World War II Liberation Photography: Learning about Photographs You May Have in your Home
"It is the desire of the Theater Commander that both still and moving pictures be utilized to the fullest extent practicable as exhibits in reports of investigations of war crimes committed by the Nazis with particular reference to Allied prisoners of war both in and out of camps and to concentration camps for the purpose of recording for civilization the history of horror written by over five years of German atrocities."
—Omar Bradley, April 24, 1945.
Almost every day, World War II veterans and their families uncover extremely graphic photographs taken of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. These photographs provide powerful documentation of the crimes of the Nazi era. Though most GIs did not have access to a camera, some did and took their own photos. However, many are copies of US Signal Corps photographs of the Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen concentration camps and their various subcamps. Among the most common images is a series taken by an unknown photographer of the crematorium in Dachau and later published as postcards.
Though we do not know how these photographs came to be reproduced and distributed in such great numbers, some hypothesize that these photographs were distributed as part of a policy reflected in General Dwight D. Eisenhower's desire to widely publicize the evidence of Nazi atrocities. Some of the most common images were printed in a small illustrated pamphlet by the US Army shortly after the end of the war and distributed throughout Germany so that "ordinary citizens become aware of the crimes which were committed in their midst, in their names, and with their permission."
If you would like to compare photographs in your possession to some of the most commonly reproduced photos to see if they are part of this massive documentation effort, please view the photographs in the gallery below.
Please note that many of these photographs are extremely graphic.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Consider the importance of primary sources. What can we learn from them?
- Explore different types of primary sources. How do they further our understanding of how and why the Holocaust happened?