Nazi Era Snapshots and the Banality of Evil
That theme of implicit absence dominates Daniel Lenchner’s found-photograph collection. Scouring flea markets, estate sales, and the internet, Lenchner has collected over 500 snapshots of Nazis taken by Nazis that document their daily lives: their families, their friendships, and their leisure activities.
As a Jewish man with ancestors who perished in the Holocaust, these intimate glimpses into the daily lives of his family’s persecutors bring him face to face with what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
I met the 68 year old Lenchner last month in his sprawling New York apartment to look through his collection and discuss its implications.
VICE: What’s striking about so many of these images is that without the uniforms you really can’t tell that these people are Nazis, can you?
Daniel Lenchner: Yes, that’s really what my thesis is: These people are normal in appearance, but appearances are deceiving. There is the modern news phenomenon of people being interviewed in the street after they discover that their neighbor is a mass murderer. They’re always expressing surprise, that they didn’t realize it, that they should have known. The underlying assumption is that they could’ve known. But, if the truth is that there is no way to know, then you shouldn’t be surprised.
I interviewed the great-niece of Nazi leader Herman Göring once, and her family albums are filled with pictures like these. She talked about feeling the love that’s evident in so many of the scenes: fathers holding their children, spouses embracing, friends laughing. How do you confront the presence of those kinds of emotions?
Yes, these guys went home to their wives and children, and maybe they sang them nice German lullabies, but it’s not an exoneration. I mean, Hitler loved dogs, and he was a vegetarian. Great. But, it’s all kind of irrelevant. At the end of the day these things are reconcilable. No, not exactly reconcilable, but they coexist. The evil and the not-evil coexist in a person. But, in Nuremberg, it didn’t come up that they were nice to their wives because it didn’t matter.
It looks like the man in this picture wasn’t such a great husband. Is this a Dear John letter written on the back?
A Dear Johann letter, so to speak.
Can you describe what we’re looking it?
Well, here we have this handsome studio portrait of a German officer, and on the back is this message from a woman, apparently his mistress. She writes that she’s giving back this photograph because it’s brought her back luck. He’s a playboy. She refers to his “wanderings in Weimar,” and makes reference to his wife.
What do you like about this picture?
It’s just so normal, so banal, just a man screwing around on his wife—nothing so unusual there. He’s a regular scoundrel, but put him in a Nazi uniform and all of a sudden we have a special kind of scoundrel.