Journal Article

Pictures of Atrocity: Public Discussion of Der gelbe Stern in Early 1960s West Germany

Robert Sackett

in German History

Published on behalf of German History Society

Volume 24, issue 4, pages 526-561
Published in print October 2006 | ISSN: 0266-3554
Published online October 2006 | e-ISSN: 1477-089X | DOI:
Pictures of Atrocity: Public Discussion of Der gelbe Stern in Early 1960s West Germany

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This article discusses Der gelbe Stern by Gerhard Schoenberner, a book of Holocaust photodocumentation appearing in West Germany in 1960, and analyses its reception in the contemporary West German press. Both the work and its public discussion are placed in context of Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit (‘coming to terms with the past’) and of what historian Habbo Knoch has termed ‘the return of the pictures’, in other words, atrocity pictures of the kind that the Allies forced Germans to see right after the war, that Germans tended to shun thereafter, but that came back into public view in the late 1950s. The reception of Schoenberner's book included reviews from a wide range of West German newspapers and magazines. These reviews were overwhelmingly favourable and in considerable agreement on the book's importance. There was consensus that its pictures would stir viewers emotionally and lead them to ‘the truth’ about the Third Reich and its crime against the Jews. In addition, there were moral, historical and political reflections, including a discussion of German ‘guilt’ concerned not only with specific crimes but with the general acquiescence of German society in persecution of Jews in the 1930s. There was also appreciation of the role of pictures in conveying historical understanding and, it was hoped, in educating West German youth. In addition, some reviewers considered Der gelbe Stern to be a prod to greater public discussion and thus to an enlargement of democratic culture. There was a marked reticence in the reviews to indicate that awareness generated by this book would contribute to public outcry against the employment of men with a Nazi past as high officials of the Federal Republic, or to defend Schoenberner against the charge that was sure to come from the Right: since some of his photos were from Communist Eastern Europe they were of dubious origin and no doubt part of a plot to distract the West from the fight against Communism. It is suggested that silence on either issue would have had the effect of keeping readers focused on the pictures and their moral, historical and democratic implications.

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: European History

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