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World War II’s Other Iconic Photo: Raising A Flag Over The Reichstag

When photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the picture of five US marines and a Navy sailor raising the American flag over the battle-scarred Japanese island of Iwo Jima, he could not have anticipated that it would become one of the most memorable and most recognizable images of the Second World War. Widely reprinted across a thousand publications, the image resonated with everyone who saw it, and was promptly reproduced in postage stamps and later sculpted in bronze at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Virginia.

Thousands of miles away at Moscow, it inspired Stalin to stage a similar victory photographs but with Red Army soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag.

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Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, by Yevgeny Khaldei, is one of the most iconic photographs from the Battle of Berlin and the Second World War in general.

Yevgeny Anan'evich Khaldei was a Red Army naval officer and the war’s official photographer. For more than four years, since the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Khaldei was active in the field, documenting events as they unfolded. Born to a Jewish family in present-day Ukraine, Khaldei was obsessed with photography since childhood. One of his earliest cameras was a primitive box that he fashioned himself using his grandmother's eyeglasses.

As a war photographer, Khaldei recorded the death and destruction on the Eastern Front, from Sevastopol to Murmansk to Manchuria and eventually all the way to Berlin. He also photographed the Potsdam Conference, and later the Nuremberg Trials.

During the final days of the war, the Red Army smashed its way into the German capital. One of the targets was the Reichstag building, the former seat of power of the German Empire. Although the German assembly no longer met at the Reichstag, capturing the building became one of the prime objectives of the Red Army due to its symbolic significance.

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Ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin, 3 June 1945. Photo credit: Imperial War Museums.

One 30 April, 1945, after a day-long assault, Soviet troops broke into the building, and with fighting still continuing inside, some of them reached the roof and hoisted the Red Flag on the top. It was night time so nobody could photograph it.

When Khaldei arrived at Berlin on May 2nd, armed with his ­Leica III rangefinder and a large Red Flag which his tailor uncle at Moscow had sewn for him out of tablecloths stolen from a government office, he found he was two days too late. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide two days before, and the Germans had surrendered.

But Yevgeny Khaldei knew he had to take the photo. “This is what I was waiting for for 1,400 days,” he later said.

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Khaldei tried several places. The first photo is taken at Tempelhof Airport, and the second at Brandenburg Gate.

Khaldei collected three soldiers from the street and asked them to re-enact the historic flag raising while he took photos. An 18-year-old Private Alexei Kovalyov from Kiev attached the flag, while Abdulkhakim Ismailov from Dagestan and Leonid Gorychev from Minsk accompanied him. Khaldei shot an entire roll of film, 36 images. One of these was published in the magazine Ogoniok on 13 May 1945.

Back in Moscow, officials scrutinizing the photographs found a problem—one of the soldiers had a wristwatch on each arm, indicating he had been looting—an image that would reflect very badly on the country. Khaldei was asked to edit the watch out of the image, which he did by scratching it out with a needle. Khaldei then went on to make more dramatic edits to his photo, such as darkening the sky and adding smoke in the background, which earned him much criticism.

Throughout his life, Khaldei defended his photo manipulation. “It is a good photograph and historically significant,” he once said. He knew it was propaganda, but he believed the cause was just. Khaldei suffered immense loss during the war against Hitler, having lost his father and three of his four sisters to Nazi murderers.

“I forgive the Germans, but I cannot forget,” he used to say until his death in October 1997.

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The edited photo. Notice how dark, gritty and smoky the image is compared to the original at the top of the article. You can also make out the missing wrist watch from the right hand of the soldier at the bottom of the image.

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Two different versions of the flag raising.

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The original raising of the flag photograph at Iwo Jima.

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Reichstag building as it is today. Photo credit: Roman Lashkin/Flickr

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