Images of the Holocaust

Melanie Reimann

After the end of World War I, there was a rise of nationalist sentiments in Germany. Furthered by the idea that the Treaty of Versailles was cruel and unfair toward the German people and nation, nationalism grew in Germany. Hitler and the German national-socialist party (Nazi Party) took advantage of the rise in nationalism throughout the years of the Weimar Republic. During those years, anti-Semitism also rose in Germany. Jews were blamed by many Germans for the defeat of German forces toward the end of World War I, and many Germans believed that the government of the Weimar Republic consisted mainly of Jews.

Hitler and his national-socialist party came to power in 1933 after winning increasingly large portions of the vote in previous elections. Hitler became the German Chancellor and was able to proclaim his party the only legal party in Germany, thus reducing the possibility of opposition. Already early on, Hitler used this new-won power to institute racism and anti-Semitism into German politics and society. Children were taught about the idea of a racial hierarchy in school and anti-Semitism was turned into law with the Nuremberg Laws.

Image 1. Links at end of post.
This first picture shows a German teenager using a chart about different races to explain the racial hierarchy promoted by national-socialists. This indoctrination of children from an early age was an important aspect of the power of the national-socialist party and Hitler. This, together with the anti-Semitism of the older generation of Germans, allowed Hitler to institute the Nuremberg Laws, which consisted of two laws: 1) the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, and 2) the Reich Citizenship Law. The main idea behind the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor was that it was necessary to protect the “pureness” of the Germanic race by forbidding, for example, marriages and sexual relationships between Jews and German nationals or people of related blood. The law also forbade Jews to employ German women under the age of 45 in their households or to fly the German flag or colors. The Reich Citizenship Law stated that only people of German blood could become German citizens and have full political power. These two laws show the wide extent of discrimination that Jews had to suffer from in Nazi Germany. Combined with the above picture, the Nuremberg laws show the hierarchy of races in Germany: the highest position belonged to the Aryan: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and muscular. In newspapers, there were also many caricatures about Jews used to propagate the exclusion of Jewish families from German society, which spread the racial ideas of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Nazi propaganda covered many different themes: including the idea of a Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community), the heroic death, the Führerprinzip (leader principle), the idea of a master race, and the idea of the perfect Aryan woman. Included in those themes were also topics like nationalism, racism, and antisemitism, as well as stereotypes about Jews. Those Nazi stereotypes were based on stereotypes about Jews from the Middle Ages. One of the best-known images regarding Jews from the Middle Ages was that of the Judensau (Jewish sow). This idea of a Jewish sow was especially hurtful for Jews because pigs were viewed as unclean animals in Judaism. During the Middle Ages, Jews were shown as surrounding, suckling, and having intercourse with the animal in churches and cathedrals.

A variation of the animal stereotype continued into the time of Nazi Germany, where Jews were often depicted as pigs, sows, or other “dirty” animals and animals who symbolize danger.

Image 2
The picture to the left, for example, portrays the morphing of a vulture into a Jew. The words on the bottom translate to the following: “From a vulture to a Meier,” Meier being a typical Jewish name. Being presented as a vulture symbolized the self-centeredness of Jews and their stereotyped characteristic of getting rich at the expense of others. The richness of many Jews was often a point of criticism from the Middle Ages onward, even though the richness of the Jewish population can be explained by looking at local laws: Many professions were closed to Jews by local rulers and church officials. Jews were thus pushed into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending. Lending money was viewed as a sin by the Catholic church and therefore forbidden to Christians; this was not the case for Jews. They were prohibited from entering into many other professions, which forced them to take up professions like moneylending. In many cases this led to conflict between Jews and Christians and explains the stereotype of the greedy Jew, who gets rich at the expense of others. This stereotype continued up to the time of Nazi Germany, where Jews were still seen as feeding off the German nation and seizing its economy, while also enslaving its workers and farmers. Therefore, the portrayal of a vulture morphing into a Jew is a portrayal of common stereotypes about Jews in Nazi Germany.

Those portrayals of Jews as non-human beings and animals helped to justify the increasingly brutal treatment of Jews during the time of Nazi Germany, which culminated in the Holocaust – the murder of at least six million Jews in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau.  Jewish people were portrayed as a distinct race by Nazi Germany, a race inferior and more animal-like than the Aryan race. In concentration camps, artists of all kinds tried to deal with the reality they lived. Even though it was difficult to find paper and other utensils, inmates in concentration camps often found ways to draw or write down their experiences; experiences that showed themselves more than the stereotypes used against them. Sometimes those pictures and stories were smuggled outside, sometimes they were found when concentration camps were freed by Allied forces.

Image 3
This is a painting by Leo Haas, which is part of the collection at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The drawing shows the gruesome truth about the Holocaust as experienced by inmates. Leo Haas was arrested in 1938 and was an inmate in many different concentration camps. He was able to draw in almost all of those camps and Haas continued to draw after he was freed at the end of WWII. A common theme in many of the drawings is the death and mistreatment (malnutrition, disease, etc.) experienced by Jews and other minority groups persecuted by the Third Reich, especially those in concentration camps. The darkness of Haas’ drawing shows the horrific death and near-death experience of inmates in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The number of corpses visible in the drawing and the way they are stacked on top of each other, shows the almost factory-like production of death during the Holocaust and the inhumane treatment Jews and other minority groups received in Nazi Germany. 

Next to drawings from concentration camp inmates, pictures taken by allied forces when freeing concentration camps also offer a view into the gruesome details of Nazi Germany.

Image 4
This picture was taken after the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was freed by Allied troops and it shows not only the number of corpses in the case of this one freed concentration camp, but it also shows a German doctor of the camp being forced to help bury the dead concentration camp inmates. Again, the photograph, maybe even more than the drawing by Leo Haas, shows the death toll of the Holocaust, especially because this is only a small number of the people who died during the years of Nazi Germany in concentration or death camps.

Another source of pictures showing the inhumane treatment of concentration camp inmates by Nazi officials are pictures taken at the Doctor’s Trial in Nuremberg in 1945. Already before the end of WWII, the Allied Forces had agreed to track German war criminals and put them on trial. A first trial against the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) revealed that there were more people to be put on trial. There were certain occupational groups that were supposed to be judged for their behavior: one of those groups was comprised of doctors who belonged to the Nazi elite. During the trial against the major war criminals before the IMT, there were hints of experiments done with prisoners in concentration camps. Those prisoners were neither asked for their consent, nor informed about possible effects of those experiments. The surviving victims often suffered from the physical and emotional effects of those experiments for decades to come. The follow-up trials were not supposed to take place before the IMT, but before American Military Tribunals. The first of those follow-up trials was a Medical Trial against twenty doctors and three civil servants. The accused were said to have participated in the experiments or at least to have planned and commissioned them. It was not only the goal of those tribunals to avenge the wrongs which had been done and punish the offenders, but also to inform the public about the crimes. Through this, it was hoped to ensure that such crimes could not happen again.

Image 5
This final picture shows concentration camp survivor Jadwiga Dzido showing her wounds from medical experiments done to her by a Nazi doctor in the concentration camp Ravensbrück. In Ravensbrück many experiments took place on concentration camp inmates. The doctors in those camps used the inmates as “guinea pigs” because those inmates were viewed as non-human. Viewing prisoners as non-human allowed the doctors performing those experiments to believe that they were not behaving wrongly when performing those medical treatments. In Ravensbrück many of the experiments were attempts to simulate battle wounds German soldiers might suffer from. Through this, doctors wanted to better understand what was happening to soldiers who suffered from similar wounds. Those female inmates who were part of the experiments often had open wounds into which were injected bacteria, dirt, or slivers of glass.

As shown in this blog post, the analysis of pictures helps us better understand the developments visible in the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. These pictures are great sources for classes on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust as they can explain the gruesome treatment Jews received in concentration camps and show the link between Nazi propaganda to this treatment. The Doctor’s Trial shows the necessity to deal with the horrors of the Holocaust at the end of WWII, which was linked to the hope that something as horrifying would not happen again.

About the author: Melanie Reimann is a PhD candidate working with Dr. Robert McCoy. Her research fields are Native American and First Nation history, as well as the U.S./Canadian West. She received her B.A. in English and History and her M.A. in History from Bielefeld University in Germany. She moved from Germany to Pullman in August 2015.Her thesis will focus on protest and resistance among tribes in Washington State and British Columbia regarding their treatment by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

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