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Culture and arts Resistance in cities

Portraits of a Time by August and Erich Sander

August Sander (1876-1964) is regarded as the father of documentary photography. In his work Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century), he painted an eclectic and uncompromising social portrait of German society in the first half of the century.


Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 was a major turning point for artists. As early as 1936, Augiust Sander’s collection published in 1929, Antlitz der Zeit (Face of our Time), was banned and the photographic plates destroyed. This was because his work was not in line with Nazi ideology, which, thanks to skilful propaganda, imposed a vision of a glorified Germany through a representation of the “purified” race. The idealised Aryans with their muscular bodies and pure faces were pitted against all the “asocials” – the disabled, the sick, the tramps – those who did not “deserve to live” (“lebensunwerte Wesen”).


Erich Sander was the eldest son of Anna and August (1903-1944), an intellectual, political activist and member of the Resistance who was introduced to photography by his father, with whom he worked. In Cologne, with his comrade Ernst Ransenberg, he took over the leadership of the local section of the SAP party (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschland – Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany), writing and publishing leaflets against the Nazi party in power. In 1934, Erich was arrested and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for high treason. He worked as a photographer for the prison administration and managed to smuggle in a camera that enabled him to take portraits of himself and his fellow prisoners, whom he managed to smuggle out of the prison. He left a substantial correspondence with his family (some letters written in secret ink), which constitutes essential documentation on life in prison during National Socialism.


One of his fellow prisoners was Marcel Ancelin, born in Paris in 1923. A member of the Front National de Lutte pour la Libération et l’Indépendance de la France (National Front for the Fight for the Liberation and Independence of France) and later the FTP (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans), he was arrested by the French police on 13 August 1941. Handed over to the German authorities and sentenced to hard labour, he spent several years in camps and prisons in Germany, among them in Siegburg where he met Erich Sander. Ancelin was finally liberated from a camp near Frankfurt with other inmates by American troops in April 1945, and returned to France. On 8 November 1956, he received the official title of “deported resistance fighter”. Marcel Ancelin died in 2003, having never told his family or friends about his heroic past.


Erich Sander wrote of him in a letter to his parents: « One of the three (French men) has some very striking features, which is sure to give father some pleasure […] Very intelligent chap, by the way. He wants to come and visit me after the war.” However, Erich Sander did not live to see the end of the war. He died on 23 March 1944, after his severe abdominal pain was ignored for days by the prison authorities.


Marie-Édith Agostini

Further readings
  • August Sander, Persécutés / persécuteurs des Hommes du XXe siècle (Persecuted / persecutors of Men in the 20th century), Stiedl – Mémorial de la Shoah (2018)
  • NS Documentation Centre of the City of Cologne, SK Stiftung Kultur, Erich Sander, Gefängnisbriefe 1935 – 1944 (Prison letters), Metropol Verlag (2016)
  • Olivier LUGON, Landschaften (Landscapes), The Photographic Collection, foundation SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne ; Schirmer/Mosel (Munich/Paris/Londres, 1999)
  • Susanne LANGE, Gabriele CONRATH-SCHOLL, Gerd SANDER, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts: Ein Kulturwerk in Lichtbildern eingeteilt in sieben Gruppen (People of the 20th century: A cultural work in photographs divided into seven groups), The Photographic Collection, foundation SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne (Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2002)
  • Claire ASLANGUL, Le nazisme et les images : un univers visuel au service de la propagande nazie (Nazism and images: a visual universe at the service of Nazi propaganda), La Clé des Langues, Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (2007)

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