(in matters of) Karl – Annette Behrens. A visual investigation into the Höcker Album
Author: Annette Behrens
In addition to the project contributions, “Außer der Reihe” is another permanent series of the “Denken ohne Geländer” blog. This offers researchers at HAIT as well as guest authors space for contributions on current topics that are closely related to the research foci at the institute. The range of possible perspectives and focal points is wide. It ranges from the assessment of current political and social events in specific historical, geographical or cultural contexts to unconventional, episodic insights of daily business in academic research to a critical examination of theoretical or methodological developments in the humanities, cultural studies and social sciences. In the following contribution, Annette Behrens offers insights into her project “(in matters of) Karl“.
‘In 2007 I saw the photographs for the first time. I remember one picture in particular that struck me; it showed men and women chatting and relaxing while resting on canvas chairs on a wooden porch. In the foreground a man in uniform was sitting in one of the chairs, four women were resting in the chairs next to him. The photograph was shown in different versions in various media. It was mostly reproduced in brownish sepia tone, but I also saw it published in black and white, sometimes cut off, sometimes with the deckled edges of the original printed photo still visible. The image belonged to an album, which was anonymously donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in 2007 and is nowadays referred to as the ‘Höcker Album’.
To this day it is the only known photographic album, which shows the everyday life and leisure time of Nazis who worked in the concentration camps Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland’.1
The above text is an extract from my research project “(in matters of) Karl” which I completed in 2015. The work is an investigation into the so-called Höcker-Album and the historic information shown in the images. It also reflects on the reproduction of images and the representation of historic images and information. The different layers are held together by the story of the journey I took to produce this work and the examination of my own German heritage.
(in matters of) Karl was published as a book by Fw:Books and also presented in the form of a multi-media installation.
In the work, various perspectives and layers are combined to allow the viewer a broader perspective concerning the historic value of the album itself and its contemporary meaning.
By using a number of quotes from the publication (in matters of) Karl, I will lay out some of the different approaches and the decision-making process within this year-long endeavor.
The Höcker-Album album contains 116 photographs in total. 31 out of these images were taken at the so-called Solahütte. Among them, the image described above.
The Solahütte was a holiday cottage situated about 30km away from the Auschwitz concentration camps.
The images, specifically those taken at the Solahütte, mostly depict the leisure times of the Nazi’s who worked in the Auschwitz concentration camps during World War II.
‘The photographs reveal the relationships of high ranking officers and auxiliary personnel, they show the people who are depicted living a ‘normal’ life, detached from the horrendous crimes they committed’.2
The album was put together by Karl Friedrich Höcker3, the adjutant of the last commandant of Auschwitz, Richard Baer.
The photographs affected me instantly. For me, the images somehow immediately felt personal. I had no particular connection to the photographs whatsoever, but my grandfather’s first name was also Karl. And he happened to be born almost exactly at the same time as Karl Höcker. In my mind, I started to wonder that this ‘other’ Karl could just as likely have been my grandfather.
This coincidental concordance was a small connection that somehow provoked me to gather more information. I started out driven by the urge to find out more about Höcker himself. I wanted to find photographs other than those in the album itself and assemble more material in general on him.
Besides focusing my research on Karl Höcker I also soon decided to concentrate on the images taken at the Solahütte as opposed to working on the entire album. This way I was able to narrow down the immensity of the subject at least a little bit.
In 2008 I travelled to the small town of Międzybrodzie Bialskie in Poland to see the cottage for myself. ‘The Solahütte was still there, in its original state and to my astonishment, it was still used as a holiday location where people could spend the night, have a beer and enjoy the sun out on the terrace. The history of the place was known, as the receptionist told me, but there were no visual reminders of the past except for the cottage itself’.4
Years passed in which I visited various archives in Poland and also Lübbecke, Höcker’s hometown in Germany, several times.
Research can be a solitary action but rarely, in my experience, can it truly evolve without the participation, questions and/or exchange with others. It was thanks to one of those contacts and after years of searching, I was finally able to locate and contact Höcker’s relatives.
But it immediately became clear it was an impasse; the family insisted they didn’t want to talk about this topic anymore. They couldn’t.
After this, I was struggling with how I could go on. I had reached an invisible barrier, I simply wouldn’t be able to get the access or the material I was looking for.
Throughout the years another layer had slowly emerged: in the various archives I had visited and during the course of the research I saw the same images again and again. Sometimes the information of an original document, which had been copied, was barely visible anymore but still was kept as part of the archive. Meanings changed throughout time and depending on the context in which a document or image was looked at.
‘ (…) it suddenly became tangible how fragile and fragmented all of the information was: scattered between different countries and even different continents. Each archive had its own rules on how to handle the information. Sometimes you could use and reproduce all the information available. Sometimes you were only allowed to copy part of a document so only that particular archive would have the unique document. In some archives you were allowed to photograph while others prohibited it. Sometimes copies of copies of copies were kept in order to preserve as much knowledge as possible. There was arbitrariness to the information, which I revealed.
And then there were my own photographs and duplicated documents, which slowly became part of an ever-growing archive themselves’.5
In the meantime, something else had happened. The Solahütte itself became a metaphor for these changes and information that sometimes vanishes through the course of time: in 2011 it was suddenly demolished.
The inaccessibility and/or lack of information had slowly become one of the protagonists of my project.
One of the questions I continuously struggled with throughout the process of this work was how to understandably combine all the different layers and whether or not I needed to let go of some of them.
There was the historical information itself: the images at the Solahütte were probably taken ‘on two different occasions. One series was taken July 22nd 1944 and shows Höcker alongside SS-Helferinnen (female guards) during an excursion to the cottage. Another series was taken at the end of July 1944, possibly July 29th. Rudolf Höss was commandant of Auschwitz from 1941 until 1943 but had returned to the concentration camp in 1944 in order to carry out ‘Operation Höss’.6 (…) ‘These photographs are the only known records of some of these men in Auschwitz’.7
Then there was the layer of reproduction and conservation. The images of the Höcker-Album were often reproduced ‘clean’, meaning they were shown without the damages which are part of the original images such as contamination from insects or water damage. Oftentimes they were shown cut off without the deckled-edge visible which are part of the original photographs. Also, they were mostly shown as single images whereas in the album the images are almost always part of a series.
These seemingly small adjustments take away layers of information which can actually give insight into, for instance, the original order of the pages of the album or whether photographs had been taken by an amateur or a professional photographer.
Then, there was another layer and that was my personal story. Besides the small, coincidental connection regarding my grandfather’s name, there was something else that was brought up by looking at the images. ‘My father, who was born in 1940, has told me a story many times.
When he was a little boy, he was immensely proud to be of German descent. At school, he had heard all about great writers like Goethe and Schiller, famous composers such as Schubert, Bach and many others. He was glad he belonged to a culture that had brought about such great men.
Little by little, came the knowledge about what his fellow countrymen were also capable of and what they had done before and during the war. Through secret whispering with his friends, the horrible rumours soon turned out to be the truth. The teachers themselves had been involved in the crimes, so none of this he learnt at school. The childlike feeling of pride forever vanished after this.
My father has told me this story over and over again since I was a child. To this day, he tells it with the same expression on his face. An expression that still shows the feeling of horror he felt when he found out all the stories about the war, about the Holocaust, to be true.
The guilt and shame he felt then and that he still feels now as a grownup, the disgust and disbelief at what men are capable of doing to one another, have been passed on to me. The experience has not only left a profound impression on his life but also on mine’.8
It was my own story that made it possible to allow for all of the different layers to eventually become part of the final work. My diary-like texts were used throughout the work almost in the form of a voice-over to describe the different processes of decision making, doubt and contemplations. This allows for the different parts of information to be connected and to be more accessible to the audience.
The idea of incorporating empty pages as a means to emphasize the lack and/or inaccessibility of information had been on my mind for a while. Hans Gremmen, the designer of the book, elevated this idea by adding a varnish layer to each page of the book thus creating a book within a book. This way, different parts of one page can serve different purposes by giving space for personal, historical and factual information in the form of texts and images.
This approach also arranges the information in a way to make it more absorbable for an audience.
‘In 2014 I finally travelled to Washington D.C. to see the original Höcker Album. In the conservation department of the museum, an archival box was laid out for me. In it was the album, each page kept in a separate folder for protection.
The album probably once had a hard cover but this had already been missing when it was donated to the museum in 2007. The images were in relatively good shape even though there was damage from water and insects throughout the entire album. I had been looking at the reproductions of those photographs for years. Yet their impact had not changed for me. Karl had put together the photographs in his album in order to remember the people and experiences, the ‘pleasant’ times.
I still found the images almost unbearable to look at because of their invisible context. A history, which was not directly, personally connected to me but still was undeniably mine.
Since I had first seen them, I did not want to look at those photographs; yet, it felt as a responsibility to do so. To search for more information, meaning and additional images. For me, the complexity of history and its significance for my identity were compressed in those pictures.
These photographs had now turned into historical objects, which were preserved here, in front of me.’
(in matters of ) Karl | 2015 | 21×29.7cm | 128 pages | colour (+ special varnish layer) | English | edition of 600 | isbn 978-94-90119-34-8 | Design Hans Gremmen |
with additional texts by Christophe Busch and Raymond Frenken
Zitiervorschlag: Annette Behrens, (in matters of) Karl – Annette Behrens. A visual investigation into the Höcker Album. In: Denken ohne Geländer. Der Blog des Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung e.V. vom 13.04.2022: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/2796
Bild 1: Solahütte, Międzybrodzie Bialskie, Poland, 2008
Page from ‘(in matters of) Karl’, Annette Behrens, Fw:Books, 2015.
Bild 2: Site of the torn down Solahütte,
Międzybrodzie Bialskie, Poland, 2011 (by Annette Behrens)
Bild 3: Files on Karl Höcker
Research department, Majdanek State Museum, Lublin, Poland, 2011
Page from ‘(in matters of) Karl’, Annette Behrens, Fw:Books, 2015
Bild 4: The original Höcker Album
Department of conservation, USHMM, Washington D.C., USA, 2014 (by Annette Behrens)
Bild 5: Cover of ‘(in matters of) Karl’, Annette Behrens, Fw:Books, 2015
- Annette Behrens, (in matters of) Karl, Amsterdam 2015, p. 3.
- Ibid, p. 4.
- Karl Friedrich Höcker, 1911-2000.
- Annette Behrens, (in matters of) Karl, Amsterdam 2015, p. 13.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- ‘Between May and July 1944 approximately 430.000 Hungarian Jews were transported to the camps and murdered almost immediately upon arrival’. Annette Behrens, (in matters of) Karl, Amsterdam 2015, p. 99.
- Ibid., p. 17 f.