No photograph symbolizes American victory more recognizably than Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Taken on February 23, 1945, it shows six U.S. Marines raising their country’s flag during the battle — a bloody one even by the standards of the Second World War — for control of that Japanese island. The Soviet Union had an equivalent image: Yevgeny Khaldei’s Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, which shows a Russian soldier raising the Soviet flag on the roof of the former German parliament on May 2, 1945, during the Battle of Berlin. The similarities are obvious, but the difference isn’t: the Soviet photo was faked.
To be more specific, Khaldei’s picture was “staged,” and “parts of it were altered before it was published.” So says Vox’s Coleman Lowndes in the video above, which reveals all the pre-Photoshop image manipulation — a specialty of Soviet propagandists even then — performed on Raising a Flag over the Reichstag.
“Khaldei superimposed some black smoke from another photo and manipulated the contrast to give the scene a little more drama,” which in itself may be an understandable choice. But he also erased the wristwatch of one of the soldiers brought in to pose with the flag, a detail you might not notice even holding the original and the doctored version side by side. As Lowndes explains, “The soldier supporting the flag-bearer was wearing two watches, suggesting he had been looting, a stain that didn’t fit the image of Soviet heroism that Stalin wanted.”
A look at the preceding few years of the war goes some way to explaining this. Germany had brutally invaded Russia in 1941, instilling in Russia a thirst for revenge that began to seem satiable when the tables began to turn on Germany the following year. In and on their way to Germany, the Red Army, too, committed crimes against the civilians in their path, looting surely being among the least of them. Raising a Flag over the Reichstag does its job in capturing a moment of Soviet victory, but as Lowndes says, “it also captures, and then conceals, a story of vengeance and mutual brutality, of murder, organized destruction, and pillaging, all culminating in this iconic moment.” And the more iconic the moment, the more potentially revelatory its details — even more so in the case of false ones.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.