Soldier Studies: Fascinating photographs of cross-dressing in the Third Reich's army

From the chapter "Basic Training" © Collection Martin Dammann. All images courtesy of Hatje Cantz

The artist and collector Martin Dammann has spent many years studying war photography, the impact of images, and how history is written. Rather surprisingly, during his research, he stumbled across many amateur photographs of soldiers in the German army who dressed as women – scenes that directly contradicted Nazi ideology.

Dammann’s discoveries are now being presented for discussion in his critical book, which features pictures that provide surprising insights into the longings and everyday lives of German soldiers in World War II: from playful scenes of young recruits clowning around, to improvised disguises among close friends at the front, to carefully prepared performances in Allied POW camps.

As was the case in all of the 20th-century’s great wars, considerable efforts were made to relieve soldiers of their existential hardship for an ephemeral moment, through all kinds of entertainment. Besides the state-organised theatricals on the front, which, thanks to the wealth of materials, have been well researched, the soldiers of the German army arranged shows in which they sublimated their yearning for feminine emotions and sexuality while embodying the absent gender themselves.

"Without exception, all these men seem to be completely abandoned to the moment and to their own desires, in a unique state of bliss that makes itself evident in all the photos, no matter how different the situations in which they came about," says Dammann of the photographs.

In an afterword dealing with categorisation, the sociologist Harald Welzer rejects the notion of interpreting the soldiers as psychologically exotic; instead, he regards the pictures as explicitly "normal" expressions of human feelings that have existed at every point in history – in this case, however, within the framework of a permanent state of emergency. "As paradoxical as it may seem, these photographs of Wehrmacht soldiers in female underwear, on first glance so exotic, actually corroborate the normality of the situation, and not its exceptionality, precisely in times of war. This is what makes these Soldier Studies so striking, as well as significant."

Soldier Studies, with essays by Martin Dammann and Harald Welzer, impressively demonstrates that everything has a flip side – even the military during the Nazi era. Available via Hatje Cantz.

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Unit Celebrations" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Unit Celebrations" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Unit Celebrations" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Unit Celebrations" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann

From the chapter "Frontline" © Collection Martin Dammann