Nazi-Era Snapshots and the Banality of Evil
The world of human life is complex, and articles like this really help me sit back and consider some of the challenges of the human condition.
“Do you know about the Lakota Indians?” asked Daniel Lenchner, handing me a slightly faded photograph from the early 20th century. It was a class portrait with a location printed at the bottom: Lakota, North Dakota.
“Now,” challenged Lenchner, “can you find an Indian in this picture?”
I scanned the rows of Caucasian faces.
“Not going to happen,” he continued. “We got rid of them, you know. No more Lakotas in Lakota. It looks like a class portrait, but you could also say that this is a picture of genocide.”
That theme of implicit absence dominates Lenchner’s found-photograph collection. Scouring flea markets, estate sales, and the internet, Lenchner has collected over 500 snapshots of Nazistaken by Nazis that document their daily lives: their families, their friendships, and their leisure activities.
As a Jewish man with ancestors who perished in the Holocaust, these intimate glimpses into the daily lives of his family’s persecutors bring him face to face with what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
I met the 68 year old Lenchner last month in his sprawling New York apartment to look through his collection and discuss its implications.
VICE: What’s striking about so many of these images is that without the uniforms you really can’t tell that these people are Nazis, can you?
Daniel Lenchner: Yes, that’s really what my thesis is: These people are normal in appearance, but appearances are deceiving. There is the modern news phenomenon of people being interviewed in the street after they discover that their neighbor is a mass murderer. They’re always expressing surprise, that they didn’t realize it, that they should have known. The underlying assumption is that they could’ve known. But, if the truth is that there is no way to know, then you shouldn’t be surprised.
I interviewed the great-niece of Nazi leader Herman Göring once, and her family albums are filled with pictures like these. She talked about feeling the love that’s evident in so many of the scenes: fathers holding their children, spouses embracing, friends laughing. How do you confront the presence of those kinds of emotions?
Yes, these guys went home to their wives and children, and maybe they sang them nice German lullabies, but it’s not an exoneration. I mean, Hitler loved dogs, and he was a vegetarian. Great. But, it’s all kind of irrelevant. At the end of the day these things are reconcilable. No, not exactly reconcilable, but they coexist. The evil and the not-evil coexist in a person. But, in Nuremberg, it didn’t come up that they were nice to their wives because it didn’t matter.
It looks like the man in this picture wasn’t such a great husband. Is this a Dear John letter written on the back?
A Dear Johann letter, so to speak.
Can you describe what we’re looking it?
Well, here we have this handsome studio portrait of a German officer, and on the back is this message from a woman, apparently his mistress. She writes that she’s giving back this photograph because it’s brought her back luck. He’s a playboy. She refers to his “wanderings in Weimar,” and makes reference to his wife.
What do you like about this picture?
It’s just so normal, so banal, just a man screwing around on his wife—nothing so unusual there. He’s a regular scoundrel, but put him in a Nazi uniform and all of a sudden we have a special kind of scoundrel.
In this case, the story is right there on the image itself, but most of these pictures have very little context. How much of what you see comes from the pictures themselves and how much is your own projection?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Let me show you something that addresses that. This is one of the most stunning pictures I’ve ever bought and there’s absolutely nothing on the back. Take a look and tell me what you see.
I see a massacre.
Yes, a little massacre, with what I believe is a rape. This is surely a woman with her babushka. She’s laid on this table with her legs splayed, and she’s been made a little comfortable with some straw under her head. I think everybody’s dead here: bodies, bodies, bodies. And, the Germans are done now. They’re heading to what looks like a small train station. Their backs are all turned away. “We’ve done our work and now we’re leaving.”
What might be most disturbing of all is this detail of putting the straw under the woman’s head. It looks like an attempt to make her comfortable as they raped and killed her. It seems like a recognition of her humanity.
Also, it looks like this dead man has his arm around this person here, in a protective pose.
As if he could shield them from bullets.
As I said, there’s nothing on the back of this photograph, but the story is very clearly there. I don’t think we have to read too much into it.
And yet, it’s hard not to project, isn’t it? This is not so different from the kind of war photography that we’re all familiar with…
Right, this almost could have been taken by Robert Capa.
The composition is excellent and the focus is razor sharp.
That’s right. One thing you can say about the Nazis is that they went to war with good cameras. They didn’t go with any goddamn instamatics. They went with Leicas: good cameras with good lenses. You can see the number on the train. You can see the blades of grass. You can see the dead man’s eyes.
It’s similar to a Robert Capa, as you say, but—and this goes back to projection—knowing who took this picture gives it an intimacy that takes it beyond photojournalism. The photographer is part of the photograph. That almost gives it the quality of a family snapshot, except instead of standing and smiling, everyone is dead.
And then, the question you’ll never answer: why did they take this picture?
Why do you think?
Sometimes you wonder, are they proud? Who knows. This I have no answer for.
Well, they certainly didn’t take it for your benefit. There’s something profoundly subversive about this ending up in your hands. I mean, the photographer could never have even imagined your existence.
No. But, who was it meant for? His superior officer, his friends, his wife, his children?
It’s jarring to see that photograph in the same collection as this other one here. This picture here seems delightful, really: a crowd of people laughing at something outside the frame.
Except, look there. Do you see the swastika? Suddenly it becomes sinister. What are they laughing at? We will never know. And, they are really cracking up. It’s great. You have examples of all the different ways that people laugh. Some people cover their face, and some bend at the waist, some hold their stomach, and here he’s leaning backwards, she’s covering her mouth, and she’s pointing to draw her friend’s attention.
You must be primed to see the swastika. It took me a second.
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I’m so sensitive that I occasionally see swastikas where there are none.
With that kind of priming, what do you see when you look at the German people of today?
Well, I lived in Germany for five years as a college instructor for the American military. I taught comparative literature to GIs. That was during the mid-70s, so many of the people that I passed on the street had lived through the Nazi era. It was a little weird to say the least. You get on a German train and you can’t help but think about cattle cars packed with human beings. But, you’re also struck by all of the good things. The place is clean, and the trains run on time, and the people are so honest.
In what ways were they honest?
On the autobahn, for example, the bathrooms all had plates where you would leave a tip for the cleaning person. So, you walk into the bathroom, and there is a plate full of money. Now, you put that on the New Jersey Turnpike and it wouldn’t last three minutes. They’d steal the money and the plate too. But, in Germany not only do they not steal the money, but they put more in. You look at that and you think, Are these the same people responsible for the Holocaust? How can this be? Yet, some of those people must have been honest. They must have been honest in that narrow sense: placing money on the plate on their way to build a concentration camp.
Roc’s new book, And, was released recently. You can find more information on his website.