Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Album of the Damned by Paul Garson

Album of the Damned:
Snapshots from the Third Reich
By Paul Garson
Copyright 2008
Academy Chicago Publishers/NF - History
408 pages, incl. bibliography and timeline

Album of the Damned is a glossy, beautiful picture book printed on quality paper that smells glorious when you turn its pages. But, it’s not your everyday coffee-table book. The cover of Album of the Damned is enough to stop you in your tracks. A baby wearing the hat of a Nazi officer? That’s the kind of image of Nazi Germany we’re not accustomed to seeing. The most common photos are stark, formal, horrifying -- scenes in which the Germans are obviously the evil overlords, herding Jewish prisoners like cattle at gunpoint or standing stiffly over skeletal prisoners.

Album of the Damned contains a few of the traditional images, but it’s not the typical, cold and formal photograph that is Paul Garson’s focus. Instead, he shows the opposite, the playful, smiling, human side of life as a Nazi. Open the book and the first photo you’ll see is a grinning, dimpled man in Nazi uniform and greatcoat, reaching out as if to shake the photographer’s hand, block the lens or make a thumbs-up gesture. Behind him stands another Nazi with a curious look, a third saluting and smiling. Below the photo, the author’s words: “Welcome to the Third Reich”. A quote by Christopher Browning, author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland reminds the reader that, “Explaining is not excusing . . .”

The 400 photographs in Album of the Damned are merely a small selection of the many photos Garson has collected. Most came from private photo albums and were taken by both soldiers and civilians. They were purchased by the author after he developed a private obsession that led him to collect entire albums, individual photos, personal letters, documents and newsreels. An extensive bibliography at the end of the book gives you an idea how much time and research went into the writing of Album’s text, which sometimes describes the photos but also leads the reader through the process of the growing Nazi mentality and its results -- begun by a few radicals, eventually to take over the minds and hearts of most Germans and those in many in other European nations. A few of the photos are professional photographs, but the vast majority are casual, informal photos of friends and family.

And, it’s that informality that leaves the reader stunned. Text describes how those relaxed happy people spent their working hours -- rounding up people considered inferior or dangerous in some way, guarding them as they were worked at slave labor on only 350 calories worth of food, lining them up against the wall and shooting them or leading them to gas chambers . . . then, going home to play with the kids or gathering for drinks and laughs. It’s that contrast between smiling faces in bathing suits or at sumptuous tables compared with the harsh reality of their murderous daily lives that shocks.

The book contains a timeline and is then divided into four parts, with an introductory section, “In the Beginning,” followed by “Part One: The Homefront”, “Part Two: Prelude to War” and “Part Three: The Battlefront”. The author adds a disclaimer reminding readers that the “accompanying text makes no claims at covering the subject matter in any complete manner” and that he “chose photos that ‘spoke’ to me and let them lead me where they would.” His interpretation of a few specific photos didn’t necessarily jibe with my own, but I understood his drift. The author’s objective was to show, through those photographs, how ordinary people can be indoctrinated into dangerous beliefs of superiority.

Through carefully written text and the chosen photos, Garson leads the reader to a deeper understanding of life as a Nazi and how all-encompassing the Nazi world became. A photo of a pre-Nazi children’s club is shown, followed by photos of boys in the Hitler Youth and young girls in the League of German Girls. A sample from a young girl’s letter shows how completely she was immersed in the thought that Jews were sub-human. Nazis are shown alternately cuddling animals and shooting them or horsing around with them. In one photo, two Nazis stand by as a man is attacked by their dogs.

Among my favorites:

--A photo of a happy young couple at their wedding, swastikas hanging over the altar behind them.

--A pair of portraits of a middle-aged couple. In the top photo, a wife stands behind a small balcony table, smiling as her husband intently reads Mein Kampf. In the bottom photo, the same couple at the same table, she pouring tea for her husband, who is now dressed in a Nazi uniform.

--Two photos of a tree stump with a hidden door carved into its side. In the first photo, a Nazi enters the door; in the second, the door is closed and one realizes the ingenuity and horror of this hidden sniper look-out.

The photos gradually become more graphic and disarming. Album of the Damned is not the kind of book you leave out where young children can flip through it. But, it’s the sort of book we all need to read -- a stark reminder of how easily people can become swayed into believing that one race or religion is superior to another, a memo to humans that evil may begin as a tiny germ and grow into a plague, a note to look about us and see that we haven’t necessarily learned the lesson the Nazis taught us.

This review will be posted in the December issue of Estella's Revenge. The book is so powerful and moving that I asked the editors if they minded if I cross-posted to my blog. I personally believe it deserves a great deal of exposure.

21 comments:

  1. A picture speaks a thousand words. That book sounds very thought provoking.

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  2. This sounds like a very powerful book. I did read Ordinary Men a couple of years ago and would definitely recommend that as far as getting to understand Nazi Germany further.

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  3. Ms. Onion,

    So, mathematically speaking, 400 pictures speak 400,000 words, right? ;) Yes, it's very, very thought-provoking.

    Jo-Jo,

    I think "powerful" is an apt description. Oh, good! It's nice to hear that you recommend Ordinary Men. I haven't yet added it to my wishlist, but I was planning to do so and now you've motivated me. Thank you!

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  4. What a beautiful, horrible book. I find the Nazi way of life incredible--how do you get sucked into that? And then I think of how people today follow some religion or person mindlessly. Thanks for bringing this book the attention it deserves.

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  5. Tammy,

    What a great way to put it -- "beautiful, horrible". It is truly a gorgeous and horrifying book. I think the author does an excellent job of clarifying how people got sucked into that mentality of the superior race. That's one of the best things about the book; I came away from it understanding how all-encompassing the Nazi world became. Even the uniforms, so sharp-looking and intimidating, were apparently designed with purpose. There is still way too much mindless following and far too many people believe their own race or religion superior. I think the book serves as an excellent warning.

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  6. My husband worked with a woman who was in elementary school during the time period. Much like our kids sell Girl Scout cookies, she and her classmates went door-to-door selling candy for the Third Reich (or as we call it, Candy for Hitler).

    Now as an adult, she can't believe how unassuming it seemed to be ...

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  7. Bridget,

    That's wild. I think that's part of the point of the book, though, that you can become so completely surrounded by and immersed in something as to not see it for what it is. Thanks for sharing that story!

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  8. I'm interested in Album and Ordinary Men...it is educational to know how little separates us. Or how much.

    As to how Germany allowed itself to become the Third Reich there are many reasons, including economic. The psychological reasons are the most fascinating though. When a history teacher found that his class had difficulty believing that reasonable people could become so immersed in the propaganda, he came up with a class experiment. They made a movie--The Wave that showed how easy it is for the right person to influence others, based on that teacher's experiment.

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  9. I really need to get my hands on a copy of this book. It sounds wonderful. Not wonderful as in...It's going to make me so happy...but wonderful as in...an eyeopener. I think this would be a great addition to my collection.

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  10. Jenclair,

    I don't think humans change much at all, from one generation to the next; and, that's why we need this kind of book -- as a reminder of how easily we can be swayed.

    Oh, The Wave sounds fascinating. Thanks for mentioning that!

    Kris,

    I do believe you need to add it to your collection. It's not a happy book. It's really quite disturbing, but it's also very meaningful.

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  11. I cannot tell you how many books I have read from different angles of the Nazi regime. I am so intruiged/disturbed/confused/saddened by the whole thing. The book looks so fascinating I must get it! The cover is quite a story in and of itself. Thanks for the review!

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  12. Michelle,

    Please tell me if you do get a copy and review the book! I'd love to hear some other readers' thoughts about Album of the Damned. The whole Nazi reign is definitely an intriguing and disturbing real-life horror story.

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  13. I would so love to see the pics u have mentioned

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  14. Whoa. This sounds like a tough, powerful, important read. One that in many ways I want to run from. Yet one that really should be read.

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  15. Veens,

    I wasn't sure if it would violate copyright to take a picture of the pictures, so I opted not to do so. Trust me, they're startling. :)

    Debi,

    Exactly. It's hard to look at the photos and yet . . . it's a book that reminds us of a lesson that should have been learned. It's definitely important.

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  16. This sounds fascinating. We've got a lot of coffee table books of photography scattered around the house, but certainly nothing like this.

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  17. Fyrefly,

    We have a lot of coffee-table type books, also . . . but no coffee table. Nutty, I know. They look great on the shelf. LOL This is an unusual book -- definitely not one you want to leave out when impressionable youngsters are going to be around but fascinating, for sure.

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  18. I'm definitely going to check this one out. Seems like it gives you a lot to think about. Great review.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  19. Yeah sometimes people forget the Nazis were actual people even if what they did was monstrous.

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  20. This really does sound like a powerful book. I googled it to see if there were any images online and found a YouTube video at the website:
    http://www.albumofthedamned.com/Paul_Garson.html
    I think it had the "reading Mein Kampf" photo you mentioned but not the others. Anyway, I'm definitely going to add this to my wishlist. Thanks for the review.

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  21. Anna,

    It's very thought-provoking. I hope you do get a copy. I'm looking forward to seeing what some other bloggers have to say. :)

    Tink,

    Exactly. I think the important lesson is that it can happen anywhere, any time, as long as there are humans involved.

    Nat,

    Thank you for the link! I never think to look up videos. I can't wait to hear what you think about this one (but I guess I'll have to, eh?). :)

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