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Posted on Mar 17, 2005 in Books and Movies

Shadows of War – German Soldier’s Lost Photographs of World War II – Book Review

Editorial Staff

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Shadows of War: A German Soldier’s Lost Photographs of World War II
Bopp, Petra
Harry N. Abrams, 2005

The study of military history can lead you down some strange paths. Many times we read of people who fight wars doing heroic things like vanquishing despots, commanding armies, or planning invasions. Yet, more often than not we think to ourselves "If I was there, I probably would have been just another grunt." If we are lucky, we stumble upon a book where we can easily see ourselves in the boots of a common soldier, doing what they did amidst all the war and horror going on around them. This book, Shadows of War, was one of those volumes which struck me on a deeper level because I felt I could somewhat relate to the man behind the camera…

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As a person who has grown up in the comfort and safety of peace, but has often studied and witnessed books and movies on war, I often ask myself what I would have done had I been present during those events. What if I had grown up in Germany before the Second World War? I certainly would have been conscripted into the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), certainly would have had to fight, and odds are I would have suffered and possibly died in the depths of Russia. Not a pleasant thought to say the least…but being able to put yourself in the shoes of friend and foe alike is one method to help understand and appreciate those events that now seem so distant. This book is one attempt to bring those situations back to life, and the pictures provide snapshots (both literally and figuratively) of what the common German soldier had to endure, what he saw, and where he went – but NOT what he thought. This book is devoid of political sentiment, and dwells only on the stark reality in which these men existed.

The photographer passed away recently and thus was unable to (or unwilling) to add his personal thoughts to this collection – and we are left to ponder the significance behind these very diverse images. It was easy for me to find an underlying connection to them since the photographer, Willi Rose, began his career in a bicycle unit. As a passionate bike rider and photographer myself, it was not hard to imagine myself in a similar unit during those times… many of his photographs show his bike unit moving across bridges, riding in fields, or simply resting. These are all things I do on my bike regularly, allowing me to see many of those pictures as shots I myself would take (and often do with my own camera, with my own riding group). Our similarities gave me a perceived understanding of what he went through on his bicycle as I followed his pictures from the French campaign of 1940 to a point deep in the Caucasus region of Russia (and back). At times cheerful in showing his buddies resting or goofing around, the tone is undeniably darker as the Russian campaign wears on and he snaps pictures of burning villages, destroyed vehicles, his tired commanders and companions, and finally the Soviet soldiers themselves (prisoners of war).

Since there are few shots of actual warfare, we are left to imagine war is just around the corner, or just over the horizon, or just in the shadows of these pictures. Never is it manifest in a direct, in-your-face fashion. Yet, this does not detract from the value of the photographs, and in fact helps put the reader into the scenes much more readily simply because they are mundane – things we could imagine seeing. One of the more haunting scenes is a shot of two German police officers talking to a Russian civilian woman in front of her house. At first glance the scene appears harmless…but there in the shadow of the doorway we can see an outline of one of the police officers – almost as if Willi was carefully snapping this picture to show the deeper implications of her plight. As with all the other pictures, we are left to wonder what happened to her, what she was thinking, whether that shadow in the doorway was about to strike? Was Willi a witness to such horrors? So many questions contained in each photograph.

This book of photos shows one path taken by one soldier during the war, and we can surmise that he was content to simply catalog the whirlwind around him, using photography to distance himself from it (as photographers are able to do). At face value it appears that he was careful to avoid peering into the true depths of war, by meticulously clicking away from the horrors of the front line or the despair of the Soviet civilians (it was against German rules to photograph some elements of the battlefield). However, as mentioned in the introduction, and witnessed in my personal exploration of these photographs – the real strength of this book comes from what is NOT shown, or what is just out of camera shot in many of these images. How difficult it must have been for anyone on either side of the war to avoid the grim reality that was everywhere around them. The fact that Willi was so careful in his subject selection speaks volumes about how truly horrible things must have been.

Final thoughts: I really can’t find any faults with this volume. The pictures are what you’d expect given their age (most are very good quality), they are presented in a clean, streamlined manner and some have explanations on location or personages added by the editor. There are a wide variety of pictures to peruse, mostly focusing on the day-to-day life of a German motorcycle unit. Other scenes include river crossings, burning villages, German officers, landscape portraits, and damaged and captured equipment in the Soviet theater. For the reader interested in learning more about everyday life and the "mundane" surroundings of combatants, this book is an excellent resource (students solely interested in seeing larger German vehicles or AFV’s might be disappointed since they were not the focus of his pictures). There are a lot of shots of motorcycles and bicycles to be sure!

The opening essay explains a lot about German propaganda photography, and puts Willi’s photographs into historical perspective. It does a good job of educating the reader in some of the technical aspects of photography, and explains why selected pieces of this collection are important. Since I have an amateur interest in photography, I found much of this information to be very informative. This interesting book does exactly what it sets out to do, putting you into this landscape almost as a first hand participant. If you are willing to let yourself step further into the shoes of this soldier, you might also come away with a better understanding and appreciation of the paths this man (and many like him) had to travel. It is worth your effort.

1 Comment

  1. nice thing to be read out

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