Nuns in front of a landscape of ruins

Nuns in front of a landscape of ruins

Procession on Corpus Christi 1945 among ruins in destroyed Cologne – photograph by Hermann Claasen © Jurgen Vogel/Landesmuseum Bonn (KNA)

New life in ruins: 75 years ago, the first Corpus Christi procession after the war took place in Cologne. A photo shows a long procession of black-clad people through rubble. But the picture is a montage.

It is probably one of the German rubble photos par excellence: the first Corpus Christi procession after World War II moves through the makeshift cleared streets of destroyed Cologne. End of May 1945: In front of the ruins, with their dark window cavities jutting crookedly into the sky, a long line of darkly dressed people, mainly the nuns of Cologne's monasteries, push their way through a moonscape.

75 years after the end of the war, the picture has found new attention. In the 2019 bestseller "Wolfszeit. In the book "Germany and the Germans 1945 – 1955," author Harald Jahner analyzed the photo, which makes the viewer's blood run cold, in more detail for its artistic message.

Rubble photography of the postwar period

Already in 2015, the exhibition "1945 Cologne and Dresden – Photographs by Hermann Claasen and Richard Peter sen."examines the aesthetics of such rubble photographs and recalls the conditions under which the Germans dared to make a new start after the complete defeat in the World War. Along with Richard Peter's book of photographs of destroyed Dresden ("Eine Kamera anklagt", 1949), Claasen's publication is still considered today to be the most important and style-forming contribution to rubble photography in the post-war period.

Professional photographer Claasen (1899-1989) had taken pictures of life in destroyed Cologne until the end of the war – despite the strictest ban on photography. 90 percent of the city center was leveled to the ground after the last and heaviest bombing raid.

The black and white shot of the procession is far from any traditional Corpus Christi splendor. Claasen's rubble picture gives the impression of a penitential procession and looks to today's viewers more like a medieval plague procession through the streets cleared of rubble. The photo was first printed in his book "Gesang im Feuerofen" ("Song in the Furnace of Fire"), published in 1947, which shows the destroyed "holy" Cologne of churches and monasteries in many photographs as a beacon against further wars.

A montage of two parts

At the same time, however, the exhibition and the book "Wolfszeit" emphasize how consciously photographer Claasen composed the image and – in today's language – faked it. For the photograph is a montage of two parts: The panoramic view was lengthened by the photographer using the middle part twice and pasting it next to each other. This is hardly noticeable in the book, as the edge between the two photographs is hidden by the book fold.

The effect is therefore impressive: the Corpus Christi procession stretches seemingly endlessly through an apocalyptic landscape of rubble. In reality it was a much smaller procession. At that time hardly 20.000 people in the completely bombed city.

Cologne's will to survive, the timelessly valid in a destroyed place: with the photomontage, the photographer had put into the picture a Christian reconsideration that had been heightened into the mythical, wrote the historian Bernd-A. Rusiknek. Critics said the shots of urban wastelands – including Claasen's Trummermadonna of St. Kolumba – showed the Germans as victims and ignored all political causes for the destruction.

Jahner emphasizes in "Wolfszeit" with regard to the Corpus Christi image: "The city lying in ruins offered an all-encompassing vanitas motif and thus revived a sex appeal that was familiar above all in Catholic cities from the baroque rhetoric of futility."

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Christina Cherry
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