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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Album of the Damned: Snapshots from the Third Reich
By Paul Garson
Academy Chicago Publishers
410 pages; $50
A chilling coffee-table tome, Album of the Damned: Snapshots from the Third Reich doesn't include any photographs of death camps, stacks of Jewish bodies or other atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Instead, the collection of nearly 400 captioned shots compiled by Los Angeles-based freelance writer and photographer Paul Garson focuses on subtlety instead of gruesomeness to arrive at the same horrific results. Photographed almost exclusively by amateurs - both soldiers and civilians - the pictures in Album of the Damned center on the daily life within the Third Reich, both at home and on the battlefield.
Nazis at home with their wives and children, during training sessions, horsing around while on leave photographed by their buddies look for all intents and purposes like normal, everyday people. That's the point Garson is trying to make, a point emphasized by author Bryan Mark Rigg, who penned Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: "The photos in this book remind us that evil acts are not usually committed by evil people, but by common people who lack the courage to question the acts required by their authority figures."
Garson assembled the exclusively black-and-white photos from private collections around the world, including many captured by the Soviets that only became available after the fall of the Soviet Union. Over a period of five years, Garson examined more than 10,000 photos, and he bid against private collectors and museums for the rights to use them in Album of the Damned.
The effort was well worthwhile. Divided into sections entitled "The Home Front," "Prelude to War" and "The Battlefront," the book uses the photographs to home in on details and expressions - the proud officer posing with his handsome wife and baby daughter, a Hitler Youth standing next to his stately looking father, an almost comical "Laurel and Hardy" Luftwaffe pair.
Critics might maintain that by focusing on showing how Nazis were "human," attention is diverted from their crimes against humanity. But it's impossible to thumb through the book on any page and not see the ghosts of the six million floating around every photo.
A narrative that snakes through the book provides an overview of the time period and background on what's taking place in the photos. Garson admits in the introduction that the text is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of the Third Reich, but it still provides an extra dimension in the efforts to comprehend the people in the photos.
And in the end, it is the photographs, stark and naked, that tell the story. As Garson writes, "With these photos, we look into that surreal world, and into the very faces of average men and women, often smiling faces, and ask, how was it possible?"
After Album of the Damned, the answer doesn't get any closer, but the question will give you the shivers.