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Melvin C. Shaffer World War II Photographs: Germany

Images of Germany (see more)

Shaffer's Personal Account

Melvin C. Shaffer Collection

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Shaffer's Personal Accounts

As the conflict became more deadly and defined by attrition in its final stages, the true devastation of the German culture became more and more apparent to us. The military aspects of the campaign were not so surprising, given what I had witnessed in Italy and France. But the concentration camps, the utter despair of the civilian population, and the physical destruction of one of the world's most beautiful and advanced civilizations could not help but have a profound effect on anyone witnessing such physical and moral devastation.

As a medical photographer at the Dachau Concentration Camp, I was responsible for photographing the handling of bodies, investigating sites thought to have been used for medical experiments, and identifying photographs of human remains. Finally, during a 16-day period in May, 1945, I personally photographed or supervised the photographing of more than 500,000 casualties of the war, living and dead, mostly in slave labor camps and in the subways of Berlin. In the subway system, as I have recounted elsewhere, thousands of German civilians -- mostly women and children -- had been drowned as a result of deliberate flooding of the underground rail system.

The Nazis had hoped to prevent the advancing Russian forces from making use of these tunnels as a way into the city. This task, which took about four days of riding in rubber boats through the subways with my generator and cameras documenting the recovery of these drowned and suffocated people, was my last act and assignment in the unreal world created by the war. There are few photographs of Germany in my personal collection because, even more so than in Italy, I was numb, physically and emotionally exhausted, had suffered some minor wounds, and simply could not deal with or want ever to be reminded of the circumstances of that last year. The photographs that I did manage to make for myself, however, reveal something of the fact that even in Germany not everything was utterly destroyed -- including the human instinct for survival.