By Andrés Zervigon, Rutgers University Posted April 25, 2013

Medium peter deathoverdresden

How did the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, morph from one of the final acts of World War II into one of the first of the Cold War? This event certainly helped define the period it closed, one in which bombs, putsches, purges and gas chambers were used to slaughter millions of civilians, often by their own governments. Yet by 1950, official opinion behind the Iron Curtain had deemed Dresden’s destruction an act of capitalist aggression delivered by Anglo-American bombers that foretold an atomic catastrophe which only socialism could forestall. This carefully orchestrated reframing took the form of endless speeches and printed tirades. But photography provided its most compelling visual form. One of these now forgotten pictures was snapped by Dresden resident Richard Peter, a politically radical amateur “worker photographer” during the Weimar era and later a press photographer in the nascent German Democratic Republic. 

In the days following the bombing, Peter shot innumerable photographs, some of which have become iconic. Five years later he assembled a selection of these into a book titled Eine Kamera Klagt an [A Camera Accuses]. This picture of a construction worker, dressed nearly in rags and scaling a hastily assembled latter, seems innocuous enough. But the rhetorical framing that Peter gave his book, and the larger discourse he meant to engage, burdens  this construction worker with the weight of cold war symbolism. He is not merely an anonymous man scaling a destroyed building. He is the mighty proletarian, reclaiming Dresden from its capitalist destruction and putting the city on its heroic course to socialist reconstruction.

Peter shot him dramatically from below as he slips skyward along a diagonal defined by the latter itself, his mallet and the canister on his back. The worker now rises like a phoenix from the city’s ashes and correspondingly serves a reincarnation of the figure of death Peter placed near the book’s beginning. This skeleton, actually used for modeling at the city’s art academy, seems to scratch at the void that once was the Frauenkirche [Church of our Lady], gesturing toward the rubble heap that would become a monument to Dresden’s destruction, until its 2008 reconstruction. Poet and politician Max Zimmerling summed up the significance of these photographs in the book’s prologue: "The brilliance that once was in your eyes, illuminated by music/ and painting,/ Was made to yield to a particular shame, and that shame/ Carries the name of Wall Street."