Either the seventh or eighth day of May, depending on where you are, is the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. This is the key image of the end of that war, but it is one that has aroused some controversy over the years.
Yevgeny Khaldei had been a photographer with TASS and then the Red Army since 1936. Now he was photographing the push toward Berlin — a massive battle that took a month and involved more than three million soldiers altogether. It became known to the Soviet war photographers that Stalin wanted an historic flag-raising scene — Stalin had been very impressed by Joe Rosenthal’s photo of US Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi while taking Iwo Jima. So Khaldei got his uncle, a tailor, to sew together three tablecloths and make a flag from them. He carried this home-made flag into Berlin. By the end of March the Red Army had taken Vienna and was pushing into Germany. Following a huge battle at the Seelow Heights, Soviet forces pressed into Berlin and had entered the city limits by April 20. Stalin had two generals with their respective armies attacking Berlin and he pressed each man to be the One, the general who took Berlin. Meanwhile, the Americans were unwilling to expend the manpower necessary to take Berlin — after all, they still had to defeat Japan. The bloody battle for Okinawa was to be the next big American fight. Even so, American bombers pounded Berlin for weeks, creating a great deal of destruction. The Red Army advanced into Berlin, fighting the Germans who took cover in the rubble. As the Soviets moved deeper into the city, German troops ensconced themselves on the rooftops and upper windows of the massive buildings. (Albert Speer recalled that everything was built to the scale of gods, not of men.) On April 22, the Red Army first attacked the Reichstag building. The defenders were mainly SS with a large contingent of non-German troops — Dutch, Swedes, Danes — they had nowhere to go and saw no alternative to fighting to the death. Here, the Soviet forces bogged down for a bit. The prime date for taking Berlin was Mayday. An all-out assault on April 29 -30 brought Soviet troops into the foyer of the huge building, but German soldiers firing from the wrecked floors above turned the lobby into a slaughterhouse. Still, the Soviets pressed forward, through the lobby, and managed to get on the upper floors where the battle was fought, room to room, until May 2. A force of Red soldiers managed to get onto the Reichstag roof and raise a flag on April 30, but it was too dark to photograph and German snipers soon brought it down. On May 2 (probably) Khaldei managed to get up on the roof and persuaded some soldiers to raise his tablecloth flag. Khaldei shot an entire roll of film on his Leica, 36 images, of the event. Jubilant, he sent his pictures back to Moscow. Then he was summoned back to the TASS main office in Moscow. An editor threw a print of the flag-raising on the table. “What is this?” he demanded, “That soldier is wearing two wristwatches. That means he has been looting. Red Army soldiers do not loot! Remove a watch!” So, Khaldei scratched out a wristwatch on the soldier to the right of the man raising the flag. (Some say that the item on the man’s right wrist is a compass, not a watch.) Khaldei also sharpened and darkened the smoke in the distance. Later, the photo was colored, resulting in this: Khaldei never expressed regret for retouching the photo, nor was he shy about staging the flag raising. Some perspective might result from remembering that Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photo was a re-enacted event, though Joe Rosenthal always denied that it was staged, even though James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, was on the scene and demanded a bigger flag be raised for the camera. Khaldei also photographed his flag being raised over other Berlin landmarks, including the Brandenburg Gate, and other photographers recorded flag-raisings throughout the city, from the Adlon Hotel to the Tempelhof airport. The men who are shown raising the flag are now thought to be, left to right: Alyosha Kovalyov and Abdulkhakim Ismailov, and (outside the frame in some photos) Leonid (or perhaps Alexei) Gorychev. Kovalyov was Ukrainian, Ismailov was from Dagestan, Gorychev from Minsk. Those names were supplied in 1995. For propaganda reasons, in 1945, the soldiers identified as raising the flag were Meliton Kantaria, a Georgian (like Stalin) and the man below, Mikhail Yegorov, a Russian. The third man, Alexei Berest, was a Ukrainian and his name was deleted from the official captions. Mikhail Minin may have been the actual soldier who raised the “Victory Flag” on April 30, but by now who can say? Khaldei’s photo is the accepted popular version. With all of this, it is no wonder that some claim that Khaldei’s photo was “doctored”. Khaldei himself said that it was a good photo and depicted truth. And that leads into debates about photography and authenticity that I don’t want to get into here. Doctored or not, the photo is great propaganda. Khaldei had gone to work with TASS in 1936. He photographed much of the Second World War, including shots of Russian crowds hearing the official announcement that Germany had invaded, right through to photographs of the Nuremburg war crimes trial. Shots of Göring predominate there, although Khaldei claimed that Göring blamed him for some indignity suffered at the hands of a guard and covered his face when Khaldei approached. In Hungary, Khaldei photographed Jewish men and women wearing yellow stars, then ripped the stars from their clothing. His father and three of his four sisters were murdered by the Nazis. Khaldei’s mother and a grandfather were murdered in a Ukrainian pogrom before the War. In 1948, Khaldei was fired from TASS because, according to Khaldei, he was a Jew. Khaldei free-lanced until 1959 when Pravda hired him. In 1970 he was fired again. All during his career, Khaldei got others to take his picture as he posed before places he had just photographed minutes before.
The general Communist principle was that “art workers” were only a voice of the masses and not individuals, so it was many years after the War before Soviet authorities attached his name to his photographs. Khaldei began receiving recognition in the 1980s and, when a book of his photos was published in the early ’90s, Khaldei received enough money to buy a new camera: a Rolleiflex. “I never had such a camera in all my life!” he said. Khaldei died in 1997 at the age of 80.
Notes: At least eight of the 36 exposures made by Khaldei can be found via various Google searches. So far as I can determine none are copyright because the Soviet Union didn’t believe in such stuff. Khaldei was interviewed several times after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Here is a short piece where he describes retouching the wristwatch. Some of Khaldei’s images in a short video promoting a book about Khaldei. Witness to History: The Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei and this is the book promoted above. More about the Reichstag flag on Iconic Photos, here and here.