The Problem that makes all Europe Wonder – Picture Post, 1945

When Nordhausen concentration camp in Thuringia was liberated by the 104th US Infantry Division on April 12, 1945, the soldiers found horrific scenes. Over 3,000 corpses were scattered around the camp. The Dora-Mittelbau complex, of which Nordhausen was a part, was notorious for harsh conditions. Prisoners worked long hours under inhumane conditions and suffered from a lack of basic hygiene, food, medical care and bedding. Dora was where the German V1 and V2 rockets were being manufactured using forced labour, and Nordhausen was a subcamp of Dora for prisoners who were too weak or ill to work. It was mistakenly bombed by the US Air Force on April 3, 1945, because it was mistaken for a German munitions depot.

Approximately one-third of the roughly 60,000 prisoners sent to Dora died. Unlike the larger extermination camps that employed methods like gas chambers, the primary means of death at Nordhausen were starvation and lack of medical care.

Picture Post’s six-page photo essay, published on 5 May 1945 was a stark contrast to the photos it published two years prior when the first concentration camps were being liberated. The essay opened with two malnourished men – victims who have been starved and subjected to unsanitary conditions. This photo was contrasted with a photo of healthy and well-clothed German mother and child (which was also on the Post‘s cover). The Post, which had been a strong critic of Hitler and Nazism was using a rhetorical device which would also be deployed by Lee Miller a month later in her story for Vogue: the acquiescent Germans were collectively responsible and their inherent characteristics needed questioning.

The photos on the following pages highlighted the conditions of the camp at Nordhausen but the most powerful was the photo on page 10, of a soldier standing by the edge of the trench looking down at two dead children in a mass grave. The lifeless bodies of the small child on the left and the baby, placed on a cushion, on the right reinforced the horrors of the camps.

Narrative history has gotten less popular in recent years, but they were a great way to learn about historical events. For the Nazism, I recommend Sir Richard Evan’s three volume history: The Coming of Third Reich; Third Reich in Power; and Third Reich at War, which are linked here.

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