The “Hähle Photos”:
The Mass Murder of the Jewish Inhabitants of Kiev and Lubny as Seen by a Wehrmacht Propaganda Company Photographer

Ukrainian language version:

Фотографії Йоганнеса Геле - версія українською


In June 2000, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research acquired a group of original photographs from the estate of Wehrmacht photographer Johannes Hähle. The set included the following: 29 color slides documenting the mass murder of Kiev Jews at Babyn Yar on September 29 and 30, 1941, and the work of removing traces of the murders in the ravine in early October; 38 black-and-white negatives of photographs taken where the Jewish population of Lubny were forced to gather on October 16, 1941, shortly before the mass shootings there; and several negative films of aerial photographs of the destroyed eastern Ukrainian city Kharkov, presumably from the spring or early summer of 1942.

The photos from Kiev/Babyn Yar and from Lubny are available for download (see below).

The photographer and the context in which the photographs were taken

Johannes Hähle was born in Chemnitz on February 15, 1906. He joined the NSDAP in 1932. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht after the German invasion of Poland. From January 1941 on, he served first in Construction Battalion 146 in west Europe and then, on July 1, 1941, was transferred to Propaganda Company 637 on the eastern front. Apparently because he had trained as a photographer—or at least had acquired good skills in photography—he accompanied the advance of the 6th Army with his camera as a “photo reporter”.

However, Hähle probably did not take these photographs in Kiev and Lubny in the fall of 1941 in an official capacity but rather as a private observer. There is at least no evidence that he was commissioned by the propaganda company. The photos of the clean-up work after the massacre in the Babyn Yar ravine are followed first by shots of women waiting outside a camp where Soviet prisoners of war were held and then by street scenes from Kiev and photos of buildings that almost appear as tourist shots. Official pictures had to be delivered to the Wehrmacht authorities along with the negatives, but Hähle did not turn over these photos.

Even members of the propaganda companies were forbidden to take pictures of executions and other excessive acts of violence. Hähle formally adhered to these regulations. He took pictures immediately “before”, “beside”, and “after” the executions in Babyn Yar and Lubny, but none of the executions themselves. Nevertheless, the photos are important documents of these murders. If their existence had become known to the propaganda company, the photographs would have been confiscated and destroyed immediately. How and where Hähle developed the films and how they reached Germany is not known.

The history of the photograph collection

Johannes Hähle was killed on the Western Front in June 1944; the photographs from Kiev, Lubny and Kharkov were at first kept by his widow. Ms. Hähle, who lived in East Germany after the war, feared that she would be targeted by the State Security Service or Stasi (the secret police and intelligence authority) because of the photos and sold them in November 1954 to Hans Georg Schulz, a West Berlin journalist. Schulz sent black-and-white prints to the West German judicial authorities in 1961, hoping that the photos could be used as evidence in criminal proceedings against those charged as perpetrators of Nazi crimes, especially in the trials conducted by the Frankfurt public prosecutor’s office.

However, the black-and-white photo prints were never used in this way. They were probably filed incorrectly within the judicial system and subsequently merely appeared out of context in other court cases or in folders compiled for training purposes. Ultimately, the images appeared in the Hessian State Archives (among other places), having been sent by investigating authorities and courts and lawyers to the archives as the appropriate agency in the state of Hesse for storing official documents and records after judicial proceedings ended. Since the late 1980s, the photos have been used occasionally in book publications and television documentaries but without adequate attention being paid to their origin, genesis, and context.

Disappointed by the willful ignorance of the judicial authorities and even suspecting a deliberate cover-up, Schulz held back the valuable original photographs—including rare early Agfacolor color slide films—for decades. When he made another attempt to have some of the material published in the early 1990s and offered the German magazine Stern exclusive first-publication rights, the editors declined his offer.

Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht (War of Extermination: Crimes of the Wehrmacht), the first major exhibition in Germany dealing with this topic, was prepared by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and shown in more than thirty cities in the mid-1990s. In the exhibition, only the black-and-white prints originally sent to the judicial authorities were on display.[1]

It was not until research was underway in preparing the second exhibition on the same topic presented by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research (Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskriegs; Crimes of the Wehrmacht: Dimensions of the War of Extermination), that the original photographs were rediscovered and acquired from Schulz’s widow in June 2000. From 2001 to 2004, the pictures from Babyn Yar and Lubny were presented in the exhibition - in chronological order and comprehensively contextualized. The photographs from Babyn Yar were shown for the first time in the original color version.[2]

Since then, the “Hähle photos” have been stored in the archives of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, where they are accessible to scholars. These photographs are unprecedented documents of the extermination of the Jewish population in the territories of the Soviet Union occupied by Nazi Germany, as a mass murder carried out by the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police, the police battalions of the higher SS and police leaders, and last but not least by Wehrmacht units, right down to the level of local commandants. The images continue to be used not only for academic research but also for the work of memorial sites and educational institutions as well as for exhibition and publication purposes.

Unrestricted use

The copyright on all photographs made by Johannes Hähle expired in 2014, seventy years after the death of the author. Nevertheless, from 2014 to 2021, the policy implemented by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research was to make digital copies for publication available only to users who signed an agreement confirming that they would handle and present the images appropriately and with respect for the dignity of the victims.

Use of the photos in the context of commemorating the victims of National Socialism and in the realm of political and historical education was permitted free of charge. Complete sets of copies were given to the International Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem and museums and commemorative institutions in Kiev, among others, for their permanent collections.

With the rise in digital forms of using the images, it is now no longer possible to trace their use and dissemination. Numerous unlicensed copies now appear on the Internet—in some cases with missing or incorrect information about their origin or with misleading descriptions. The Hamburg Institute for Social Research can thus no longer fulfill the role of a kind of guardian of the images by assuming responsibility for their use in a manner that is appropriate to the pictures’ content. At the same time, the photos represent part of the cultural heritage of humanity; they can and should serve to remind us of the crimes perpetrated under the National Socialist regime and be used to commemorate the victims of mass murder.

The Hamburg Institute for Social Research is therefore now making the Babyn Yar and Lubny photo collections available for download in a standard format without charge and without other restrictions. Users who download the photos are now only required to warrant that, in case of any use of the material, they will acknowledge the "Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung" as the source.

November 23, 2021

(English translation: Paula Bradish)


Kiev/Babyn Yar, September 29/30-early October 1941

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the exhibition Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskriegs 1941-1944, a special issue of Mittelweg 36, the journal of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, was published in October 2021. The issue’s title is “Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Anmerkungen zu einer Ausstellung” (issue 5-6; October/November 2021).

A new edition of the catalog for the second Wehrmacht exhibition was published by Hamburger Edition, the publishing house of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research in October 2021.

[1] See catalog of the first exhibition, 1995–1999: Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (ed.): Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, first edition, 1996, pp. 78–79 and 81–83.

[2] See catalog of the second exhibition, 2001–2004: Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (ed.): Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskriegs 1941–1944. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, first edition, 2002, pp. 164–165 and 167–17–3.