outsiders and living in wholesome communion with the land. Ultimately this was used as justification for murder on a scale that is impossible to comprehend. After all, how else but through genocide could you possibly ensure that the purity of the German race would remain uncontaminated?

Menschen am Werk was published in the same year and in this volume Retzlaff turns his attention to people at work. This was particularly resonant in the context of the 1930s a time of mass unemployment, which ultimately undermined Weimar democracy, and led to the emergence of Hitler. One of the first tasks the Nazis had to do was create the jobs they had promised and restore the pride associated with the mythical German work-ethic both on a personal and national level.

If the countryside was seen as the repository of racial purity, then industry was the ultimate source of power that could restore Germany’s rightful place in the world.  German heavy industry would soon be charged with one task; to produce weapons to reassert German power over Europe and Retzlaff’s heroic workers are the representatives of this racialy pure group, through whose toil the Nazis would soon attempt to conquer the world.

Without the overt signs of Nazism this pictorial propaganda is even more insidious and effective. While both swastikas or pictures of the Fuhrer are absent from the pages of both books it is impossible to separate these images from the twisted ideology that used brutal conquest, the enslavement of both people and countries, as well as mass-murder and genocide, in order to protect and perfect a so-called master race that was supposedly destined to rule the world.

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8 thoughts on “Erich Retzlaff – Menschen am Werk and Die von der Scholle

  1. Very interesting, since my research on Retzlaff, this is the first time I have seen any discussion about his work on the web. Although perhaps a little harsh in assessing Retzlaff’s impact (‘twisted ideology’, ‘brutal conquest’, etc.) it is nevertheless good to see a debate forming.

  2. Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for the message. I read your paper with interest (available here: http://aber.academia.edu/ChristopherWebster/Papers/1213631/Erich_Retzlaff_Volksfotograf )

    I agree with you that this form of Volkish photography requires more research and it is very easy to simplify and make assumptions about it because of the lack of engagement with this area.

    In relation to the impact, obviously I’m not suggesting that Retzlaff participated in murder/genocide himself or that his images served as an overt call for violence. Rather, my argument is that through these images Retzlaff assisted in the creation of a definition of what it meant to be a ‘true’ German at a time when that society was polarised into 2 distinct and competing radical ideological groups; the Nazis or the Communists.

    At a time of social dislocation and turmoil, the Volkish conception about the exceptionalism of the German race provided some level of comfort to a people who had been humiliated after their defeat in the First World War, economic chaos and political turmoil. Volkish ideology was necessarily backward looking and conservative, seeking to recreate some imagined mythical past. The Nazi’s piggybacked upon the 19th century nationalist concept of the Volk for their own ends and photographers such as Retzlaff asssited in the visualisation of this fantasy world populated by ‘true’ Germans.

    The next logical step is for this radical political group (the Nazis) to actually try and turn this fantasy into reality by getting rid of those people who didn’t fit into their narrow definition of what it meant to be a pure member of the race. I’m not saying that Retzlaff knew or anticipated that genocide would be forthcoming, but I am arguing that he assisted in the creation of a culture based upon racial exclusivity that laid the foundations for later mass murder.

    On the contrary the rival ideology of communism/socialism rejected (overtly anyway) narrow definitions of nationalism in favour of the unity of the working man.

    Volkish photographers in such a charged and polarised social context were inextricably bound up with the Nazis. There was nowhere else for Retzlaff to go.

  3. Erich Retzlaff was my later father; he was certainly racist which in the mentioned books is rather evident. He personally loathed Hitler as well as jews… he always maintained that he was not a card-carrying Nazi. Erich had five children (none of us had a good relationship with him). My half-brother overheard his parents as a child many times ranting about Hitler and his regime. I personally have 2 books of his which I am not at all ashamed of (Das Geistige Gesicht Deutschlands and Laender und Voelker an der Donau). Another of his works can be found at the City of Toronto Library.

    1. Hi Bettina,
      Many thanks for the massage. It was interesting to hear about him on a personal basis.

      In fairness to him, the kind of physiognomic photography he was practicing was quite common during the era and had a wide audience amongst the public as well as the German scientific community.

      None of us can say for certain what we would do if we ever found ourselves living in a totalitarian regime – context is everything as always.

      Thanks again for getting in touch.

    2. Dear Bettina

      I was delighted to see that you replied on this blog in relation to Erich Retzlaff’s work (your late father. I would dearly like to ask some questions about Herr Retzlaff and his work. I have been researching his photography for a couple of years now especially at the Münchner stadtmuseum, and I am curating an exhibition of his photographs next autumn. If you would be willing for me to contact you please e-mail me at my university address cpw@aber.ac.uk

  4. >In fairness to him, the kind of physiognomic photography he was practicing was quite common during the era and had a wide audience amongst the public as well as the German scientific community. <

    That's not the point. I don't have a problem with the singular photos. Some of them are really amazing and touching portraits. Three of them are hanging in my house: The miller out of the book "Die von der Scholle", an old woman (Das Anlitzt des Alters) and a portrait of Kurt Mataré, a German artist.

    But my grandfather maintained his whole life an attitude of glorification of a simple country life which HE himself never lived. He maintained distance to this kind of people, he was an artist, something better. They were for him a theme, not people at his level. He might not has been a praticing nazi, but he was a highly conservative up to racist man for all his life. No nail polish for women, no mixture between the races etc.

    1. Dear Katrin

      I was delighted to see that you replied on this blog in relation to Erich Retzlaff’s work (your late grandfather. I would dearly like to ask some questions about Herr Retzlaff and his work. I have been researching his photography for a couple of years now especially at the Münchner stadtmuseum, and I am curating an exhibition of his photographs next autumn. If you would be willing for me to contact you please e-mail me at my university address cpw@aber.ac.uk

  5. Hi Katrin,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Absolutely – you can see that particularly in ‘Die Von Der Scholle’. This is a fantasy world of traditional, peasant life, where nothing seems to have changed since the middle ages and in which the modern world disappears from view. Tradition is being used to provide stability and pride for a German society traumatised by defeat in World War 1 and economic depression. The ‘purity’ of the traditional peasant living on the land becomes a visual icon and a source of strength that is used to rebuild German society (under the Nazis).

    Whenever countries experience times of stress and trauma emphasising tradition becomes a powerful way to bind a society together.

    A similar thing happened in the UK during the Second World War when traditional English pastoral scenes and yeomen farmers were used as icons to produce a fantasy vision of England that people would feel proud of and fight for.

    The difference in 1930s Germany was that this Volkish imagery was used to define the difference between what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ members of the German nation looked like. This obviously had terrible consequences.

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