Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Humanities


Photographs crucially defined National Socialism (NS), for contemporaries as well as later generations. Yet outside some instances of formal propaganda, scholars have paid little attention to photos -- with ethical consequences that continue to affect the ways we remember Nazism and its victims today.

Millions of photos were taken in this period by hobbyist and casual photographers; an estimated 10% of Germans owned a camera in 1939, many more participated in the practice. These photos are records both of people's engagement with the dictatorship, and of their efforts to distance and separate themselves from it. They are evidence of the interaction between ideology and subjectivity, of politics and lived experience: materially, because many albums mixed personal photos and ideological artefacts, e.g. newspaper cuttings, and metaphorically, because many people positioned themselves in and through photos, as participants in public life under Nazism, at political events and rallies, in organised leisure programmes, child evacuations, volunteer and compulsory labour services, or in the war. Some photos also offer insights into alternate private worlds that individuals sought to construct as a refuge or a place of separation from politics. In the case of Jewish Germans, photos show different emotional dispositions, contracting social spaces, narratives of emigration and escape, or experiences of persecution, in ways that challenge the official photographic record.

This project brings a range of methodological insights -- from photographic history, political iconography, visual anthropology, from the study of ego-documents and the everyday lives of ideologies -- to bear on understanding not just what these photos show, but also, how the practice of photography itself shaped political behaviours: taking photos prompted and enabled people to position themselves politically, to assert power over others, or to oppose the ideological hegemony of the regime. Our team combines academic expertise in analysing photography under NS, especially in regard to the regime's marketing of 'private happiness' as a political reward, and for depicting and re-shaping occupied territories and their populations, with our track record in co-developing challenge-driven research questions with practitioners in the museum and education sectors specialising on NS and the Holocaust.

We have refined and tested our approach in two pilot projects and publications, and are confident that the systematic analysis of our source base proposed here will yield significant results. We will present the findings in two monographs, devoted respectively to the personal photos of Germans included in the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, and the Jewish population excluded from it, in academic articles on in-between groups, such as the so-called 'ethnic Germans', and in publications devoted to the pedagogic opportunities created by this research. This project has important ethical implications for both the academic and public use of photos of the history of Nazism today. We shall work with our project partners, the National Holocaust Museum, and other professionals in museums and schools, to develop new pedagogies that draw on private photos reflecting the gaze of victims and that of the perpetrators. We will enable visitors and learners to view photographs -- originally designed to de-humanise their subjects -- to do the opposite.

To achieve these aims, we work as an interdisciplinary team: Umbach and Harvey, experts on the relationship between subjectivity and ideology among the different groups living under the NS regime; Mills, specialist in Holocaust education in schools; Benford, specialist in supporting museums to use digital technologies to engage visitors with difficult ethical issues; Necker, who has been involved in innovative exhibition designs for NS and Jewish histories; and Griffiths, project consultant, director of learning at the Holocaust Museum.

Planned Impact

Photography is a powerful medium through which museum visitors and pupils are confronted with National Socialism and the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust. Photos convey seemingly authentic insights into this horrific past, and, it is often assumed, will automatically prompt the desired moral responses. Yet there is little evidence that such lessons are learned from simply viewing such images. The majority of photos from this period were taken by Nazi propaganda photographers and perpetrators implicated in ideological mobilisation, war, and genocide. Many of them were intended as a historical record for future generations, as the Nazi regime wanted us to remember it. These problems are rarely reflected in the way historical photos are used today. Few museums systematically juxtapose propaganda and perpetrator photos with those taken, often illicitly, by the victims themselves, who are thus inadvertently deprived, again, of individuality and agency.

Our impact strategy addresses these issues through four strands, each benefiting from the specific expertise of our team (cf 'Pathways'):

1. Partnering with the National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHCM). Building on successful pilots, we will support the NHCM in articulating the next phase of their strategy, co-develop a concept for a new permanent exhibition that uses photos to tell the stories of both perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust, and juxtaposes personal and official photographs, to focus on individual perpetrator motivation and individual victim experience. Different pathways will be geared to different target groups (younger and older pupils, adult visitors; NHCM hosts c. 25,000 visitors p.a.). The visitor experience will be enhanced by customised 'disruptive technologies' that prompt personal reflection on the difficult ethical issues these photos raise, and on their contemporary resonance. Our design concept for the physical and virtual experience is scaleable, from a low-budget option, which can be implemented with the NHCM's current resources, to a comprehensive option, which will form part of the NHCM's planned HLF bid for a fundamental physical transformation of the site.

2. MOOC on 'Photographs, Nazism and the Holocaust'. Hosted by Futurelearn (see LoS), this free online course, developed with the help of consultant Griffiths, aims to recruit, over three iterations, c. 30,000 learners, pupils and adults (expected 50% UK, 50% international). It will sensitize learners to problems of propaganda photography, to private photos by supporters and perpetrators, and to the photographic record created by the regime's victims. The diversity of the MOOC learners will be harnessed for peer-to-peer learning, to demonstrate how different identities shape different readings of photos, which have no singular, 'objective' meaning. Target audience are current museum visitors, and those unable, for practical reasons, to visit the site.

3. Enhancing Holocaust Learning in UK schools. Working with 10 identified partner schools, and drawing on the NHCM's expertise in teacher engagement (consultant Griffiths), we will co-create new curriculum guidelines, learning materials and teacher resource packs to enable a reflexive use of photography in inquiry-based learning about NS and the Holocaust. Materials will be organised to target different beneficiaries: a preparation pack for school groups intending to visit the NHCM; a post-visit pack for pedagogic enhancement; and a pack for classes unable to visit the site.

4. Sharing best practice with museums. We will build on on our links with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the UCD Shoah Foundation, the Imperial War Museum London, the Obersalzberg Museum, and two visiting curators to the project (see Institutional LoS), to share the benefits of our work with museum partners seeking to enhance the way they use photography from NS, the Second World War and genocide to engage and educate their target audiences.


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