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Windows into World War II

Photos obtained by GSC professor show images of Nazi Germany, Russia’s war role

POSTED: May 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Nazi soldiers crossing a river in an inflatable boat are pictured in this vintage World War II photograph.

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The American archaeology professor readjusted the orange scarf hanging loosely around his neck, making sure it was still visible.

He nervously scanned the crowd milling outside the Eastern European opera house.

Men puffed cigarettes, their breath visible in the December evening. Russian words filled the frigid air as the orchestra began tuning its instruments inside. It was snowing, and the crowds started to shuffle into the warm theater for an Italian opera of romance and tragedy.

Steve Nicklas, a professor at Gainesville State College, was searching each face, wondering which belonged to a man he knew as "Alex."

Nicklas had flown to a country in the former Soviet Union to meet Alex. The men planned to discuss Nicklas' interest in purchasing secret World War II photos that had been locked inside a classified government building since the end of the war.

Nicklas stood on the top step of the opera house and was wearing the orange scarf as Alex instructed in the e-mail.


Finally, a tall, dark man wearing a black leather jacket approached him. He spoke with a thick Russian accent, and told Nicklas that he could get him even more photos than the 2,000 he had already mailed to Nicklas' Dawsonville home.

The two men had been conversing through e-mail since May 2007, but never met in person until December. Alex, whom Nicklas believes is a former agent for the KGB, the Soviet Union secret police, had access to thousands of unpublished World War II photos.

Alex's government, which was once a stronghold of the former Soviet Union, was withholding the now-declassified pictures from Germany, the Soviet Union's bitter enemy in the World War II.

Since June 2007, Nicklas and Malcolm Dulock, a doctor from Cumming, had been sending Alex about $7 for each black and white photo. The photos came in by the hundreds, then by the thousands.

Nicklas now possesses nearly 5,000 photos depicting multiple facets of World War II on the German-Soviet Union front. Many of the photos contain professional quality pictures of German leader Adolf Hitler and his cronies that have never been published.

"I was the first person to unwrap these 300 photos since the war," Nicklas said of one bundle.

The photos capture moments between 1927 and 1946 that show Nazi officials, SS officers (Schutzstaffel, Hitler's elite military force), concentration camp victims and soldiers of Germany and the Red Army in the gritty context of World War II.

Nicklas said the Soviets likely captured the photos when they seized Ukraine from the German army late in the war. He said the photos were probably stored as classified information in Kiev under the watch of the NKVD, Josef Stalin's secret police.

Nicklas said he believes the photos came from Russia's controversial "Trophy Archive" that reportedly holds everything the Soviet Army Trophy Commission seized from the Germans in World War II.

Germany has attempted to recover some of the archive, including numerous photographs, without success.

"I'm not sure where (Alex) is getting them from. And that's part of the problem," Nicklas said. "All I know is that at one time, they were in a German archive and at another time they were in a Soviet archive."

Nicklas said the NKVD placed red stamps on about 99 percent of the photos that are carefully numbered by sequence. There are also light purple stamps with German phrases on the vast majority of the photos.

Through various sources, Nicklas has determined that German military photographers took most of the pictures, while the remainder was taken by the United States and Soviet militaries. And a Soviet newspaper photographer who was serving in the Ukraine snapped about 90 images.

Douglas Young, a history professor at Gainesville State College, said he has no doubt the photos are authentic.

"This is a historic find," Young said. "This is a historic find pertaining to one of the biggest events of all history. The fact that Dr. Nicklas has assembled so many pictures of the war is a hugely important find."

"I think these photos may significantly enlarge our images of the war because there's so many pictures we've never seen before of battlefields and soldiers on both sides," Young said.

"They show the horrors of the war. They show the ordinariness of life behind the front lines. They show the everyday activities of soldiers and shows them even having fun."

He added that the photos detail the eastern front of the war, the side of the conflict about which Americans probably know least.

The collection of photos could change the way the world perceives World War II, Young said.
The pictures show the eerily familiar images of emaciated concentration camp victims in Germany, Austria and Slovakia. They also show Hitler and his officials taking the helm of the Third Reich, its rise to glory, and the wake of death and destruction it left behind.

But most importantly, the photos show a side of the war that has yet to enter mainstream history: the Soviet Union's crucial role in crushing Nazi Germany, as well as the everyday lives of German soldiers and SS officers responsible for the more than 6 million civilian deaths that occurred as the war unfolded.

The remarkably crisp images show Soviet and German soldiers in action as well as German troops playing chess in the North African desert. They show German soldiers executing partisan Germans who engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis.

Soviet pictures show Red Army soldiers parading German prisoners of war through the streets of Ukraine. Other photos show members of the Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi execution squad, marching Jewish families with hands held high through the Ukrainian countryside to their deaths.

Oddly, there also are photos of German soldiers sipping champagne with their girlfriends.

Nicklas said his most prized set of photos is the 12 swinging SS officers that Ukrainians publicly hanged in the Kiev square in 1946 for war crimes. He said that set of photos highlights the hanging as a delight to Ukrainians, illustrating the intense hatred between the two nations.

Young said the Soviet Union lost up to 27 million people during the course of the war, which is roughly half of the world's total death toll in World War II.

Nicklas said he expects to receive about 5,000 more photos of the European theater of the war. He intends to publish all of them, and is already working on a book that will display each photo.

Also, Nicklas is currently in contact with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Historians from the museum contacted Nicklas on Friday, and said they received the disc he mailed to them containing 700 photos. Experts are currently researching the legitimacy of each one.

In addition to images of Hitler, the photos depict Rudolf Hess, Hitler's personal secretary until 1941, and Martin Bormann, Hitler's second secretary who greatly influenced Hitler at the end of the war.

Nicklas also has photos of Julius Streicher, who ran the anti-Semitic propaganda newspaper Der Sturmer. He later was found guilty in the Nuremburg war-crimes trials and executed.

Nicklas' journey into the past began in May last year, when he was in the early stages of an archaeological dig in the former Soviet Union. To safeguard the continued flow of pictures and security of all persons involved, Nicklas said he cannot name the country from which the sensitive material came.

It was then that the professor had a chance meeting with a highly decorated former soldier of the Red Army, who fought against the Germans in World War II. After a six-hour conversation with the soldier, who was grateful for a sympathetic Westerner's ear, the soldier presented Nicklas with 18 black-and-white photos.

Shocked, Nicklas asked the soldier how he might obtain more. He pointed him to Alex.

After setting the price for each photo through scant e-mail communication, Alex mailed Nicklas the first set of goods in a box. The photos were camouflaged by sports memorabilia mixed with tourist postcards and flashy scarves.

It was one of Alex's orange scarves that allowed the photo smuggler to identify Nicklas at the opera house in December.

"I was scared," Nicklas said when he first negotiated the deal with Alex. "But I'll be more scared once they are published."



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