Hitler's photographer's mysterious humanity

Why would a rabid Nazi take such striking photos depeicting the humanity of subjugated Polish Jews? Photo: Screen Shot/Life Magazine

“We do not usually give so much space to the work of men we admire so little… 

“Jaeger’s photos were, it turned out, so attuned to the Führer’s vision of what a Thousand Year Reich might look and feel like that Hitler declared, upon first seeing the kind of work Jaeger was doing: “The future belongs to color photography.” (Life Magazine April, 1970) 

CHICAGO, October 18, 2012— The image is of a young Polish woman. She smiles brightly for the camera as if she does not have a care in the world. The image denotes nothing of the tragic circumstances of the time and place it was taken. The image was taken between 1939 and 1940 in Kutno, Poland. 

Between October and November of 1940 the Warsaw Ghetto was established. 400,000 Jews were crammed into a 1.3 square mile area. They lived in imposed squalor. Over one hundred thousand Jews died of disease, starvation, and random murder. Eventually over two hundred thousand would be transported to Treblinka for their final fate. Other ghetto type communities were established throughout Poland. 

The Polish town of Kutno is 75 miles away from Warsaw. Between 1939 and 1940 Hitler’s personal photographer, Hugo Jaeger, photographed the Jews of Kutno. The background of the photos depicts the devastation wrought by Hitler’s Third Reich. 

Hugo Jaeger is described as a fanatic Nazi. He is known for two things; depicting the glory and gaudiness of the Third Reich, and shooting it in color, which was rare at the time. Color film and its processing was developed by Kodak and the German firm Afga in the mid 1930s. 

His photographs from Kutno depart from propaganda, glorification, and glitter of all things Nazi. They depict an empathetic relationship between photographer and subject. This empathy has been the subject of speculation since Life Magazine first published the photographs. Why would a Nazi true believer, propagandist of the Third Reich and Hitler’s personal photographer document people in a manner that connotes an intimate relationship between photographer and subject, allowing their humanity and dignity? 

Hugo Jaeger possessed over 2000 slides, most documenting the glory of the Third Reich. Life Magazine described the collection as “…an archive comprising a vast, insidery portrait of the Third Reich.” 

He hid the slides, burying them in sealed jars as the war ended. After the war he retrieved them. Jaeger hid them in a Swiss bank vault until 1965. He sold them to Life Magazine, which serialized them in 1970. 

On the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, Life Magazine republished Jaeger’s photos of Kutno’s Jewish population. Aside from the historic perspective it is also a grudging accolade to a photographer from a magazine known for photography. They are also a tribute to color photography. Hugo Jaeger was one of the few photographers at the time using color film.  

Jaeger never related why these photos do not show the triumph and brutality of the Third Reich, as the work of his contemporaries did. He never explained why these are such a departure from his own glorification of the Reich and Adolph Hitler. 

What the photos depict are conquered people living their lives through the devastation of war. There is some connection between subjects and the photographer, as if he were welcomed to take their pictures. The do not depict the “rats and parasites” Nazi propaganda claimed Jews were. They are ordinary people doing ordinary things during the devastation of wartime. 

There are many unexplained stories of Nazi officials acting out of character during that era. In occupied Paris, the Nazi official who was in charge of confiscating Modern Art and other prohibitive art forms the Reich considered immoral, admired the work of Pablo Picasso. He would visit the artist’s studio during his lunch to watch him work. For the most part, Picasso was left unmolested. 

Hugo Jaeger was described as a fascist before he became a Nazi. Why would such an ardent believer photograph subjugated people with such humanity? Why would he put a human face on those his master race deemed sub-human? 

Out of over 2000 photographs of glorification and triumph these photos are haunting. They haunt because they are different than the rest. Aside from their humanity they depict people living in squalor and just trying to survive day to day. 

Eventually Kutno’s Jews were rounded up and forced into an old sugar factory, where many died of disease before they were exterminated. We will never know what Jaeger thought about this or the other brutal excesses of the Third Reich. 

These photos are not only a reminder of the devastation and subjugation of war and genocide. They are an expression of the art of photography, especially the developing art of color photography. The photos keenly demonstrate the mystery of humanity. How could a diehard member of a fiendish regime separate his alleged true beliefs to depict what are considered sub-humans in such an ordinary human way? 

Why would Jaeger also risk the wrath and a sure swift death by taking such photographs? The Reich executed people for far less than that. 

We do not have to admire Hugo Jaeger as a person. We should admire his work as photographic art. It is a stark reminder of triumph, glory, and gaudiness of a regime run amok and of people living ordinary lives under brutal subjugation. All in living color. 

Here are other photos from Jaegers collection.   

Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance journalist and photojournalist, cook, and raconteur.  He likes to be the irreverent sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys.  His opinions are his and his alone. Mr. Bella is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, Online News Association, Chicago Headline Club, and the Society for Professional Journalists. 

pvbella@gmail.com 

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Peter Bella

Peter Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance photographer, freelance writer, budding videographer, and passionate cook.  He aims to be the sharp stick that pokes and annoys.  The Middle Class Guy is a political column written from a center-right point of view.  While concentrating mainly on politics he will stray into culture, entertainment, sports, cooking, and humor from time to time, along with Memories of things Pabst.  All from a middle class perspective.

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