Photographing the Holocaust


When the very first photos from Belsen Bergen and Buchenwald concentration camps were released in the late April 1945, the general public was incredulous. Yes, they had read the newspapers and heard the rumors, but they didn’t necessarily believe them, dismissing them as typical wartime propaganda by exiled governments. There were precedents, too: during World War I, it had been widely rumored that the Germans on the Western Front were melting down human bodies for fat (these rumors later turned out to be false).

Radio reporter Richard Dimbleby, a man of unimpeachable integrity, had had great difficulty persuading a dubious BBC to broadcast his fast eye-witness report from Belsen. A London cinema showing the first film from the camps was picketed by an angry crowd, protesting government ‘lies’. Their anger was shared by millions of Germans, who while aware of the camps, were convinced that the atrocities had been grossly exaggerated by Allied propaganda.

Photos helped turned this around. By the end of April 1945, eighty-one percent of the British population believed the Holocaust stories, up from thirty seven percent only six months earlier. On May 1, 1945, the Daily Express organized an exhibition called ‘Seeing is Believing’ in London, where people queued in thousands to see the pictures from Buchenwald. Later, a film from Belsen was shown in the cinemas: skeletons bulldozed into burial pits, and German civilians standing beside the SS at the graveside, all of it filmed in one take, so that there could be no accusations of trick photography.

The photo above and below showed Dr. Fritz Klein, a German doctor at Bergen-Belsen, at Mass Grave 3. It was photographed by a soldier from  The British Fifth Army Film & Photographic Unit shortly after the camp’s liberation on 15th April 1945. Unrepentant Klein, who began his work at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was eventually hanged in December 1945.

— some text incorporated from Nicholas Best’s Five Days That Shocked the World


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