Why the Soviets Doctored Their Most Iconic World War II Victory Photo, “Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag”

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.

Related Content:

Long Before Photoshop, the Soviets Mastered the Art of Erasing People from Photographs — and History Too

Joseph Stalin, a Lifelong Editor, Wielded a Big, Blue, Dangerous Pencil

The History of Russia in 70,000 Photos: New Photo Archive Presents Russian History from 1860 to 1999

Download 437 Issues of Soviet Photo Magazine, the Soviet Union’s Historic Photography Journal (1926-1991)

The First Faked Photograph (1840)

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.

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Comments (17)
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  • Robert says:

    Good morning, Just a little clarifying history there. The flag raising on Iwo Jima was also staged. There was an initial flag raising that was documented but to little fanfare. Later when it was safer, a group went up with a different photographer and put together the now iconic image.

  • Warren Peace says:

    The subject of the video seems a bit over the top, ie. THIS video reads like PR, aka propaganda. The US and Soviet photos are not very different. Both are re-enactments. The general retouching is subjective. I think the original Soviet image is better (dynamic range/contrast, less grainy, more realist) but as I say, it’s subjective. So it seems the subject is mostly wrist watches.

    In the context of our day, the suggestion of crimes and PR seems almost quaint. In my country, we have locked up and tortured an award winning journalist for reporting war crimes. Destroyed, but not quite dead yet. Academics who question dubious events at Douma — used as a pretext for a war of aggression — are smeared as Russian assets by ‘journalists’ who may well be Mi6 assets. In the 2019 election, the British press blew all its credibility in a campaign to prevent an anti-imperialist democrat coming to power. It will never get that back. Not even partisan, the entire corporate media spectrum became and remains a singular pro-govt PR vehicle. In the US, the 2020 election would seem to be following a similar course, with recent warnings from an intelligence community who will undoubtedly be trying to hack the election that the REAL worry is Russians will be trying to hack the election.

    Considering the multiple fronts of war (7 nations?), the illegal sanctions, the coups, assassinations and the necessary inversions of reality required to manufacture consent to support them, both US and Soviet actions in WW2 seem relatively noble and heroic. They stopped brutally aggressive, racist, PR-driven, criminal militarism. Today WE practice brutally aggressive, racist, PR-driven, criminal militarism. Not to mention Abu Graib. Which perhaps explains why this VOX video looks like PR, as if we somehow rose above the brutality and propaganda.

    But yeah, stolen watches. The horror. The horror.

  • Simon Scott says:

    You mean a photograph has been touched up in the darkroom? That’s shocking! You’d never have caught Ansel Adams doing that….. Oh, wait…..

    Good grief! All published photos are cropped, lightened, darkened, items/people etc removed. As soon as photography was invented, someone invented dodging and burning.

  • Ariel says:

    The iwo jima picture was staged too a day after the battle was done


  • Halifax says:

    I watched flags of our fathers a couple of times and I distinctly remember that the photo of the flag being raised was staged aswell. Which only means the colonies are also communist…..

  • Steven Harris says:

    20 million dead ..I’d be after payback as well.Soviets worse crime wasn’t a bit of looting and raping but the 5k German P.O.W. that came home out of an estimated 300k.

  • Dan Hanke says:

    The flag raising on Iwo was staged, the first flag raising was done on the 7th day of fighting if I remember correctly. The fighting went on for more than 30 days. The first flag raised was much smaller than the one in Joe Rosenthal’s photo. Joe Rosenthal didn’t even know his picture had been used until about 30 days later. The 2nd and staged picture was purely by accident as the film was developed weeks after the shutter was snapped.

    Dan Hanke
    USMC 74-78

  • Lamont Boffo says:

    You are misinformed. Read *Flag Of Our Fathers*

  • Milind Naik says:

    Truth is, Your US flag hoisting was also staged at Pacific Islands. US and other allied forces had left Berlin for Red army to avoid high casualtie so Red Army has right for any alterations. Other fact is US and UK had looted and captured more things then USSR.

  • Savva says:

    Oh, really now. Who would have thought that any gigantic empire with unmeasurable ambitions, built on one-sided ideology, could stage a photo?.. Looks like someone is taking a one-sided look, and does that not for learning history. I am not pro-communist or anti-western (and yes, I am Russian), but seeing this kind of narrative in the year of a very grim and sorrowful memory for all the nation is disappointing.

  • Samuel Colt says:

    I’m glad my blind patriotism didn’t turn into deaf patriotism while watching this video, he clearly states in the beginning that both pictures are taken after battle and replace the original smaller flags.

  • Max says:

    Who counted?
    German POWs didn’t fare any better with US-administered camps literally starving them, and shooting civilians that dared to bring them food.

  • Dabitha says:

    Garbage article. Try looking at things objectively while reporting instead of sucking Uncle Sam’s cock. The Reichstag and Iwo Jima photos are nowhere near equal significance. The US lost a fraction of the lives that the USSR lost. The only real threat the US was ever under was of reduced profits coming from overseas. Meanwhile tens of millions of people in the USSR died, with nearly all major cities destroyed, everyone feeling the war firsthand. Coming back from that for the big win is a hell of a lot more significant than taking over some little island so you can go drop incendiary and atom bombs on oppressed Japanese civilians. And as other people have mentioned, the US staged their photo too.

  • Aiaz Bakasov says:

    Would never even come to compare the contributions of USSR and USA into defeating Nazi Germany. The latter is negligible, literally – in scale, in participating forces, in losses and, finally in resulting significance. Yes, the US participation was insignificant in comparison to the Soviet one, for one freely recognizes that even if limited US forces did not rush in August 1944 to Normandy, USSR would have defeated Germany anyway, in just few following months. Anyway. No USA needed on those battle fields. The USA did cowardly wait more than 3 years of the bloodiest ever war since 1941 before cowardly rushing after their “share” by the factual end of that war. This publication is written by an equal coward who took freedom insultingly comparing two events – taking over Berlin and comparatively local fight on a Japanese island. Soviets lost 27 million! 27 million people! How that compares to US losses? Say it now! Hey, the author, you are a coward, even when you are writing disgusting nonsenses.

  • val says:

    I can’t see fake!

  • Saut Situmorang says:

    Colin Marshall, you suck! Finally it’s time to say good bye to your pro American interest pseudo-cultural site. Go home, leave Seoul!

  • Nell says:

    His — HATE THE RUSSIANS — motive were very obvious. He started with a picture – an easy grabber for audience attention. Then when everyones were hooked up, he presented with an his actual dish portraying Germany in WW2 as peaceful land and people attacked by no less than a strong army of Russian thugs who came to ransack, rape, killed, and destroyed Germany. While his angelic US Army were enjoying a flag ceremony in Japan. What he refused to tell was before that, the US did such gravely illegal act by dropping atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki where around 200,000 died at an instant. They were 90% over consisting of families, women, and children. Those that survived had their succeeding generations of today suffering from incurable damaged genes of multiple mutations. Not included are the thousands of cases of their crimes to women and children since WW2 to date with their respective military bases spread throughout Japan.

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