WHAT IS IN FOCUS OF A PHOTOLENS?

Events of the First World War with a grief of historical, social, and political tragedies in Belarusian historiography were forced to be off the road. Nobody could ever forget about what was happening on the territory of the north-western part of the Russian Empire, ethnic Belarus and neighboring lands in 1914–1918. Alongside with that, the scale of those faraway events moved away. Perhaps, that is why today any factual information about the First World War in Belarus is perceived as finding and renewal of very valuable memory pages
Events of the First World War with a grief of historical, social, and political tragedies in Belarusian historiography were forced to be off the road. Nobody could ever forget about what was happening on the territory of the north-western part of the Russian Empire, ethnic Belarus and neighboring lands in 1914–1918. Alongside with that, the scale of those faraway events moved away. Perhaps, that is why today any factual information about the First World War in Belarus is perceived as finding and renewal of very valuable memory pages.

The book “Belarus through a German soldier’s photographic lens. 1915–1918” (Minsk. “Tekhnologia,” 2008) by Vladimir Likhodedov which is composed out of reproductions of old post cards and rare photos seems to be unique. Just issued, it coincided with the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War… The topic chosen by the publishers is surely famous and doesn’t pretend to originality.

Vladimir Likhodedov who has been occupied with deltiologic collection for several decades distinguished such reproductions for a new issue which traditionally continues the interpublishing series “In search of the lost,” post cards and photos of his private collection and which are mainly German in terms of printing or original preparation. That is why the album is called “Belarus through a German soldier’s photographic lens. 1915–1918”. Kaiser’s troops came to the territory of the Russian Empire and Belarus as invaders. However, solving strategic and tactical military tasks, enemy soldiers and officers saw an unknown country. They saw that there are clever, thrifty, capable and talented people there. They saw ancient castles and mansions; they were amazed by landscape art of the depth of Europe; they were unexpectedly impressed by primeval nature and the most interesting historical landscape.

This is how Vladimir Likhodedov characterizes the task of the book in the foreword “To readers:” “The First World War”… This was the first war in the history of the humanity, which was accompanied with colossal number of victims. Almost ten million people died during this war, more than twenty million people were injured. Ten million people more died of epidemics and famine. Many military men and peaceful citizens became cripples. Belarus lost almost one and a half million people in this war. In 1914, in the very beginning of the war, the territory of Belarus turned out to be the center of dramatic events. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen were mobilized and became direct participants of military actions. Immediately after beginning of military actions Belarus was flooded with the refugees from the Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states. Soon the Belarusians — more than three million people — were forced to flee to foreign lands. In 1915 more than a half of the territory of today’s Belarus was occupied by German troops. In several years in compliance with Brest treaty of peace of 1918 German army occupied the major part of Belarusian land. And though relations between the occupants and peaceful population were rather difficult, the image of the German soldier didn’t respond to the stereotype, rooted in consciousness of simple people by the imperial power. There were few intelligentzia’s representatives among people mobilized to German and Austro-Hungarian troops. Famous scientists — historians, archeologists, art historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists had to wear the uniform and take weapon in their hands… As a rule, they did their military service in the rear. Many of them obtained the opportunity to become acquainted with life and character of Belarusian people for the first time, to know historical monuments closer. During the occupation of Belarus in 1915–1918 many German researchers were seriously engaged in studying history, language, and culture of our people. Thus, Professor P. Weber expressed interest in the history of ecclesiastic painting and art of Vilensky territory. Doctor А. Ipel prepared the series of sketches, dedicated to Belarusian art. He even organized several antiquity exhibitions in Minsk and Vilnius.

Of course, the photography art of the country new for German soldiers and officers couldn’t but be opened by them. Moreover, in this very period photo equipment was improved. New compact cameras appeared, and this made photography popular. In the German army photography was widely used for military purposes, firstly for intelligence… Alongside with that, the officers and soldiers, possessing cameras, obtained the opportunity to fix the scenes of military life, as well as life of local population; to take pictures of natural and architectural landscapes. The printing offices of numerous military units issued post cards based on this material. Today many of those pictures are unique documents. They allow detecting thousands of common details of the tragic past, unfixed anywhere else. Opening the little-known First World War almost in a century, we are as if looking at the present Belarus through a German soldier’s photographic lens. Guessing the circumstances when a partial hand took pictures with the help of a camera, we refer to these reminders as to the documents of great historical power and emotional value.”

Names of the chapters, such as “Towns,” “Town settlements,” “In the rear,” “At the front,” “Brest-Lithuanian treaty of peace,” “Cemetery” explain the publication’s concept. Let’s look at the pages of the fourth of them and try to realize the travel to battle positions. Opening the chapter, we see the photo of 1915 in the fly title: German soldiers climbed the captured Russian cannon. They seem to be happy that they will not be injured by the splinters of this weapon. I recollected the other cannons of the First World War… And a famous “Great Berta,” invented at the plant of the German military-industrial magnate Krupp. Its shell weighed 900 kilograms; it could break through a two-meter’s concrete and steel fortification… The very beginning of the photo dialogue with the viewers and readers hints that we will have to travel to the war, not being limited to a journey to the mansion house for the purpose of opening of these or those local eminences. We look narrowly at the ruins of the railroad station in Baranovichi. The photo nearby tells us about the unloading of thorny glass rod (the invention of those “technologies”). The whole series of German post cards was dedicated to the military years in Brest. Kobrin, 1916 — ruins, a medical battalion. There is a hospital on the photo dated 1917 from Kobrin. Smorgon seems to be the hero town judging by German post cards. There is a destroyed church on the pictures, as well as soldiers, getting ready to the chemical attack in a trench, defensive fortifications, a German howitzer weapon, a front telegraph in Smorgon… Many illustrations were made in Polesye, on the banks of Pina, in Grodno and Brest over Schara.

Turning the leaves of the book by Vladimir Likhodedov, we take into deliberation that exclusive social initiative of the collector of the old post cards is a very important public matter. Many post cards (and even the majority of them!), though once being issued with solid circulation, are completely unfamiliar to the national researchers. Saying nothing of simple fellow countrymen, interested in history.

Ales Karliukevich.
Post cards from a collection of Vladimir Likhodedov
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