Some of the German photos are in colour, while almost none of ours are. But the point is not the technical differences, it’s something else. The Germans posed for pictures more during the war than our soldiers. There are photos of Wehrmacht infantry and tank men posing during marches, there are photos of generals standing around picturesquely. Our troops behaved in a simpler fashion. The Germans took amateur photos – in memory of a military adventure! – alongside the gallows as well as people who had been hanged. Such photos did not and could not exist among our troops. The Germans photographed the shooting of civilian populations and Jews, also for keepsakes apparently; of course, you would never find such pictures among the thousands and thousands of photos taken by Soviet reporters and the front-line soldiers during the war. There are German photos – in colour no less – where a young blonde soldier in a Wehrmacht uniform is rummaging through the pockets of corpses covered with dirt. The blonde lad is perfectly calm, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the high-quality German film captures all of this. It is an eerie shot, almost as if the putrid smell from that time is oozing through the photo. There are looters in every army, but the Germans were the only ones to photograph them.
The initial editorial idea was to split this spread into two parts: half their pictures, half ours. Indeed, the Germans photographed the start of the war, its first days and the subsequent summer offensive with great detail and enthusiasm. I looked at tonnes of pictures of young men entering villages with their sleeves rolled up to their elbows, plumes of smoke rising on the horizon, dusty German tanks in endless fields, guns being rolled out for direct laying in front of Brest Fortress – an entire epic captured by the fantastic Zeiss lenses, so dramatic and filled with the grim romance of war. They were obviously taken so that the soldiers could show them off to their favourite girls in a tidy café somewhere in Südbahnhof or Obershnalzhausen when they took leave, or with the idea that it would be great to show them to some red-faced chubby children in peaceful 1943, when Germany will have already won and the Third Reich will have spread to the Urals.
The longer I looked at them, the more disgusted I became. The smoke plumes from the burning villages look more dramatic in this picture than in the other… the corpses are too horrific here, so we’ll leave this picture out… here the tanks are moving right towards the lens, that’s a good thing… and an image truly emerged of a rugged military adventure for the Aryan race and the courageous German soldiers. And we are putting this in a Russian newspaper? On the very day they attacked us? This supposedly objective historical approach entailed the betrayal of the others who left behind far fewer photos, if not nothing at all. Not even graves.
Indeed, the number of Soviet pictures from the beginning of the war is much smaller, and this is understandable. There was nobody to show off at marches in high spirits, and nobody even would have thought of posing against the background of burning villages. After all, these were our villages. The corpses in the trenches were our dead soldiers. The abandoned tanks with charred black bodies hanging out of the hatches were our tanks and our tank men. This fighting, retreating and fleeing army could never even have imagined taking a tasteful picture of its rout and defeat.
There are great photos of General Guderian during the first days of the war. The speedy Heinz, who remained in the tank both day and night, looks fantastic, with a nice smile and is wearing a perfectly pressed and immaculately clean general’s uniform. But try to find a picture of Soviet General Mikhail Khatskilevich, the commander of the Sixth Mechanised Corps, which went into battle near Bialystok. There are no pictures, and it never would have occurred to anyone during these scorching days to capture the general in his black, greasy smock as he attacked the invading Germans head on with his mechanised corps, dying in the process. A photo album could be put together of all these Goths, von Bocks and Rundstedts, but try to find a good picture of the commander of the Western front, General Pavlov, whose entire front collapsed under the bombardment of the Wehrmacht during the first week of the war and who was shot a month after the war began. There are no photos.
Fascism isn’t courageous boys with machine guns in their hands. It’s not generals wearing uniforms that would make any fashion house proud. On the photo spread page, which according to the initial editorial concept was supposed to contain pictures from the other side, there could rightfully only be photos of furnaces and bones, skeletons and skulls, bodies and corpses. Fascism has no other aesthetics besides corpses. The aesthetics of fascism consist solely of the gallows, where the body swings of an unidentified man in a jacket and tarpaulin who lived on Lenin Street.
We decided not to waste our forests on publishing dramatic pictures of the invading Wehrmacht on the anniversary of the start of the war. Therefore, there are no photos of the Germans here. Only ours are here – the ones who during the first day of the war were discouraged by the hot sun, the howl of Junkers aircraft, the German they heard being spoken nearby, the lack of orders, a shortage of artillery, the sudden absence of communications and the total chaos on the roads. Ours, who still managed to end up in the pictures as well as those who weren’t photographed at all; ours shooting from their rifles, crawling on their bellies, trembling in the backs of lorries, wiping sweat from their brows under tank helmets, running to their planes, hiding from the Germans in the burdocks. These are the anonymous soldiers of 22 June 1941 who disappeared during the first days and were never given their own personal graves.
Border guards the day before war broke out. The man in front has pushed back the hood of his camouflage cloak so he can hear better. The Bug River is beyond the canal, and the roar of engines can be heard on the other shore. The Germans were no longer hiding as they moved their tanks towards the border. This information was reported back on 19 June to Air Force Major General Zakharov, who surveyed 400 kilometres of the border from a U-2. But the border guards had not received any new orders, so they patrolled the overgrown canals in search of spies and inspected the exclusion zone in search of trespassers. Eight hours later, it wasn’t a secret spy that would pass through the canal, but the German tanks reeking of metal and hot engines.
It begins. Two soldiers in garrison caps and leggings carrying bed rolls rush into the fire. This old, faded picture conveys the chaos of the first day of the war with horrific power. The crumbling fence, the burning trees and the sea of flames forcing them to stay low to the ground. These two are crouched down, yet they continue to shoot and move forward.
Soviet infantry in June 1941. The knowledge of how our army fought during the first days of the war has somehow declined and disappeared in the stream of publications telling about how it fell apart. It collapsed and fought, retreated and fought, it fought near Bialystok and Perzemyśl, which was captured by the Germans and then immediately re-taken from them. Look at the faces of these infantry men. Are these faces consumed with panic? Are these people about to retreat?
This Red Army officer has already been in combat, as evidenced by the long dent on his helmet. He has a machine gun in hand, bags under his eyes, a hardly perceptible bitter wrinkle of the lip and the calm eyes of a professional. Name unknown. Place unknown. Subsequent fate unknown. Only the date is known: June 1941.
A former cavalryman of the First Cavalry Army and now Major General of Armoured Forces and Commander of the Sixth Mechanised Corps, Mikhail Khatskilevich was supposed to strike with thousands of tanks and undercut the German wedge at its foundation. But there was no communication with the air force and air defence units dispatched from Minsk didn’t make it to the mechanised corps, therefore his entire tank armada went into battle along the country roads of Western Belarus with nothing protecting them from German air attacks.
In December 1940, while speaking at a meeting of Red Army commanders, Khatskilevich said that he would need 100 train cars of ammunition per day for his corps to make a breakthrough. There weren’t a hundred train cars, there weren’t even ten; communications were cut off; Pavlov’s orders contradicted one another; the roads behind them were cut off by the deeply penetrating German units, and yet Khatskilevich still pushed forward and tried to fulfil his duty.
Eventually, once there was only a small crowd of people and a few tanks left of the Sixth Mechanised Corps, the young general himself took the controls of a T-34. No precise information on his death is available. The information we do have is contradictory. According to some reports, his tank went into battle with the hatches open and a German soldier threw a grenade inside. Other reports claim Khatskilevich died earlier and that the officers from his staff drove the commander’s body around in an armoured vehicle for several days before the Germans killed all of them.
The photo shows a BT-7 tank which penetrated deep into the German column and smashed several staff cars. This lone tank, one of only a hundred still functioning, was most likely scouring the country roads trying to find the main road east, but they were all filled with endless columns of Germans. Finally, the tank got tired of hiding and rushing about, and decided to lie in waiting for the German staff. All three hatches are open, there are no people, and there’s a small village in the background. We will hope for the best – that the tank men crawled out and escaped by foot through the village.
People who envision the first week of the war as an utter collapse should take a look at this Red Army soldier calmly standing guard near a pile of German trophies adorned with the Nazi flag.
There was a collapse: a breakdown in management and command, the chaos of different orders, the ineptitude of headquarters. Hundreds and thousands were taken prisoner after surrendering. But there was indeed a war, fierce from the very first hour – an unknown war on the western border with its fleeting victories.
Pilot Ivan Kopets worked his way up from lieutenant to general, from squadron commander to Western District Air Force commander-in-chief in just four years. In Spain, he was known by the name Jose. He fought there on anything that could fly, including the ancient Nieuport-52. In June 1941, he had more than one thousand planes under his command. He lost seven hundred of them on the very first day of the war.
No photos are available of Ivan Kopets in June 1941. We can only imagine what was going on all day in the heart of this tall, strong pilot. He continued to fly frequently as a general. On the ground, this confident man, with a kind, open face and combed back hair, loved to smoke a pipe. It is not know what became of him. The most widespread version is that he committed suicide late on 22 June. Another version claims he was arrested and shot. It’s a proven fact that his innocent wife, Nina, was sentenced to five years in a camp. Major General Tayursky, who replaced Kopets late on 22 June, was shot on 23 February 1942. This isn’t a version, it’s a fact. He was shot by his own, not the Germans.
The picture shows our devastated airfield. The same thing took place here as everywhere else: chaos, a lack of orders or contradictory orders, severed communications, clueless authorities and individual pilots taking planes to the skies at their own risk and peril. They flew west and from above saw the roads filled with German infantry and machinery for dozens of kilometres. Some of the pilots charged at these columns, others tried to attack the crossings on the Bug River, and others entered into battle with German planes flying east. It was air warfare with loners versus the Luftwaffe. There was a young pilot named Ivanov, who, only half an hour after the start of the war, at 4:30 in the morning, when it was already light out and a blindingly beautiful sunny day was just beginning, fired off all of his ammunition and crashed full speed into a Heinkel He 111 right above Brest Fortress in front of hundreds of our soldiers. This was the first ram attack of the first day of the war – the first but not the only one.