The Red Flag over the Reichstag, 1945

When he saw Joe Rosenthal’s photos of flag raising on Iwo Jima, Stalin wanted a similar image to commemorate the Soviet victory over Germany. The task fell to the Ukrainian photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, who asked a family friend, Israil Solomonovich Kishitser, to make three flags for him. Kishitser’s flags, made from red tablecloths were taken by Khaldei to Berlin.

Khaldei photographed the first flag being raised at the airport, and the second one at the Brandenburg gate. The third one was supposed to be over the Reichstag. However, when he arrived there, he realized that the soldiers had already put up a flag over the building a few days earlier on April 30th. However, the flag was brought down by German snipers before any record had been made.

Undeterred, he recruited a trio of soldiers — Abdulkhakim Ismailov, Aleksei Kovalyev and Aleksei Goryachev — to restage the moment. Kovalyev held the flag. When he returned to Moscow to develop them, Khaldei had to doctor the photo. One soldier was wearing two watches and he scratched one of them out of the negative to avoid allegations that he was undermining the Red Army’s heroic image by showing evidence of looting. He also darkened the smoke in the background to make his picture more dramatic.

The resulting picture was published in the 13th March 1945 edition of magazine Ogonjok to worldwide fame.

Khaldei’s soldiers, however, didn’t achieve fame until years later. According to the state propaganda machine, the flag raising was carried out by two other men, Meliton Kantaria, a Georgian, and Mikhail Yegorov, a Russian. Ismailov was from marginalized Dagestan, and the state wished it that the flag raisers be a Georgian and a Russian — which would have been preferred by Stalin, born in Georgia. The impostors were made Heroes of the Soviet Union by Stalin himself and were given a new “Victory” car each.

It was unclear who raised the original flag that was brought down by the snipers. According to a telegram sent to Stalin, it was by two members of a reconnaissance squad: an unnamed Kazakh and Grigory Bulatov, a 19-year-old Russian. They too had a makeshift flag — a red banner made from the cover of a mattress found in a bombed-out house — which they tied it to a statue of a horse ridden by Wilhelm I, the first German emperor.

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11 thoughts on “The Red Flag over the Reichstag, 1945

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