Color is an interesting thing. I long ago realized that the 1920s and 1930s seem further away for me, visually, than the pre-modern era. The difference is color. When I think of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, even though the images are frozen, they still are in living color. Color gives them a vitality that makes them immediate:
Looking at that lovely Jan van Eyck, don’t you feel as if you could touch the Baby Jesus’s blonde hair or stroke his pink skin, or that you could bury your hands in Mary’s cloak and feel the warm fabric across your fingers? They may be still, but they’re real. Van Eyck stopped the moment for you, but you know that, when you’re not looking, their chests will rise and fall, and that the baby will turn towards Mary, and she will wrap her warm, loving arms around him. Color matters.
Conversely, look at this photograph from the 20s:
It’s not just the clothes that separate us from those dashing ladies. It’s also that they’re the wrong color. They’re not the color of living flesh. Instead, they’re the colors of death and the grave. Although the highlights and shades are there to give us dimensionality, they still look peculiarly flattened and unreal. Their frozen quality will continue long after we turn our eyes away from them.
So it is with too many images of WWII. Although it took place during the lifetime of many people who are still living, those of us who came of age after the war have a hard time seeing it as more than chilling historic pictures. We have to keep reminding ourselves that these were real people who fought, and killed, and suffered, and died. Many of us probably think “That can’t happen here.” We think this not only because we foolishly believe that our Constitution, without further effort on our parts, is strong enough to protect us from tyranny, but also because a part of our brain says, “Did that really happen anywhere?” Of course, we know that it happened at a specific place (Europe) and over a specific period of time (1933-1945), but those colorless images distance us from the humanity of the people involved.
Which is why you should watch this short color video showing the liberation of Dachau:
The dead are real people; the Germans dragged into the camp to see what their statist ideology had wrought are real people; the surviving prisoners, with such faint hope in their eyes, are real people. It’s a terribly disturbing video because it drags us out of our 21st century American complacency and forces us to acknowledge that real people committed unbelievable heinous acts against other living, breathing, full-color human beings.