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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