Blood, Soil, and Social Commentary: Photographers of the 'Nazi' Revolution


I am working on several research projects at the moment including an article for the respected research journal The Fenris Wolf (more on that in a later post); writing and editing a book for the publishers Bloomsbury (Photography in the Third Reich, 2019) and, curating an exhibition of work from our collection (A Radical Tradition - set to open in 2019). There is a conceptual thread that connects all of these projects in that I am looking at aspects of photographic making just prior to and during the Third Reich in relation to body, face, dress, race, tradition. It's common knowledge that Germany became a master in utilising many modern forms of communication in its efforts to promote the image and ideas of National Socialism (propaganda). Photography was one element in that larger picture and many photographers were employed to build up a picture of an energetic and healthy nation steeped in tradition. These photographers set about to document a spirit of optimism and change running through their country, a visual story of a revolution in living and being but contextualised in relation to tradition and 'Heimat'.

In contrast, when the German-British photographer Bill Brandt (1904-1983) set about documenting English society in the 1930s his photographs of the English working classes revealed a people radically underprivileged, unemployed, malnourished and neglected, his work was regarded in some quarters as 'socialist propaganda'. Brandt's gritty but 'arty' realism is reminiscent of the writing of J. B. Priestly in his English Journey (1934) and George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Brandt's work was published as The English at Home (1936). Although he always professed neutrality, Brandt's work can be seen as a critique of the social ills and sharp class divisions of British society and the deleterious effects of the Great Depression and neo-liberal global capitalist speculations.

It is interesting to note how William Shirer (a critic of the Hitler regime) marked the visual contrast between the English and German youth when writing his seminal work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

'The young in the Third Reich were growing up to have strong and healthy bodies, faith in the future of their country and in themselves, and a sense of fellowship and camaraderie that shattered all class and economic and social barriers. I thought of that later, in the May days of 1940, when along the road between Aachen and Brussels one saw the contrasts between the German soldiers, bronzed and clean cut from a youth spent in the sunshine and on an adequate diet, and the first British war prisoners, with their hollow chests, round shoulders, pasty complexions and bad teeth - tragic examples of the youth that England neglected so irresponsibly in the years between the wars.' (William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Book Club Associates, 1977. p.256.)

The German photographers I am examining focussed their lenses on the German at work and play, physically strong youth, peasants labouring on the land, the close observation of the face and body, the traditional costume or activity. They created a picture of a healthy, vibrant culture, a unified national body. Photography became a decisive part of the narrative of a nation renewed. The photographers of 'Blood and Soil' who were making these images (in particular Hans Retzlaff, Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, Erich Retzlaff, Otto Kolar, Hemke-Winterer, Friedrich Franz Bauer, etc.) honed their approach to show a people healthy and vital. What's more, these images were often imbued with a romantic mysticism, a closeness to the earth, to the soil of the 'ancestors'. It is these metaphysical aspects to this photographic 'documentation' that I will explore in more detail in my next post.

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