Who ended the Second World War

Images in history and politics

Horst Poetzsch

To person

Horst Pötzsch, Ltd. Reg.Dir. retired, was a department head in the Federal Agency for Civic Education and editor-in-chief of "Information on Civic Education" for a long time. He is the author of several books on history and political education.

World War II is the first war in history that has been comprehensively documented with photographs. Whether you are a professional war correspondent or a simple soldier: your pictures don't just capture certain moments; they also testify to how these should be viewed from the perspective of those involved. Horst Pötzsch draws a panorama of poses and misery.

On May 8, 1945, the Second World War ended on the European theater of war. With the war they instigated, Hitler and his regime had led Germany into the worst defeat in its history. The war had brought immeasurable suffering, death and destruction to large parts of Europe. 55 million deaths were to be mourned, including 5.5 million Germans and 50 million members of numerous other peoples. A quarter of the dead were civilians, including six million Jews who had fallen victim to racial ideological madness. Germany was beaten three times: militarily, politically and morally.


The Second World War is the first war in history that has been comprehensively documented with photographs. The medium of photography had been perfected between the wars and the camera, thanks to mass production, became a commodity for many millions of people, including soldiers, of course, who captured their impressions of the war in pictures. It is estimated that between 30 and 40 million photos were taken during World War II.

Photography had evolved into the most effective means of propaganda. The Wehrmacht had already started to recruit journalists, professional photographers and cameramen before the war. At the beginning of the war they were put into a uniform and formed their own branch of arms, the Propagandakompanien (PK). Her weapon was the camera. Two million negatives from the PK men have been preserved. Of course, tens of thousands of war reporters were also active on the Allied side. Three million photos from World War II are preserved in the UK.

Strict rules apply in the war of images. The image has to be useful for one's own cause, it has to strengthen the fighting spirit of one's own troops and it has to raise morale in the home country. Pictures document the defeats of the enemy and the victories of their own soldiers. The enemy must be portrayed negatively, as defeated, even as a monster. Your own soldier appears as a hero accustomed to victory. Strict censorship was applied to ensure that the rules were observed. It already manifested itself as self-censorship in the mind. The photographers knew which images were being printed and which were undesirable. Censorship authorities made sure that there were no slip-ups.

There was one thing the photo reporters could not influence, the war situation on which they were so dependent. It's easy to take photos of a victorious army and a defeated enemy, but retreating troops or a sky full of enemy planes are not very pleasant subjects. In addition, the winners determine the law of action, the important events take place on their side. It is therefore no coincidence that eight of the ten motifs for the end of the war complex were taken by Allied photographers.

Of course, pictures are also falsified, unwanted details retouched and desired details copied into them. Images can be re-dated and those of one's own atrocities output as images of hostile atrocities. The staging of images is even more interesting. Images of prominent events that are intended as symbols or that were later given a high symbolic value are often staged. The photographer leaves nothing to chance, but arranges the scene carefully in order to obtain the symbolic image or an entire series to choose from. The meeting of Torgau or the Red Flag at the Reichstag in this series are examples of staged images.

The selection of pictures from the end of the war presented in this article is of course also subjective. Some of these photos, such as those of the signing of the surrender in Reims and Karlshorst or the conferences in Yalta and Potsdam, must be part of a documentation of the end of the war. Some could have been replaced by other motifs.

In order to put the pictures of the end of the war in a historical context, two photos have been added. It is the painting "The Turnpike" that shows how it all began, the second is "The Coup". The coup d'état of July 20, 1944, was the only almost successful attempt to end the madness at the last minute. Another photo could have stood for this subject, for example that of Hitler and Mussolini in front of the ruins of the barracks. The selected shows the brutal and at the same time petty revenge of the regime.

The turnpike

The picture was taken on September 1, 1939. You can see German soldiers breaking away a barrier. It is a Polish barrier on the border between Germany and Poland at the time. Like several of the pictures in this series, the picture is posed, that is, it was not created spontaneously, it is not a snapshot. Pictures like this serve as symbols, as symbols that make a significant event vividly vivid.

This picture stands for the German attack on Poland and thus for the unleashing of the Second World War. The historian Guido Knoop followed the traces of the picture. He managed to track down one of those involved, Hermann Rausch, the soldier looking to the right behind the Polish eagle. Hermann Rausch reports how the picture was created: His unit did not reach the Polish border station until hours after the German invasion began. The barrier had already been broken off and was lying next to the box. The war correspondent who was assigned to his unit shouted: "Take this barrier and pretend to break it off!"

The cheerful mood displayed by the soldiers can be explained by the fact that the photo was taken and the soldiers were out of danger. Had they got to the border first, the atmosphere would have been much more serious. Intoxication can also answer another question. The two men with peaked caps are not SS men, as is sometimes assumed, but Polish border officials who, strangely enough, are eagerly involved in the elimination of their professional basis.

It would be fundamentally wrong if one wanted to draw conclusions about the attitude of the German people or of the other warring peoples from the cheerful mood conveyed by the picture. Unlike at the beginning of the First World War, when patriotic enthusiasm reigned everywhere, the mood was depressed. All people over thirty had consciously experienced the First World War, as soldiers at the front the hell of material battles, as civilians the hunger and privations at home.

The bombing war

The three people, a woman, a man and a child, look like they have escaped hell. The woman is in shock; a uniformed helper supports her. The man carries the traumatized child. Is it a family Men that age were on the front lines. Maybe he's on home leave right now.

Hell is a German city, in this case Mannheim, which has just been the target of an attack by the RAF and the British Air Force. The attacks continued to perfect. They eventually created firestorms that turned the cities into a hell of flames. 500,000 people, most of them women and children, fell victim to them.

The attacks were based on the idea that the population could be demoralized to such an extent that Germany would eventually be forced to surrender. The British should have known better. The German air raids on London in 1940 only strengthened their will to persevere.

Martial law prohibited targeted bombing of the civilian population. The attacks were also senseless from a military point of view, as it turned out after the war. German arms production, which, however, was not the target of the bombing, peaked in September 1944. It was only massively affected when the Americans bombed oil refineries and transport facilities during the day.

So the bombing war was pointless from a cost / benefit point of view. It has been calculated that a quarter of British war spending was spent on it. The crews of the bombers suffered enormous losses; between a third and a half, the information varies, was killed. The commander of the Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, was therefore called "Butcher" Harris.

The coup

Erwin von Witzleben on August 7, 1944 before the People's Court
In the center of the picture is an old man in a suit that is too wide. With his right hand he gesticulates, with the left he seems to be holding onto his pants. Behind him sit policemen in uniforms that were common before 1945. The picture shows Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben on August 7, 1944 in front of the People's Court, whose president was Roland Freisler.

After the attempted coup by the conspiratorial group around Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Witzleben was to take over the supreme command of the Wehrmacht. The death of Hitler was a prerequisite for the success of the coup. Only his death would have released the soldiers of the Wehrmacht from the oath they had sworn on the "Führer". Nobody knows what would have happened if the coup had succeeded. The Allies would have insisted on unconditional surrender, Germany would have been divided, the German eastern territories would have been separated off, their inhabitants would have been driven out. The conspirators knew that they could not hope for any concessions from the enemy powers. Nevertheless, they stuck to the assassination attempt and coup d'état. As one of the most active men of the resistance, Major General Henning von Tresckow (1901-1944) put it: "The assassination must come, no matter what the cost. that the German resistance movement dared to make the decisive throw before the world and before history. "

Nevertheless, the success of the coup would have had a practical purpose. The mad war that began on September 1, 1939 would probably have ended soon. In the 9 months from July 20, 1944 to May 8, 1945, more than half of the 4.75 million German soldiers killed in action lost their lives, plus millions of soldiers on the opposing side. The bombing war would also have ended soon. Dresden, Hildesheim, Würzburg, Pforzheim, Dessau, Potsdam and numerous other German cities would not have been destroyed. 200,000 civilian deaths in these cities would have remained alive.

Freisler, a fanatical National Socialist, conducted the negotiations against the resistance fighters with extreme brutality. He humiliated the defendants, shouted at them and refused to let them speak. All of the accused had been interrogated by the Gestapo for several days, weeks or months, which were often associated with severe torture.

Field Marshal von Witzleben was badly marked by the previous interrogations. Indeed, he is holding on to his pants because his suspenders and belt have been removed. Freisler used this to humiliate his victim: "You filthy old man, what are you fiddling with your pants all the time." Witzleben's closing words, addressed to Freisler, were: "You can hand us over to the hangman. In three months the indignant and tormented people will bring you to account."

It shouldn't come to that. Freisler was killed by a beam of the collapsing courthouse in an Allied bombing raid.

Witzleben was hanged on August 8, 1944 with four co-conspirators.

The last contingent

On March 19, 1945, Hitler received a delegation of Hitler Youth who had been awarded the Iron Cross in the courtyard of the Reich Chancellery. In the picture, the second from the right is twelve-year-old Alfred Czech, the third from the right is sixteen-year-old Wilhelm Hübner. The Fiihrer was only a shadow of himself. Marked by the constant defeats and the consequences of the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, he looked senile; He walked in a hunched position with a dragging gait, his left hand behind his back to hide the tremor. He shook hands with the youngsters, patted their cheeks, listened to their stories and soon disappeared back into his bunker.

On September 25, 1944, a decree issued by Hitler ordered "the German Volkssturm to be formed from all men capable of arms between the ages of 16 and 60." Young people, the old, the sick and the weak should "defend their homeland with all weapons and means." In terms of weapons, there was a hodgepodge of booty rifles from the pool of once defeated armies, often without sufficient ammunition.

The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

The picture shows a shallow pit, the bottom of which is covered with a tangled mess of structures. On closer inspection, they can be identified as corpses. You can see human arms and legs, upper body, a few heads. The bodies are more or less bare. It is noticeable that among the visible items of clothing, many have a striped pattern. There are two living people in the pit, men with boots on. At the top left you can see a man with a gun.

The picture shows a mass grave in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It could have been taken in any other concentration camp, the pictures are the same. British troops liberated the concentration camp on April 15th. They were presented with images of unimaginable horror. In the camp there were still 60,000 living prisoners, miserable figures, emaciated to the bones, closer to death than life. Of them, 14,000 were to die by June 1945.

In view of the approaching front, the SS began at the end of 1944 to disband the camps in the east and to march the prisoners into the interior of the Reich. On these misery marches, countless prisoners died of exhaustion, were shot or perished in the reception camps. The destination of numerous transports was Bergen-Belsen. In October / November 1944, 8,000 women from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp arrived. In March / April tens of thousands came from the Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme, Dora and others concentration camps. The camp was in no way prepared to accommodate such a huge number of people. The accommodations were overcrowded several times, the sanitary and hygienic conditions were devastating, the food was completely inadequate and ultimately failed to materialize. Epidemics led to mass deaths. 35,000 people were killed between January and April 1945, including Anne Frank in March. The camp was littered with corpses. They were piled up in piles in many places, decaying human bodies were scattered everywhere, in the barracks the dead lay next to the still living.

The English ordered the captured guards, including the camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, to bury the dead in mass graves. The men with the boots are SS men, the man in the upper left is an English soldier. In autumn 1945 a trial took place in Lüneburg in which a number of SS men were sentenced to death. You have been hanged.

The conferences

Yalta Conference, from left Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin (& copy Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives)
The picture above shows the three most powerful men in the world at that time, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. The picture below shows the three most powerful men during the Potsdam Conference in July / August 1945. The common name for them is "The Big Three". Obviously there are five in total. Roosevelt had died in April 1945. Instead, the new President Truman took part in the Potsdam Conference. Churchill's Conservative Party lost the elections at home, and so he was replaced by his successor in the role of Prime Minister, Attlee, during the conference. Only Stalin represented continuity.

The men couldn't have been more different. Two were elected heads of government, two elected presidents of old democracies. Stalin was an autocrat and one of the great mass murderers in world history. He is the only one wearing a uniform, although he has never been a soldier.

Potsdam Conference, from left Clemens Atlee, Harry S. Truman, Joseph Stalin (& copy Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives)
The first of the conferences on the reorganization of Germany and Europe took place in Tehran in November 1943. Fundamental decisions were made in Yalta in view of the impending victory. Germany's National Socialism and militarism were to be exterminated, and the country itself was to be divided into zones of occupation. An allied control commission was to manage the zones of occupation centrally. Finally, the "westward shift" of Poland was determined: The Soviet Union was to receive Eastern Poland (and northern East Prussia with Königsberg), for which Poland was to be compensated with German territory up to the Oder-Neisse line.

The purpose of the Potsdam Conference was to specify and substantiate the Yalta resolutions.The "political principles" for treating Germany were undisputed: disarmament and demilitarization, dissolution of all National Socialist organizations, establishment of an administration from the community to the state level. The dismemberment of Germany, which was decided in Tehran and still pursued by Roosevelt and Stalin in Yalta, was off the table.

In the German areas beyond the Oder and Neisse rivers, the Soviets had set up Polish administrations and thus created a fait accompli. It was now decided that the "transfer of the German population" should take place in a "proper and humane manner". The final definition of the border should take place in a peace treaty.

In the controversial question of reparations, the Western powers rejected international control of the Ruhr area. Every occupying power should take reparations from its own zone. The division of Germany into two reparation areas initiated the division into two economic areas.

The Potsdam resolutions are in many ways vague and vague, which later led to endless disputes. The new American President Truman did not share Roosevelt's illusionist ideas that one could determine the fate of the world together with "good Uncle Joe" (Stalin). He was practicing sober realpolitik. The USA and Great Britain were now pulling together. The Cold War was casting its shadow.