Extraordinary unseen reconnaissance photos of Warsaw show capital in different stages of WWII occupation
Close to 2,000 previously unpublished WWII photographs have gone online showing the Polish capital in different stages of destruction.
Principally comprised of aerial images taken by Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes throughout the duration of the occupation, the digital undertaking has been described as the largest collection of aerial photographs ever amassed of wartime Warsaw.
Forming part of the Korzenie Miasta project overseen by the Warsaw Rising Museum, the bulk of the images were developed using specialized GIS software and have been presented as layered maps that afford users the chance to use ‘sliders’ to compare the city at varying times both during and after the war.
Unveiled yesterday at a press conference held at the Raffles Europejski Hotel, the photographs form a small part of the 1.2 million photos that German airmen took of various frontlines whilst the war raged below them.
Many of these were subsequently discovered in the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s notorious Bavarian redoubt.
Codenamed, among other things, Orwell, Dick Tracy and Tenant, this motherlode of photos was divided between American and British forces who reputedly relied heavily on them during the early stages of the Cold War to map the Eastern Bloc countries that had fallen under Soviet control.
So vast was the collection, that it took archivists at RAF Medenham over four years to inventory the images that were in British hands.
For the most part, however, the majority of photographs were held by the Americans and it wasn’t until the start of the millennium that they became public knowledge after Zygmunt Walkowski, a historian heavily interested in war photography, uncovered a rich haul of Luftwaffe photos sitting in the National Archives of College Park near Washington.
A frequent visitor to the archives from between 2003 and 2007, it was Walkowski’s early forays to America that eventually led to the Rising Museum’s staggering acquisition.
Speaking at yesterday’s event, Jan Ołdakowski, the director of the Warsaw Rising Museum, emphasized the value of the collection saying: “These photos are a last glimpse of a city that ceased to exist.
“You can observe the city as it would have looked in its pre-war form, and you can also see the process of its destruction. Hiding in these photos is a great wealth of information that triggers no shortage of emotions.”
Offering rich evidence of the technological might of the Third Reich, such was their detail that great importance was placed towards the end of the war on seizing such images before the Red Army could reach them first.
With satellite imagery and hi-tech spy planes still two decades away, photographs like these were deemed crucial in the battle for knowledge in the anticipated post-war new order.
Today, they serve as a unique and haunting window into the past.
Currently offering aerial perspectives taken just before the insurgency (July 27th, 1944), during its height (August 30th, 1944) and in its aftermath (November 4th, 1944 and an undated time in 1945) as well as contemporary comparisons shot this year, the interactive maps show the different stages of the city’s struggle.
Ryszard Mączewski, a Warsaw historian working with the museum, said: “The photos taken before the Uprising are incredibly valuable when researching what was already destroyed, whilst the ones taken during the Uprising were made at such a low level you can identify things like barricades and trams. Meanwhile, the photos taken after the Uprising show the various phases of the city’s destruction.”
In this regard, it is deeply poignant to be able to closely observe the methodical levelling of the city.
“Piłsudski Square and the Saxon Garden attract the attention,” says Jan Ołdakowski. “You can see the cloud of dust rising from where the left wing has been blown up. The right wing, we know, will be blown up the day after the image was taken.”
This aside, the project is notable also for the other angles it takes. For instance, attention has been given to minutiae such as trees that survived the war.
In this case, five have been pinpointed, among them a Linden in Skaryszewski Park close to which a British Liberator was shot down; a Turkish Hazel in the courtyard of the Ministry of Finance that somehow made it through the battle; and an oak tree in Wola where entire families were massacred by Oskar Dirlewanger’s brigade.
Very much a work in progress, other such objects will be added over time including a deeper focus on the barricades and tramlines of wartime Warsaw.
Extraordinary in its depth and scope, few projects have captured the heart-breaking immensity of the doomed 63-day struggle against fascist oppression.