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Foto: Christophe Busch

“Auschwitz is hard to reconcile with images of cute bunnies”

Sterre van der Hee,
12 december 2022 - 12:12

UvA criminologist, historian and director of the Hannah Arendt Institute Christophe Busch recently completed his doctoral dissertation on culpability during the Holocaust. In it, he asks the question: what images have shaped our idea of World War II perpetrators? “The selection of Holocaust images paints a demonic picture of perpetrators.”

Your dissertation is called: Picturing perpetration: the Holocaust seen through “the image as message.” What does that title mean?

“Picturing perpetration is depicting perpetration. Our image of perpetration in the Holocaust is mainly shaped by iconic images we see from public spaces during and after the war years, such as pictures of Allies liberating concentration camps, piles of corpses in Bergen-Belsen, and the gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The images paint a demonic picture of culpability in which perpetrators are depicted as deranged and intrinsically evil people. This is understandable when you consider the atrocities they committed, but we aren’t sufficiently aware that this stream of images is constructed. They are a selection from an enormous amount of material.”

Christophe Busch

So what did you do?

“I looked at that construction of the image of perpetrators, and also looked at other visual sources, such as those made by the Nazis themselves. For example, some visual sources and albums were made to show trials or business activities to higher-ranking officers. These contain images that we may not know directly from history books, but which teach us a lot, such as the Höcker album, an album by SS officer Karl-Friedrich Höcker with pictures of everyday life inside Auschwitz. Here, for example, Nazis can be seen during recreation and team-building activities. They are also pictured during mourning ceremonies after the death of their comrades, taking place just weeks after 320,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered, after which, of course, no mourning ceremonies were held. Another example are the photographs of Günther Niethammer who, as a camp guard and German ornithologist, mapped the rich bird world at Auschwitz. From victim sources, we often conclude that no birds could be heard in Auschwitz, but that is only one reading.”


You want to paint a more complete picture of history.

“Exactly. So I also looked at the Angora album, an album from the private library of SS leader Heinrich Himmler that is currently in Wisconsin. That photo album, complete with a cover of Angora wool, shows pictures of cute bunnies in breeding farms in concentration camps being combed, and also depicts the construction of their cages and the processing of their wool for socks and pants for the Luftwaffe or Wehrmacht. Those images don't match the demonic images we know of concentration camps, so I had to figure out how to interpret them. Eventually, I discovered in a yearbook and in annual reports of rabbit breeding that these breeding farms were organized by ‘brothers of the SS’ in the camps, and that according to the Nazis, German breeds of rabbits turned out to be much better than Polish ones. Thus, photography is no longer merely illustrative, but a historical source in its own right. By studying it, new avenues of historiography are revealed and a more complete story emerges. Analyzing alternative images of the Holocaust also gives us a better understanding of how the atrocities could have happened.”

Foto: Wisconsin Historical Society

Visual language and propaganda played a major role in Nazi Germany when it came to influencing people. What was the thinking behind this?

“Nazis saw the image as a language that has real impact, one that could plant seeds in both the literate and illiterate population, which we know from sources from the 1930s. Images evoked an emotional dynamic; they stimulated minds visually. Photography and film were encouraged, and thus every German had to become a soldier in their own ideological project. The Nazis were already working with imagery before they came to power. Because the use of images from this era is associated with the Nazis, historians have often not dared to use them as a source. Just now, in many German families, photo albums with a new visual reality are surfacing that have lain in the attic for generations.”


What can we learn from this study of images of the Holocaust?

“My appeal is for both educational and research purposes: we should start looking at this kaleidoscopic wealth of imagery and take it seriously. There's enormous potential there and it offers historical insight into how the Nazis developed an ideology and visual imagery of it that influenced minds. It can also be compared to today: after all, images plant seeds in people's minds all day long through social media, the meme culture and in fake news. Compared to how the Nazis used imagery as a tool of influence, there are technically many more opportunities now, such as deepfakes and other computer-simulated animations. There are regimes and groups that want to abuse this, especially in periods of major truth-destroying crises like the Ukraine war or the pandemic. Understandably, such events trigger a boost in conspiracy thinking. People react not to the truth, but to what they think is the truth. I'm not saying it's the same as it was in Nazi Germany, but this is a significant challenge in our time.”