Robert Capa: A war reporter hating the war

by Kira Kirschbach, translation by Michelle Trimborn
Unfortunately, the topic of war and peace is a timeless one, which is even now very present. An exhibition in Leipzig, Germany, with the utopic title “War is over” shows the art work of Hungarian-American war correspondent and photographer Robert Capa in the house where he shot his famous picture “Last man to die” in April 1945. The building is nowadays known as “Capa-house”.

Christoph Kaufmann emplyoee of Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig (Photo: ECPMF/Kira Kirschbach)

Also this picture is displayed in the new exhibition. It shows the young US-soldier Raymond J. Bowman who was shot on 18 April 1945 on the balcony of the house. A day later, the American troops liberated Leipzig from the National Socialist regime. Even though the war ended three weeks later – and Bowman was thus not the “Last man to die” in the Second World War, these events explain the title of the photo.

World-famous picture

“Robert Capa came to Leipzig only once – in April 1945, and this was crucial. He accompanied the military unit and documented the events. He caught one significant moment, when a 21-year-old American soldier was shot dead. And this picture became world-famous: with the title “Last man to die” it was published in the American newsmagazine LIFE”, explains Christoph Kaufmann of the civic history museum (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum) in Leipzig.

“It was easy to prove that it is this house where the photo was taken. The balcony is on second floor. From there you can see the landscape today just like in the photo back then”, Kaufmann says. But the exhibition, which was realized with help of the civic history museum, cannot be found in the historical room mentioned. The pictures are shown in the downstairs café of the building.

Christoph Kaufmann explained that many already deemed the building to be lost: “It has been empty since 1990. The house was partly burned. And it seemed to be impossible to save it. But a courageous investor made it possible.”

“Many inhabitants of Leipzig were worried about the original plans of the City to tear down the building. But thanks to the famous history and the name of Robert Capa this house was saved and renovated instead. This is an enrichment for our city”, says a local about the building.  

“Thanks to the pictures taken I could be the richest man”

That the exhibition in Capa-house has not only an artistic but historical meaning is shown by the events happening around it. As act of solidarity and to commemorate the shot soldier, a part of a street near the famous building was renamed into “Bowman-Straße”. And in the memory of the young soldier, also his former comrade, 96-year-old Lehman Riggs, came to

Leipzig to join the opening of the exhibition.

The veteran walks slowly but categorically refuses to use a wheelchair. “He was here four years ago and promised to return when the building was renovated”, Kaufmann explains and shares an anecdote: the intense interviews during his visit to the exhibition were exhausting, but Bowman showed a lot of patience: “Many journalists took photos of him, which was demanding. But he reacted with humour and said ‘If I would get 5 Euros for every picture taken, I would return as the richest man!’”

Capa house in Leipzig (Photo: Christoph Kaufmann)

Priceless contemporary documents

The famous war reporter Robert Capa was born in Budapest as André Friedmann. Already as young man he was politically active and left Hungary in 1931 due to political reasons. He migrated to Berlin where he studied journalism and began to occupy himself with photography. When the Nazi-regime became stronger, he had to flee.

There is hardly any war arena Capa did not visit: from the Spanish Civil War to the First Indochina War in the 1950s, where he died when stepping onto a landmine. It is his daring which makes his pictures extraordinary, experts explain. His first rule “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is known to photographers all over the world today.

“In my opinion, the subject of war and peace is constantly of importance. But what we experience currently is a relocation of the borderlines. Global conflicts are coming closer, due to several factors like the refugee crisis or the conflict with Russia. The people in Germany and Europe notice this, so this topic is regaining attention as it seems up to date again”, states Julius-Christian Schreiner, a visitor of the exhibition and student of photography at the Academy of Fine Arts (HGB) in Leipzig.

Julius-Christian Schreiner - studies photography at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig (Photo: Kira Kirschbach)

Authentic picture as main criterion for truth  

“With his photographs, Robert Capa significantly influenced war reporting in the Western world. His pictures are impressive and priceless historical documents”, Schreiner elaborates on the importance of Capa’s work.

But he does not keep quiet about the discussions of expert circles concerning a seemingly staged photo from the Spanish Civil War showing a falling soldier after he was shot. “This is an old discussion, but today we know about several cases of manipulation, staging or retouching. Through new arrangements pictures are shown in a new, but often wrong context. I think the question how much truth a photo does tell is more important than ever”, says the young photographer.

„Concerning the photo in Leipzig, we are sure that it is not staged, but authentic“, Christoph Kaufmann reacts to the discussion about Capa and authenticity. “Only that the soldier shown was of course not the ‘Last man to die’, but a symbol.”

At least Robert Capa hoped for him to be the last man shot – as the war reporter was a man who hated the war.

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