Norman Domeier’s eyes light up in anticipation: in the spring of 2018 he is going to publish a discovery he made. He does not want to give away much, merely hints that it relates to the initiation of peace talks at the end of the First World War; and that it was an American journalist acting as a go-between who was meant to bring this about. The rest is top secret for the time being.
The modern historian from Germany thus has a scoop up his sleeve – for the media and his profession. Domeier currently works at the University of Vienna’s Department of Contemporary History under a Lise-Meitner Fellowship awarded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. “Journalism has always held a fascination for me”, he says. He almost ended up in that profession, but ultimately the pull of his history studies, research and an academic career proved to be stronger. “Actually, both fields involve doing diligent research”, he notes in drawing a comparison between the work of a historian and a journalist.
A missed opportunity
Both disciplines require a flair for investigations and an eye for the smallest of details that may lead to astounding insights. It was a detail, a photo caption, that gave rise to Domeier’s most significant achievement to date, namely the results of his research into the world’s biggest news agency Associated Press (AP) and its close collaboration with an SS unit and the Reich’s Foreign Office between 1942 and 1945. “I read a book from the 1980s about the history of press photography and found a rather nonchalant reference to the frictionless contacts between the agency and the Nazi Reich”, reports the historian. At the time, no one was interested in the connection. This indifference was a serious mistake, because in the 1980s all the protagonists would still have been alive, in their prime and in excellent health.
At the heart of the matter lay an agreement that enabled the American news agency to receive exclusive pictures from the Third Reich via its former staff members who switched over to working at the Nazi-run “Büro Laux”. In exchange, AP delivered exclusive photo material from the Allies to Berlin. Enjoying highest government endorsement on both sides, the co-operation was firmly anchored – well-nigh unassailable – in both worlds even during the Second World War.
The dictator’s photo show
“One needs to know that Hitler had photos delivered to his office every day; the best, most interesting and most relevant pictures”, relates Norman Domeier in the interview with scilog. – Something like a daily Instagram feed for the dictator. Officials throughout the ranks were keen to get access to this treasuretrove and use it to their benefit. The historian reports that “there are a number of American photographs which the Nazis edited or presented as German propaganda”.
The war years saw exchanges totalling between 35,000 and 40,000 photos via messengers in Lisbon and Stockholm. “This was not the bazaar used for trading magazines or Hollywood movies; it was done through a dedicated, solid and perfectly organised channel”, emphasises Domeier. He was able to find out how the Nazi regime used the pictures, but has not yet discovered the approach of the Americans. “They knew that they were sent German propaganda pictures, and they knew that their own pictures were used for propaganda purposes. In all likelihood, they also vetted and used their photos in the same way”, is how the historian sees it. His assumption is supported by the fact that orders from Washington put a stop to an investigation into the activities of Büro Laux and its archives by the US Army in 1945.
“The question is, were photographs the only items exchanged through that channel? Or did both sides use it for other purposes as well?”, Domeier wonders. He hopes that AP will finally open its archives, and that he will be authorised to inspect US-American files.
This story displays all the facets typical of many biographies of that era: convenient ties and making allowances for circumstances, opportunistic behaviour and dispassionate business deals were the order of the day. Attitudes as displayed, for instance, by German staff members of the agency who hastily joined the Waffen-SS (the armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation) and then, after May 1945, tried to reinterpret this as an act of downright heroic resistance. The biographies of the staff who worked at Büro Laux read like a film script, a crime story set amidst bombs and ruins.
And what about the moral implications of this story? Domeier takes a moment to reflect: “Actually, we can and we should assess questions of morality and ethics only in the context of the respective period.” Was making deals with the Nazi Regime morally unobjectionable? Was there another, hidden dimension to the exchanging of exclusive image material? Domeier refuses to take a moral stance. He does his research and describes things as they were. His work as a historian is conducted with a scientific and journalistic approach in the best sense. And he is looking forward to springtime and his next little coup.
Norman Domeier holds the position of Akademischer Rat a. Z. at the Institute of History at the University of Stuttgart. Following several research grants which took him to various universities, including in Washington DC, Tokyo, New-Delhi and Moscow, he is currently doing research at the University of Vienna’s Institute of Contemporary History as a Lise-Meitner Fellow.