Germany, in the eye of the beholder

Germany, in the eye of the beholder

Christopher Webster van Tonder, Erich Retzlaff volksfotograf, with contributions by Rolf Sachsse & Wolfgang Brückle, School of Art Press, 2013

Erich Retzlaff Volksfotograf, an exhibition of photographs from the School of Art Collection, Aberystwyth, by Christopher Webster van Tonder. At the German Historical Institute London until 21 March 2014

Leslie Jones contemplates some striking but unsettling images

As Christopher Webster van Tonder acknowledges (Erich Retzlaff volksfotograf), anyone working in the arts in Nazi Germany had little choice but to embrace Nazi ideology. Photographers were expected “to promote photography in a racial sense” and to support “national customs and traditions” (Klaus Honnef et al, quoted page 54). However, the photographer Erich Retzlaff (1899-1993) evidently found these requirements easy to comply with. An ardent nationalist, he had fought on the Western Front in the First World War. He joined the NSDAP in 1932 (party member number 1014457). Even after 1945 he remained an unrepentant anti-Semite.

Van Tonder, Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Aberystwyth, considers Retzlaff’s work of the 1930’s and 1940’s “a visual metaphor of an idealised and exclusively Germanic utopia” (page 10). His output was informed by the concept of the Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community) and he specialised in depicting racial types. The idea of the Volksgemeinschaft appealed to many Germans because it potentially embraced any person of supposedly ‘German stock’ regardless of social standing, although the denial of rights to homosexuals and communists provided noteworthy exceptions.

Retzlaff was born in Reinfeld in Schleswig-Holstein. His family background was affluent middle class and Protestant. He was badly wounded in the Great War and after the war he eventually became a supplies buyer for a factory in Hamburg. Earning an excellent salary he moved in artistic circles and took up photography in the first instance as a hobby. In 1928 he opened a small photographic studio in Düsseldorf. Some of his early commissions were industrial photographs for the public relations magazines of steel and mining companies. Wolfgang Brückle points out that Retzlaff’s artistic breakthrough came with his collection of anonymous portraits entitled Das Antlitz des Alters [Face of Old Age] published in 1930. This volume received critical acclaim both at home and abroad.

As Dr van Tonder observed at the opening of the German Historical Institute’s exhibition, the salient characteristic of many of the portraits exhibited therein is that the photographer considered them not just as individuals but also as racial types. Titles like Friese [Frisian] (1940), Jungbauer aus Mecklenburg [Young Farmer from Mecklenburg] (1940) and Jungbauer aus Westfalen [Young Farmer from Westphalia] (1940) are indicative in this context.

In his many depictions of peasants, notably in the collection Die von der Scholle [Those who till the Earth] (1931), Retzlaff emphasised the putative link between racial type and geographical location. These are people rooted in “blood and soil”. Indeed, in his introduction to this work Hans Friedrich Blunck characterised the models therein as “standard bearers of authentic existence in an alienated world” (Brückle, page 25).

The introduction of Agfacolor Neu in 1936 enabled photographers to readily process their own films and allowed Retzlaff to make racial characters even more prominent. The blond, blue-eyed, “idealised Germanic type” became a recurring motif in his work.

In 1933, Retzlaff was commissioned to take photographs of high-ranking Nazis (alte Kämpfer or old fighters) for Wegbereiter und Vorkämpfer für das neue Deutschland [Pioneers and Champions of the New Germany] (1933). He duly produced portraits of Hess, Himmler, Streicher and Strasser (Gregor) amongst others. Van Tonder is surely right that Retzlaff’s current obscurity is largely attributable to the ideological character of his output before 1945. He was apparently someone quite impossible to forgive, to wit, “a photographer for the Reich” (page 13).


Leslie Jones, February 2014

Dr Leslie Jones is Deputy editor of Quarterly Review


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