The Photo of an Unknown War

We like to think that there is some truth in seeing and in photography. This blog sometimes support, often refute that notion. What better photo to illustrate the latter point than this one used in propaganda by both Communists and Fascists, and in two wars a decade apart. 

In the late 1970s, as the gerontocractic fascism of Francisco Franco drew to a close, historians revisited his arrival onto the world stage during the Spanish Civil War, now viewed in retrospect as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. They pointed out the above photo as an evidence of atrocities committed by Franco’s troops on their prisoners of war during the Civil War, an eerie precursor of Fascist crimes to come.

Throughout the Civil War, both sides exploited the power of news media and newly-popular photography, at times using the same photographs. Back in 1938, the above photo was used by the Falange – the Spanish Fascists – to denounce the barbarous nature of the Spanish Republicans. In Corriere della Sera (which toed Mussolini’s line after the removal of its editor Luigi Albertini), it was labelled as the communist International Brigaders holding the heads of Spainish patriots.

The photo, which looked like a poor Photoshop attempt, was often attributed to David Seymour, the future co-founder of Magnum who made his name during the Spanish Civil War. It was not clear who actually took it and it was not even clear when it was taken. In 1938, when L’Humanité, an organ of the French Communist Party, saw the photo, it used it to denounce the French colonial empire in North Africa. This canard still persisted to this day, when on social media, you would see the Arabs and the Africans denoucing France, their former colonial master, as the perpetrator behind the atrocities depicted.

In fact, L’Humanité was closer to the truth. The photo was perhaps taken during the Rif War (1921-1927), when Spanish and French Foreign Legions brutally put down a Berber rebellion in Morroco led by Emir Abd-El-Krim.

The photo first appeared in Memoires d’Abd-el-Krim, a book whose pedigree was also in doubt. Jacques Roger-Mathieu claimed that the book was dictated to him by Abd-el-Krim onboard the vessel Abda which was to transport the defeated emir to his exile on the island of Réunion. Although, it appeared with a grand subtitle of “la confession ou les confidences”, many now doubt the book’s authenticity, noting it was filled with “absurdities of all sorts, lies, and anachronisms”. As per Roger-Mathieu, the photo depicted Spanish Legionaires with the heads of Rif fighters.


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0 thoughts on “The Photo of an Unknown War

  1. Turkish media has been using this image to hit back at France for criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide. They are labelling it as ‘French soliders in Algeria’ or ‘Algerian genocide’.

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