So many records of events in Austria during World War II have been lost that it seems a little surprising to discover that precisely 5,000 photographs of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war held at Stalag 18A in Wolfsberg survived and are in the keeping of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna.
Today, the batch of photos represents a real treasure for the families and descendants of former prisoners of war who are trying to recreate the lives of their loved ones. We are very grateful to the Museum of Natural History and curator Dr Margit Berner for making it possible for us to publish some of the photos here to give a face to soldiers who feature in our stories. Unable to link to an explanation of the provenance of the photos online, we have decided to add a brief one our own.
Between 1939 and 1943, the “Anthropological Commission” of the Natural History Museum of Vienna conducted extensive “racial surveys” of Jews, prisoners of war, and of its own citizens, in accordance with the dictates of Nazi racial ideology.
In the prisoners of war, the museum’s anthropologists discovered, literally, a captive group of human beings of great diversity for their studies, including as it did soldiers from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, Serbia, Palestine and the Soviet Union.
The British and Commonwealth prisoners of war held at Stalag 18A refused, however, to be subjected to the racial profiling of the museum’s anthropologists on the grounds it was a violation of their rights as prisoners of war under the 1929 Geneva Convention.
Desperate to obtain at least some material for their studies, the museum anthropologists then purchased 5,000 negatives that Stalag 18A authorities had processed to produce ID photographs for the prisoners of war, who were identified on the photographs by number, not by name. The negatives (and positives) became part of the museum’s inventory and are now regarded rightly as a unique resource, their provenance notwithstanding.
Ian Brown has published a great many of the ID photos on his Stalag 18A website, where he writes, “The photos were probably taken in the latter part of 1941 when POWs from Greece and Crete arrived in Wolfsberg after the nightmare train journey in cattle trucks through Yugoslavia. The photos clearly show the strain and exhaustion of the POWs.”
Below are two photos of the original packs of photos held by the Museum of Natural History that were included in the Stalag 18A exhibition in 2013 in Wolfsberg (see Ian’s website for details).