Framing the Third Reich: A new approach to National Socialist photography

Jan 21, 2021

by Yinuo Meng

Can scholars take the Third Reich’s artistic legacy as a serious object of investigation, without losing sight of its sensitive and problematic origin?

For a long time, the answer seemed to be no. Tainted by their celebration of National Socialism’s racist ideology, Third Reich arts have been either glossed over or discussed solely pejoratively by art historians. However, 75 years after the collapse of Nazi Germany, OBP’s new Open Access essay collection seeks to offer a different answer. Photography in the Third Reich: Art, Physiognomy and Propaganda invites us to revisit this question by zooming in on Third Reich photography with an inter-disciplinary approach.

This book takes a deep dive into the works of prominent photographers who embraced National Socialism during the Third Reich, such as Erna Lendvai-Dircksen and Erich Retzlaff. The contributors treat their photographs not only as historical documents, but also as artworks with styles and self-expressions that deserve formalist and aesthetic readings. Instead of shying away from photographs that celebrate National Socialism, they actively engage with them through a critical gaze.

Andrés Mario Zervigón’s discussion of Lendvai-Dircksen’s peasant portraits epitomises this methodology. Lendvai-Dircksen was a German photographer whose career flourished during the Third Reich. She was also a staunch believer in physiognomy, a pseudoscience preaching that ‘the face and body could be read like a book to reveal nature and character.’ It is easy to see why physiognomy was well-suited for the racial purity eugenics of National Socialism. Indeed, Lendvai-Dircksen’s portraits of German peasants symbolised this dangerous partnership. Zervigón brilliantly demonstrates how Lendvai-Dircksen exploited various modern photographic techniques to present peasants as the physiognomic embodiment of a pure ‘Germanic’ race. She removed her subjects from their everyday settings and placed them in front of professional photographic backgrounds to emphasise their timeless ‘Germanic’ qualities. She also believed that ‘ an old tree that shows the peculiarity of its nature most precisely, so too the old human, who becomes the most pronounced type, who becomes the life history of his line.’ To this end, she highlighted her elderly subjects’ weathered features by combining an uncomfortably close lens with a sharp film stock and high print values. By scrutinising Lendvai-Dircksen’s formalist sophistication in detail, this chapter provides valuable insights into how she conveyed her racial and nationalistic messages.

A formalist reading of the works of German photographer Erich Retzlaff reveals similar proximity between National Socialism and physiognomy. Christopher Webster van Tonder examines Retzlaff’s application of physiognomy to portraits of German elites, most notably in his 1944 publication Das Gesicht des Geistes (The Face of the Spirit). Retzlaff’s use of colour accentuated his subjects’ ‘Aryan’ eye colours, hair colours and skin tones, thus their supposed racial purity. Due to the images’ ‘almost uncomfortable cinematic proximity’ and larger-than-life size, they are assertive and relentless in projecting the apparent superiority of the German leadership. Together, these chapters prove a powerful point that lies at the very centre of this book: reading Third Reich photographs as art reveals, rather obscures, their social and ideological functions in history.

On top of breaking new academic ground, Photography in the Third Reich urges readers from all backgrounds to question popular historical myths. In particular, the essays challenge a common misconception that Nazi Germany represented a sharp break with everything that came before and after. For instance, in chapter 1, Rolf Sachsse vividly illustrates the Weimar photography trends that continued to play a crucial role in National Socialist propaganda. One of the trends was the picture series, a format that became popular after the introduction of 35mm roll film to Germany around 1925. Far from sidelining the picture series, the National Socialist state enthusiastically employed it to make propaganda that personalised political content.

Neither did the photographs of the Third Reich vanish overnight in May 1945. In fact, many surviving images adapted surprisingly well to the postwar climate. The once ideologically charged photos of the ‘Germanic’ people were recontextualized for the tourist market. They now showcase the ‘a gemütlich(cosy) and nostalgic image of German life’ for visitors. This is the case for Hans Retzlaff’s photograph of a peasant woman in traditional German costume, which was reprinted after the war for a tourism publication Niedersachsen (1961). As the conclusion eloquently states, Third Reich photography ‘remainsa continuing manifestation of a political, ideological, esoteric, and Romantic mélange unique to its time.’

The significance of Photography in the Third Reich lies in both what it has achieved and what is yet to be achieved. Undoubtedly, it has the potential to inspire the next generation of researchers to study Third Reich photography seriously. Its pioneering approach is not only of interest to historians, but to anyone who seeks new reflections on the well-studied period of the Third Reich. Hopefully, this essay collection will mark the start of a burgeoning field.

Photography in the Third Reich: Art, Physiognomy and Propaganda by Christopher Webster (ed.) is an Open Access title available to read and download for free as well as to purchase in paperback, hardback and in various e-Book editions at