A war photographer in times of peace? Robert Capa in Berlin in summer 1945.

What catches the attention of one of the most famous war photographers in times of alleged peace? The answer to this question is displayed in the exhibition Robert Capa: Berlin Summer 1945 at the Centrum Judaicum at the New Synagogue Berlin.

In summer 1945, Robert Capa (born Endre Ernő Friedmann in Budapest in 1913; died 1954) returned on assignment for Life magazine to the liberated but massively destroyed Berlin where he had been living and studying in the early 1930s before leaving the country after the rise to power of the national socialists. During his visit(s) in Berlin, moving around in the city wearing a US uniform, Capa took more than 600 pictures. The walking tour the visitor is taking at the museum is literally a walking tour through post-war Berlin, since the pictures are clustered according to the areas in Berlin where they were taken.

The images are full of tension: while the observer sees the Berliner (people from Berlin) pursuing ordinary activities, sitting in cafés, dancing in bars and public places with soldiers in uniforms, Capa constantly reminds the viewer of the devastation of the war – ruins and shattered buildings are omnipresent in his photographs. The contrast between well-dressed park visitors and big chunks of debris lounging around is striking.

In contrast to the photographs Capa took in the German city of Leipzig in April 1945, individual suffering is mostly invisible in the Berlin images, yet not absent altogether from the exhibition: The viewer watches a crowd of people gathering around a public food distribution point and observes how individuals empty the streets of rubble. The images reveal how many people lost their goods and chattels because of the war – not even speaking of the personal losses many of them must have experienced.

The exhibition is embedded in further fields of tension of German culture of memory. Even though then German Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the capitulation of the Nazi regime, in 1985, called the 8th of May 1945 a day of liberation for all Germans – a liberation from the inhumanity of the national socialists’ tyranny – the exhibition’s accompanying text reminds the reader that this was probably a view not shared by all Germans. ‘There was no “zero hour,” and no sudden or absolute intellectual and ideological transformation, but rather a long and arduous process toward democracy and a valuable culture of memory.’[1] This invites the reader to look at the images from a completely different perspective. The everydayness presented in many of the photographs appears in a very new light.

Robert Capa: Berlin Summer 1945, at the New Synagogue Berlin, Centrum Judaicum.

10 September 2020 – 09 May 2021.

[1] Schütz, Chana (Ed.). Begleitband zur Ausstellung (Companion Volume). Salzgeber Buchverlag GmbH. 2020.