Giving a face to the consequences of war

by Eliane Perret

“No, it is not a pretty boy we are showing you, dear friends, on the cover of this May issue!” wrote Arnold Kübler, founder and editor of the Swiss magazine for culture Du, in his editorial of the May 1946 issue.1 Kübler was referring to the cover photograph by Werner Bischof (1916–1954), one of the most important Swiss photographers. It was a photograph of a boy with a face marked by burn scars from shrapnel. The picture was taken in Holland in 1945 on a trip Bischof took with his colleague Emil Schulthess (also a well-known Swiss photographer).
  The trip took them through France, Luxembourg, and Belgium. The Schweizer Spende (see box "The Swiss donation") had commissioned the work, while the necessary cameras and car, in which Schulthess had a darkroom installed, were made available to them by the publishing house responsible for Du. Bischof worked there as a freelancer, Schulthess as a layout artist. This journey was a first step into a new field of activity, away from fashion, advertising, and illustration.
  To convince his sceptical father, Bischof wrote to him:

“There’s something you don’t understand, my dear father, i.e. that I’m not making these trips out of sensationalism, but to experience a complete human transformation. Dad, I can’t take any more photos of pretty shoes.”2

Oh, those cruel toys

Shortly after the war, the then 29-year-old Bischof had travelled through southern Germany by bike. He had returned to Switzerland shocked by the images and scenes he had seen. This experience had prompted him to focus his photographic work on the people, their suffering, and their hardship.
  On their journey together, Bischof and Schulthess travelled to the small Dutch town of Roermond. Bischof wrote in his diary:

“Roermond is the last stop for today. [...] The streets are crowded, and it is not unusual to see children with guns and helmets as toys – oh, those cruel toys.”3

At the post office, they encountered a boy with a badly injured face, bluish in colour from the morning cold at 12 degrees below zero, his right eye replaced by an artificial one. Bischof and Schulthess had to move on, but they could not forget the boy. A few weeks later, they visited the village again on their return journey. They wanted to find out about the boy’s fate and to document his injuries with a photograph.
  Emil Schulthess described what had happened in his diary:

“When the German army had to evacuate Roermond, they laid thousands of booby traps everywhere: in doorways, in boilers, in cupboards, behind doors, behind boxes, in baskets, in sewing kits, and so on. Terrible. The boy opened a door to which a booby trap was attached. He lost his right eye and his face was disfigured by splinters. There are hundreds of such cases in Roermond alone, as this was not an isolated incident. His mother was run over by a car two months ago and died, and now his father is left to fend for himself and his nine children.”4

Solidarity with a maltreated Europe

Bischof and Schulthess brought 2000 pictures back from their trip. They documented the devastating conditions that the war had left behind in the respective countries. Shocked by what he had seen and experienced, Bischof wrote in his diary, “If I succeed in depicting these [major problems] concerning the children themselves and their surroundings, then I will be doing a purely social and at the same time a European work.”5
  Now the most suitable pictures had to be selected from the large number of photos. They were to illustrate the aforementioned May 1946 issue of Du. At first, Bischof was very concerned that publishing the picture with the boy’s destroyed face would put even more strain on his life. But then he decided to use it as a large cover picture – as a memorial and a call to take action against such injustice, as well as to help children in need. Many children throughout Europe were affected in a similar way. The magazine was intended to support the Schweizer Spende and the associated aid campaigns and projects such as the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen.
  Arnold Kübler probably suspected that his readership, accustomed to exquisite cultural reports, would not altogether enjoy this issue. But had he not spoken of the obligation to show solidarity with the battered Europe surrounding Switzerland four years earlier, when his magazine first appeared in the midst of war?
  He now addressed his readers in his editorial:

“Hundreds of thousands of children have lost their fathers, mothers and siblings in Europe. There are those who have lost even their names and origins. Millions have been driven out of their familiar environment and playgrounds, wandering for months between country roads and makeshift neighbourhoods. Countless numbers of them are a burden to their mothers, countless mutilated children remain hidden from the eyes of the world. These children are part of the future Europe, they will grow up with the experiences of their youth in their hearts, and they will live around our country, helping to shape the world in which our children, too, will live as adults. The various aid organisations in Switzerland have already helped a great deal, but it can never be enough.”6

A deeply human concern

Despite everything, the cover page of the Du magazine provoked harsh reactions from some readers. Not everyone wanted to see the face of war. They saw the publication of the picture as unethical behaviour, indeed a serious misstep by the editorial team, and threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Arnold Kübler was pressured into publishing a statement, an apology, in which he explained his decision to publish the picture of the suffering child.
  Werner Bischof was not to be deterred. For the rest of his unfortunately short life, he travelled to many parts of the world and documented people’s lives. In 1949 he became a member of Magnum, a photo agency founded in 1947, and for them and for magazines such as Life, Du and Paris Match he travelled the world almost without a break, making the most of his life.
  Unfortunately, he died in a tragic car accident in the Andes of Peru in 1954. His estate contained around 60,000 photographs expressing his humanitarian concerns, as well as his intent to provide honest documentation of human suffering, and to support calls for addressing injustices and improving the lives of the people he photographed. His wife Rosellina and later his elder son Marco took on the great task of sifting through this legacy in an exemplary and committed manner and spreading Werner Bischof’s cause. And so we return to the cover picture of the Dutch boy.

It was not in vain

On 22 February 2011, Marco Bischof, together with curator Frank Hoenjet, opened an exhibition entitled “The Compassionate Eye: Photographs, 1934–1954” at the Gemeentemuseum in Helmond, a small town near Roermond. In the run-up to the exhibition, the local press had tried - initially unsuccessfully – to find the unknown boy in the photo.
  And then Gerrit Corbey got in touch. He had recognised his twin brother in the photo. Now he had been given a name: Jo Corbey. After their mother’s death, he and all the other siblings had been distributed among various related families. They had hardly seen one another and had lost track of each other. Unfortunately, Jo was no longer alive.
  Jo Corbey died at the age of 20 from “late complications” of the grenade. He was therefore unable to witness his sibling’s reunion and how his twin brother, now 83 years old, was able to identify him and tell Marco Bischof about his family’s life. The work of Werner Bischof and Emil Schulthess had not been in vain.

An indescribable tragedy

The fate of Jo Corbey is deeply moving, as we know that he is just one of many victims. Memories of the events of the Second World War are harrowing, but unfortunately still just as relevant today. Think of the children in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, and now Gaza and the West Bank, to name just a few war theatres. Were not treaties concluded and arrangements made to prevent ever new horrors precisely as a consequence of the horrors of the Second World War? (see box)
  The “Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War” urgently reminds belligerent parties of their obligations to protect the civilian population:

“The indescribable tragedy which the Second World War brought into the lives of millions of children forms one of the most distressing chapters in the history of the conflict and one which arouses the greatest pity.
  Children were the innocent victims of events which afflicted them all the more cruelly because they were young and weak; they suffered hardships in violation of one of the most sacred of human laws – the law that children must be protected, since they represent humanity’s future. Mankind will long bear the trace of the deficiencies and wrongs caused by wartime atrocities.”7  •

1 Kübler, Arnold. “To our May issue. European photographs by Werner Bischof”. In: Du. Schweizerische Monatszeitschrift, No.  5, May 1946, p.  7
2 Herzog, Claudia. “Fotograf Werner Bischof. Die Würde des Menschen stets im Fokus (Photographer Werner Bischof. Always focussing on human dignity)”. Retrieved on 14 January 2024
3 Retrieved on 14 January 2024
4 Kübler, Arnold. op. cit.
5 “Werner Bischof: photographer and aesthete of international standing”.
6 Kübler, Arnold. op. cit.
7 Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.

The Swiss Donation

ep. The Swiss Donation for victims of war in Europe from 1944 to 1948 was a public collection by the Swiss people as an expression of solidarity with the victims of the Second World War. Initiated by the Federal Council in 1944, it was an amalgamation of aid organisations with different denominational and political orientations whose aim was to provide humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance in war-ravaged Europe. The impetus for this was provided by the Swiss Federal Council’s message of 1 December 1944 with the brochure “Our people want to give thanks”. It had a print run of 1.5 million copies. This was the largest Swiss collection drive during the Second World War. The public collection yielded 50 million francs, which were used to supplement the 150 million francs provided by the Confederation. This was used to finance humanitarian aid activities in eighteen European countries, including Germany, from 1944 onwards. The National Committee set up by the Federal Council with representatives from all walks of life was chaired by former Federal Councillor Ernst Wetter, while Rodolfo Olgiati headed the central office. The principle of non-partisanship in the spirit of Henry Dunant applied to the relief work. By the time it was dissolved on 30 June 1948, the Swiss donation amounted to CHF 203.95 million, of which the Confederation had contributed CHF 152.85 million in two instalments. Aid was provided in eighteen European countries, including Germany. Neither denominational nor political views were to play a role, only the extent of the need. The Swiss Red Cross (SRC), the SRC Childre’s Aid Organisation, the Swiss Workers’ Relief Organisation, the Swiss Caritas Association and the Relief Organisation of the Protestant Churches in Switzerland were primarily responsible for the actual implementation of the campaigns abroad. In addition to many volunteers from all professions, well-known artists also supported the aid projects. The Swiss painter and illustrator Charles Hug designed posters for the “Swiss Donation” as an army reporter. Photographers Paul Senn, Theo Frey, Werner Bischof and Emil Schulthess documented the war-ravaged areas of Europe and their reconstruction on behalf of Swiss Donation. The May 1946 issue of the Swiss monthly magazine Du was dedicated to the Swiss Donation. In 1949, a comprehensive final report was compiled with photo documentation by Swiss photographers Werner Bischof, Paul Senn, Ernst Scheidegger and graphic artist Adolf Flückiger. The report documents and describes all the aid provided and how the money was used. These facts send the widespread narrative of Switzerland as a profiteer of the Second World War into the realm of defamation strategies.

See Peter Aebersold et al. Swiss donation.

International Humanitarian Law

ep. International humanitarian law seeks to limit the effects of armed conflicts, to regulate the conduct of hostilities and to protect the victims of armed conflicts. It is applicable to all types of international and non-international armed conflicts, regardless of the legitimacy of the use of force or its cause. The foundation stone for international humanitarian law was laid in 1864 with the first Geneva Convention.
  The Genevese Henry Dunant experienced the terrible consequences of the 1859 Battle of Solferino while travelling on business. The allied Piedmontese-Sardinian and French armies fought against the imperial Austro-Hungarian troops in this village in northern Italy. 40,000 wounded and dying men were left without help. Dunant published the book "A Memory of Solferino", documenting his experiences in 1862.
  In it he called for the creation of a humanitarian agreement to alleviate the plight of wounded soldiers in the theatres of war. All states were to commit themselves to founding a voluntary aid organisation. They also had to undertake by treaty to recognise the neutrality of military hospitals and medical personnel and to guarantee their protection. This led to the founding of the International Committee of Aid Societies for the Care of the Wounded in 1863, which was renamed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1876. An important step towards greater humanness had been taken. In the decades that followed, the Geneva Conventions created an international set of rules, and the Hague Conventions were adopted in 1899 and 1907.
  However, the Second World War showed that further efforts were needed. Under the chairmanship of Swiss Federal Councillor Max Petitpierre, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 were drawn up at an international conference in Geneva: the first and second Geneva Conventions obliged the warring parties to provide special protection for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, as well as for medical personnel, ambulances and hospitals. All these must be rescued and cared for by the party to the conflict in whose hands they find themselves.
  The Third Geneva Convention contains detailed rules on the treatment of prisoners of war. The Fourth Geneva Convention protects civilians who are in enemy hands – in their own territory or in occupied territory. The Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 supplement the rules of the four Geneva Conventions for international armed conflicts. These regulations are still binding for all belligerent countries today.

Sources: and

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