“The greatest criminal expert in Europe” on the eve of the 1914 War, according to The New York Times, the German-Jewish criminologist, R. A. Reiss, left a secure academic base in Lausanne to document war crimes on a front characterized by bitter ethnic warfare.
In the Macedonian town of Monástir, Reiss photographed civilian victims of Germano-Bulgarian shelling with asphyxiating gases including an early form of Zyklon. He was attentive to the introduction on the southeastern front of poison gas, which promised radically to alter the scale of future atrocities against civilians. Acutely aware that elsewhere on the same front the Armenian Genocide (carried out by more traditional means) had occasioned the charge of “crimes against humanity,” he eloquently protested escalating violations of international law.
Reiss’s analysis of atrocities on the southeastern front led him to anticipate the debate over the “Ordinary Men” phenomenon familiar from Christopher Browning’s study of a Hamburg police battalion during the Second World War. His photographic record of the targeted use of Zyklon against civilians represents the head of “the Zyklon Trail,” in the phrase of Raphael Lemkin, which led to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
With the help of texts from Hannah Arendt, Siegfried Kracauer, Susan Sontag, and Judith Butler, the talk also addresses questions about representations of atrocity from Goya to the iconic photographs taken in 1945 of the German camps in the aftermath of the Shoah, of which Reiss’s photographs of civilian victims of Zyklon were a startlingly early premonition.