Friday, May 30, 2014

Cracking the Enigma Machine

The Machine that Lost World War II for the Germans

Enigma Machine
Very Rare WWII Enigma Cipher Machine. This highly important three-rotor Enigma deciphering machine was used by the Germans during World War II. Examples of Enigma machines are exceptionally rare and almost all known models are in museums.
People familiar with the Enigma Cipher Machine generally associate it with World War II, but it actually was a product of German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of World War I. Scherbius marketed the machines throughout Europe, and they were advertised extensively to companies to keep their ciphers confidential. The German military bought some. The common belief is that brilliant British scientists magically broke the code and thus won the war, but that also is erroneous at least in part.

Wireless transmissions were critical to the Wehrmacht's "Blitzkrieg" operations. These relied on close communication between ground and air units, with ground-attack planes hitting targets requested by the ground troops. While telephones were used for official communications within Germany, radios were used outside the borders. Those communications had to be encoded, and the Enigma machine was the tool of choice.

Italian cryptographers use an Enigma machine
Italian Naval crypto officers operating an Enigma machine, not knowing that the cipher was being read by the Allies

Enigma Machine Use By The Germans

The use of the Enigma machine was not a Third Reich idea. In fact, it was advertised for commercial use in catalogs beginning in 1923 to anyone willing to pay for it. The German military had adopted the machine well before Hitler took power in 1933, with the German Navy being the first to use it in 1926. The military modified the Enigma machine to include a plugboard and other enhancements to make it more secure.

The Poles, Germany's natural enemy during the inter-war period, became interested in this new machine also. The first Enigma machine in Allied hands was ‘acquired’ by Polish intelligence in 1938 by setting up a fake German arms company and ordering a civilian version. The Poles went to work on it at once and first broke the German military code in 1932.

Three Polish cryptologists, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki, and Henryk Zygalski, were mainly responsible for making the breakthroughs that the Ultra team later capitalized on. They continued reading the codes through the 1930s, but towards the end of the decade, the Germans starting embellishing the machine and adding new embellishments to the code that made things harder for them.

On 15 September 1938, the Germans changed their use of the Enigma cipher, implementing a new key scheme as the war drew nearer. The new code appeared vastly more complicated, so the Polish cryptologists invented the first mechanical pseudo-computers to help them in their work. In October 1938, Rejewski designed a machine named "bomba kryptologiczna" (a cryptologic bomb, as computers were known in those days), which was soon produced at the Polish AVA Workshops. They also developed a "cyclometer" machine to assess the pattern of the key.

Enigma Machine
Close-up of a later Enigma machine. Note the fourth "shark key" rotor.
While they were keeping up with the German changes to the Enigma machine (barely), the Poles decided to spread the love and spilled the beans to the British about their efforts in July 1939. They hoped to get more manpower on the decryptions so that they could be sure of knowing in advance if the Germans were going to attack. It was a dangerous summer, with the Germans mounting false-flag "provocations" supposedly by the Poles against Germany, and everybody was on edge. On 16 August 1939, the Poles gave British General Stewart Menzies a working copy of the Enigma Machine at the Victoria Station in London in a James Bond-style hand-off. The timing was fortuitous for the Allies, as the Polish state ceased to exist only two months later due to the German invasion. The original machine was lost, but an accurate copy was reverse-engineered from Polish drawings by Bletchley Park technicians.

The Polish cryptographers had to leave Poland in a hurry that autumn, and after a quick stop in Romania they wound up in France. There, they worked with French and Spanish cryptographers under code-name "Bruno." They also continued to keep the British up to speed on their cryptological discoveries. After Germany invaded France in May 1940, the Poles again evacuated. This time they went to Algeria, using a French military plane on June 24, 1940, in one of the French government's final acts before their Armistice with Germany. After working in Algeria for a while, the Poles returned to France and worked right under the Germans' noses in Free France.

At the beginning of October 1940, the Poles set up shop in Fouzes, France under code-name "Cadix." They worked there with French and Spanish cryptographers. The "Bruno" center successor decrypted the following types of German messages:
- German military orders to the units in Europe and in Libya,
- SS and Police (Polizei) messages from Europe,
- Spy radio communications between the field agents in Europe or in Libya and Abwehr HQ in Stuttgart,
- Diplomatic communications and German Armistice Commission communications
- Communications by 
Wehrkreis XII (controlled parts of occupied France and western Germany) in Wiesbaden and their branches in France and in North Africa.
For those who claim that breaking the Enigma Code was all things to all people, note that although the Poles broke the code first, there is absolutely no indication that they were able to use that information to any great advantage. In fact, the results of breaking the German code appear to have been fairly valueless to Poland. Knowing what the enemy is saying only helps if you know how to use the information to your advantage, get the right information from the enemy to help yourself, and have the resources to make good use of it. For all the brilliance displayed in cracking the code, none of that appeared to apply to Poland and its cryptographers.

Enigma Machine
Not all Enigma machines looked like they - they were built over many years with different models and styles. This is one in use in 1943.
The Enigma Machine actually worked quite well and did exactly what its makers claimed. The Enigma's settings offered 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solutions. It never should have been broken. In fact, the Enigma cipher's algorithm was considered quite strong long after the war and was used in the Unix OS encryption in the 1970s. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the concept behind the machine. Used properly and thoughtfully, it really did provide a secure way to transmit confidential messages. It was this fact, this mathematical guarantee that the machine seemed to offer that lulled the precise Germans into a false sense of security.

U-110 Enigma Machine
A crew aboard U-110 operates the iconic Enigma machine, so valuable to the war effort at sea.
The British Intelligence Service thus would have had great difficulty reading the communications starting from scratch, or even with the Polish breakthroughs. However, they had help besides the Poles. German codebooks were seized from sinking submarines and captured ships, and some of the Germans operating the machines made it easy to break the code through their simple errors.

The Polares Incident

On 24 April 1940, two British destroyers, HMS Griffin and Acheron, were on patrol in the North Sea when they stopped a merchant ship for inspection off Andalsnes, about halfway between Bergen and Trondheim on the Norwegian coastline. The ship's captain claimed that it was an ordinary Dutch trawler. The British boarding party from Griffin did a thorough inspection and found that it was the disguised Kriegsmarine surface raider Schiff 26 - the Polares. It was trying to bring supplies to Narvik.

The German crew acted quickly and threw a weighted bag overboard. The British acted even quicker and retrieved the bag before it sank. It turned out to contain some of the German Enigma machine coding machine keys for the period 23–26 April 1940, including the procedures for scrambling the rotors.

HMS Griffin Enigma Machine
The crew of HMS Griffin (H31), shown, was responsible for one of the biggest Ultra advances of World War II.
These Enigma items were quickly sent to Bletchley Park, site of the Ultra decoding project. The cryptanalysts there under the direction of Alan Turing used the seized information to program their "Bombe" electro-mechanical computers. The machines then proved that they could decode German transmissions from this time period.

This was a clear breakthrough for the Ultra team. Now, they had proven that their system works. From this point on, the Royal Navy is tasked with finding new "cribs" such as the ones from the Polares to enhance their code-breaking. Ultimately, this enabled the Bombes to break German codes routinely even without recent cribs.

The U-559 Incident

On 30 October 1942, Royal Navy destroyer HMS Petard and vessels and aircraft accompanying it forced U-boat U-559 to the surface off the coast of Egypt. The U-boat crew surrendered and attempted to flood the submarine to avoid capture by opening the sea vents. However, they failed to open all of them and the submarine sank relatively slowly. Three random men of the Petard crew boarded the sinking U-boat to retrieve whatever they could.

Two of the men perished in the U-board. The third man, NAAFI canteen assistant Tommy Brown, came out with the submarine's Enigma machine key setting sheets and other relevant documents. All three men received medals, two posthumously.

HMS Petard Enigma Machine
HMS Petard.
Incidentally, it turned out that the survivor, Brown, had lied about his age and was only sixteen years old. After receiving his medal he was quickly discharged from the service.

The information from U-559 helped the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park to read the new 4-rotor U-boat Enigma machine. This proved to be a critical breakthrough in the Ultra program. After this, the Ultra team could read U-boat codes and direct convoys away from lurking submarines. This incident was the basis for the motion picture "U-571" (2000).

Routine Decryption

The British came to see the Luftwaffe operators, members of the newest service who had no tradition of security, as the weak link in the entire operation. Some Luftwaffe coders would send virtually the same messages out every day at regular intervals, morning, noon and night, and if the code they used had changed, the British listening in could compare the messages they had broken with new, identical messages sent with the changed code. This made it relatively easy (not easy - relatively easy) to figure out the changes made to the code itself.

Enigma Machine
An NSA (National Security Agency) collection of Enigma machines. At far left is a Luftwaffe (Air Force) unit. Next to that is a case holding seven rotors. A Heer (German Army) Enigma is in the center, and a small radio is on the high post next to it. A Kriegsmarine (Navy) unit with four rotors is at far right.
Let's say the weather was good on a particular morning. By listening to them day in and day out, the British cryptographers could figure out that a lazy or careless or simply untrained Luftwaffe operator at a particular forward airfield might send out exactly the same message to headquarters in Paris precisely at 6 a.m. on such a day - "Weather good, conditions all right for operations" or something like that, in exactly the same word formulation every time that was the case. All the British had to do was look out the window, see that it was sunny out, and they knew what message the operator would send that morning. Or, if it was raining, same thing: "Rain over the airfield, operations suspended" or something along those lines every single time it rained. All the British had to do then was translate the message backwards to what they knew it said, then work forward from there and crack the entire code. Everything became fairly easy for a trained cryptographer after that sort of hint, especially if supplemented from multiple German sources. The British got so good that they would crow that they were getting the decoded German messages to British officers in the field faster than the German commanders were receiving them.

Enigma Machine
Enigma Machine recovered from a sunk U-boat off the US coast in 2001. Recovering an actual Enigma machine from a wreck is like finding the Holy Grail for a diver. These can be carefully restored and look almost like they did the day the sub sank.
The Kriegsmarine, on the other hand, was quite punctilious about code protocol. It had been the first military branch to adopt the machine, in 1925, and the German Imperial Navy had a long, proud and competent history. If there is one thing a good Navy understands, it is how to handle codes. The navy's operators did not make stupid mistakes. Many naval codes never were broken.

Enigma Machine

Overall, though, by the end of the war, 10 percent of all German Enigma communications were decoded by the code-name "Ultra" team led by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, in England, using the world’s first electromagnetic computers. However, that means that 90 percent of German communications were not decoded, so it's important not to completely overstate the importance of Enigma.

Enigma Machine

Still, much is made of the effect of breaking the Enigma Code on the outcome of the war. There is absolutely no question that it made things much, much easier for the Allies in many, many situations. Knowing where to position scarce defensive forces before an attack is an invaluable information, as is knowing where the enemy is weakest before launching your own attack. There are all sorts of anecdotes about specific instances where breaking Enigma gave the Allies an edge. Winston Churchill told King George VI after World War II that "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war."

Enigma Machine
German signallers sending an encrypted message via an Enigma machine. Enigma was the electro-mechanical cipher machine used for coded German wireless transmission. It was based on rotors and was invented toward the end of WW1. First, the Poles in 1932 and then the British were able to break the Enigma cipher, the center for UK code-breaking being Bletchley Park. It has been estimated that intelligence gleaned from decoded Enigma messages shortened WW2 by 2 years (Federal Archive).
With all due respect to Winston Churchill, who did certainly have all the facts at his disposal and has to be judged a supreme authority on World War II, that is probably overstating matters. There were larger forces at play in why the Allies won World War II. However, breaking codes helped immensely, and not just in Europe. The Americans broke the Japanese code prior to the decisive Battle of Midway. If they hadn't, there is little doubt that the Japanese would have captured that important island and not lost any aircraft carriers there, let alone four carriers, to US attack. However, no matter how many islands the Japanese captured, they were never going to out-produce and out-invent the United States - it just wasn't going to happen. The United States simply had too many resources, and Japanese such as Admiral Yamamoto knew that all along.

Enigma Machine
The rear of a 'bombe' code-breaking machine at Bletchley Park, 1943. Alan Turing designed the electromagnetic machines to reveal the plugboard settings on German Enigma ciphers.
Germany's major military problem was, in fact, economic: lack of natural resources such as oil; and the huge numbers of enemy soldiers and industrial factories it faced. Intelligence failures were secondary, just as tactics are trumped by strategy. It's more likely that breaking the code shortened the war, but then, the Germans broke Allied codes, too. For example, there was a famous incident of the British ambassador to Turkey having his codes stolen and sold to the Germans by his valet in the so-called Cicero operation. Hitler intercepted secret communications between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill by having his spies tap the underwater cable between Ireland and Nova Scotia. Code-breaking never was a one-way street, but the victorious powers don't talk about that other side too much. Much better to show how they won the war by not only having more natural resources but also more smarts in general due to, you know, their better systems of government.

Enigma Machine
German General Heinz Guderian in an SdKfz. 251/3 half-track vehicle, France, May 1940; note Enigma machine (German Federal Archive)
It is easy to blame the Germans for being stupid for using the Enigma machine. Certainly, a military relying upon an industrial code machine seems kind of silly today. However, the technology was new, and nobody knew its limitations at that point. Using it certainly was more effective than communicating en claire, as the Soviets did at times. The armed forces of many powers used the Enigma Machine, as did diplomatic services and other confidential governmental operations. It is similar to using the Internet today - however clever you may be, it's impossible to know in advance all of its vulnerabilities.

Enigma Machine
German soldiers in Russia using an Enigma machine (Federal Archive).
Would the Germans have stopped using the machine if they knew it had been broken? Of course. But nobody knew outside of Allied intelligence services. The secret was guarded as carefully as any in the war. Numerous deaths have been blamed on this policy of secrecy, such as the famous decision not to warn Coventry about an upcoming Luftwaffe attack in November 1940. However, that secrecy paid off in many unexpected ways: after the war, the Allies sold captured Enigma machines to other governments on the cheap. These governments were only too happy to use this "secure" machine while the winning Allied nations who were in on the secret continued to read their codes until the secret finally was revealed in the 1970s. When that happened with the publication of a book, many surviving German Generals from World War II were dumbfounded that they overlooked this hidden source of their defeat.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Truly Ghoulish Side of World War II

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German soldiers on the way to Stalingrad got a good laugh out of this.

"Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war." Otto von Bismarck

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Zhitomir, Russia was a major forward SS headquarters. Himmler himself even visited it at one point. The Germans fought hard to defend it, fought hard to recapture it, then made sure to blow it up but good before they left for what they knew would be the last time in late 1943

There are certain photos of World War II that always get posted. Undoubtedly, you have seen some of them. There's the photo of the GIs raising the flag on Iwo Jima, the crying Frenchman after the fall of France, and so forth.

Well, there are much worse photos from World War II that are rarely shown. Unfortunately, some are so bad that they are basically blocked from your view. They are too disturbing for your view according to the people who decide these things.

Viewing them, however,  serves a worthy purpose. "War," William Tecumseh Sherman said, "is Hell." It can also be as cold as that.

1939 Suomussalmi Finland

If you ignore the carnage and the blood and the pain and the suffering of war, and only portray heroic images and fancy, clean Generals doing daring deeds in immaculate uniforms, what do you get?

More wars.

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Executions, two at a time. A deep hole, these were probably just the first two of many more. Perhaps the victims are leaders to get this kind of special treatment. If you look very closely, the onlookers look almost jovial. Do you get the impression from the executioners' faces that this was somehow personal?
So, there is a point to this collection. People should under the consequences of conflict, but death is never pretty.

I want to emphasize that this page is not for everyone. It shows the true barbarity of hate and savagery. If you don't think it could ever happen again, and even worse, you are living in a dream world. Beheadings exactly of the type shown on this page are happening today in certain parts of the world. Do you see pictures like these in the news? Probably not, because it is more likely you are shown antiseptic pictures of bombers and guys standing proudly with guns - but maybe you should. You cannot possibly understand anything about this or any other war without seeing the personal destruction that it causes.

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Serbian partisans, Pancevo, 21 April 1941.
This page is a sensationalist endeavor. Just look at the title, I'm not hiding anything. If you come here, it is your choice. The entire point of this page is to be sensationalist because horrible sensationalism makes a point - about death, murder, and reality. If you don't want to see the truth of war and it offends you, I urge you to go somewhere else. War is like what you see here. It is nothing else. This is war, the reality of war, the totality of war, the sum of war.

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March 1944. A child in the Ozarichy hostage-holding camp tries to wake up his mother. She will never wake up.
The Holocaust now has its own page, so there is only a sprinkling of pictures from it on here - most of the pictures there are as bad or far worse than any on this page, but that is a whole other universe of savagery. We could do this entire page solely with Holocaust pictures - but then it would be called "Holocaust," and that page is elsewhere. These are primarily battlefield/occupied territory incidents.

Some of the facts in the captions may be incorrect and some of the pictures may be fakes. The best sources are used, but there have been many post-war films, "re-creations" and outright propaganda that are manufactured to look authentic and thus are extremely hard to spot. These fakes sometimes find their way into the most reputable sources, including the German National Archives which serves as an official repository. If anyone can provide a better ID for any image, post a comment. Any likely fakes will be removed, but there must be some validation of that.

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Another view of the executions on 22 April 1941 in Pancevo, Serbia. This is a still from a color film taken by Gottfried Kessel of the Gross Deutschland Regiment's film squad. The Germans meticulously recorded this incident for some reason.
Incidentally, regarding comments, off-hand remarks that "the captions are wrong" or you don't like them or the pictures are too ghastly or you find something objectionable or it is wonderful that people were killed or any other spurious remarks (and this kind of page attracts them all) will be disregarded and discarded. Anything related to World War II draws visceral reactions from a broad spectrum of society. This page is for review and reflection, not debate. It is extremely sad that these victims died, and that is that. But we can learn from their sacrifice.

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Feelings were hard in the South Pacific.
Everyone is tired of keyboard heroes who shout the loudest about how war is needed to solve this problem or that in the world. We're also tired of people shouting about how offended they are at real things as shown on here. So, don't bother commenting that you're offended for some reason or another, nobody cares. Anyone who thinks that war is an answer should be required to view this page and others like it and then tell us how necessary war is. The reality of war will not change. This is a real war that is shown here, not tidy pictures of heroes.

I know what you're probably thinking - these are all fakes, right? War isn't that bad, right? Well, let's just put up another similar photo, just for you. But, no, nobody expects you to be convinced of anything, this is one area where "it's obvious."

Fakes, in fact, are a real problem in this field. It isn't just post-war "revisionists" or "enhancers" or "re-creators" who are to blame for fakes. The Ministry of Propaganda was hard at work during the conflict itself, and even before. As an example, below is a famous shot that was widely distributed in Germany during Hitler's rise to power. It was released during a German election in order to make Hitler more popular (I know that sounds kind of odd to say now). It supposedly shows young Austrian Adolf Hitler delirious with joy upon the outbreak of World War I.

Adolf Hitler Odeonsplatz
"Hitler at the Odeonsplatz, 1914."
The above photo is widely considered to be a fake. What is of interest here is that, if it is a fake (and if so, it is very good), it was manufactured or procured by Hitler's personal photographer Heinrich Hoffman in the early 1930s. Nobody can prove it to be a fake, it is that good - but the odds of a random (extremely talented) photographer just happening to capture Hitler at the front of a crowd celebrating the announcement of World War I, and then Hoffman just stumbling upon it two decades later just when it would come in handy, and all with crystal clarity... well, let's just say it's about as likely as being struck by lightning. So we are dealing with fakes prepared both after the events in question - and during them. There are other more obvious fakes, but hopefully, I've made my point.

In summary, the intent of this page is to convey the reality of war itself, which is horrible, and not the special case of the Holocaust, which is like the Twilight Zone of brutality. A sanitized picture of war is not about war at all - there is nothing sanitary about war. And there are a couple of Holocaust pictures on here just as a reminder of that horror - because war is horror.

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Caption: "A German soldier ties the hands of a captured Slovenian partisan prior to his execution on Mala Poljana mountain in the Kamnik-Savinja Alps. Near Lom pod Storžicem, Tržic, Slovenia, Yugoslavia. Summer of 1942." This was taken August 22nd, 1941, and that is Franc Sešek of Bukovica.
This also is not a "Tsk, Tsk, bad, bad Germans" page, though of course, they did more than their share of evil acts. There were ghoulish acts performed by all the combatants during World War II. Bombing cities with 2000-bomber raids, cities that were defenseless and full of women and children, and causing firestorms - that's pretty ghoulish. But this particular page is about personal, in-your-face ghoulishness. Bomber raids were impersonal, push-a-button killing, and this page is intended to get real personal.

Atomic bombs of then-unknown intensity used on large cities full of people - ghoulish. The Russians were notorious for booby-trapping buildings in towns they had abandoned. The British beached and left a destroyer behind during one raid on a French port, and the curious Germans naturally boarded to inspect it, perhaps to see if there were any survivors. The British, though, thoughtfully had loaded it with time bombs that exploded the next morning. Dozens dead. That's pretty nasty, and nastier because of the obvious sneaky intent.

Hey, there's a war on!

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Street scene, Breslau, 1945.
But the Germans were pretty much the champs in terms of systematic killings during World War II, no question about it. Everybody else in comparison... rank amateurs.

There are a couple of points to bear in mind when viewing these photos. First, things often are not what they appear. There may be dead people and guys with guns standing over them - but that does not mean that they murdered anyone. Somebody else may have done the deed, and the guys in the picture who appear to be forcing others to dig the graves, in fact, might be blameless (or not). Pictures have intrinsic rules and create their own reality that may not reflect actual events. There isn't any "explanation" or "mitigating factor" in a photograph.

Sometimes killings are legally justified by the rules of war, but that does not make them any less ghoulish. Other times, the savagery is not justified in any way, shape or form. However, legality is beside the point - the killing can be ghoulish regardless. Just be aware that pictures don't always tell the story that we think or assume they do, so be careful about blanket assumptions.

Tokyo air raid
Results of the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. That night, some 300 U.S. B-29 bombers dropped 1,700 tons of incendiary bombs on the largest city in Japan, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people -- the single deadliest conventional air raid of World War II. Probably shortened the war by... well, it probably didn't. This is war.
The reality is that there was ghastly brutality on both sides, and I am subtle about it, but the observant will notice that some of the shots below were of Allied actions. Sure, I can hear the angry voices justifying this country's or that country's brutal reign of terror. "That's all just part of the war." "Absolutely necessary." "It actually saved a lot of lives in other ways." "Well, they weren't supposed to do that, it was illegal, but they did it without our knowing it." "You have to fight fire with fire." "They did it first." "This is nothing compared to what they did." "It shortened the war!" "It was necessary in order to win and stop their crimes." Yes, and much more like that.

The response? Precisely. That's what war is.

I suppose a common reaction to this collection might be, "No way, those are fakes making it look worse than it was." Then, you might indeed find a re-creation photo here or there - they do sneak through now and then, re-enactors in Hollywood and elsewhere are awfully good - and feel satisfied that you were right all along. Hey, whatever you say.
?? "Whatever gets you through the night, it's all right, it's all right." - John Lennon ??
The truth is that the reality was 10x worse than these photos make it look. The pictures don't capture the stink of burning corpses - or the stench of still-living ones melting away from starvation. They don't include the wailing of motherless children crawling over their dead mother's bodies. They can't quite convey the reality of the rats and vultures approaching your fallen comrade's body as you, with a broken leg and shattered arm, have bigger problems to worry about - such as that they'll get you next.

If you feel nothing when looking at pictures like this, you're really tough and jaded. Hooray for you. They are, after all, old and grainy - that means they're just, you know, old pictures, like ancient Roman ruins with nothing to do with your life. Or maybe the pictures just don't register, they mean nothing, just images without meaning or context. Then why are you looking?

They do mean something. Maybe you just don't realize it or feel it. Yet.

Oh, and this is directed at you, the one who thinks that war is glorious, winning battles is beautiful, and conquering territory is lovely.

It's not.

Thank you.

All right, you've had your chance to move on. This is a page of pure evil. Here goes.

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Caption: "Four Soviet men suspected of engaging in partisan activities are hanged by German members of the Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS, the intelligence agency of the SS. The Sicherheitsdienst (SD) was the first Party intelligence organization to be established and was often considered a “sister organization” with the Gestapo. The men were hanged shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union; Operation Barbarossa. Russia, Soviet Union. August/September 1941." Maybe you never even heard of the SD? See, they had entire organizations for killing that people haven't heard of.

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"Hostage execution in Pancevo, 1941." This one needs a little explaining, though it is an accurate picture of something ghoulish that happened, regardless of legality. No, they're not acting. Yes, they're all dead or dying in this picture. It appears the officer is engaging in some finishing-off shots - see the close-up of him in that exact position above from another angle - it is possible he is posing for the cameras after the actual executions. Lots of witnesses in the background, as usual.
The above picture usually has the caption "Hostage execution in Pancevo, 1941." That may well be precisely what it is. However, what was actually going on there has been called into dispute by at least one source. It undoubtedly shows an execution by German troops (ordinary Wehrmacht) in April 1941 in the town of Pancevo in the Vojvodina region. Perhaps this was a merciless, unjustified slaughter of innocent civilians.

However, it is claimed elsewhere that this, in fact, was an execution of 18 Yugoslav army fighters who, disguised as civilians, had been involved in the shootings of German soldiers. The claim is that they were sentenced to death by a military court and legally executed. It is contended that as grim as it was, this execution was entirely in accord with internationally-sanctioned military law practiced by all sides, such as the Americans who shot Operation Greif spies out of hand, within days of capture, during the Battle of the Bulge.

I don't know. I wasn't there (honest!). I put the explanations there for your consideration. Much in this field becomes a question of how much you trust the sources (apparently Soviet in this case). This may strike you as quibbling over nothing, but it is important to some folks because the standard line is that ordinary Wehrmacht troops did not engage in genocide as appears to be the case here. I have my doubts about that, too, but an open mind. There is so much other damning evidence that one photo doesn't make much difference, but this controversy (if you can call it that) provides a window into hidden battles that continue to this day. There are people who want the truth out, and others who like to, shall we say, tailor it in a certain direction. And the latter folks live on both sides of the aisle.

Sometimes pictures lie. Sometimes they tell a deeper truth than you might expect. You decide. Below is another photo that may not be quite what it appears at first glance.

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This is another photo that may not show what you think. Yes, that is French Resistance member Georges Blind smiling in front of a German execution squad. October 1944. However, it was a mock execution intended to make him talk (to betray fellow spies). Georges never did talk. After this, he was forwarded to a concentration camp, where he was selected for termination on arrival. Apparently, he perished sometime in late November 1944. They'd probably have killed him if he talked anyway, as he undoubtedly knew.

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Mussolini and his mistress, Dongo, Italy, April 29, 1945

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"Hey, look over there for me, would you?"

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This baby was left without a mother, somewhere back in the USSR.

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This American just wanted a drink of water, France, June 1944. The fountain was booby-trapped. His thirst is gone.

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Dead civilians, Volokolamsk, Russia. Their bodies? Frozen solid. Impossible to bury them until the spring thaw (the "Rasputitsa") anyway. Besides, it sets an example for others. So, just leave them. They aren't going anywhere.

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A notorious concentration camp guard. What she did was far worse.

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A dead Russian soldier, stood up by the Finns as a warning during the 1939/40 Winter War. The Soviets won, but they left a lot of guys behind.

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The dead soldiers were used as signposts. Notice how his boots are missing? Warm boots were very prized during the Russian winters. This guy didn't need them any longer. Were they taken by the enemy or... his friends. Hey, warm is warm.

Dead Waffen-SS on the road to Moscow. The middle of nowhere, probably buried right there without any markings, and there they stay.

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Rome, 1944. Probably right before the liberation.  Perhaps settling some scores on the way out? In any event, the poor damsel was annoying them, so they stopped her from spinning, and she politely obliges. As usual, curious onlookers enjoyed the show. (Brunning, Federal Archive)

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The execution of the underground fighter Vladimir Vinogradov, who killed a German soldier in Vitebsk. Plate inscription in German and Russian: "Vladimir Vinogradov killed German soldier 9/23/41 in Vitebsk ."

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Outside Moscow, December 1941. The birds have to act fast, the corpses will freeze solid within hours. Some things can't be staged, vultures and crows is one of them.

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All right, we have a picture of a teenage boy standing beside some dead bodies. Not so bad, right? Well, they are his murdered family. He's next. Zboriv, Ukraine, 5th of July 1941.

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Dead soldier in the road. When tank after tank runs over you - that's how you look.

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An Einsatzgruppe going about its normal business. It appears the condemned are being made to face the wall, or perhaps that is just a show of defiance. Just another day at the office. Is that a woman third from the left?

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These concentration camp inmates (Russians) survived. The Americans liberating them did not. These fellows apparently were ambushed, as Soviet eyewitnesses said that the Germans killed them after the GIs surrendered. Notice the tank in the background, parked under a bridge to avoid an air attack? The fighting continued. Images like this were censored during the war. This was in Hilden, Germany.

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Dead civilians in Kharkiv. Partisans? Perhaps. Maybe the local German commander just wanted their houses.
This is Lepa Svetozara Radic (1925–1943) in January 1943. Lepa was a partisan executed at the age of 17 in Bosanska Krupa in Bosnia for shooting at German soldiers. As her captors tied the noose around her neck, they offered her a way out of the gallows by revealing her comrades' and leaders' identities. She responded that she was not a traitor to her people and that they would reveal themselves when they avenged her death. She was the youngest winner of the Order of the People's Hero of Yugoslavia, awarded in 1951.

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Dead American GIs. This photo by George Stock, taken on Buna Beach, New Guinea was the first photo published in the U.S. showing dead servicemen during World War II. Taken in February 1943, Cal Whipple, LIFE Magazine's Pentagon correspondent, pushed for the photo to be made public after being censored. Seven months later, with the agreement of FDR, it was. Cal Whipple died on March 17, 2013, at the age of 94. Even back then, people realized the need to see the reality of war. President Roosevelt wanted you to see this image.

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Japanese Bomb hits the flight deck of USS Enterprise, costing the photographer of this picture his life. August 24, 1942. Incidentally, if you scroll down quickly as you view this, it appears to move as an optical illusion.

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Remains left on Guadalcanal, 1951. Eight years later!

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Australian Sergeant Leonard Siffleet was part of a special forces reconnaissance unit in New Guinea, then occupied by Japanese Imperial forces. He and two Ambonese companions were captured by partisan tribesmen and handed over to the Japanese. All three men were interrogated, tortured and confined for approximately two weeks before being taken down to Aitape Beach on the afternoon of 24 October 1943. No, the guy with the sword is not just "acting." Some smiles in the crowd.

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Chinese Boy Beheaded - his only crime was being a member of a household suspected by the Japanese of aiding Chinese guerillas (the Japanese called them "Bandits"). He appears to be praying. Ca. 1938. Corbis photo.

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Oradour sur Glane massacre, France, 1944.

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Executing prisoners. They are humiliated first by making them strip. There was something personal going on here. I have seen this identified as Vasily Mikhailovich Blokhin (7 January 1895 – 3 February 1955), who was a Soviet Russian Major-General serving as the chief executioner of the Stalinist NKVD (later KGB). This supposedly was during the Katyn massacre of Polish officers in the Ostashkov prisoner-of-war camp. Tell the truth - you thought it was a German. Right?

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Members of an Einsatzkommando firing at men standing at the bottom of a trench. Circa : 1941-1942. It was standard practice to have the condemned men face the other way. It's a bit unclear, but the nearest victim appears to have his arms crossed in apparent indifference. It's a Russian thing.

ghastly ghoulish photos
This is a famous photo, executions in Poland.

ghastly ghoulish photos
American GIs in the South Pacific.

ghastly ghoulish photos
Speaking of Malmedy - lest we think that the Germans only shot defenseless civilians including women and children, they also shot defenseless prisoners, too - dozens at once here. The massacre actually took place at a road junction between Bullingen and Ligneuville, well south of  Malmedy, 17 December 1944. People in Malmedy don't like anyone associating this with their town to this day, and I have the proof.

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Another German summary execution. They probably made him dig the hole. No shirt, note the snow on the ground, they probably had him working so hard he didn't need it anyway.

Just to hammer home that the previous photograph was not an isolated incident.

And a third.

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The fate of millions of men during the war, this one happened to be in the Ukraine 1943. Not wise to be standing up straight when there are snipers around. He learned his lesson. This is a famous shot that is not a recent fabrication.

Russia 1943. Helmets were good for pistol shots, but rifle bullets were a whole other deal.

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Dead German. Probably posted by the Russians, the Germans were punctilious about burying their dead when they had the chance. After the Germans left, the locals used their elaborate wooden burial markers for firewood. Well, it's the thought that counts.

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Brandenburg Gate 1945. RAD Unteroffizier.
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I know this isn't horrific. But it is human, and we can relate. A Russian woman's reaction to losing her home in 1942. Who knows what - or who - was inside.

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This fine Soviet soldier worked straight through dinner - for 70 years. The PPsh submachine gun is a bit rusty, though, won't pass inspection like that.

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This is one creepy picture. Hitler at Christmas.