Nazi Rise to Power in Germany, 1933-38

I grew up in Berlin with a pervasive sense of danger and dread combined with a perceived obligation not to show fear. I was aware of personal danger and knew that whatever happened to me, my parents could offer no protection or help. That was everyday life. —Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s development as a professional photographer coincided with the Nazi rise to power and the establishment of the Third Reich. Widespread antisemitism and the implementation of increasingly restrictive measures against Jews became daily realities. Vishniac documented the ominous changes he encountered, photographing campaign posters, swastika banners, phrenology shops, and marching Nazi soldiers. Following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933, the government relentlessly pursued those artists and intellectuals not in line with the Reich’s values. Berlin’s cosmopolitan vivacity was soon drained of its intellectual and cultural capital. Once-vibrant neighborhoods became ruled by fear; anyone considered an opponent of the Nazi government could be sent to Dachau, a concentration camp established in 1933 outside Munich.
Many photographers suffered from the Nazi policies; the Schriftgesetz (Editorial Act) of November 1933 forced anyone working in publishing— photographers included—to provide proof of Aryan heritage. In 1934, the Deutsche Presse (German Press) published a list of authorized Aryan photographers whose work aligned with the Nazi party. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. In spite of these restrictions, Vishniac tenaciously documented Berlin’s rapid acclimation to Nazi policy. To avoid suspicion, he often used his young daughter Mara as a prop, snapping seemingly innocuous pictures of her in front of advertising columns and shop windows festooned with Nazi propaganda.
These symbols of oppression formed the quotidian backdrop of Vishniac’s Germany, a fact to which the ubiquity of Nazi flags, banners, and posters in his later Berlin photographs testify. Capturing the spread of Nazi ideology on Berlin’s streets, Vishniac’s images embodied his own marginalization— and endangerment—as both a photographer and a Jew.
Maya Benton, Curator
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