Why the Soviets doctored this iconic photo


These are two of the most recognizable photos
from World War II. The one on the left is “Raising the Flag on
Iwo Jima” by Joe Rosenthal. It shows US Marines raising the American flag
on top of Mount Suribachi following the Battle of Iwo Jima in Japan. The one on the right is “Raising a Flag
over the Reichstag” by Yevgeny Khaldei. It shows a young Russian soldier planting
the Soviet flag on the roof of the former German Parliament building. It was taken in the heart of burned-out Berlin
after Russians captured the city and the Nazis were ultimately defeated. The two photos are similar: They’re both
huge symbols of victory for their respective countries, and they’re both taken after
the fights were over, when the armies lifted larger flags to replace the smaller ones raised
during battle. But the Russian one is different. For one, it’s staged. Unlike Rosenthal’s candid snapshot, Khaldei’s
is carefully posed. Plus, parts of it were altered before it was
published. This is the photo that became iconic — and this is the original. See the difference? Khaldei superimposed some black smoke from
another photo and manipulated the contrast to give the scene a little more drama. But there’s something else, and you have
to look really close or you might miss it. See it yet? It’s right here. What happened to this guy’s watch? Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941
— code-named Operation Barbarossa — was ruthless and prolonged, and ended in millions
of Russian being killed, including women and children. The German army committed brutal atrocities,
including burnings, rape, and sanctioned mass murder of civilians. “They weren’t soldiers, and they weren’t
killed in battle. Mass murder by orders of the High Command.” “The bodies of hundreds of civilians were
found in an anti-tank ditch. People who had been slaughtered en masse by
the execution squads.” So when the tide of the war changed in the
Russians’ favor in 1942, they saw an opportunity for revenge. In the Russians’ final onslaught against
Germany in April 1945, Stalin ordered his marshals to race to Berlin at all costs — even
though he’d committed to sharing the capital city’s capture with his allies. This recklessness resulted in needlessly high
casualties for the Russians, in some instances from bombarding their own army amid all the
confusion. The Red Army stormed across Eastern Europe
and, just like the Germans had done, committed civilian murder, burnings, mass rapes, and
looting – acts that they saw as vengeance for their countrymen … … and acts that go largely undiscussed in
Russia to this day. Which brings us back to Khaldei’s photo. An iconic victory photo would have been a
boon for Soviet public image around the world, and Soviet officials, possibly even Stalin
himself, wanted it to be in Berlin. It would be their answer to Rosenthal’s
Iwo Jima photo, which had published a few months earlier and became a beloved symbol
of American triumph. The image even appeared on this propaganda
poster, which helped raise over $26 billion for the American war effort in 1945. So after the fighting in Berlin had ended,
Khaldei was flown in from Moscow with his camera and an enormous Soviet flag sewn from
three tablecloths. He gathered a couple of nearby soldiers to
pose on the Reichstag’s roof and shot a full roll of 36 photos … … ultimately choosing this one. But there was a problem. The soldier supporting the flag bearer was
wearing two watches, suggesting he had been looting — a stain that didn’t fit the
image of Soviet heroism that Stalin wanted. So Khaldei scratched it out with a needle
… … and this was how it appeared when it first
published in a popular Russian magazine a week and a half later. This historic moment on top of the Reichstag
is actually reimagined in the 2015 movie Child 44. The facts are exaggerated, but the reference
is clear. “Now let’s show the people how Berlin
has fallen to the Red Army!” “Lose the goddamn watches!” “What?” “Take them off! Stolen watches. They can’t be seen.” This photo shows a lot of things. It shows a reenactment of a historic moment
on top of the Reichstag, the symbolic seat of German power. It represents triumph and pride: the Soviet
victory over their fascist invaders after a hard-fought and bloody war. But, unintentionally, it also captures and
then conceals a story of vengeance and mutual brutality. Of murder, organized destruction, and pillaging,
all culminating in this iconic moment. There’s some speculation that what was edited out of this photo wasn’t a second watch, but actually a wrist-worn compass. It was called the Adrianov compass and it was widely used by the Soviet army. But if that’s all it was, why’d they scratch it out?

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