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The Nazi invasion of Ukraine was caught on camera by a German soldier. Are these images revelatory or sinister?

On this day 79 years ago, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Six million Soviet soldiers were wounded or captured as a result, but none suffered more so than the Soviet Jews, whose persecution marked a turning point in Holocaust history. Published for the first time, The Eye of War – Ukraine 1941/42 shows us the atrocities committed through the lens of a German soldier. But do these images of burning villages provide revelatory insight or sinister voyeurism?

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, opening the Eastern Front and kick-starting the Generalplan Ost. By 7 August 1941, German troops in Ukraine had reached Kyiv, and by 1 September, Hitler had established the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, signalling that the territory was now occupied. Initially, some Ukrainians welcomed the German forces, believing they would help liberate the country from the Soviet regime responsible for the Holodomor — the man-made famine that killed an estimated 3-12 million in 1932 and 33. They were soon disabused of such notions.

The Nazis believed that ethnic Slavs were racially inferior, and Generalplan Ost was a blueprint for genocide and ethnic cleansing on a devastating scale. It is estimated that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Jews and between 3 and 4 million Ukrainians were killed during the occupation; other sources estimate that 5.2 million Ukrainians of all ethnic groups — more than 12 per cent of the population at the time — died due to crimes against humanity, war-related disease, and famine. “We are a master race, which must remember that the lowliest German worker is, racially and biologically, a thousand times more valuable than the population here,” stated Reichskommissar Eric Koch in 1943.

It makes for a troubling history behind a chilling new photo book, The Eye of War – Ukraine 1941/42 by Dieter Keller. Keller was serving as a German soldier in Ukraine and Belarus when he took the photographs, despite a military ban on photographing civilians and war victims. Images of both are included in the book, which contains sweet portraits of children but also shocking shots of dead bodies and disembodied limbs. Many of the photographs show destruction, be it ruined townhouses or barns going up in flames; pictures of horses punctuate the series, often emaciated, sometimes dead.

They’re disturbing, and part of the problem is the mystery of Keller’s intention. His image-making is undeniably skilful but it’s hard to know how to read his images of the dead. His images of burning barns also give pause for thought, given that the Nazis sometimes herded people into buildings and torched them. Did Keller take these photographs as trophies or as evidence? Was he, as the book’s PR suggests, using “aesthetic perception as a key to his own reality processing and mental coping”? What does it mean for us to look at this work? And do his intentions matter when we do?

“I feel like it’s such a difficult one to understand,” says Adam Broomberg, an artist who has contributed a text to the book written with Xiaofu Wang. “How someone could be in the middle of what he was in the midst of and be so — it’s difficult not to be presumptuous — but be calm enough to make beautiful, distanced images?”

These questions aren’t new in war photography, or in photojournalism more generally. Susan Sontag famously scrutinised the field in her 2003 publication Regarding the Pain of Others. She pinpoints Roger Fenton as one of the first war photographers for his work in the Crimean War, before working her way forward to the 21st Century (and also taking in Goya). Sontag offers an extremely critical take on producing such work — and also on consuming it.

“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it… or those who could learn from it,” she writes. “The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

The Eye of War offers little information about Keller’s images. Keller died in 1985, so it’s perhaps understandable there are no picture captions, but there’s no historical context either. There is a short biography of Keller written by the book’s editor, Dr Norbert Moos, and a timeline detailing his life. “Details of Dieter Keller’s deployment in the German Wehrmacht [Nazi armed forces] are unavailable,” states the timeline. “Previous research indicates that he was assigned to administrative duties.”

Soldiers in the German army weren’t necessarily devoted Nazis because from 1935 onwards, some of those serving were conscripted. The Eye of War includes a cute photograph of a boy in front of Hebrew text, for example, which doesn’t seem obviously anti-Semitic; Keller was also a close friend of the artist Oskar Schlemmer, who was a teacher at the Bauhaus but then ostracised by the Nazis. Immediately after the war, in 1947/48, Keller published a catalogue of Schlemmer’s work. On the other hand, he was there on the ground in the uniform and, as his own images testify, privy to some terrible things.

But as Sontag’s quote suggests, for her, the photographer’s objectives don’t determine the image’s meaning [though admittedly, she wasn’t writing about trophies). As she puts it: “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims of the diverse communities that have use for it.”

She later argues that images of suffering displayed in galleries — as these images have been — seem “exploitative”, and goes on to discuss their appearance in books. “Up to a point the weight and seriousness of such photographs survive better in a book, where one can look privately, linger over the picture, without talking,” she writes. “Eventually the specificity of the photograph’s accusations will fade; the denunciation of a particular conflict and attribution of specific crimes will become a denunciation of human cruelty, human savagery as such. The photographer’s intentions are irrelevant to this larger process.”

Is that what happened here? Without captions or historical information, do these images just trot out the trite truism ‘war is bad’? As Broomberg points out, it’s interesting to note that Keller never published these images himself, and that they’ve only now been made public 80 years after the event. It’s long after the point at which the victims or their families could be helped, so does looking at them make us voyeurs, as Sontag says?

Personally, I am not sure. But Sontag also allows for the idea such images can educate, and there is definitely work to be done. This is no coffee table book: the publication is modest in size and the more gruesome images of people are limited to fold outs — a sensitivity on the part of the publisher — meaning you might not see them if you were to flick through quickly. However, the design could also stand for the fact that much of this history remains hidden.

The Ukrainian experience of the Second World War isn’t well-known, despite its horrors, just as the Ukrainian experience of mass starvation isn’t well-known — and was almost airbrushed from history. Though we don’t know what kind of witness Keller was, he was a witness, and one who showed some of those horrors. What would we make of him if he hadn’t? Would his images then read as the work of an apologist?

Working in nearby Crimea nearly 100 years before, Fenton did something different, as Sontag points out. “Under instructions from the War Office not to photograph the dead, the maimed, or the ill, and precluded from photographing most other subjects by the cumbersome technology of picture taking, Fenton went about rendering the war as a dignified all-male group outing,” she writes.

“The memory of war, however, like all memory, is mostly local,” writes Sontag; “What is interesting is how neglected the trauma of that region is in terms of narrative,” says Broomberg. The Eye of War might feel like – and might be — opening a can of worms, but it takes the lid off some of that trauma.

The Eye of War – Ukraine 1941/42 by Dieter Keller is published by Buchkunst Berlin and available here.

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