Analyzing Photos from World War II
HISTORY—I am by no means an expert on World War II. But I do have enough knowledge to write about it in great detail. One of the things that I like to do when I talk to people about history is the use of imagery to understand the effects of war and how it could be used as propaganda by the Allies and the Axis.
Both used propaganda to sell their goals and reasons. The Nazis were far more sinister in their propaganda efforts. The Allies tried to sell democracy to the world that when war was said and done the Allies had the answer to a world free of war and tyranny. Both attempts were highly misguided. And in the case of the United States it had to overcome its own societal problems. It’s hard to preach about freedom when a big slice of the population was forced to use different bathrooms, go to different schools, etc. That’s one of the reasons why the Office of War Information went to great lengths to let all Americans know—they had a reason to fight too—they were at risk. There’s a discussion to be had about the internment and treatment of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in detention camps on false premises for another day. It’s a sad and tragic period of American History.
Below are three examples of photos. One is from after the Fall of France and the other from Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. A third photo is of a German soldier.
“The Weeping Frenchman“ is also referred to as the “Crying Frenchman.” Many assume this photo was taken after the Fall of France in June 1940. It wasn’t. It was taken in February 1941 in Marseilles as the regimental flags of France marched through the streets. They had moved to the south during the Nazi invasion to preserve them. They were ultimately taken to Africa to be preserved.
Analysis: He’s a businessman, perhaps a banker or some other profession that requires a suit. He’s well-dressed and well-kept. We can assume based on appearance he is middle class or above. He’s standing with people who are similarly dressed. It’s possible people dressed up to watch the parade of flags. His emotions speak loudly to us though. He’s crying, weeping for his country (we’re assuming he’s French). His once proud France now in the hands of the Nazis. He can only stand and watch as the last symbols of France are carried away. He weeps not for himself but for his country. The other people in the photo are a mixed group. One woman appears to clap, another woman appears sad and worried about her future. A second man in background watches, seemingly unmoved by what is happening before him. For the “weeping man”—his life, as he knew it, was about to end.
The name of the “Weeping Frenchman” is not known. It’s also unclear what his fate was. Did he survive the battle to see his France return to its glory? Or did he die in battle to retake Marseilles in 1944.
This is one of the most iconic photos from World War II. It appeared in Life Magazine in March 1941. There is actual newsreel footage of the man. It would later show up in Frank Capra’s Why We Fight Series in the episode “Divide and Conquer” that was released 1943.
Sudetenland Annexation October 1938.
Weeks after the Munich Agreement, the Czechs were forced to make concessions to non-Czechs. Note: If you’re in the Chicago area, this photo is actually part of the World War II exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Analysis: There are three women we can see clearly. One is smiling with the Nazi Salute, one appears to be doing it just to follow along with the others and the third women shows a mix of emotions. She’s saluting but she’s also crying. She’s overcome at the sight of the Nazi troops parading through her hometown. But what is “overcome” with emotion mean in this context. The Sudetenland was inhabited with “ethnic Germans.” So in this light, perhaps the crying is one of joy at seeing Nazi soldiers. Perhaps, relieved she could again become a German citizen without having move her family to what she believed was her rightful homeland. She could also be moved by seeing portrait of Hitler in the parade. Many women were moved by the sight of Hitler. Another take could be one of horror—not all peoples living in the Sudetenland were ethnic German. She saluted merely because she had to avoid drawing attention to herself.
This photo was taken in October 1938, shortly after the establishment of the Second Republic in Czechoslovakia. A few months later, the country would fall to Hitler’s Germany.
The German Child Soldier
In the waning months of the World War II, Hitler called upon all young boys to fight for Germany. Boys, many as young as 8, would join the ranks to fight for their country. Some out of choice, others were forced to. Hans-Georg, the boy pictured in the photo, was left with little choice. With both is parents dead, he had joined the Luftwaffe to support his family. Historically speaking, we know a lot about him because he has shared his experiences—though he changed his story so for political reasons because he returned to East Germany after the war.
Analysis: On initial impression, we can see he’s the prototypical Aryan German using Party requirements. He’s got blonde hair, presumably blue eyes and pure heritage. He was, in the Party eyes, the future of Germany. Most boys his age shouldn’t be fighting a war but learning about the classics and playing soccer. Yet, he was dropped into the middle of the front with the Americans on one side and the Germans on the other. Yet, he’s not strong. He’s emotional and had been crying. You could say he’s shell-shocked by the battle after having just surrendered to the American forces. He’s not sad that his would had just crumbled but relief the battle is over. But his innocence of youth is gone.
There are other photos of Hans-Georg that show his other emotional states, including eating a meal probably provided by the Americans. German soldiers, even veterans, preferred to be captured by the Allies in the West. They knew they would, in most cases, be afforded meals, medical care and fair treatment. There were many cases of mistreatment by Allies out of retribution. As for Hans-Georg, he became a member of the Communist Party and lived out his life in the East. Historical accounts say his father was a communist sympathizer. He died in 1938. I wasn’t able to find anything on his father, though given his political affiliations, it’s possible he was killed. His mother died in 1944. Hans-Georg died in 1996. His two brothers survived the war.
All of these images were used for propaganda purposes. Especially the Weeping Frenchman. It was used to sell home the point that this is what awaits you if you fail to do your part in the war effort. There are countless images out there that show the horror of the war. They resonate because of the messages they tell us about life during this time.