There are a few things I love; books, cats, redheads, and more redheads. That said, I also enjoy poring over old photographs and also old maps. You can learn a lot from looking at pictures. When I see pictures such as the one above, I'm drawn first to the eyes. I've always heard that the eyes are the window to the soul and I think you can tell a lot about the young men in the above picture simply by the eyes. I also like the aviator sunglasses the one on the left is wearing. Maybe he is about to apply for Top Gun school. Photographs can be very important primary sources as they give us a glimpse into how things looked, however care must be taken as photos from the 40s could be staged just as some people today use Photoshop. (Back then you had to work a little harder to fake a photo.) Both the Germans and the Russians faked photos of atrocities committed by the other side as a way to stir up anger and resentment against the enemy. Given how barbaric the war between them was, I'd have to say it worked.
One thing that I struggle with is getting students to make certain connections. Sure, I can stand in front of the class and beat my gums for an hour or so about just about any historical topic, but it doesn't seem real to me or them. Simply saying "27 million Soviet citizens died during World War 2 isn't a good enough way to get the point across. The numbers are such that it is too hard to wrap the mind around. Perhaps a simple photo could do the same?
This young Russian soldier is saying goodbye to his mother and what I assume to be his sister, based on the similar appearance, though I guess it could be a wife or girlfriend. The grief in their faces is real as it depicts their understanding that they most likely will never see him again. Is this simple, candid photo enough to accurately stand as a symbol for the 8 million military and 19 million civilian lives lost in the Soviet Union? Maybe it is.
I've always said before that I think one of the biggest impediments to studying history is that we do not view the people we read or talk about as being "real". I try to stress, badly I'm sure, that these past figures were just like us. They loved. They hated. They felt joy. They felt sorrow. Some may have toiled away in obscurity, but others did not. We of the current generations do not have a monopoly on human emotion. Yes, our grandparents had sex and listened to music and danced (unless they were Baptist). I spent a lot of time around my grandfathers, both World War Two veterans, and I always tried to remember that they were young once, just like me. Thankfully because they were willing to spend their late teens and early twenties fighting to rid the world of fascism, I was able to enjoy my life when I was that age.
Part of the reason I like photographs so much is that it forces me to think. Take the above photo. Obviously the attractive girl caught my eye. Beyond that though, I wonder what happened to all the people in it. The soldier in the foreground has dirt smeared on his face and has no doubt been in the field or in action recently. The soldier in the background has the hardened eyes of a young man who has seen too much. The young lady appears to be happy to be receiving the attentions of the lads in uniform while the young man in the background looks on. Given the statistics, it is likely that these soldiers died during the war. The young lady may not have fared much better either. Thinking of things like that always brings the images to life a bit more.
Maybe I should use more photographs in class. I don't know. Requiring students to analyze photographs may be of some use to them in their future endeavors. I try to change things up from year to year just so I don't get too comfortable and some type of photographic assignment might be just the trick.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who spends too much time looking at old pictures. (And pictures of cats. And redheads.)