Richard Peter, Blick vom Rathaussturm, Dresden 1945 (Deutsche Fotothek)
A new essay from Steven Hoelscher, ‘Dresden, a Camera Accuses: Rubble photography and the politics of memory in a divided Germany’, just out in History of Photography 36 (3) (2012) 288-305.
This article explores memory, photography and atrocity in the aftermath of war. It takes as its case study the controversies surrounding the February 1945 firebombing of Dresden. One photograph in particular has become the iconic image of the fire- bombing and of the devastating air war more generally – Richard Peter’s View from the City Hall Tower to the South of 1945. Although arguably less divided today than it was during the Cold War, when the image became seared into local and national memory, Germany’s past continues to haunt everyday discourse and political action in the new millennium, creating new ruptures in a deeply fractured public sphere. By examining the historical context for the photograph’s creation and its dissemination through the book Dresden – A Camera Accuses, this article raises questions of responsibility, victimhood and moral obligation that are at the heart of bearing witness to wartime trauma. Peter’s Dresden photographs have long intervened in that existential difficulty and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Together with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden belongs to a handful of global icons that capture the destructiveness of warfare in the twentieth century. Immediately recognisable, these icons are endowed with a powerful symbolism that cannot be explained with reference to historical cause and effect alone. This is precisely the terrain of this book, which addresses the long aftermath of the bombing in the collective and cultural imagination from 1945 to the present. The material under discussion ranges from archival documents, architectural journals, the built environment, travelogues, newspaper articles, documentaries, TV dramas, fiction, diaries, poetry to photography and fine art. As a case study of an event that gained local, national and global iconicity in the postwar period, it illuminates the media-specific transmission of cultural memory in dialogue with the changing socio-political landscape. Debating fundamental processes of cultural transmission, it exemplifies a new mode of doing cultural history that interweaves the local and the global.
Her discussion of Peters’ Eine Kamera klagt an is on pp. 32-42 and forms part of a fine extended discussion of ‘Visual mediations’.