How One Man and One Camera Really Told the Story of World War II

Photo by Roman Grachev on Unsplash

Alfred Eisenstaedt made his living as a professional photographer, most notably as a contributor to LIFE Magazine. Thanks to his fearless attitude and naturally instinctive eye, 90 or more of his photographs would grace the cover of the popular picture magazine during his storied career. But two of those images in particular will forever represent the perfect photographic bookends of what World War II was all about.

LIFE photo collection

A German-born Jew, Eisenstaedt first experienced war in the trenches of Europe when he fought for his native country in World War I and was wounded in battle in 1918. In the peacetime that followed he realized he had a passion and intuitive eye for the new art form of photography. So he started working professionally for local German print publications. One early assignment had him covering a League of Nations conference being held in Geneva, Switzerland. It was September of 1933.

The Nazi Party had just taken over parliamentary power in Germany, meaning Nazi officials were in attendance at an international conference for the first time. Among them was Joseph Goebbels, designated as the new Reich Minister of Propaganda.

Hoping at that time to present a peaceful, diplomatic presence on the world stage, there was no talk by Goebbels of conquest or world war. Seated in the garden of the Carlton Hotel in Geneva between meetings, a relaxed and jovial Goebbels was consulting with his staff when a young Eisenstaedt started taking snapshots with his small 35-millimeter Leica camera.

What he caught in a split second was a malevolent glare that, knowing what hatred and murder was to come across Europe in the years ahead, still makes the blood run cold.

LIFE photo collection

“He looked at me with hateful eyes and waited for me to wither,” Eisenstaedt would later write of that moment in his autobiography Witness to Our Time. “But I didn’t wither. If I have a camera in my hand, I don’t know fear.”

It’s long been said that the eyes are windows to the soul. The fact that Eisenstaedt was Jewish only lends more credence to the terrible foreshadowing he captured through his lens — Goebbel’s eyes in that single moment show hatred in its purest form.

Though six years would go by before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and began World War II, it could be said, again in hindsight, that the first hints of death and the storm to come were first shown to the world in 1933 by a young Jewish photographer.

To avoid Nazi persecution Eisenstaedt and his family emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1935. It wasn’t long after that that he found a job taking pictures for LIFE magazine.

***

Flash forward to August 14, 1945. Times Square in New York City. After nearly four years of all-out war in Europe and the Pacific, exhausted Americans were finally hearing on the radio that the Japanese had agreed to surrender. The war was over! Total Victory was ours at last!

Across the country in cities big and small, people ran out into the streets, yelling, drinking, crying, and yes, kissing total strangers. It was a spontaneous celebration of pride and relief the likes of which had never been seen before. And Alfred Eisenstaedt was there in Times Square in hopes of recording the moment. He ran out into the street and started doing what he did best — taking snapshots in rapid-fire succession with his small, unobtrusive camera. In fact, that was one of the man’s secrets all along.

“They don’t take me too seriously with my little camera,” he once said in an interview with New York Magazine.

Oblivious to the man with the camera, some people weren’t quite sure what to do. So they simply started walking up and down the streets. Out of the corner of his eye Eisenstaedt saw a U.S. sailor rushing around and kissing every woman he could. Under the circumstances why the hell not. Looking around some more, Eisenstaedt eyes a nurse dressed in white standing alone in the crowd, taking it all in. As if pulled by an invisible force, Eisenstaedt’s camera followed as the two came together. Without saying a word the burly sailor swept her up and twisted her into a spontaneous, passionate kiss for the ages.

Eisenstaedt quickly moved on to others in the streets, never thinking of stopping to get the names of the two in the picture he had just taken, and for years the search for the identities of the man and woman in the famous kiss became a story in itself. But his Times Square photo was the cover of the next week’s edition of LIFE. The one that celebrated the end of the greatest conflict of the 20th Century.

Like after any perfect bookend, what more need be added after that?

Two moments in time — long since past — but now never forgotten, thanks to the presence of Alfred Eisenstaedt. When it came to portraying the essence of World War II, no one did it better.

Wisconsin-based writer, storyteller and history buff. Keep it simple. Make it real.

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