In Black and White
The SS

The SS

“They are quiet; they don’t shout. They inspect the work gang. Gods. Every button on their uniforms, every fingernail shines like a piece of sun. The SS radiate. We are the SS’s plague. We dare not approach the SS, dare not cast our gaze on them. They radiate, they blind, they reduce to dust.”
Robert Antelme
The SS

The Elite of the Third Reich

For the SS, ID photos were not just ID photos. The SS offices also used them as a basis for deciding whether to approve the marriage of an SS man. Family photos are indicative of the fact that the SS considered themselves racially superior.

On 31 December 1931, Heinrich Himmler issued the “Engagement and Marriage Order of the Reich Leader of the SS”. This order obligated all unmarried members of the SS to obtain a marriage permit from Himmler before the wedding ceremony. To this end, the engaged man and woman had to submit three photographs each. In the SS Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt (RuSHA; Office of Race and Settlement), a decision was made as to the “racial value” of the SS man and his future marriage partner on the basis of various records. The office came to the conclusion, for example, that the fiancée of SS Oberscharführer Anton Bergmeier was too “ostisch” (eastern-looking) and therefore unsuited to become the wife of a member of the SS. This form of selection was embedded in the SS image of themselves as forming the core of a superior Germanic race.

The private family pictures of the SS are thus to be regarded in the context of a concept whereby propaganda for the clan served as the basis for an elitist racial politics: the taking of photographs became a racial and family obligation. The first camp commander of Buchenwald, Karl Koch, and his wife Ilse, for instance, also made ample use of the camera. Yet the photo album they started in 1938 for their son Artwin is not only indicative of the SS clan concept. It also represents an attempt by Karl Koch to document his climb up the social ladder from penniless insurance salesman during the Weimar Republic to a commander responsible for the establishment of several concentration camps. Koch had the album made in the camp workshops by inmates in the bookbinding detachment. Once the pictures had been selected, an inmate from the photo department labelled the individual pages and embellished them with little drawings.

Camp commander Karl Koch (1897–1945) with his Contax III camera in front of his house in the SS officers’ colony. From the photo album Karl and Ilse Koch had made for their son Artwin.
Photographer unknown, ca. 1940
National Archives at College Park, Maryland
The SS

Visits to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp

In the autumn of 1941, a photo album was made at the behest of the Buchenwald camp commander Karl Koch to document the progress made on the further construction of the concentration camp established in the summer of 1937. Koch’s aim was to stage himself in this album as a competent “Aufbaukommandant” – that is, commander in charge of camp construction and development. In addition to construction sites in the inmates’ camp, the photos show SS company caserns, Armed SS caserns, various service buildings, et cetera.

The many album pages devoted to the arrival of inmate transports in Buchenwald were intended primarily to document the exemplary order, rigour, and discipline with which Karl Koch oversaw his camp. Examples are the photos in which inmates fall in for roll call after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938.

A large proportion of the photos were taken by the inmate staff of the photo department. Inmates of the camp workshops were responsible for the album’s layout.

After the liberation, the album came into the possession of French investigative bodies and was presented in the Nuremberg Trial as evidence against Fritz Sauckel, the General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment. It then entered the archive of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

A second copy of Karl Koch’s album is in the holdings of the Zekelman Family Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, USA. Lorenz Schmuhl, the transitional camp commander appointed by the Americans after 11 April 1945, donated it to that organization in the early 1980s.

Camp commander Karl Koch with a construction plan in an excavated foundation pit on the camp grounds.
Photographer unknown, summer of 1937
International Court of Justice, The Hague

  • Many high-ranking officers of the Nazi party, the SS and the Hitler Youth visited the camp under development. The camp commander Karl Koch proudly showed them “his” achievements in the construction of the inmates’ camp and the SS areas.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 1938
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • Heinrich Himmler, the Reich Leader of the SS and Karl Koch’s highest-ranking superior, visits Buchenwald concentration camp, which is still under construction, on 15 May 1938. He is accompanied by the Thuringian Reich Governor Fritz Sauckel, the inspector of the concentration camps Theodor Eicke, and Oswald Pohl, the head of administration of the Central Reich Office of the SS.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 15 May 1938
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • From 24 May to 2 June 1938, the Hitler Youth’s 3rd Reich Leader Camp took place in Weimar under the leadership of Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach. The framework programme also included a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Hitler Youth officials visited the bear pit, the SS company caserns, which had just been completed, and the SS officers’ colony.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, late May 1938
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • On 17 December 1938, Reich Leader of the SS Heinrich Himmler arrived in Buchenwald for an unannounced visit to the falcon yard.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 17 December 1938
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • Himmler's entourage included his associates Karl Wolff, Ludolf-Werner von Alvensleben, and Joachim Peiper, the head of the Thuringian Ministry of the Interior Walter Ortlepp, and Theodor Eicke, the inspector of the concentration camps.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 17 December 1938
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • In the autumn of 1939, the inspector of the concentration camps Theodor Eicke visited the clinker factory in Berlstedt, which had been under construction since May 1938. Buchenwald concentration camp inmates were at work there building a branch factory of the Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH (DESt). Founded in the spring of 1938, the company was an SS business enterprise in which material for construction projects of the Third Reich was to be produced with the aid of forced labour by concentration camp inmates.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, autumn of 1939
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • The persons present during this visit included Oswald Pohl, the head of all SS business enterprises and thus also of the DESt, and Paul Hennicke, the chief of the Weimar police.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, autumn of 1939
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • SS Obergruppenführer August Heissmeyer had succeeded Theodor Eicke as commissarial inspector of the concentration camps in November 1939. In the spring of 1940 he made his first official visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He has entered his name in the guest book and now Commander Koch is showing him the inmates lined up for roll call from the tower of the camp gate.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, spring of 1940
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • Subsequently, the commander led Heissmeyer through the camp, showing him the zoo, the stone barracks, the inmates’ laundry building, and one of the SS company caserns.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, spring of 1940
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
  • The tour closed with a visit to the SS falcon yard and the SS officers’ colony.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, spring of 1940
    International Court of Justice, The Hague
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The SS

SS Men among Themselves

Just as the members of the SS were not permitted to talk about their work, they were also prohibited from taking pictures while on duty. The photos they took in their leisure time hardly provide a clue as to the activities that constituted their work. The chief focus of the pictures, rather, is the camaraderie with their fellow SS soldiers.

When the concentration camp was established on Ettersberg Mountain in July 1937, the necessary guard personnel was recruited from the 3rd SS Totenkopf Regiment “Thüringen”. In view of the fact that, in the minds of their leaders, the SS embodied the elite of the new National Socialist state, they had to meet tight, racially defined criteria. The average age of the approximately one thousand SS men in Buchenwald in the early years was distinctly below twenty-one, the legal age of consent. In addition to providing them with basic military knowledge, their training aimed primarily to strengthen the concept of the corps and prepare the trainees for the cold-blooded exercise of power and violence in the treatment of the inmates.

Although the prohibition on taking private pictures within the camp grounds was repeatedly reinforced, a number of photos were taken showing the SS men on duty, primarily during the early years of the camp’s operation. For example, a series of photos belonging to SS-Rottenführer Theodor Hommes – stationed as a guard in Buchenwald in 1938-39 – has come down to us. Hommes took pictures of caserns that were typical of the period in which he served, as well as of the sentry line. He moreover documented SS missions conducted outside the camp, for instance during a visit from Hitler in Weimar or one of numerous manoeuvres. The photos were to serve him as souvenirs of his time at Buchenwald.

It is their originally intended function as private keepsakes that makes these pictures appear so remarkable from the present-day perspective. They show that the SS men wanted to remember their service as a good phase in their lives. Their duties in the concentration camp did nothing to stop them from presenting an impression of carefree conviviality.

Cover of a photo album belonging to SS man Karl Hänsel, member of the 3rd SS Totenkopf Regiment ”Thüringen” in 1937/38. Sentenced during the Dachau Flossenbürg Trial, died in prison in Landsberg.
Karl Hänsel, SS Unterscharführer
Archive of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial

  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, translation not found
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
  • Burial ceremony at the Weimar Main Cemetery for the members of the Buchenwald concentration camp SS who met their deaths during the Allied air attack on 24 August 1944.
    Buchenwald concentration camp records office, 28 August 1944
    Buchenwald Memorial Collection
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