- Beschämende Bilder: Deutsche Reaktionen auf allierte Dokumentarfilme über befreite Konzentrationslager by Ulrike Weckel
Nearly seventy years after the end of World War II, and despite the prominence in popular culture of mediated representations of the Holocaust, images captured during and immediately after liberation of the camps—both photographs and film—remain important for our understanding of events. Most importantly, they continue to fulfill the purpose for which they were made. They visually document atrocities so enormous that oral and written accounts—no matter how precise—can be met with incredulity. But, as with all documentary images, they can also be understood in terms of their dual subjective character: in terms of the photographer, cameraman, or [End Page 296] director’s intentional composition—what was included, what was excluded; and in terms of the image’s afterlife, i.e., how it has been received and interpreted. While camp liberation photographs have received a certain amount of scholarly attention in recent years, surprisingly little work has been done on the atrocity films made in the war’s immediate aftermath. One possible explanation rests in their usually straightforward purpose: to serve as proof of the Germans’ guilt and a way to force them to react —their reactions could then be measured to determine whether they adequately recognized their individual or group complicity.
In her penetrating work Ulrike Weckel explains that this narrative sets the project up for failure, since the measure of success is the open expression of Germans’ feelings of guilt. Given that extreme images are expected to elicit extreme reactions, anything less implies a lack of empathy. That Germans generally did not demonstrate adequate reactions dovetailed nicely with the later postwar narrative about the German failure to come to terms with the past—rendering superfluous any interrogation of other documentation. Weckel challenges this reductive approach, and, by extension, the prevailing impulse to see contemporary German response in monolithic terms.
A key strength of Weckel’s work is the extensive research referenced: newspaper articles, interview transcripts, radio commentary, written testimonies, diary excerpts, survey responses, private letters, and the like. Weckel marshals these not merely to disprove the notion that Germans lacked a sense of guilt, but to reframe the discussion. At the center lies the argument that shame, not guilt, provides a more useful concept for understanding the expectations and the reality of German reactions to atrocity films. Unlike guilt, an internal affective state where one takes responsibility for and regrets a course of action, shame, which arises from a consciousness of how others negatively perceive one’s actions, allows for an interplay between the person being shamed and those shaming him or her. Certainly the screenings bore an educational purpose, proving to Germans—indeed to the world—that the Nazis had committed vast atrocities. But they were also understood as instrumental to “rehabilitating” Germans and re-integrating them into Western society. The focus on shame, with its implicitly public component (one is more acutely ashamed when recognition of a violation of norms takes place in front of others), allows Weckel to analyze broader patterns of reaction, including the interplay between Germans and the triumphant Allies. Understanding that Germans may have tempered their reactions precisely because these took place in the presence of those intentionally shaming them further undermines the sense that the films were a failure. Indeed, the deeper the feeling of shame, the more likely a German may have sought to mask his or her public reaction. By calling attention to such dynamics, Weckel provides much-needed context to existing perceptions of German reaction.
This is not to say that Weckel attempts to redeem the German reaction; rather, she seeks to nuance and shift the discussion away from the tendency to understand the German response as a collective one, to present a complex picture of levels of German reaction. Weckel notes that, even within specific groups, viewing atrocity films evoked a [End Page 297] wide range of individual responses. The focus on individual instead of collective response not only offers a better understanding of...