Concentration Camp Photo Archive: Buchenwald Mobilizes against Holocaust Deniers

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Gruesome Holocaust photos are often used as a sort of pedagogical shock therapy. But they are frequently poorly documented, providing ammunition to historical revisionists. Now, though, the Buchenwald Memorial is doing something about it.

The ceremonies devoted to the memory of the Holocaust went on all weekend. Across Europe, victims of Nazi violence gathered on Saturday to remember mass murder visited on the continent by the Third Reich. And on Monday, the UN in Geneva and the German Bundestag likewise commemorated the slaughter.

But what is the best way to remember the victims 62 years after the liberation of Auschwitz? The Buchenwald concentration camp memorial this week came up with a unique answer of their own: It is making some 600 images of the former concentration camp available on the Internet.

The research project, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), is more than just an important supplement to the rituals of remembrance. Rather, the project -- called in full "The Cataloguing and Digital Registration of Historical Photographs and Their Publication as an Online Catalogue" -- represents the first collection of Holocaust images whose origins are clearly documented. Researchers meticulously checked the source of each and every picture.

The collection marks a new way of handling photographic documents of Nazi crimes. Until now, the need to have an immediate pedagogical effect was the first concern of many memorials and media. Because achieving the maximum effect was the priority, efforts to determine the origins of the images were often slipshod.

"An invitation to revisionists"

"A picture would be attributed to Buchenwald one time, to Dachau another time, and then to Nordhausen," Volkhard Knigge, the director of the Buchenwald Memorial, says. Instead of educating people, "pedagogical tattle and moral vapidity" characterized the treatment of the images, Knigge says.

Such inconsistency in how images of Nazi crimes are used has made the work of revisionists and Holocaust deniers that much easier, say historians. Images are scattered across the globe and the photographers are unknown or dead. The photos are often only scantily labelled and wrong attributions are frequently taken at face value.

This laxity is "an open invitation to revisionists and Holocaust deniers," Knigge warns. Such people, he says, use even the most minor inconsistencies in the documentation of Nazi crimes to deny that the crimes occurred in the first place. And they have become adept at cloaking those denials in the rhetoric of science. For example, Holocaust deniers took chemical probes of the ruins in Auschwitz-Birkenau in order to "prove" that the poison gas Zyklon B had never been used there.

The "Wehrmacht" Exhibition -- a warning

The dangers posed by inaccurate sourcing of photos have been known for years. Six years ago, an exhibition on the German army in World War II called "The Crimes of the Wehrmacht" had to be completely reworked after historians discovered serious errors in the captions of several images. Even worse, the mistakes allowed those who continue to believe the incorruptibility of German soldiers at the front to question the veracity of the entire exhibition.

The commission that was called into investigate the lineage of the images often found the same picture in five separate archives, labelled and attributed differently each time -- incongruencies the organizers had failed to investigate further. In some cases, they attributed crimes committed by the Soviet secret police (NKWD) to German soldiers -- a grave mistake.

In their report, the commission called for "careful use of the documents passed down, especially photographs." It was a warning not just to the organizers of that particular exhibition, but to museums and memorials in general.

Images of everyday life in the camps

Buchenwald Memorial's new collection of accurately sourced photos doesn't just show the well-known concentration camp motifs: piles of corpses or half-starved prisoners. These icons of horror are supplemented with comparatively unspectacular pictures of construction sites, head shots of detainees or aerial photos of the camp, in which some 50,000 people died.

An effort was made to reconstruct who took each specific picture, says Holm Kirsten, who supervised the project. Was it a picture taken for the SS to present the camp as just another prison? Did US troops take the picture in order to make Germans face up to the horrific crimes of their compatriots? Or was it perhaps even a snapshot secretly taken by a detainee who wanted to gather evidence incriminating his torturers?

During their research, the scientists also encountered some forgeries. East German historians, for example, were even laxer in their approach to historical accuracy than their West German counterparts. The antifascist custodians of the Buchenwald site found the piles of corpses US troops had photographed during the camp's liberation too small for illustrating the crimes committed there -- especially since pictures of even larger piles had been taken in Auschwitz. And so they just glued the images of two corpse piles together in order to intensify the horror.

Today's scientists have reason to hope that by exposing such manipulations and inconsistencies, the strength of the evidence provided by the remaining photographs will be further increased. They hope, in short, to make the work of Holocaust deniers that much more difficult.

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