Cold War Berlin In Colour

Rare snapshots from East & West Berlin during the 1950s…

Ten years after the end of WWII, Germany was rebuilding. Cities like Berlin, which had been severely damaged during the war were emerging from the rubble as the Wirtschaftswunder or ‘economic miracle’ transformed West Germany. In the immediate postwar period hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were stationed in the divided country, many of them with cameras.

The images below date from 1956-7 and were found at a Seattle flea market by DPReview editor Barney Britton, who wrote in to share them with us…in return we asked a few questions:-

You say you found these images at a flea market?

BB: Yes, I found this collection of images among a much larger number of slides from the 1950s and 60s in more than twenty boxes, at a flea market in Seattle, Washington. A couple of the labels on the boxes intrigued me—’Berlin, 1956′ and ‘Hungarian Border, 1957’ etc.—and I decided to take the lot home and see what was in there. I have a film scanner at home, which I picked up years ago with the thought that it might be useful at some point in the future, and which I’d already been using recently for another project. I made a quick selection and set about scanning the Berlin pictures.

Did the photos mean anything to you personally when you found them? 

Not much. I have no real connection to Berlin or to that time. But I am very interested in the history of Europe after WWII and especially that of the big Germany cities which were so badly damaged during the war. The speed of the reconstruction was incredible, although it is very obvious that even ten years after the end of the conflict, much of Berlin was still in ruins. What makes these pictures special to me is that they show Berlin before reconstruction was complete, and before the wall was built to physically divide the two halves of the city. That said, there is a clear division between the sectors; in one image for example you can see snow swept from the pavement up to the sign denoting the end of one sector and beginning of another, but no further. The snow and ice of the shots taken in the winter of 1956 seems appropriate for the early years of the ‘cold war’.

The photos have a very personal ‘snapshot’ quality that’s very immediate and compelling…

The fact that these images are snapshots is appealing to me, too. They capture sights as a hurried tourist might see them, in passing, and often I think from within a moving car. The scenes that this photographer captured were not formally posed, or even particularly well-framed for the most part. They have the impression of spontaneity. And some of the blurry, out of focus or badly-exposed images are quite impressionistic albeit accidentally.

Where do you think they may have come from?

I know they were taken by a USAF serviceman, based in Germany for a few years in the mid-1950s. That’s just from details in the images (like a USAF in Germany license plate on the VW Beetle car visible in several shots). I have images taken by him in the same collection from all over Germany, Spain and Italy, all from roughly the same time period.

Any idea who the photographer might be?

I have a name, but I have decided not to release it yet until I’ve done some additional research. The slides that I found had passed through more than one owner by the time they ended up for sale at the flea market, but I want to do more research.

Why did you decide to make them public?

I’m in the fortunate position of having a global audience, via the site that I edit. Although we focus on digital imaging, I had an incredibly positive reaction to a previous collection of ‘vintage color’ images that I exposed on our homepage, so I decided to create a couple of slideshows with the Berlin images. One of the great things about the DPReview audience is that they’re truly global, and within a couple of days I’d had hundreds of comments and emails containing location information, and brief personal stories connected to the places in the images—information I could never have discovered myself.

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All images courtesy of Barney Britton. You can see more over on DPReview: Part 1 and Part 2

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