Soviet Propaganda & Famous WWII Photo

By | June 27, 2020

[June 27, 2020]  World War II produced photographs that still capture our attention.  One of the most famous is the iconic photo by Joe Rosenthal of U.S. Marines raising the Star and Stripes over Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.1  What is lesser known for Americans is the story behind another famous photo; this one of Red Army soldiers raising the Soviet Flag over the German Reichstag in May 1945 and Soviet propaganda.

Yevgeny Khaldei (Евгений Халдей) was a Soviet Red Army naval officer and photographer.  He is best known for this WWII photo.  It was reprinted in thousands of publications and is one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war.  It became a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

But there is controversy surrounding the photograph that tells us something about the culture of the Soviet Union.  The German Reichstag was the heart of Nazi Germany.  Arguably it was the most symbolic WWII target in Berlin.  Khaldei climbed the building on May 2, carrying the flag sewn from three tablecloths for this very purpose, by his uncle.  The official government story was that two Red Army soldiers scaled the building and planted the flag.

The actual story, according to Khaldei, differs.  The photo was altered in four ways.  First, the picture was staged.  Second, the soldier raising the flag appears to be wearing two wristwatches and could imply he had looted one of them, an action punishable by execution.  Using a needle, Khaldei removed one of the watches.  Third, Khaldei added more smoke to the background, copying it from another picture to make the scene more dramatic.  And fourth, Khaldei added more contrast to make the scene appear more dramatic.

Unlike Rosenthal’s photo on Mt. Suribachi, it is neither staged nor altered.  While both pictures were significant propaganda events, it shows that the Soviet leadership of WWII was very image-conscious.  Their leaders pushed their troops hard to capture Berlin, so much so that needless casualties occurred and atrocities committed.

The photo helps convey the message of Soviet endurance, pride, and bravery in their victory of their fascist invaders.  It was a hard-fought and bloody war.  The photo also unintentionally captures and conceals a story of vengeance, mutual brutality, murder, organized destruction, and pillaging.

In no way does this diminish the bravery of Soviet soldiers who destroyed the core of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but it does leave a tarnish to this day.

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  1. You can see the photo at Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographer David Hume Kennerly’s website: https://kennerly.com/blog/iwo-jima-photo-taken-70-years-ago-today/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

15 thoughts on “Soviet Propaganda & Famous WWII Photo

  1. Harry Donner

    I remember the photograph well from my college days studying 20th cent. history. It brought back some good memories of those good ole’ days. My professor never mentioned the manipulation of the pix however. Strange that he did not.

    Reply
    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Yes, I also studied it but I was in High School with some of my best buds. Good thing I was paying attention. We were studying the end of WWII and looking at how politics came into play on the battlefield.

      Reply
  2. Dennis Mathes

    I have to agree with Gen. Satterfield and some of those in this leadership forum that Communists (actually any of the socialist-type govts) are very image conscious. They know that central planning means thinking for the little guys. The little guys cannot be trusted because they might think that somehow they are free and get out of hand. So, all socialist govts are heavy handed, always looking to put on a false front, and in saving face.

    Reply
    1. Mikka Solarno

      Very true. It means lying is okay. Once you are down that path, there is no recovery.

      Reply
  3. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Another spot-on leadership blog. This one about Russian culture is interesting. I would like to read more about them. Contrast their culture with more Western cultures and some sort of matrix. If possible, thanks.

    Reply
  4. Watson Bell

    I remember seeing this picture somewhere before. Looking it up on the Internet, I see that you used the edited photo, not the original. Okay, but it might have been a better idea to show both of them. IMHO….

    Reply
      1. Wendy Holmes

        I recommend wikipedia for a better description of the alterations made in the photo. I dont blame Khaldei as the photographer but the Soviet leadership for making him change it. Image for communists is sooooo important.

        Reply
  5. Walter H.

    Great article on this iconic photo. I never knew about the controversy. Some say, however, that the soldier assisting the one raising the flag was actually wearing a wrist compass (yeah, right!). He was looting as were most of the other soviet soldiers. These guys had a rough time and never had anything of value in their lives. Now was the time to take while the taking as good (and it was acceptable to do so).

    Reply
    1. JT Patterson

      Looting was “punishable by execution.” Yep, and it was almost never enforced unless some Soviet officer wanted your loot and you refused to give it up.

      Reply
      1. Randy Goodman

        True, but you never hear that side of the story. Russian culture has always been brutal. Read their history, it’s not a good thing. Why? Somebody better than us should answer that question.

        Reply
  6. Tom Bushmaster

    Very interesting article. Too many times, we don’t see the real story behind an event. Appreciate the update.

    Reply
    1. Anthony "Tony" Benson

      Good comment partner! Yes, I agree to what you say. Remember Paul Harvey? And now the rest of the story ….. he sure knew how to give some real background that put things into perspective.

      Reply
    2. Eric Coda

      Tom, spot on comment. Putting any action into perspective is something us HUMANs don’t do a good job of these days. We are too quick to act without thinking our actions thru. 👍

      Reply

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