Der Grosse Krieg in Bildern — The Great War in Pictures

M.G. Shanahan, Art History, James Madison University

Although official war painting was sponsored by many combatant nations/empires, including the Ottoman Empire, France, the United Kingdom and Canada, photography supplanted painting during World War I in representing conflict and in reaching a wide audience.  Photography’s functions were not mere documentation of the military and political leaders, battles, events and technologies of the war. Photography also served to present a propagandistic narrative of the war from a nationalistic position. In addition, such photography albums helped shape what French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs’ called (in 1925) collective memory, a contested but still useful term that presumes a shared group experience.

Fig. 1

Der Grosse Krieg in Bildern [The Great War in Pictures] (Berlin:  Georg Stilke 1915-1918), a rare publication in the Library of Congress’ collection, is a printed photograph album of the Great War. Apparently a souvenir album, it was published monthly from 1915 through 1918 in 45 issues, each about forty pages. [1] Each page includes one to four printed photographs with captions in German, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.  On the cover of each issue, there is a drawing or photograph above which is the title in bold red and black lettering in one of the six languages, indicating its publishers’ aims for a wide distribution at least in Europe. While war photography for popular consumption appeared in other contexts, few had multilingual captions and so multi-national (even imperial?) ambitions.[2]

Fig. 2

Der Grosse Krieg in Bildern raises many questions about how and for whom the photographs shaped collective memory or memories, and whether its multilingual captions invite interpretation as a shared experience among European combatant nations, envision wartime marketplace opportunities, or anticipate a post-war German dominance. Why, for example, do the captions not include Ottoman Turkish or Arabic given the Ottoman alliance with the Central Powers?  What are the functions of the representations of the Ottoman Empire and what do the albums tell us about the theaters of war in the Ottoman terrain and in North Africa?  The albums include portraits of Ottoman leaders–Enver Pasha, Turkish Minister of War, and Sultan Muhammad V, important events–Turkish parliamentarians visiting Germany, battle scenes (many probably staged) at the Suez Canal, Turkish troops in Gallipoli, city and harbor scenes of the captured Kut el Amara, and landscape views of the Palestinian front. Judging from Der Grosse Krieg in Bildern, it would seem as though Germany was winning every battle of the war, expanding its terrain, and generally doing so in a rationalized, sanitized fashion. The albums almost never present abject scenes of the human debris of war; a rare example depicts “heavy Russian losses,” a photograph by an unnamed German officer. But the misery and brutality of war do emerge despite the album’s manifest efforts in censorship and propaganda.

Fig. 3

Photographs of the Zossen-Wünsdorf camp, intended to be evidence of the humane treatment of the enemy, instead often display the painful spectacle of humiliation.  In one photograph, a group of France’s African troops stand in a group confronting the camera, some with slumped shoulders and downcast gazes but at least one with a flash of bitterness and hostility in response to multiple forms of subjugation:  as French colonial subjects; as prisoners of war; and as ethnographic types. The camera thus organizes the viewer’s gaze to participate in the dehumanizing work of war with its aims of dominance, objectification, and annihilation.  While many questions remain about the albums, investigating the history of their production, distribution, and reception could yield a more nuanced understanding of the ideological uses of photography during the war.

[1] The Library of Congress holds one complete collection, which is bound in four volumes, and a second incomplete set of unbound issues.  Issues number 27 to 40 have been digitized and are on the Hathi Trust website:   http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101059977254;view=1up;seq=4 Other national collections hold the complete collection, and single issues appear for sale by antique and rare book vendors around the world. The printer, Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920), was also a publisher and owner of a successful advertising agency, which may account for the album’s apparently international distribution as suggested by the six caption languages.  The photographers are rarely credited with few exceptions, such as the U.S. film and photography company Brown & Dawson.

[2] See, for example:  Joëlle Beurier, “Death and Material Culture : The Case of Pictures during the First World War,” 109-22 in Nicholas J. Saunders, ed., Matters of Conflict:  Material Culture, Memory and the First World War (London:  Routledge, 2004); Andrew L. Mendelson and  Carolyn Kitch, “Creating a Photographic Record of World War I:  ‘Real History’ and Recuperative Memory in Stereography,” Journalism History 37:3 (Fall 2011): 142-50; and Issam Nasser, “John Whiting’s Album of the Great War in Palestine,”  World War I in the Middle East, NEH Summer Seminar 2012, online blog:  https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/world-war-i-in-the-middle-east/seminar-participants/neh-summer-scholars-2012/web-projects/issam-nassar-john-whitings-album-of-the-great-war-in-palestine/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *