North of the Danube – Erskine Caldwell & Margaret Bourke-White

This publication was the second collaborative book between Caldwell and Bourke White who had previously produced You Have Seen Their Faces in 1937.  Published in 1939, North of the Danube attempts to recreate the winning formula of Caldwell’s text accompanied by Bourke White’s photographs to produce a documentary narrative of a current event or issue of concern which attempts to explain to the distant reader/viewer the situation in question. (Some of the images were published in the 30 May, 1938 issue of Life Magazine alongside those of John Phillips.)

Following the annexation of Austria within Hitler’s murderous realm, Czechoslovakia was next to fall. Pro-Nazi groups within the ethnic German population were vocal in claims about suffering at the hands of the Czechs which provided a pretext to justify the annexation of certain border regions (the Sudatenland)  in 1938.  Anxious to avoid confrontation with Germany, the main Western European powers compromised with Hitler and cobbled together an agreement at Munich which allowed the Germans a free hand with the areas they claimed. The following spring saw much of what has now become the Czech Republic being fully seized by Germany to become the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia within the Third Reich which lasted until 1945. This is the context within which this book was produced for a primarily American audience.

The book itself can be regarded as a straightforward travelogue; the text consists of a series of separate chapters in which Caldwell describes his experiences and what they saw during their travels in these areas. These take the form of individual stand-alone chapters which when read together,  produce an overall sense of the tension and turmoil bubbling just beneath the surface. Certainly one of the most effective passages, in my opinion, is when Caldwell recounts how a pro-Nazi German couple attacked a fellow train passenger because they suspect she is Jewish. However, in spite of occasional illuminating gems such as this, there is little depth to the text. There is no deeper analysis about the historical context and no serious attempt is made to explain the complexities of the area that were bound up with the existing economic and social structures that produced tensions between the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian populations and ethnic groups.

This is to be expected really; unlike their work in the American South, neither Caldwell nor Bourke-White had any particular knowledge about this geographical region and this is compounded by having to explain the complexities to an audience who is equally ignorant.  Certainly in comparison to You Have Seen Their Faces, this book does not have the emotional resonance or depth of understanding that their first collaborative publication had. Looking at how this book was described by the publisher, this lack of in-depth knowledge is explained away by explicitly positioning Caldwell as an ‘observer’ and stating that this book is neither a piece of reportage nor a political commentary. This would indicate to me that even at the time of publication the limitations of the book were realised.

Turning to Bourke-White’s images, which are positioned as a ‘supplement’ to Caldwell’s text and appear between various chapters on specific regions and cities they visited, they too, in my opinion, suffer from a lack of engagement with the subject. They can be briefly categorised into three broad groups; Arcadian pastoral scenes peopled by peasants whose mode of dress and work appears to be something out of the middle-ages; quaint, picturesque cities whose olde-worlde foreignness is emphasised for an American audience, and the brooding Nazi presence whose appearance threatens to disrupt and destroy this apparently unchanged way of life.  Although the Nazis are ever-present in the background, Bourke-White does not train her camera upon them; a couple of images appear within the book but her focus is primarily upon a sympathetic portrayal of rural harmony epitomised by traditional agrarian society. Similarly, some industrial images are present but they are downplayed in favour of photographs of agriculture.

Unlike You Have Seen Their Faces, there is no serious attempt to represent poverty or the harshness of rural life and the simmering tensions between the peasant and the landlord; this economic system, unlike the American South, is not subject to any serious scrutiny.  Hints are provided that all is not quite so harmonious as it appears, but clearly the priority of both Caldwell and Bourke-White was to focus on the Nazi threat rather than attempt any serious engagement with the region.

The manner in which Bourke White represents the peasants of the area in many ways reflects popular American preconceptions of European ‘mother’ countries from which early immigrants came from in the nineteenth century. Time and distance transforms a backward, impoverished, rural fight for survival into a rose-tinted idealised space where traditional values and morals, lost thanks to the frantic pace of modern urban life, have somehow been preserved.  In this context, the viewer is made perfectly aware that the omnipresent threat of Nazi violence will irrevocably destroy this ancient traditional culture rooted in the past. The peasants in Bourke White’s photographs may be poor but they’re happy.

In contrast, the few photographs of ethnic Germans are immediately Nazi in appearance; crowds with arms raised in salute and serious looking men glaring at the camera dressed in quasi-military attire. By comparison with the peasant who is represented as an inextricable part of the soil, Bourke White represents the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia as a violent force who are bent on racial conquest. Throughout this book, Caldwell’s text and Bourke White’s images combine to produce a straightforward duality between black and white; the good Czechs versus the bad Nazis. Simplicity in this case is essential for a distant audience.

Caldwell and Bourke White’s stance in this book is quite clear; the Nazis are a menacing force who threaten to destroy an traditional culture and a small nation who Americans should sympathise with and protect to a certain degree. However, North of the Danube has the feel of an instant book hurriedly put together by a successful author and a celebrity photographer in order to capitalise on hot news. Caldwell and Bourke-White spent five months in Czechoslovakia, from the end of March to August 1938, at the same time as the crisis was reaching boiling point so it was topical. On a personal note, Bourke White complained of Caldwell’s numerous temper-tantrums throughout the time which caused her some difficulties in making photos. In my opinion, this lack of serious engagement with the subject matter comes through in both the text and images.

The Last Rivet (Photographs by Berenice Abbott & Margaret Bourke-White)

Published in 1940, this book of images and text commemorates the completion of the Rockefeller Center in New York, begun at the height of the Depression in 1932. It originally came with a rivet motif dust jacket (which I don’t have) and the cover is even made from green velvet. Classy.

Before looking at the book itself, perhaps a word about these fine captains of industry is in order. The Rockefeller’s fortune was based on the success of Standard Oil, founded by the original patriarch John D. Rockefeller in the 1870s, and whose ruthless business practices ensured that rival oil companies were either taken over or destroyed, until by the 1890s it controlled 88% of all refined oil in the US. Eventually, in 1911, under pressure from the courts and the US government concerned about this monopoly, Standard Oil was broken up into different companies that make up the names that still dominate the globe such as Mobil, Exxon and Chevron. The Rockefellers owned a quarter of all the shares in the new companies, whose value doubled, making John D. the richest man in the world at the time. John D. Junior, son of the founding father, took over and was implicated in the Ludlow Massacre when the National Guard, whose wages were bankrolled by the Rockefeller controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, shot and burned to death between 19 and 25 people during a miners strike in April 1914. I think it’s fair to say that the Rockefeller fortune was not gained by being nice to people. And just as night follows day, immense wealth and power buys respectability for a Medici-like family whose tentacles soon spread throughout much of American commercial, banking and political circles.

But wait, it gets better. At the same time as the Rockefeller Center was being built the family business was keeping some very shady company indeed.  Standard Oil of New Jersey (later renamed Exxon) entered into profitable partnership arrangements with the notorious German company I.G. Farben (infamous producers of Zyklon B poison gas for use in concentration camps and organisers of slave-labour factories in Auschwitz) as well as being instrumental in providing vital fuel additives to the Nazis (tetraethyl lead). This was needed to make aviation fuel in order to fly German planes and drop bombs on much of Europe. They even seem to have gone to great lengths in the cover up, shipping it through the neutral  Spanish Canary Islands (after re-registering all their oil tankers in Panama so as to prevent them being  stopped and searched) where it was then transferred to German ships bound for Hamburg. They also appear to have used their South American depots to supply fuel directly to German tankers. But it wasn’t just the Nazis cash that Standard Oil of NJ was happy to take; they were also engaged in similar practices with Mussolini’s Italy and Japan. It has been argued that through their actions they may have directly assisted in the bombing of Pearl Harbour where a substantial portion of the US Navy was sunk.  But this is not to say that Standard was choosy about its customers; it had no problem selling oil to the Allied side as well. Business is business after all.

And there’s more; another of the Rockefeller cash-cows was Chase National bank, which ran a complicated money laundering scam for the Nazis through the German-American community in which worthless bits of paper issued by the Nazi regime were magically turned into US dollars needed to buy raw materials for desperate German factories. According to documents released by the US Archives, between 1936 and 1941 Chase brought in $20 million for the Fuhrer, while at the same time helping themselves to a substantial amount of the $1.2 billion in commission paid for their services as middleman, which mainly came out of funds taken by the Nazis from their Jewish victims. The bank went to great lengths in order to hide their activities from the US Treasury and Chase is also directly implicated in seizing money from the French bank accounts of its Jewish customers after the German takeover and for being overly helpful with the Nazi regime throughout the entire war. After being investigated for these activities, Chase avoided prosecution using blackmail; they threatened to embarrass the FBI and other government departments if it went to court by spilling the beans about all the dirty tricks they knew about.  Then, just as now, it is virtually impossible to hold powerful corporations to account. And these are only the scandals that have come to the surface; who knows what other skeletons have been quietly buried.

John D. Junior in a rather cynical move considering the company he was keeping at the time, piously expresses his personal hatred of war in the book and presents large corporations as responsible, ethical beings concerned about the welfare of mankind; “War is often laid at the door of business. On its very face such an imputation is as absurd as it is false.” To reinforce the message, there is an image of the Final Abolition of War mural by Jose Maria Sert which was commissioned for the lobby.

Now, nobody’s saying that the Rockefeller’s were stuffing suitcases of Reichmarks under their beds or had a safe full of swastika-embossed gold bullion hidden behind the Monet in the sitting room. That’s the kind of thing criminals do. When you’re amongst the super-rich you don’t need to get your hands dirty – the company you control does all that and you get to cream off the massive profits from the rising stock prices. And of course, you have no direct knowledge of any possible wrongdoing because nothing is ever written down or said aloud. These sorts of things are done on a nod and a wink making it almost impossible to prove who knew what. That way, if something does go wrong some middle-management bozo gets to go to jail while the main players are able to feign surprise and shock at what has been uncovered.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of the Rockefeller’s profiteering from their Nazi connections is not an area that the book dwells upon – that kinda thing tends to spoil the feel-good mood.

The spin that the Rockefeller’s are peddling in this publication is that the centre was a happy collaboration between labour and industry, with both sides working harmoniously together in order to build the complex. Indeed within the book we have repeated mention about the gratitude felt by New York to the Rockefeller’s for creating, directly and indirectly, 75,000 jobs during the Depression decade. Certainly in an era of mass unemployment any bit of positive news is seized upon by politicians and the media to say that the future is looking better, but to exhibit such fawning gratitude towards the originator of a commercial project which was designed to further enrich the already super-rich, is, to pardon the pun, a bit rich.  In order to prove their gratitude towards the little people who did the actual work, there is even a photograph of a worker in the book, head raised as if in awestruck wonder at the vision of progress that he was helping to build all thanks to the far-sighted vision and generosity of the Rockefellers. One whole photograph.  Ain’t that nice?

Perhaps a more accurate indication of the Rockefeller’s attitude towards the common man was best expressed in their painting over of the mural commissioned from Diego Rivera for the Center, Man at the Crossroads, whose depiction of the potential power of working class solidarity (and an image of Lenin) didn’t really conform to the way they liked to do business.  This deliberate exercise of immense personal power to obliterate anything that might pose a challenge to them, I think, speaks volumes about the true nature of the Rockefellers. Although they pay lip-service to partnership with the people, their actions and business interests are all really designed to consume and exploit the powerless individual in the name of enriching themselves.  A few bucks thrown at some philanthropic exploit is supposed to paper over what has in reality been a very sordid history of greed, intimidation, amorality, manipulation, as well as the corruption and corrosion of democratic structures, not to mention aiding and abetting totalitarian regimes bent on world conquest.

Now I’m not saying that the photographers who were involved in producing images for The Last Rivet were in any way culpable. A paying gig is a paying gig; I’m sure that an assignment to represent what was seen as an architectural triumph would have been gratefully received by many. The photographs in the book come from a number of photographers, most notably from Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke White, although the individual images are not credited. Architectural images predominate with the main RCA building being presented over and over again. The largest image, presented as a double page spread, shows Fifth Avenue full of hustle and bustle and streets filled with traffic, which is the only image to make reference to the rest of New York city itself. The Rockefeller Center is presented as a world apart, distant from the mundane everyday of the chaos below.

The other main body of images in the book consist of the Last Rivet ceremony itself, consisting of the type of ribbon-cutting photography you’d expect see in the local paper; assorted dignitaries lined up on chairs, pompous stuffed suits and attentive crowds. A full page image at the beginning of the book even shows the man of the people, a be-suited Junior in white-gloves, doing a bit of riveting.

The photography in the book doesn’t work for me; it very much looks like what it is, a compromised mish-mash of safe images designed to flatter.  For a book that has the look of something that a lot of money was pumped into, the net result is pretty poor.  It wasn’t as if they were short of a couple of bucks to hire a graphic designer and really push the boat out and produce something really spectacular.  Some of the architectural images are ok but from the likes of Bourke-White or Berenice Abbott, I’d expect better. Apart from the velvet cover and the rivet motif, the book as a whole is quite unremarkable and, to be frank, boring. You could forgive this in part if the photography was good, but even that is, in the main, as insipid as the contents of this book.

But it’s not all bad; I do like the paper stock they printed it on.