Few things in the world of stereography are particularly controversial. The treatment of black people – particularly in American stereoviews – is often horrible by today’s standards. At the end of the second great age of stereography, in the early 1930s, the word “negro” was still in commonplace use. Of course, this was the parlance of the time. Some of the images of black Americans are troublesome as well – exaggerated scenes of watermelons being eaten on porches, of black folk “happily” working the cotton fields, and so on, are not altogether uncommon. I have heard tell of, though have never seen, stereoviews depicting slaves in the South – remember that stereo photography began a decade or so before the Civil War.
In the Victorian era, there was a lot of controversy over “risqué” stereoviews – which could be as tame as a woman showing any part of her legs above the knee. In the 20th century, “risqué” views were often of showgirls, burlesque dancers, or women in full one-piece bathing suits. Of course there have always been artistic nudes; hardly controversial, being that nudity has been a part of the artistic canon since BCE – look at statuary from ancient Greece. I myself photograph artistic nudes, and I would be appalled if anybody described them as anything other than artistic. Then there are pornographic stereoviews – they exist, though I don’t collect them, and they bring with them the same amount of controversy that pornography in any medium does.
But there is only one company that remains somewhat controversial, at least amongst non-serious collectors of stereography: Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein. Generally referred to simply as “Raumbild” or “Raumbild-Verlag”, the company was the brainchild of a man who wanted to travel from city to city, extensively photographing each one, and presenting them as sets of 6×13 stereoviews with an accompanying viewer (called a Photoplastikon) in a bound folio that also contained essays on the city & still photography. He incorporated in 1935, and put out his first folio that same year – entitled “Venice”.
Unfortunately, by this point in time, all media was reviewed by the Ministry of Propaganda, and Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda Joseph Goebbels personally reviewed the book – and found it wanting. Schönstein was already at work on a second book, focused on the Vatican – a project that was immediately scrapped when Goebbels denounced the first volume (which is now exceptionally rare). Schönstein now had two choices: dissolve his business, or partner with the Nazis. He chose the latter. Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer and one of his best friends, took over a controlling stake in the company and became principal photographer; Schönstein was relegated to compiling and printing the folios, although he did occasionally sneak a few of his own shots into the volumes focused on cities, landscapes, etc. But effectively, from 1936 to 1945, Raumbild was a propaganda arm of the Nazi government, and all of its work from this time period must be viewed as such.
Raumbild and This Blog
I created this blog to share my collections with the public, to invite discussion, and to get help from its readers in identifying people & places in my various amateur sets, starting with the Puthon Collection. One of my collections – not a major collection, but I have quite a few – is Raumbild. While historians and artists might be able to look at Nazi propaganda, put it in its historic context, and not blink an eye, I am also acutely aware of the fact that seeing such images might offend or cause discomfort, anger, or trauma for some sectors of the population. So it’s been quite a quandary figuring out how to display Raumbild works without inadvertently upsetting anybody.
It’s tricky, because I can’t find any way within the WordPress software to use a slider or button to hide all posts with a particular tag or category. So here’s how I intend to go about displaying Raumbild stereography from the Nazi era on this blog:
- The header image from any Raumbild-related post will contain nothing that could, on its own, offend anybody.
- Each post will begin with a warning (reproduced below) that the contents could offend those who are sensitive to Nazi symbols, leaders, etc.
- The only category that the posts will fall under is “Raumbild” and its subheadings
- The tags used on Raumbild posts will be shared with any non-Raumbild posts, but the Raumbild warning at the top of the post should be enough to stop the reader before they reach disturbing content
In this manner, anybody wishing to avoid the subject area should be able to do so. The warning will read as follows:
RAUMBILD WARNING: This post contains stereographic images from Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein, a company that was largely controlled by the Nazi party between 1936 and 1945. If you are offended or disturbed by imagery containing Nazi symbols, leaders, salutes, or the like, please click away. In no way do I personally, nor this blog as a forum, support Nazism, and any comments which appear to do so will be removed and their posters blocked.
This warning and set of guidelines will also apply to similar works, such as Carl Röhrig Verlag’s “Danzig”. Post-war Raumbild images – those published by Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein after 1945, by Raumbild-Verlag Siegfried Brandmüller, and by other manufacturers after the war, will not bear warnings as such, as their subject matter is unrelated to Nazi propaganda efforts.
Below are ten selections of images published by Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein during the 1935-1945 period, carefully chosen to avoid the more controversial imagery (German leaders, swastikas, Hitlergruß salutes, etc). However, if you wish to avoid Raumbild imagery altogether, you may stop reading now – and avoid future Raumbild posts, which will be clearly demarcated as such.
So why collect Raumbild?
The first and most obvious reason that I collect Raumbild albums is that the photographs are generally of excellent quality (and as a sidenote, very easy to free view). Here’s an example, from a folio generally referred to in English as “German Forest”:
This is a cropped version of the image – the white border has been removed, but I left the number in place to give an idea of what a complete card looks like. Moving forward, numbers will be in the captions to provide larger images. Here’s another from the same set:
Clearly, the captions are provided by Google Translate – anybody who has better translations to share is invited to use the contact form to let me know! In any case, these are clearly lovely stereoviews – so how are they propaganda? Simply put, they’re “beauty propaganda” – one of a series of folios (and later card sets) meant to showcase the beauty and culture of Germany. The propaganda is subtle, but it’s there – it’s meant to foster identity with the “Fatherland”. Likewise with this landscape, from a series entitled “Kreuz un quer durch Oberbayern” (“Criss-cross through Upper Bavaria”):
The second reason I collect Raumbild is that it provides opportunities to see things that were not captured by other manufacturers – by the mid-1930s, Holmes-style cards were dying out, Tru Vue wasn’t sending photographers abroad, View-Master was of dubious-at-best quality – but Raumbild was often on-site with exceptional stereographic quality owing to their use of the Rolleidoscop stereoscopic camera. Heinrich Hoffmann captured events such as the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, and the 1936 Olympic games (Summer, Winter, and… Chess?) Here’s Paris 1937:
And here’s the 1936 Olympics:
Of course, the event folios are propaganda as well – and these images were very carefully chosen. I was going to choose a great automobile image featuring a hyper-modern looking Mercedes Benz from the Paris Expo book – until I noticed a subtle swastika emblazoned on the rear of the car whilst viewing it through my stereoscope. The German Pavilion is given much more weight in the book, which was marketed to numerous markets – the essay contained within is presented in English, German, and French.
The 1936 Olympics book was even harder to select images from – obviously excluded from this post (due to lack of warning beforehand) were figures like Hitler, Göring, and Leni Riefenstahl. Swastikas – which adorned the stadiums, the statuary, the arms of many figures – clearly right out. More subtly, in most of the crowd photos, at least one (if not many) of the figures are pictured giving the Hitlergruß (Hitler salute). These sorts of non-subtle propaganda dominate many of Raumbild’s folios.
So why collect propaganda, besides to see the games or the expos or the forests or the cities? Two reasons.
Propaganda is fascinating in and of itself. From “Lord Kitchener Wants You” (blatantly ripped off by the Americans with “Uncle Sam Wants You”) to modern North Korean *cough cough* “military photos“, the ways in which countries manipulate their citizens, or attempt to influence their image on the world stage, is intriguing. Personally, I find old Soviet propaganda to be the most visually stunning, but sadly, I know of no collections of stereographic images from post-Bolshevik Russia. I was blown away by the visual techniques and effectiveness of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Strike” and “Battleship Potemkin”. I was likewise blown away by Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” and “Triumph of the Will”. Analyzing well-made propaganda and appreciating why it was (or is) effective is a far cry from sympathizing with the causes that the propaganda promotes.
History is important. The ugly side of history is included in that. The Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 would not have been possible without a powerful – and effective – propaganda campaign. Continued propaganda consolidated this power, and eventually lulled the populace into complacency (if not outright complicity) during events ranging from Kristallnacht to Aktion T4 to the invasion of the Free City of Danzig – which was the spark that ignited the Second World War, and the unspeakable atrocities that came with it. Studying history gives us the context to evaluate the present. Studying the most successful propaganda machines in history allows us to recognize when we are being subjected to propaganda in the present.
But then again, I have made a strong case in conversation that Raumbild albums fail as effective propaganda – a topic for a later blog post to be sure.
The final reason that I collect Raumbild albums is that I collect all war photography. The bulk of my stereography collection, in fact, is of the Great War – just wait until November, when there will be daily posts in honor of the centenary of the Armistice and the end of the Great War. I also have images from the Boer War, the American Civil War, the Russo-Japanese War, etc. Raumbild put out four military folios – two on the general Wehrmacht, and one each on the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. I have all four; the latter two are quite rare, but contain some amazing images of the respective military forces. Just like Realistic Travels in Britain and Keystone View Company in America glorified their countries’ respective armies, the Raumbild sets glorified their troops – well, most of their troops:
I’m not sure that there’s a great deal of glory in having a wooden crate full of pigeons strapped to your back, but it just goes to show that every army has its grunts.
In a sense, my grandfather – and personal hero, best friend, and confidant – was a grunt. He enlisted and trained, and then he boarded a ship. After the capture of Normandy, he landed there with the 367th Fighter Squadron. He had a very unglamorous job – waking at 3 AM each morning to load bombs onto P-47 Thunderbolts. He dined on “Treet” – basically knockoff Spam – and played cards for pennies with his comrades. During the winters, when his gloves wore through, his fingers would freeze to the bombs, and he’d have to rip them free. He wasn’t an Ace, nor a sharpshooter, nor a leader. But he chose to go out and fight for his country during the worst crisis of his lifetime. So he was a hero.
Plenty of soldiers who fought in the Wehrmacht had no political beliefs. To call them Nazi soldiers would be erroneous. They were German soldiers, some of whom believed in Nazi ideals, some of whom did not; some of whom enlisted and some of whom were conscripted. Some were fighting for a heinous ideal, but some were just fighting for their countries – just like my grandfather. War is complicated like that.
I have no love of Nazis, neo-Nazis, the far-right parties that are on the rise around the world, or any of that nonsense. But I can appreciate Raumbild albums on a number of levels – as well-made and often beautiful stereoviews, as records of historic places and events, as effective propaganda, as war documents. They’re not for everybody, and I certainly wouldn’t want anybody who didn’t wish to study this sort of material to see them – hence this blog post. But then again, I don’t believe that people should be unable to see them – hence the fact that I will occasionally make Raumbild-related posts. It’s up to you whether you want to view them.
Raumbild views in general do not anaglyph well. Because of the pace with which Otto Schönstein was churning out various cards and sets, doing a simple overlay of the two squares just doesn’t work – they need to be vertically offset, and therefore cropped – and thus, some of the image is lost. Thankfully, they still look pretty decent, even with the crops, so if you couldn’t free view the images above, here they are in red/cyan: