There has been much debate in recent years as to the value of traditional frontline war reportage. One of the primary arguments is that this kind of warzone imagery is so lacking in context as to serve as little more than documentary evidence of isolated events within limited geographical locations. It neither informs nor stimulates us to think about the causes of war, the immediate effects of war on anyone outside of the frame of vision, nor the longer term impacts after the killing has stopped. If we add to the mix the highly technical nature of modern warfare where much of the activity occurs within computers potentially thousands of miles away, changes within news organisations with the new media possibilities, and broader geopolitical factors in the complex web of contemporary international relations, it’s perhaps understandable why many people perceive traditional war photography to have past its sell-by date.
By a similar measure, if we look back into photobook history we find relatively few examples of practitioners pushing the medium in trying to explore the broader context of war within their productions. There are notable exceptions of course – Philip Jones Griffiths with his famous work on Indochina, perhaps Stanley Green with his work in the Central Caucasus, Simon Norfolk with his work on Afghanistan and modern warfare generally, and Susuan Meiselas and her work in Central America immediately spring to mind – but one can’t help feel that photographically there has been somewhat of a failure to tackle the full vista of war with all it’s complexities, absurdities, and horror.
One individual who definitely transcends these criticisms is the German pacifist anarchist, Ernst Friedrich, who in 1924 produced one of the first (and arguably, still the best) photographic attempts at scrutinising warfare in his seminal photobook, WAR against WAR! Since its publication in 1924 there have been as many as a million copies in circulation, translated into forty languages. It’s a book that should be well known, however the majority of people I know with a deep interest in photography have never heard of it nor him. I first became aware of Friedrich last year at a Tate symposium on ‘Violence and Representation.’ In a somewhat unusual scenario, a presentation was made which included some of WAR against WAR’s more horrific images. Such was their power the proceeding speaker (Susan Meiselas) was visibly shaken and struggled to make it through her own presentation, breaking down in fact during the Q&A that followed.
Outraged by the unprecedented barbarism and massive destruction of the First World War, Ernst Friedrich complied and published a collection of pictures and other visual material which attempted to illustrate not only the tragic human consequences of war, but also the lies and hypocrisy of the social, political, and economic forces that produced and promoted it. Aimed at an international audience with multi-lingual supporting text and captions, it was one of the first concerted photographic expressions of protest against the barbarism of modern warfare in all its tragic folly.
Friedrich’s strategy was to present shocking images of the atrocities of war and then juxtapose the official German patriotic and military propaganda and rhetoric of the time with graphic illustrations of what this discourse actually produced. Book page 110/111 for example contrasts the nationalistic father presenting himself as the brave, battle-ready soldier, with a picture of the badly disfigured corpse of the same man a few weeks later. The ironic juxtaposition of patriotic phrases and concepts with the reality of lifeless human bodies demystified the military rhetoric and showed the appalling human consequence of military propaganda and policies.
Friedrich builds his montage from a linear cause and effect perspective, presenting his ideas about how social forces psychologically condition the docile German population for war from a young age and how the state and business are allied in its promotion and propagation. The horrific imagery builds gradually, commencing with illustrations of children’s toys and propaganda posters, followed by photographs of the soldier’s march to war, the privilege of the elites orchestrating the violence, the devastated and then forgotten battlefields, the hanging of deserters, locals, and suspected communists, the starving and emaciated refugees, the cultural destruction, and the graveyards of the dead. The most unbearable pages are in a section called ‘The Face of War’, twenty-four close-ups of military and non-military survivors with huge facial wounds.
His powerful introductory essay (elements of which I have juxtaposed amongst the images below) informs the reader who he believes is responsible for the carnage and he spares nothing in his attempts to evoke a powerful aversion to war and its apologists. He summons people to learn by the use of bold typeface, and exclamation points, highlighting his sense of outrage and the urgency of his message.
Read within the context of the publication date (1924) and what was happening in Germany at the time it was controversial stuff and in fact Friedrich suffered persecution on and off for years afterwards, eventually settling in exile in France after the Second World War. When first released the book made a strong impression on the German audience and was much discussed. Never before had the people there been subjected to such horrendous images of the savagery and the senseless destruction of the First World War. During WW1, most European governments forbade the publication of war photographs and few images of the war had appeared before the publication of Friedrich’s book.
The book was radical in other ways – the utilisation of images that served not only to illustrate and document the horrors whilst at the same time provoking thoughts towards pacifism was something completely new; as was the utilisation of a photobook as a tool to help build an antiwar movement with its clever design and ironic, multi-lingual captioning and support text; the international appeal within the book for war images of destruction and atrocities was visionary, prompting what was effectively one of the first stock libraries of global war images. In light of the emotive debate around the cult of the war photographer, it’s also fascinating to note that the author(s) of the photographs are never declared, nor are photographers or the act of photography ever mentioned (the images were actually drawn from German military and medical archives). It’s hard to imagine any contemporary war photographer/agency willingly taking such a back seat.
WAR against WAR! is a powerful and informative book. The grim reality of the First World War is laid bare across 263 pages and 180 images. It’s photography as shock therapy, pulling absolutely no punches in informing the reader about senseless carnage of the first major war of the technological age.
WARNING: SOME OF THE IMAGES BELOW ARE HIGHLY GRAPHIC
And as we all, all human beings, equally feel joy and pain,
let us fight unitedly against the common monstrous enemy, War.
We shall unite in protesting against, in weeping over the accursed mass murders for which we all bear equal guilt. But let us also raise our eyes cheerfully to the red dawn of freedom and peace.
This book is dedicated to all war profiteers and parasites, to all war provokers,
and is consecrated also to the “kings”, generals, presidents and ministers of all lands.
To the priests, however, who blessed the weapons in the name of God,
this book is dedicated as a War bible!
Show these pictures to all men who still can think!
He who then still believes in this mass butchery, let him be locked up in a madhouse,
let us avoid him as we do the plague!
They lack the courage, these war-thinkers and war leaders, to go themselves into the battle, and themselves to die a sweet “heroic death”.
That is why they invented such beautiful phrases as “Fatherland” and “Field of Honour” and spoke of “defence” and uttered other lies.
“Whoever forces men into war or provokes them to mass murders, shall be responsible with all his property and possessions and with his own life for the safety and the sufferings of the soldiers.
The king who rallies people to his standard shall himself bear the standard.
And if a soldier should be reduced to beggary, the king shall go out begging with him.
If huts are burnt down in wars, so also shall palaces and castles be set in flames.
And always, for each human life that is sacrificed at the front, shall one king or one minister rest in peace on the “field of honour” for the Fatherland.”
THE CAUSE OF WAR
Long ago, Plato who was born 427 years before the Nazarene, Plato, that wise man, said: -
“All wars arise for the possession of wealth”.
That is as true a word as ever was spoken.
And wonderfully enough
the working slaves of all lands abandon their plough and their anvil,
they hasten to arms,
and protect the life and property of their masters with their own blood and life.
What did I say? “That this is strange?” No, it is quite natural – a natural monstrosity!
I, therefore, always say to my brothers, the proletarians, I say to the class-war fighters:
Free yourselves from bourgeois prejudices!
Fight against capitalism within yourselves!
Fight against Capitalism – and you fight against every war!
The battle-field in the factories and the mines,
the hero’s death in the infirmaries, the mass graves in the barracks,
in short, the war, the apparently eternal war, of the exploited against the exploiters!
DO – YOU – NOT – REALISE – ALL – THIS?
The war against war signifies:
The war of the victimised against the profiteers!
The war of the deceived against the deceivers!
The war of the oppressed against the oppressors!
The war of the tortured against the torturers!
The war of the hungry against the well fed!
THE PREVENTION OF WAR
It is true that capital is the cause of every war.
But the guilt of war rests on our shoulders.
It is we proletarians that make the conduct of war possible; it is for us likewise to prevent wars!
Refuse to serve!
Bring up your children so that they may later refuse to render military and war service!
How very many lightly overlook the fact that in one’s own home in the family, war is being spontaneously prepared!
And here lies the beginning of all evils, here lies the beginning also of war!
The mother that sings soldier’s songs to the baby on her lap, prepares for war, yes, she prepares for war!
The father that makes gifts of toy soldiers to his child mobilises the child for the war idea!
The toy soldier is the Judas that you yourself bring into the home, is the betrayal of human life! Remember always this one thing: -
Ye parents that do not wish
that your sons should murder the dear sons of other parents, you should remember that the child whom you present with a helmet and sabre and gun, plays his tender soul to death out of his young body.
Those children, however, who are educated in love and solidarity, and are brought up to respect unconditionally the inviolable sanctity of human life, these children will most certainly be unfit for arms and war-service.
We, opponents of military service must finally destroy the halo and the humbug, and tear down the gaudy tinsel of the soldiery, and we must speak out what then still remains to be said:
a professional murderer paid by the state,
who is trained in murder schools (called barracks) privileged by the state,
in the carrying out of the most gruesome of crimes, the murder of human beings!
That is what the children should be told!
Then indeed will the young girl, destined by nature to reproduce and protect life, be disgusted to flirt with the soldiers – her natural enemies – “the pimps of death”.
And the boy will later refuse to wear the uniform because he knows: It is a murderer’s cloak!
It is with such clearness and precision that you must think and also act,
if you wish to nip the evil in the bud! And, should war nevertheless break out,
then proceed consistently and unhesitatingly to
THE WAR AGAINST WAR!
I WILL NOT!
Stronger than all violence, than the sabre and the rifle, is our spirit, is our will!
Repeat these three words: “I will not!”
Give content to these words and all wars in future will be impossible.
What then will all Capital of the whole world, what will all the kings and presidents do,
when the entire people in all lands arise with the cry:
WE WILL NOT!
AND YOU WOMEN!
If your husbands should be too weak, then carry out the work yourselves!!
Prove that the bond of love with the husband is stronger than an army order!
Do not let your men go to the front!
MOTHERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE!
All images and red-coloured text © Ernst Friedrich.