Unearthed Soviet Holocaust films remind us to be vigilant
A one-off programme on History’s H2 channel and Sky News has broadcast for the first time some film footage I discovered depicting the Holocaust.
This may seem unremarkable: in the digital age, smartphones are ubiquitous with 24-hour rolling news, their cameras contributing to the narrative of world events. Mobile footage of violent protests in Syria and the Ukraine are being beamed around the globe, hitting our screens in an instant. It’s possible that witnessing so many atrocities and historic moments now numbs our reactions to the suffering and pain of humanity. Perhaps we take this unprecedented “on-the-ground” access for granted.
But film reportage was scarce in the first half of the 20th century, even for World War II. And a lot of what was taken has either been lost or forgotten. Many people wrongly assume that shocking newsreel footage of US and British troops liberating concentration camps in 1945 is the first film record of this dark period in our history. But in fact the Soviets began documenting evidence of these crimes from 1941 as they recaptured towns from the Nazis.
In doing so, they recorded an early stage of the Holocaust that is often overlooked: the mass killings of Jews – mostly by bullets – and their burial in mass graves by mobile killing squads.
Through detailed research in Russian archives, I re-discovered a collection of these Soviet films. Analysing them has provided a wider and richer understanding of this first phase of the Holocaust, which is missing from the dominant Allied narrative.
Not only a documentation of war crimes, this footage was also intended to stir the emotions of Soviet audiences, spurring them on to victory, on both the battlefield and factory floor.
These were clearly propaganda films, shot and edited to emphasise Holocaust victims as Soviet citizens, and not Jews. The Soviets, like the Western Allies, tended to assume their people would not be inspired to fight solely to save the Jews. So, when they took evidence of Nazi atrocities against their people, they added voice-overs that claimed these people were killed for being Soviet citizens, listed those killed in such a way as to imply Jews were just one group among others, and edited pictures to remove visual markers of the victims’ Jewish identity, such as Star of David armbands. But they kept these images in the film archives, which is where I discovered them.
A growing anti-Semitism in post-war years meant the Soviets repressed attempts to commemorate Jewish victims of the Nazis. Consequently, most people assumed they had no recorded images of the Holocaust. For these reasons, the Soviet newsreels have been largely ignored and dismissed by Holocaust historians over the last 70 years.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, and a comparison with written sources on these horrific events, it is obvious that despite their propagandist purpose, these films do record genuine atrocities committed by the Nazis.
By looking again through this footage – at the mass shootings in the former Soviet Union, in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and the Baltic States – we can also see the way that the killings escalated.
Looking through these films allows one to track how the means of murder became increasingly industrialised and impersonal, moving from firing squads to mobile vans, which gassed their passengers. All were precursors to the gas chamber. Disturbingly, these crude methods are similar to those employed in more recent acts of genocide, such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia.
While the world’s failure to prevent genocide might cause us to question such widespread annual attention to the Holocaust, the truth is that we did not even have a vocabulary with which to identify and condemn such crimes until 1945.
These films caught my attention because they appeared to show the initial process by which humanity grasped the gruesome reality of the Holocaust. The footage helps us to think beyond our habitual sense of the genocide of the Jews, and impels us towards vigilance.