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    These Color Photos of the Third Reich Are Absolutely Chilling

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Hitler's Nazi party is well known for its heavy use of symbolism in campaigns. Today, that use of massive banners and massive eagles and massive crowds all lined up at attention has left a deservedly sinister impression, and has been effectively copied in just about every brutal totalitarian state in fiction. Yet while many of us know how powerful Hitler's propaganda and imagery machine was, seeing it in on the ground in full color in this stunning Life photo series is like a punch in the gut.

    Image: Hugo Jaeger/LIFE

    Life has been digging through its archives lately for great retrospectives of old, and sometimes unseen, photos. (The tribute to war photographer Larry Burrows is particularly powerful.) But Life has outdone itself with this series from Hugo Jaeger, who was one of Hitler's personal photographers.

    Image: Hugo Jaeger/LIFE

    To see entire towns swathed in swastika banners is haunting. But to see it in color is to see how jarring those red banners are in the landscape. It's like a red tide flooding every nook and cranny of a town.

    That's obviously the impression that Hitler and his propaganda machine wanted; that the Nazi party was an unstoppable force washing through the land, and the only option was to join in.

    Image: Hugo Jaeger/LIFE

    Hitler's power was partly born of the sheer cultish aesthetics he espoused. When faced with such an incredibly efficient machine that seemingly paints everything red wherever it goes, it's difficult for the individual to dissent, and as Hitler gained power, that only became harder.

    Image: Hugo Jaeger/LIFE

    But imagery alone, however powerful, can't sustain a political movement forever. While the Nazi party was successful at gaining ranks by essentially saying "Look, everyone is with us, join or be left behind (or murdered)," it wasn't 100 percent successful. Dissent, both at home and abroad, persisted. Hitler portrayed his "Thousand Year Reich" as invincible and all-encompassing, and while he committed unspeakable atrocities during his reign, the Allies kept that reign to just ten years.

    Image: Hugo Jaeger/LIFE

    That gross simplification is a basic part of any 20th century history book, but the black-and-white photos we're used to accompanying that simply don't portray the scene nearly as well as color. Subject matter aside, Jaeger's photos are technically impressive. 35mm Kodachrome was first released in 1936, and it was only after that that color photography made its slow spread into the hands of professionals.

    It's a rather incredible example of how powerful technical development can be, even in the arts; just a few short years after the commercial advent of color film technology, it was being put to use to create images that evoke even more emotion than their black-and-white counterparts, even today. In that light, Jaeger's skill with the new medium is notable based on this portfolio, although it's highly unfortunate that it was used to document the life of history's most notorious villain. But that's what's fascinating about these photos, especially from the standpoint of innovation. I doubt the film chemists who'd figured out how to replicate color expected it'd be used for propaganda so quickly.

    Image: Hugo Jaeger/LIFE

    But as utterly shocking as the imagery is in color, it's important to remember that while Hitler's propaganda machine was powerful, it wasn't enough. As Life.com editor Ben Cosgrove writes in his essay accompany the photo set, which you ought to read, "it never hurts to remind ourselves that it takes far more than emblems — no matter how commanding they might be, or how transcendent they might seem — to transform a movement into an enduring political, social or military force."

    Image: Hugo Jaeger/LIFE

    And that's the truth. There's a reason the Nazi party's heavy-handed symbolism has been caricatured in films like 1984 and Death Race 2000: It's not only one-dimensional politically, but also historically. The concept of covering every square inch of public space with banners representing the Party, whichever it may be, is an old trope, and one that we almost automatically associate with totalitarian governments.

    It's because free thought requires free aesthetics, and a despot shoving his imagery in your face at every turn traps the mind, and some will always dissent. If looking at 80 year old scans of photos of long-dead evil on your screen has got your heart rate up, then you totally understand.