Justice at Nuernberg – Charles Alexander and Norimberk 1946 – Karel Hájek

Justice at Nuernburg - Norimberk 1946

Years of brutal war in Europe had left the continent in ruins, millions dead and the survivors traumatised on a scale impossible to comprehend from this point in time. An uneasy consensus prevailed between the Allied powers who now occupied the broken continent between them. Advances in weapons technology had blurred the boundaries between military and civilian targets (as in the case of aerial bombing), while the brutal racism of the Nazi regime meant that it had engaged in widespread brutality and executions to terrorise the populations of countries they occupied. Then there were the concentration camps set up for slave labour and genocide. While many at the top of the Nazi hierarchy had either been killed or committed suicide, others from the higher echelons of the ruling regime, directly implicated in these brutal practices, had been captured alive. This posed a dilemma for the Allies – what was to be done with them?

Alexander - Justice at Nuernberg 1

Justice for the millions killed was called for. But for countries that had fought under the banner of freedom from Nazi tyranny how this could be achieved was a major problem. This was complicated by the fact that the Nazis had been adept at using show trials during their ascent to power to discredit their opponents. Similarly, Stalin (whose representatives now sat in judgement on the Allied side) had used sham trials for the same purpose during the 1930s. The question was how to ensure that any trial of the captured Nazis avoided being seen as such and prevented the creation of martyrs for the future. It was imperative that the trials were seen as both legitimate and impartial. The Nuremburg trials of 1946 also served as a platform to completely discredit the hideous Nazi ideology and war aims that had seen millions killed and a continent reduced to smouldering rubble. The outcome of the trials was predictable enough – many of the defendants were found guilty and executed, while others were given long terms of imprisonment. But by this time, the Allied consensus was already falling apart and the Iron Curtain was being drawn across Europe. Further trials for middle-management Nazis who had also been implicated in crimes were shelved as both sides chose to employ their expertise rather than hang them.

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This then was the background to the two photobooks under discussion. The first is Justice at Nuernberg by Charles Alexander, an American photographer (listed as being director of photography during the trial) with text by Anne Keeshan. This spiral bound paperback published by Marvel in 1946 is a very comprehensive documentary record of the whole International Military Tribunal process, employing a straightforward layout of photograph on the right hand page with an extended caption on the facing page. The book begins with an overview of the ruined city of Nuremburg and the Palace of Justice that hosted the trials (in the American sector of occupied Germany), the facilities for the news media, portraits of the Nazi leaders on trial, the vast behind the scenes complex of translators, archivists and typists, portraits of the prosecutors and judges, as well as the trial process itself. The final section of the book shows the Nazi leaders in the dock looking horrified as they are confronted with evidence of their crimes in the movie created by the prosecution from German newsreel and other archival footage, The Nazi Plan.

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The book’s narrative and photographic sequencing is quite slow. Much of the imagery focuses on a behind-the-scenes look at the trial infrastructure, with photographs of the press facilities, the library, Heinrich Hoffmann (Hitler’s personal photographer) going through his archive to find evidence for use in the trial, depositions being taken and other such imagery. The individual portraits of the Nazi defendants appear to have been made while they were in the courtroom. These portray them in awkward poses in which their facial expressions range from sneering contempt, anger and malevolence. These images are in stark contrast to how the judges and the rest of the staff are portrayed. The final section of the book attempts to convey a sense of drama as the trial gathers pace and the evidence is presented to the Nazi defendants. Alexander does this by interspersing four archival images of Nazi crimes (from the Nazi Plan) with images of the defendants sitting in the dock. However, it doesn’t convey the drama he is seeking to produce; it’s too static. Although the trial is supposedly the focus of this book, a relatively small amount of space is devoted to it. Instead, the organisational and logistical preparations consume much of the book and distracts from the magnitude of the trial itself. Similarly, the book finishes rather abruptly. The final image shows yet another photograph of the defendants in the dock, with Goering holding his hands over his eyes, captioned as showing the differing emotions experienced by the Nazi’s as their crimes are finally exposed to the world. But then the book just stops.

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Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor, contributes a forward to the book in which he states that “the accusers were four victorious nations which had it in their power to execute the defendants without trial but which considered it more in keeping with the principles for which they fought to give the defendants the benefit of hearings and to establish before the world their guilt.” Here, I think, is the main purpose of the book. Jackson, a former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Judge, was well aware that these trials had to be seen as fair and conforming to the broad principles of justice expected from an American audience. Any sign that this was a kangaroo court had to be quashed. Similarly, in the context of a rapidly emerging Cold War split in which America presented itself as a bastion of liberty and freedom, the book presents the decision to hold these trials as proof of U.S. moral rectitude in contrast to the behaviour of their barbaric Nazi enemies. In this context, the focus of this book on the preparations and infrastructure surrounding the trials makes sense. Here, a distant American audience is presented with a courtroom setting in which right prevails over wrong and justice has been served.

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The second book on the same subject by the Czech photographer Karel Hájek, Norimberk 1946 – Zlocin a Soud (Nuremberg 1946 – Crime and Court), a small paperback printed by Neubert in Prague, is another photographic representation of the same event. However, this book takes a wholly different approach towards documenting the trial. In part, I believe this can be traced to the fact that Alexander was producing a book for an audience who, while they had fought the Germans, had no direct experience of Nazi rule. This was not the case for the Czechs who had suffered many years of brutal Nazi occupation. The establishment of precedents for future international war crimes trials was not a concern for a small country left traumatised and shattered by war. For a Czech audience, this was no abstract exercise in the administration of justice.

Hájek - Norimberk 1
Hájek gets straight to the point; his focus is on the evidence against the accused. He skilfully combines archival images of the same Nazi leaders at their height of their power, smartly dressed in uniforms and gold braid surrounded by saluting crowds or shown consulting with Hitler, with photographs of the same individuals in court. Now they have been reduced to the status of prisoners desperately trying to justify their complicity in unspeakable crimes. In one telling double page spread, Hájeck juxtaposes an archival image showing two lines of seated Nazi officials in 1938 with a photograph made from a similar viewpoint showing two rows of the same individuals now on trial in the same city. The portraits from the trial have been carefully chosen to present the accused Nazis as figures of derision, now stripped of the trappings of power they once wielded (undoubtedly a very satisfying sight to those who had suffered through Nazi rule). Like Alexander, the portraits Hájek made during the trial emphasise the obvious discomfort and haunted demeanour of the accused, presented as evidence of their guilt as they confronted by the enormity of their crimes. But it is his integration of archival images of atrocity with these portraits that is so effective. The need to establish a causal link between those at the top and the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi functionaries was vital. In essence, the Nazi leadership argued that because they were in their Berlin offices they could not be held responsible for what their subordinates did in Auschwitz or other sites of horror. Hájek’s book is very effective in undermining this argument and establishing a direct causal link between those on trial and the crimes perpetrated during their rule.

Hájek - Norimberk 2

Establishing this link between the decisions made by those in charge which were implemented by their subordinates was vital in order to discredit the “just following orders” defence which is a seminal feature of the bureaucratisation and division of labour inherent within all forms of industrialised warfare and mass killing to this day. An atrocity can be regarded as the result of a chain of decisions made by various individuals within a hierarchy (largely defined by institutional and political prerogatives) who all bear responsibility for the commission of a horrendous crime. Alexander’s book fails to do this. Instead, his focus is upon the structures and procedures of the trial itself which produces a simplified message in which justice is seen to prevail. He fails to interrogate the “banality of evil” as Arendt called it. In contrast, Hájek firmly and unequivocally undermines the excuse of distance used by the Nazi leaders on trial. Coming from a small country that had experienced the direct effects of Nazi rule for many years, Hájek produces a sophisticated and nuanced narrative of the trial in which he explores issues of culpability, guilt and responsibility in the aftermath of a period of untold suffering and death.

Hájek - Norimberk 3


Dresden, eine Kamera klagt an (Dresden, a camera accuses) – Richard Peter

On the night of the 13 February 1945, the German city of Dresden was attacked by over 800 bombers from the Royal Air Force, followed by another 500 American planes over the next two days, which dropped a total of 3,900 tonnes of bombs and incendiary explosives on the city. The result of this unrelenting aerial bombardment upon a relatively small urban area was to produce a massive firestorm which, as well as engulfing buildings and their occupants, was so large that it even sucked up all the oxygen, causing those who survived the initial bombing to suffocate to death in the cellars and air raid shelters where they had taken cover.  Estimates of those killed in the bombing vary from 25,000 to 200,000 but it is in no doubt that large numbers of people met an agonising death in this city which had little or no real military value and was full of refugees fleeing the Russian advance.

With the advancement of aviation in the 1930s it became readily apparent that any new war would bring about unprecedented aerial attacks on cities and civilian populations. In a total war defined by unprecedented advances in technology there was no longer any safe place. What the effects of this bombing would be, nobody knew.  Many predicted that those who survived such attacks would either go insane or else be so horrified that they would rise up against their government and immediately sue for peace with the enemy. What the Second World War showed was that, for the most part, the immediate effect of bombing on survivors did not have as dramatic an effect as predicted and in some ways even helped to unite diverse strands of opinion against a common enemy.

For much of the war, Britain was left isolated from the rest of Europe occupied by the Nazis and the main way to damage the German war machine was to bomb their cities and industry. To do this they invested heavily in building up a massive fleet of long range bombing aircraft which night after night rained British bombs down upon the Reich. Following the American entry into the war, the US began bombing in daylight, giving no respite to either occupied Europe or Nazi Germany. (The Germans were no stranger to the use of carpet-bombing and used it heavily during the early part of the war, most notably over Warsaw and London, but they tended to use it as a precursor to an immediate land invasion.) Based upon the ideas of the 1930s bombing raids were designed to have two purposes; to physically destroy the military capabilities, industry and infrastructure of the enemy and also to produce so much terror within the German populace that it would lose the will to continue the fight. The fact that the war raged on right up to the doorstep of Hitler’s Berlin bunker proves that this particular premise was wrong.

Returning to Dresden, the morality of these attacks has been a subject of much controversy and debate ever since. The fact that the Nazi state was a horrendously vicious regime that murdered vast numbers of people without compunction should not excuse the actions of the Allies. As the philosopher A.C. Grayling has argued, the Allies presented themselves as being engaged in a ‘just war’ in which their actions were contrasted to the amorality of the Nazis.  In order to fit into this scheme of a ‘just war’ the bombing of Dresden has to satisfy two criteria; it had to be both proportionate and necessary. On both counts, it fails. The attack was clearly completely disproportionate in nature and, at this late stage in the war, it was unnecessary.  The fact that the Nazis were morally bankrupt and evil should not excuse what was a war crime perpetrated by the Allies.

One possible explanation given is that, with the war drawing to an end, the Americans and British wanted to show the Soviets, who would soon occupy the city, the destructive power of their air-power and let them know in no uncertain terms that while it might be Dresden today, it could be  Moscow tomorrow. Another possible explanation is that there were internal institutional pressures for the air forces of Britain and America to justify the vast resources and expenses invested in them and results were expected to be delivered.  With the war drawing to a close by 1945 the numbers of targets left available to bomb in Germany by these vast aerial armadas was dwindling.  I personally think there may have been, in part, a desire by the Allies to see the effectiveness of a massive concentrated attack on a city in order to refine future developments in bombing capabilities. Whatever the true reason, it is in no doubt that the attack on Dresden did little to hasten the German surrender.

Richard Peter, a former press photographer who had fallen foul of the Nazis for his left-wing work with the AIZ, began to document the aftermath of war when he returned from military service in September 1945. He spent the next four years photographing the shattered remains of this once magnificent city which was published as a book in 1949. Undoubtedly his pre-war pedigree and connections would have served him well in getting the book published under the new communist administration of the Soviet occupied zone during a time of severe shortages.  The book at first glance appears to present a straightforward documentation of the ruined city and the rebuilding work taking place there. But there are other layers to this work that are informed by the context in which it was made; primarily the tension in representing German people as both perpetrators and victims of this war. Even the title of the book poses a question. To accuse implies that you believe somebody to be guilty. But exactly to whom or what is the camera assigning guilt to? Britain? Hitler? The German people? Fascism? The brutality of war? Mans inhumanity to man??

It is possible to divide the narrative structure of the book into three acts; the fall of the city, the wages of sin and, finally, redemption. The first section of the book depicts the centre of the ruined city, with architectural images of buildings before and after the bombing raids, now reduced to smouldering heaps of brick and stone. It is here that we see the iconic photograph of the stone angel atop the city hall, arm outstretched in mute horror, as it gazes out over a sea of utter desolation. This is one of the few images in the book that gives a sense of the sheer scale of destruction; most other images concentrate on individual buildings or street scenes. People are completely absent from these blasted cityscapes. Peter presents a catalogue of deserted, people-less rubble punctuated by the remains of some architectural feature that has managed to survive the cataclysm. He surveys the aspects of the city; the town hall, the commercial area, industry, the medieval old town and the churches. All have been shattered and reduced to ruins. Here Peter presents us with the remnants of German culture and civilisation, twisted by the Nazis as an instrument of world domination, and now crushed into dust.

About halfway through the book we are presented with a double-page spread which is clearly designed to shock; two full page photographs of bodies unearthed from the cellars in which they had been entombed. The left hand page shows the body of long haired woman, facial features still partly discernable, head downcast in agony, while facing her is a corpse that still wears a swastika armband, whose grinning skull directly confronts the viewer.  In another iconic image, Peter shows an anatomical skeleton with a building torn in half in the background. The message is stark; the war didn’t discriminate between the innocent and the guilty. All were mercilessly cut down by the aerial onslaught.

The final section of the book deals with the post-war activity of rebuilding this shattered city. We see people returning home with activity to clear the damage and bring order to the chaos.  As this book was published in 1949 under the auspices of what was to become the East German state, this last section produces an abrupt change of tone in the narrative, allowing the book to end on a positive note.  Here we are presented with people coming together collectively to rebuild their city, lives and self-respect.  The images move swiftly along and after a couple of pages of people sifting through the rubble, Peter presents us with images of newly built apartment blocks, factories and the contented audience of a newly restored concert hall, signalling that German culture had not been destroyed.  Germany had lost its way under Hitler but the communists would restore it.

In the second half of the 1940s an ideological battle between capitalism and communism for the hearts, minds and territory of the ruined German state was being waged between the winners of the war and it is no coincidence that the destruction wrought by capitalist Britain and America is being rebuilt by the communists. It is into this vacuum of uncertainty the communists offer a lifeline to the German people; work with us and help to wipe the slate clean of past sins. This book is not just a straightforward depiction of the aftermath of a war crime, although it most certainly is. There are layers to this book that reflect the confused and contradictory state of a traumatised post-war German society struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of what was unleashed upon the world ostensibly in their name and how they should respond to it.

Further information about Richard Peter and his depiction of Dresden can be found here.