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Remembering a Red Flag Day

6 minute read
Jordan Bonfante

The iconic image of Nazi Germany’s defeat is Yevgeny Khaldei’s photograph of a young Red Army soldier raising a Soviet flag atop the Reichstag over a smoldering Berlin in May 1945. That photograph is to the war in Europe what Joe Rosenthal’s image of the planting of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima is to the war in the Pacific, and its author has been called the Soviet Robert Capa. Had the Red Army war photographer received his due over the years, he might well have become as famous as Capa. Instead, it is only now, posthumously, that Khaldei is getting the recognition he deserves, with the first-ever major retrospective of his work at the Martin Gropius Bau museum — in the same city that produced his signature image .

For the youthful throngs of Berliners drawn to the show, it’s more than a photo exhibit; it’s a flashback to one of the defining traumas of their city. Among them are malcontents, to be sure, who are tired of being reminded. “Ah, these scenes are familiar,” a dismissive middle-aged photographer complained, “we’ve seen this kind of stuff so often before.” In the guest book another offended visitor protested, “It’s bull! You shouldn’t be allowed to show the suicide of a Nazi family.” But for classes of high-school teenagers brought to the gallery, the show is an eye-opener. Even two generations removed, the pictures strike very close to home. “I was frightened to see that poor dead lady lying in the street,” said a 35-year-old Berlin lady. “That’s Hallesches Ufer in Kreutzberg — I pass there every day!”

The iconic Reichstag photo, however, was anything but a candid shot: It was stage-crafted from beginning to end. Khaldei, in fact, had been at his Tass headquarters in Moscow when Soviet forces captured Hitler’s capital. The photographer had received orders from on high — possibly from Stalin himself, it was murmured — to rush there and produce a picture symbolizing the Soviet victory. The Red Army flag in the picture was brought to Berlin in Khaldei’s luggage, and before settling on the Reichstag as his location, he first checked out Tempelhof Airport and the Brandenburg Gate. A Soviet combat team had, in fact, briefly raised its unit flag on the newly seized Reichstag building on the night of April 30, but the moment had gone unrecorded. On May 2, Khaldei set about staging a reenactment. He recruited a decorated l8-year-old private named Aleksei Kovalev and two comrades to clamber on the parapets to hoist his flag. Perched above them with his Russian-made Leica, he squeezed off 36 frames. The picture later was to be doctored and even colored for various propaganda versions.

The Reichstag contrivance does not detract from the thousands of striking black-and-white pictures the Ukrainian-born Khaldei recorded on the front lines, a couple hundred of which are on show. They ranged from the defense of the Arctic city of Murmansk in 1941 to the Red Army’s westward advance across the Crimea, then Bucharest, Sofia and Belgrade, and finally Budapest, Vienna and Berlin. One of the subtexts of the show is the epic dimension of the war on Germany’s Eastern Front, which is often underappreciated in the West. By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, it was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion of June 1944. The Nazis’ initial invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa, involved 3.2 million German troops and 3,000 aircraft, and even after the U.S.-led invasion of Western Europe, the vast majority of German military resources remained deployed against the Soviets. By war’s end, according to historian Norman Davies, the U.S.S.R. had lost 11 million troops.

Khaldei evokes some of the minutiae of that epic clash. In Berlin an old woman with a cane is dwarfed in a corner of the picture by the mountainous ruins around her. A blind man sits amidst the rubble, unseeing of the immensity of the destruction all around. In the wooden city of Murmansk, back in 1941, razed in a single day by 350,000 incendiary bombs, a solitary babushka, carrying a trunk of her belongings past the forest of upright stilts and posts that are the city’s charred remains, asks Khaldei, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for taking pictures of our misfortune?”

Capa’s work is grittier and more spontaneous, his D-Day shots unmatchable. But to some minds Khaldei — although unschooled and dismissive of any claim to being an “artist” — may have had the aesthetic edge, with his intuitive sense of theatrical composition. It turns the silhouette of a patrol setting off in the cold midnight sun of the Barents Sea into a grim ballet of war. The show’s co-curator, Ernst Volland, says the photographer’s aesthetic instincts may have been formed by Russian avant-garde revolutionary art of the 1920s — the paintings of Rodchenko and films of Vertov and Eisenstein. “Remarkable,” says Volland, “how even in the most harrowing circumstances, with death, suffering and danger all around him, he could still tend to the composition.”

As it happened, Khaldei and Capa became good friends — or, as friendly as the Cold War would allow. They covered the Potsdam Conference and the Nuremberg Trials together, for instance, and photographed one another there. Both men were hard-drinking bon vivants and lady killers. Capa wound up in Hollywood with Ingrid Bergman in his thrall, then went back to war and was killed in French Indochina in 1954. Khaldei wound up in a one-room flat on Moscow’s outskirts on a $80 monthly pension, and died in bed at age 80, in 1997.

In 1947 Capa and author John Steinbeck had journeyed to the U.S.S.R. on a lengthy magazine assignment about the Soviet Union. At the close of their visit, the state-security police insisted on developing — and examining — Capa’s film. He refused. But what to do? No acquiescence, no pictures. “Okay,” Capa said finally, “but on one condition: that my friend Yevgeny Khaldei do the developing. He’s the only one I’ll trust.” Khaldei happily complied, under watchful state-security eyes.

For older Berliners, the show is a comforting reminder of just how far their city has traveled. “Just think that the new American Embassy has just been completed there now — the last piece of the reconstruction,” remarked a 50-year-old businessman examining a Khaldei wide-angle panorama of Soviet tanks in front of the Brandenburg Gate. “We’re in a completely new time. We’ve left behind two things: We’ve left behind the Second World War. And then we’ve left behind the Soviet system in the East.”

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