Secular Icons: Looking at Photographs from Nazi Concentration Camps
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History & Memory 12.1 (2000) 135-150

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Secular Icons: Looking at Photographs from Nazi Concentration Camps *

Cornelia Brink

Few photographs have become as well known as those taken by British and American army photographers during the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in what was then the German Reich in 1945. Wagons full of corpses in Dachau; half-dead and sick survivors in the small camp at Buchenwald; hundreds of dead bodies lined up in front of the ruined buildings at Nordhausen; open mass graves at Bergen-Belsen. The American writer Susan Sontag remembered her first encounter with this photographic inventory of ultimate horror as "negative epiphany," "the prototypically modern revelation." 1 Ever since then it seemed plausible to her to divide her life into two parts: into the time before she saw those photographs at the age of twelve and the time after.

Since they were taken and first published, these pictures have been reprinted countless times, and one receives the impression that the same photographs have been reproduced over and over again (although the archives contain numerous frames that are very little known to this day). The photographs of the liberation have long become part of the Western countries' collective visual memory. They mostly impress themselves on our sentiments and conjure up a threatening, mute and nameless sense of "once upon a time." Then as now they set off strong emotional reactions, of shock and terror, of compassion as well as rejection. Usually the pictures are accepted as straightforward and unambiguous reality, not as a specific photographic rendering of that reality open to analysis. More [End Page 135] than other photographs they make a moral claim to be accepted without questioning. They stand for the inhumanity of National Socialism, for an "image," an idea of the system of concentration and extermination camps. They also stand for Auschwitz--as the most extreme expression as well as the central element of National Socialist ideology and extermination practice: the mass murder of the European Jews organized by the state and carried out with bureaucratic efficiency on the basis of a social division of labor.

Relics of the camps--barbed wire, entrance gate, watch towers, barracks, the crematories' chimneys--and photographed scenes not only became new symbols for something hitherto unknown and unimaginable; they also structure our view of contemporary atrocities. "The scenes portrayed," writes historian Robert Abzug,

have attained almost mythic status in a world more and more used to seeing violence every day in full color, live or on videotape, from every corner of the world. It is as if in the spring of 1945 the world lost a certain innocence, and the pictorial remains of that passage have become the leitmotivs for our reactions to all that we are presented. We see pictures of Biafra, Bangladesh, Vietnam, or even the freak catastrophe of Jonestown, but what we feel was learned by facing the camps. 2

Pictures from prison camps in former Yugoslavia showing emaciated men behind barbed wire strikingly resemble the images from 1945. 3 During the civil war in Rwanda, Gilles Peress photographed bulldozers scooping piles of corpses into mass graves like those at Bergen-Belsen. 4

The photographs of Nazi concentration camps have become icons. Nowadays the term is frequently used for these and other popular pictures without there being a clear idea of what makes them icons. In this article I link the term to its historical framework of use and refer to the religious cult images of Orthodox Christianity. I am interested in identifying the precise analogies--or lack of such analogies--between the well-known concentration camp photographs and icons. My intention, however, is not to elevate my subject to a religious plane. Religiously inspired terms such as cult, ritual, symbol or icon are currently en vogue in the field of cultural studies, and I do not want to join this trend [End Page 136] without reservations either. For me, the term icon is a key to illustrating the complexities involved in dealing with concentration camp photographs. These photographs are not icons, but they are...