About a year ago I bought a collection of more than 12,000 photographs of World War Two. Most of them were not British or American but were either Russian or German. I would like to share some of them with you because a number of these photographs have great merits as photographs, as well as capturing a split second in history. None of them have a caption, so I have tried to work out what might be going on.
Today, I’m going to look at the return of the Russian civilian population to their homes.
Some came home on foot, walking, perhaps, hundreds of miles, many of them barefoot:
Many pulled handcarts:
And others pushed handcarts, although, if you look carefully, occasional individuals travelled in style, even if they looked slightly startled:
The Red Army travelled in top quality, luxury cattle trucks. The large slogan means “We (are) from Berlin”. The present tense of the verb “to be” does not exist in Russian. The word “Berlin” is decipherable, however.
I think that this is an ex-soldier who has been demobbed recently, and he is having a look round Berlin before he makes his way home. That huge statue used to stand in front of the city palace above the River Spree, and commemorated Kaiser Wilhelm I. It’s clearly a place where soldiers would hang out, and that is one of the reasons that I think that this well dressed young lady, who is not walking but just standing there, is actually a prostitute:
Some areas were still very dangerous and a Red Army escort was sometimes necessary to get home. Notice how the lady is carrying the family icon. Christianity saw a big revival during the war as it provided somebody to pray to who had a lot more credibility than Uncle Joe Stalin:
Here are two young women meeting in a shattered, desolate city, possibly Stalingrad. One has just been to do the shopping and the other one has just got off the train with her suitcase. There are still fires burning and some buildings still have the dark marks of a recent fire.
As the liberating armies come ever closer, the first jeeps arrive, to be greeted by delirious crowds. Except that that isn’t happening here. Some of the people actually look really quite aggressive. Are they Poles, assembled in the streets to shout “Welcome to the Red Army” or perhaps “Soviets, stay as long as you like”?
If there’s going to be a harvest, somebody needs to start ploughing at some point. I saw horses used widely in Polish fields as late as 1969:
If the horse isn’t up to it, see if the family can help you out:
And if all goes well, you will get your just deserts:
24 responses to “Photographs of the Eastern Front in World War Two (6)”
You can post these priceless selections as often as you like, John. Your text is also excellent
I’m really glad you enjoyed them, Derrick. Luckily, I have the best part of 11,000 pictures still left and at least one guaranteed reader!
Many more than one, I’ll wager
What a fabulous collection.
I’m glad you enjoyed them. There is always something about b/w photographs, and some of these are just superb. What I don’t know is whether the government sent out official photographers to record the Soviet Union’s recovery from the war, or whether the photographs were all taken by amateurs and published in local magazines. Whatever the case, they are of a very high standard, especially the “Return of the Icon”, my own personal favourite.
I have a book that belonged to my Dad called “The War’s Best Photographs”, January 1944, all Black and white and some very disturbing pictures.
I can imagine. I can still rermember how one of my friends and myself, around ten years old and completely innocent, came across a photo of a concentration camp mass grave with several thousand skeletal bodies in it. I still remember our horror and disbelief.
I recall as a boy seeing a book with pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bomb. It had some gruesome pictures.
Thank you for saving these photos. They are definitely treasures!
Yes, I suppose they are. I’d never really thought of it that way, but you’re right!
I have particularly enjoyed how people improvise and manage to achieve their aims without the right equipment. The winner in this category is the human plough, where half a dozen determined volunteers are having a go at ploughing a field. Hopefully, they will all take turns at the various jobs. It wouldn’t be very nice if the bossiest person was the ploughman all the time or if some people never got a rest from pulling the plough, which must really have made your shoulders ache.
I think making your shoulders ache looks like an understatement! haha
John!!! What a post!! I was riveted looking at these heirlooms called photographs. So many in the world have NO idea what real hardship is. Just imagining what these people survived I consider heroic!! Returning home with so much destroyed …. how absolutely heartbreaking as these people realize the world they knew is no longer. LOVED this post!! Wow! Thank you!
Thank you, Amy. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I suppose that these people were heroes in the sense that no matter what destruction had been carried out by a cruel invader, they refused to give in, and now that the war is over, their only thought is to rebuild and to return to the life that they once had.
The tragedy is, of course, that the Russians of today seem to have no memory at all of what happened to their grandparents, and are just as keen on destroying everything as the Nazis were. Have they learnt nothing from their own history?
Thanks for continuing this series of photos, John. They are tragic reminders of the devastation of war on the civilian population. We witness it playing out again in our times across the Middle East and now also in Ukraine.
Yes, you are so right. It’s certainly possible to see why President Assad and Putin get on so well. They were made for each other with an ability to commit the most unspeakable war crimes, even against their own citizens, and to use weapons which as far as I know, were outlawed years ago.
One elephant in the room though, and one which has not been mentioned at any point so far, is that Putin is bombing civilian areas, not caring if he destroys schools and hospitals and other such buildings. Well, we watch the newsreports and it is all dreadful, horrendous, and so on.
But what is different about it, compared to what was done to Germany by the RAF in WW2 and by the US B-29s in Japan? And the RAF used phosphorous bombs which were allowed then, and in Japan, napalm stocks virtually ran out because they were being used by the B-29s on the Japanese cities. 66 Japanese cities were area-bombed with napalm, and 100,000 died in the Tokyo attack alone. It’s certainly given me a very uncomfortable feeling about the whole thing!
John, we should all be uncomfortable about humanity’s acts of war. No party on the battlefield is innocent of shedding blood and destroying livelihoods. It’s the nature of warfare. > I’ve just finished reading the novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque, written from the viewpoint of a German soldier at the Russian front during World War II. The story left me with such profound grief that I was prompted to write about humanity’s shared pain of loss. I’m currently reading The Greatest Evil is War by Chris Hedges (USA, 2022). Chris Hedges was a war correspondent for two decades in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, including fifteen years with the New York Times, where he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. > He writes in Chapter One: “I have tasted enough of war, enough of my own fear, my body turned to jelly, to know that war is always evil, the purest expression of death, dressed up in patriotic cant about liberty and democracy and sold to the naive as a ticket to glory, honor, and courage. It is a toxic and seductive elixir.”
I can’t really argue with any of that. The real problems start, though, when faced with an implacable enemy who intends to wipe you out, such as Putin in the Ukraine or Hitler in the Soviet Union. Even the Battle of Britain would make it into that category.
These were just an amazing find. I wonder how many more like them are stashed away in someone’s attic waiting to be discovered.
Well, I heard recently that the BBC had found one of the very first ever Dr Who episodes from around 1962-1963 in a roofspace in the Czech Republic, so I presume that anything and everything is possible!
There will also be one or two peak years for finding WW2 material, although they may well have passed by already.
If a thirty year old is taking photographs in 1945, he should die around 1985-1995 and then his house may be emptied by his now middle aged children. They will find his diaries, his photos and the Tiger tank turret in the garage. That would give you a peak of around say 2000-2010 for most WW2 discoveries. People who let professional house clearers empty the old chap’s house may never see what their father possessed. I read about one house clearer who had found all kinds of WW2 RAF articles, including a DFC. If I had my time over again, I think “house clearer” would be high on my list of potential jobs.
I think you are right John. These items are / have become collectible now and much sought after so the possibilities of a chance find are getting smaller by the day. But you never know, so best get the application sorted.
Countless women of all ages must have sold themselves to survive. The photos express so much. I wonder what the photographers thought about all the photos they clicked?
I don’t know really. Perhaps after a few years of clicking away, they become immune to what they are photographing.
As for women selling themselves, this was virtually universal in Germany where the occupying forces saw them as the enemy and were not necessarily very sympathetic. As for countries such as France, Holland and so on, the troops did all they could to help.
I’ve been very tardy with reading lately. But this post sent me looking at the previous posts. We should not takes sides, or so I have been told, but the way Germany treated Russia and the way Russia has treated its own people make it easy to have a large amount of sympathy and understanding of the common Russian citizen. I have no sympathy for what Putin is doing in the Ukraine but, and it is a very uncomfortable ‘but’, if there was any hint that the Ukraine may have been developing any kind of fascist leaning —–(and I don’t know where I want to go with this.
So I will get back to the photographs and in particular those that implied that if the Russian was a lower human than the Aryan then where did Dostoevsky, Chekov, Turgenev etc come from. I could go on but that is probably enough.
You won’t get any argument from me about this. The Russian common people were treated abominably by the Germans in WW2, although it is easily possible to argue that many of the Russian people had been treated only slightly better by Stalin in the 1930s. The Soviets were hated by the Ukrainians after their treatment by Stalin in the Holodomor
The Ukrainians were also, like most Eastern Europeans at the time, hugely anti-Semitic, and only toohappy to work with the Germans in the Holocaust.
Putin, though, has his own agenda. He has been frightened by the strong possibility that the Ukraine would join NATO and then exaggerated the fascism aspects to justify it. His ego wants him to recover all the bits that Russia has lost. How can he do this? Finland? Latvia? Kirghizstan? Alaska?
He needs, as we all know, to come to the conference table and to save face on the world scale by doing so.