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.