Belgrade ’41: “Most terrible scene, which I photographed ever”

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On April 21-22, 1941, German Wehrmacht photographer Gerhard Gronefeld photographed what he regarded as the “most terrible scene, which I photographed ever.” This scene was the mass hanging and mass shooting of Serbian civilians by the German Army in Pancevo, a city in Vojvodina northeast of Belgrade. Thirty-six Serbian civilians were rounded up at random and executed by German occupation forces, the Gross Deutschland Regiment under Oberstleutnant Wilhelm-Hunert von Stockhausen, following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941.

Gerhard Gronefeld (1911-2000) began working in 1935 for Heinrich Hoffmann, who was the official photographer of the NSDAP, the German Nazi Party, and who was Adolf Hitler’s personal photographer. He photographed the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936. He later worked for the German magazine “Freude und Arbeit” and the “Berliner Illustrierter Zeitung”. During World War II, he was assigned to a “propaganda company” of the German Army. He was a war photographer and correspondent in Belgium, France, Poland, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Serbia, and the Balkans. Using a Carl Zeiss Ikon Contax camera, he documented not only the events of the war, but also Wehrmacht “retaliatory measures” against civilians, hostages, and guerrillas. He photographed the German Army executions of 36 Serbian civilians in Pancevo on April 21-22, 1941 during the Balkans campaign, the invasion of Yugoslavia. Gronefeld regarded the Pancevo executions of Serbian civilians as the most important that he took, and the ones that had the most impact on him personally. In a March 7, 1997 interview to the Associated Press, he recalled the Wehrmacht’s executions of the Serbian civilians in Pancevo:

“These eyes will always pursue me”

By TERRENCE PETTY

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MUNICH, Germany (AP) – Thirty-six Serb civilians visit Gerhard Gronefeld sometimes as he sleeps. He photographed them, just before they were hanged or shot to death by a German army unit in 1941.

On those haunted nights, waking him in terror, is his memory of the pleading eyes of the Serb victims – 35 men and one woman.

“Those eyes, those eyes. They will never give me peace,” says the 85-year- old Gronefeld, who went from battle to battle across Europe as a propaganda photographer in the German armed forces.

Eleven of his photographs of the reprisal massacre in Pancevo, Serbia, are part of a traveling exhibit that documents atrocities committed in the Balkans and the Soviet Union by Germany’s regular armed forces, the Wehrmacht.

The exhibit has caused a furor during its current stop in Munich. The governing conservative party of Bavaria state calls it an insult to the Wehrmacht. Leftist politicians retort that critics of the exhibit are trying to gloss over history. And about 5,000 neo-Nazis marched through Munich on March 1 to protest the display.

The exhibit confronts Germans with a fact many would rather not admit: Ordinary soldiers, not just special units like the Nazi SS elite guard, killed Jews and other civilians.

Of hundreds of photos in the Wehrmacht exhibit, only Gronefeld’s were taken by a professional photographer assigned to the Wehrmacht. The German army destroyed most evidence of its involvement in the Holocaust and other atrocities.

Suspecting that his photos of the killings would likely be destroyed, Gronefeld never turned them over to his superiors. Nor was he asked for the photos. Gronefeld says he kept the pictures because he wanted to some day tell the world what happened at Pancevo.

Gronefeld says he did not like Hitler or his ideas, and refused to join the Nazi party. But he willingly took photos for the Wehrmacht after he was drafted into a propaganda unit in 1940.

“I never saw myself as a soldier, but as a photographer. I didn’t even know how to shoot a gun,” says Gronefeld, who is now confined to a wheelchair.

After the war, Gronefeld did freelance work for German publications and for foreign magazines such as Life and Look.

Gronefeld rode on German patrol boats off the coast of England, photographed triumphant German troops after they marched into Paris, and accompanied Wehrmacht units as they invaded the Soviet Union. His wartime pictures appeared in German publications to illustrate army victories.

Gronefeld says the execution at Pancevo was the only atrocity he witnessed. The 36 civilians were rounded up at random in revenge for the killing of two SS officers by Serb partisans.

Gronefeld photographed the civilians being taken to the cemetery, where they were executed. He snapped frame after frame as the victims were made to stand on chairs, nooses were placed over their heads and the chairs were kicked away.

“In their eyes before they died, I saw their last appeal for mercy,” Gronefeld recalled.

After 18 died on the gallows, the remainder were taken to the cemetery wall and executed by firing squad. Gronefeld photographed a soldier who drew his pistol and finished off a wounded victim.

At the time, he says, he understood the Wehrmacht’s desire to avenge the death of German soldiers. But he also felt pity for the victims, and still does.

“They were completely innocent of any wrongdoing,” he says.

This site shows Gronefeld holding a book of his most famous photographs, including the executions in Pancevo by members of the Gross Deutschland Regiment.

Gerhard Gronefeld as a Wehrmacht photographer in 1944.

One of the most famous photographs of World War II, Gronefeld photographed the executions of Serbian civilians in the Pancevo cemetery showing officer of Gross Deutschland finishing off Serbian civilian.

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PHOTO: Mass hanging of Serbian civilians in Pancevo, April 22, 1941.

The executions of Serbian civilians were filmed in color by Gottfried Kessel of the propaganda company of the Gross Deutschland Regiment. The film stills on this site show the executions and hangings. Thirty-six Serbian civilians were killed, thirty-five men and one woman. Preceeding the executions, there are stills of the Nazi occupation of Pancevo, then the “capital” of the Banat, a region of Serbia settled by ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsche, the Donauschwaben, which was under direct Nazi military occupation and administration during the war. [Warning: Disturbing and graphic images of war crimes.].

A still from the film by Gottfried Kessel showing the hanging of Serbian civilians in the Pancevo cemetery.

This is a clip from the Kessel film of the executions in Pancevo, the first 3 minutes of the clip.

The following two photographs are of the hangings, not taken by Gerhard Gronefeld.

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