The famous LIFE magazine during the Second World War had a doppelgänger.
Today, October 5, is the birthdate in 1904 of Harald Lechenperg (†1994) a German-Austrian photographer, journalist and documentary filmmaker, and Nazi propagandist.
You could consider Signal, the magazine he edited in 1940, as the German equivalent of America’s LIFE. Here they are side-by-side; Signal from 1 June 1940, LIFE from 12 June 1944…
Like LIFE, Signal was a near folio-sized magazine, crammed with pictures. Both were distributed worldwide, the weekly LIFE to the Allied countries, while Signal was published fortnightly in a total of 25 different languages, intended for European nations under the Teutonic banner, to promote and justify German hegemony over Europe. Signal reached a maximum circulation of 2,500,000 copies per issue, LIFE’s circulation in 1937 was 1,000,000.
Lechenperg first worked as a journalist in Vienna in 1925, but after 1929 he was a photojournalist reporting in the magazines Die Woche (“The Week”), Atlantis, and from 1932 in Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ), Dame and in National Geographic through the agency Dephot under contract, traveling during 1930-36 to India, Afghanistan, Arabia, Africa and the USA.
In 1937 Lechenperg became chief editor of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung changing its stance from a political “magazine observer”, to become an apolitical illustrated general interest magazine. As such the Nazis regarded it as a ripe propaganda vehicle, though it was not until the outbreak of war that BIZ transformed into a brazen propaganda tool. Below are covers of BIZ (1) from before Lechenperg’s editorship (news reportage of the Spanish Civil War), (2) dancer with sculpture in the National Socialist (Nazi) sanctioned style when he became editor, (3) ‘London Burns!’ from 1941, and (4) a cover from late 1944 in the dying days of the Reich showing the ‘Home Guard’ of old men and boys.
In 1940 Lechenperg was made Chief Editor of Signal, well staffed, lavishly illustrated, including full-page colour plates, and partly independent from the rigid censorship of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry; it was the exemplary propaganda publication of wartime Europe. So good in fact, that in its March 22, 1943 feature on Allied and Axis propaganda LIFE conceded:
The Chief US foreign propaganda magazine Victory is but a pallid imitation of the German Signal. Victory has less than half the circulation of Signal and has none of the propaganda impact of its Nazi counterpart.
Clearly, with its superior circulation and appeal, Signal was winning the propaganda war. It had a significant impact on the European volunteer movement against Bolshevism. By downplaying social and political differences among the various European nations, and by attempting to line them up behind Germany in its ‘struggle for freedom’, Signal promoted a New Order in Europe, designated as a Pax Germanica.
Lechenperg’s undoing came in the summer of 1941. He was sacked as editor of BIZ because he had become dedicated to increasing the circulation of Signal over that of BIZ, whose editor-in-chief he had remained. In 1945 he fled via Bohemia to Kitzbühel in the Tyrol (Austria), where coincidentally Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) the German filmmaker, photographer, dancer and Nazi propagandist, moved her film-editing studio and archives from Munich during World War II.
Immediately after the war Lechenperg failed, because of his Nazi past, to obtain a license for an Österreichische Illustrierte Zeitung, but curiously from 1948 to 1951 he managed to leave his past behind and, through his evident talents, was made chief editor of the magazine Quick, the Munich periodical Copress, the Deutschen Illustrierten in Stuttgart and finally to 1961 the Neue Illustrierte in Cologne. After 1962, he devoted himself to the production of 22 documentaries, mainly for the Bavarian Television and published books on the Winter Olympics.
Christian Boltanski is a contemporary artist, born during the war in 1944, whose art refers to the Holocaust and the contested truths of personal identity. In 1980 he came across copies of Signal at the Vanves flea market in the southwestern suburb of Paris. When he opened them and discarded their staples, the action liberated them from the intended layout and gave him random collisions of images that had no logical or contextual connection. These chance ‘found’ montages of propaganda ‘automatically’ juxtaposed disturbing, radically different realities next to one another; war and strife on one side, a normal or even carefree life on the other. Just as effectively, he might have dissected LIFE.
Subsequently he produced these in a limited edition 17 x 24 cm book of 170 numbered and signed copies (€550 ea.) with an accompanying poster, superimposing the pictures using lenticular printing so that the image oppositions, depending on one’s angle of view, suddenly ‘flip’ from one image to the other, just as randomly.
With only a slight tweak of history, random Fate may have made Lechenberg and Signal as well remembered as are LIFE and its editor Wilson Hicks (1897–1970) now in the history of photojournalism.