Images Against Words: German and Soviet Engagements of the Other in World War II (1941-1943)

Speaker:

  • Jochen Hellbeck

This talk presents the prolonged deadly encounter between the Germans and Soviets in World War II as a clash between two different interpretive templates.  In engaging the Soviet enemy, Nazi German leaders and soldiers employed visual frames of analysis, centering on physiognomy and racial makeup.  As they fought back, the Soviets assessed the German invaders through a palpably textual register, focusing on their psychology and political consciousness.  The talk shows how these templates worked in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and how they collided in the course of the war.

Talk Synopsis:

In this seminar Jochen Hellbeck explains the German-Soviet war as having been a battle of "images against words," a term that reflects both a clash of wartime ideologies and the different choices of media used to express these ideologies. Germany, Hellbeck explains, relied heavily on visual media, using videos and photos as propaganda, while the Soviets used written materials to inspire their soldiers and citizens and to demoralize Germans. Hellbeck focuses on the battle of Stalingrad, which involved a long standoff and extended exposure between the two sides.

The Germans used multimedia, as well as strong visual imagery in written materials, to portray the battle as a conquest of an inferior race and a vast landscape available for the taking. A compilation of German soldiers' reports from the Eastern front in July 1941, and the 1942 war diary of a German journalist  embedded with troops in Stalingrad, use descriptive imagery to paint Soviets as mute and beastly and Germans as war heroes full of vitality.  Letters from German officials employed vivid language of the landscape, with repeated references to art as representations of German culture and greatness. Wartime photography by German soldiers, many of whom were amateur photographers, was common. The German use of visual media is exemplified by "Soviet Paradise," a 1942 short film made to discredit the Soviet Union's campaign of print propaganda. The film, which employed sophisticated cinematography techniques and very little commentary, was made into an exhibit in Berlin during the summer of 1942 and was visited by 1 million people.

In contrast, the Soviets did not come close to the amount of investment the Germans made in wartime multimedia.   Soviet soldiers were forbidden from keeping photos, and only officers could occasionally take them, in the rare event they had access to cameras. Instead, Hellbeck finds ample written records of the Soviet wartime experience. The Soviet military leadership commissioned a war history and invested heavily in the work of Soviet writers and historians, rather than photographers or film crews, to document events on the front lines.

Hellbeck’s presentation also includes analysis of the war records of prominent military personnel on both sides, as well as a review of the sources he used in his research, and his perceptions of how the Germans and Soviets interpreted each other’s wartime records. The next step in Hellbeck's research project will involve comparing techniques used in German and Soviet news film chronicles.

A discussion period following the talk addressed such questions as: did Germans and Soviets employ the same strategies in their military engagements with other countries? Why is there so much portrayal of Soviet POWS in Germany, and so little of German POWs in the Soviet Union? How was the defeat at Stalingrad represented by the Germans and by the Soviets? How did the strategies resonant with the respective sides?

 

About the Speaker:

Jochen Hellbeck is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University.  He is the author of Revolution On My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin (Harvard, 2006), and is currently writing a book about the clash and the entanglements of Germans and Soviets in the battle of Stalingrad.