top of page

A Conversation with the Photographer Ballhause by Hannes Schmidt

Walter Ballhause, born in Hameln on the Weser in 1911, celebrates his 75th birthday next year. He was "rediscovered" at the beginning of the 1970s. As a nineteen-year-old on the threshold of the Weimar Republic and Hitler's dictatorship, Ballhause had documented, among other things, the spread of the brown horde. Ballhause's illustrated books are published in both parts of Germany.

If you want to get to him today, you have to go all the way to the south of the GDR. Only an hour's drive from the border with Bavaria, he lives here on the outskirts of the Vogtland district town of Plauen. It's not far to him from the tram stop. I cross a storage yard of the company where he worked responsibly for years, neatly stacked steel pipes and T-beams, and reach a country road. A warm July day. On the right, the hollows and bulges of the small mountainous area, meadows and fields in various shades of green, and on the left, behind mighty lilac and hazelnut bushes, stately detached houses. Then, the road slopes down, the houses stand closer together, a kind of factory housing estate. This is Walter Ballhause's home with his wife.

Concentrated and alert, he sits opposite me during our conversation, which lasts several hours. He has a clear gaze from his dark eyes under bushy brows. Strong, tanned arms. Hands that can grip, not just hold a camera. He escaped the Nazis with his life - by chance. He used it to participate in the eradication of fascist ideas, in the building of the new, as mayor and foundry manager, widely praised technician.

An exemplary life - an astonishing combination of talent, strokes of fate and artistic ability. Much can only be guessed at. "These pictures that you like so much," he says modestly at some point at the end of our conversation, "were only created in passing. I didn't want to set up a monument for myself with them."

From what I have heard and read about you, Walter Ballhause, I could gather that you only started taking photographs in 1929 …


W. B.: No, I started taking pictures when I was 15, with a 9x12 plate camera I bought on credit. These were primarily group and souvenir photos of the milieu in which I moved at that time.


Did the desire to take photographs arise spontaneously?


W. B.: That had to do with my passion for going to the cinema. Whenever I had a few pennies, I liked to go to the cinema. The running pictures fascinated me from the beginning - it was all about captured, coagulated time. Adventure films excited me the most, for example those with Harry Piel whose heroism impressed me very much. When I became a labourer after leaving school and earned a little more, I sometimes went to two screenings of the same film. Seeing films made me want to stand behind a film camera myself one day. But then everything turned out differently than I imagined.


You come from a working-class family, the son of a shoemaker and a leather stepper …


W. B.: I was the youngest of five siblings, so I was not a dream child. Due to the disintegration of my parents' marriage, our entire family was torn apart and scattered to the winds. Mother's health was severely damaged by the hard work she had to do to feed and raise us children. Moreover, she always had in mind to leave her class as a semi-skilled worker, leather stepper, and move up the ladder. First with the help of her capable husband, which went wrong, and then alone, which was also unsuccessful. So she was somehow mentally and morally broken, also much ill, which of course affected her contact with us.

After the divorce of my parents' marriage, a restless wandering life with my mother began. In eight years I changed schools eight times. In total, I moved eleven times in 22 years. You can imagine that I did not feel at home anywhere, that I did not get to know a feeling of love and security.


When you were eight, you moved to Hanover with your mother. You turned to the labour movement at an early age, became a member of the social democratic youth group "Rote Falken" and a member of the Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportbund (ATSB). What influence did that have on you, who impressed you?


W. B.: We couldn't do much with what we were taught at school. I had started to read and think about our world, to deal with its contradictions. In the autumn of 1925, when I was fourteen and a half, I happened to be at a training evening of the "Freie Schwimmer Hannover", the swimming section of the local Workers' Gymnastics and Sports Association. Since I was a good swimmer, they approached me and I became a member. Within this group there were very talented and less talented swimmers. The very talented ones, to which I soon belonged, were coached by a young socialist, Otto Fuhrmann, who was three or four years older. Otto came to us in Hanover as an unemployed man from Berlin-Neukölln, he not only coached us but in fact gathered us around him as a "Red Falcon Group". He was a wonderful person, versatile, also musically gifted, pedagogically talented. We boys and girls spent a lot of our free time with him, went hiking. Otto introduced us to socialist ideas, books and writings; he had a major influence on my development during those years, and I owe him a lot. When he went back to Berlin in 1931, we had already developed quite a bit.


The fact that you later switched to serious photography also has to do with your friendship with Lina Lengefeld, would you tell something about that?


W. B.: In 1928, when I was already in the Young Socialists, I met Lina Lengefeld, who was seven years older. Lina worked as an employee of the local branch of the SPD in Hanover. She lived with her parents, had her own room and so I was often with her. Through my contacts with the Young Socialists, I hoped to get more information about the injustice and contradictions in the world and the reasons for them. I had already read a lot, but I still had a lot to catch up on. Since I didn't own any books myself, I made use of reading her books during the five years we were together until 1933. She had acquired them through Büchergilde Gutenberg. Among them were many that were worth reading, from Jack London to B. Traven to Erich Maria Remarque and Anatole France.


Erich Knauf's "Empörung und Gestaltung“ ["Outrage and Design"] had a special influence on your further path.


W. B.: Erich Knauf was editor of the social democratic Plauener Volkszeitung and later of the Büchergilde Gutenberg. His book was published in 1928 and I must have read it in 1929/30. With its wonderful, lucid essays on painters and graphic artists, it greatly strengthened my resolve to take up the camera myself. These were artists who were very close to the proletariat, who knew its misery. Then it went through my head: you can't study to become a painter, you don't have enough money for that, but you can take photographs.


Were there any other inspirations, points of reference or role models for you?


W. B.: I had no connection to painters or professional photographers. But what they painted or photographed, always a hand's breadth above reality, that was familiar to me, that was my reality, which I had around me every day. Of course, I was intensively involved with works of fine art and photography. Before I took photographs, I studied other pictures that had impressed me, I was interested in both their impact, in terms of content, and in the way they were presented. Paintings, photographs, notices, advertisements, magazine and newspaper photographs, these were my universities.


Before we talk about your photos, another question. I read that you were friends with Otto Brenner?


W. B.: Otto was a metalworker at Hanomag, where I apprenticed as a lab technician from 1925. He was about six to eight years older, a very well-read young socialist. I got to know him at lectures in the trade union centre. Later he gave factual, passionate reasons for leaving the SPD and founded the SAP, the "Socialist Workers' Party of Germany" in Berlin-Hanover. I had been a member of the SPD since 1929, resigned from it, and also became a member of the SAP in 1931. I remember Otto Brenner as a very modest, tolerant friend and comrade with integrity, who was also important for me. We lost contact with each other during the fascist period.


Back to Lina Lengefeld and your intention to take serious photographs.


W. B.: Lina still had a relatively good income at that time, while I was unemployed in the meantime. At that time, the Leica and other 35 mm cameras were just coming into existence. So I persuaded her, since I didn't have the money myself, to buy a Leica and an enlarger. She then lent me both. The purchase of the Leica was a very conscious decision. I wanted a camera that I could handle unseen. Because the Leica was small and I could easily let it disappear in my hands, it seemed particularly suitable for taking a certain kind of photos with it.


When you started taking photographs with the Leica in 1929/30, you were 19 years old. In a period of more than three years, you took about 500 photographs until April 1933. How do you explain this early maturity from today's perspective? How was it possible for a working-class boy, seemingly off the cuff, to take photographs that are among the most important documents of the time?


W. B.: When I look back and see the photos I took at that time, I have to admit that it took a certain maturity to take such photographs. But then again, maybe that can be explained quite simply: I was in the same situation as millions of other working-class children, maybe even a little worse. In 1918 I was seven years old, by which time I had already seen and experienced a lot during the First World War. These childhood memories were then the inspiration for my first photos, which I took around 1930, for example of the cripples of the First World War. I see in them above all a reflection of my early childhood experiences. Between 1916 and 1918, when I was five to seven years old, I witnessed the wounded arriving from the front at the nearby goods station and being carried past our house on stretchers. I had contact with prisoners of war from England and France who worked in the shoe factory where my father worked. I secretly visited them in their quarters and learned a lot from them. I saw my father marching through the factory gate under red flags into the street with the entire workforce of the factory. So the war, curfews, demonstrations, riots, gunshots in the night, the miserable food situation – I had seen and experienced a lot.

At some point you decided to work with a hidden camera. How did that come about?


W. B.: I already said that the acquisition of the Leica was a very conscious thing. I could hide it in my hands. I also had a left-hand buttoned windbreaker from which I took it out only for use and quickly made it disappear again. This is how all my decisive photos were taken. The essential thing was: I met the people in their deepest need and degradation, physically and psychologically exhausted to the utmost. Could I have approached them with three cameras around my neck? In addition, people generally behave differently than usual when you point a camera at them. I wanted to show their faces and their behaviour as they are, not as they would have liked it to be.

But I would like to say something about the phase before you press the shutter release. In the three years or so I had left to photograph before the Nazis came to power, I tried to realise what interested me. Not, as one would say today, to market it. Like my comrades and comrades in the youth movement, later in the SPD and in the SAP, I wanted to be of service to my class, to my milieu, to open the eyes of the workers: "Here, don't put up with misery any longer, fight back!" It seemed important to me to stimulate people, to activate them to get away from these degrading conditions. In the sense of Marx's famous sentence, I was sincerely out to change the world with my photos and to have an enlightening effect.

My photos about the rising fascism could also come into being because we in the Young Socialists dealt in depth with the danger of fascism. For example, I remember a speaker who gave us her experiences of Italian fascism, which had already been in power since the mid-1920s. We had an inkling of what was to come after her talk. But later the SAP did not have the influence to become publicly effective, although it strove for unity of action with the KPD in Hanover, for example. In order to be able to take accurate photos of the developing German fascism, it was not only necessary to have certain experiences, a class instinct and pronounced emotionality, but above all knowledge of the social, political and economic contexts. We had been taught these. So I didn't go into these photos unprepared. I felt the inner mandate of my class, and at the same time I took these photos for myself personally. That is not a contradiction.


The end of the Weimar Republic coincided with the separation from your long-time friend Lina Lengefeld.


W. B.: Already because of the age difference, we never intended to marry. After the Nazis came to power, our lives changed quite considerably. With 30 January 1933, life became practically meaningless for us. My party, the SAP, dissolved itself already at the end of 1932. As a small party, it was unable to influence events, let alone stop them. After the fascists came to power, our swimming club was dissolved and the bathing facilities confiscated. The trade union building in Hanover was taken over by the SA. We no longer had a party, a club or a trade union, we were hindered in our cultural and sporting activities, life became monotonous for us and socio-politically almost pointless. A period of complete social inactivity began. We were only observers, we had no more tasks, we could do nothing. We remained anti-fascists.

After a life lived intensively in every respect, I separated from Lina Lengefeld. We were young and liked each other, we had done sports together, been politically active, expanded our knowledge of art and social life. That was the most beautiful and interesting time of my life. It left the deepest traces in me, shaped me significantly.

I gave the camera back to Lina and we parted on good terms. As chance would have it, I got to know my future wife in 1934, and in 1935 we bought a second-hand Leica.


Did you have to stop taking pictures right away?


W. B.: I had my first successes with my photos around 1930, I took part in a photo exhibition, and they were also printed, in Austria for example in 1932. I took the last photos on April 20th for "Führer's birthday". The fire in the Reichstag and the arrest of the leading functionaries of the workers' parties were already behind us. After that, the persecution expanded, and in June 1933 it was my turn.


How did your arrest come about?


W. B.: As an unemployed person, I occasionally helped out in a photo lab in Hanover, including Whitsun 1933. There I had hidden my negatives from the attack on the union building. I told a colleague who I assumed was not a Nazi that I photographed the attack. He betrayed me. The Gestapo took me out of business, at home they turned the whole place upside down. Except for a few attractive landscape shots and the like, they couldn't find anything. So they took me away, let me stew in my own juice and interrogated me. I was not mistreated because they wanted to win me over to their ends. They knew I was a good photographer, and that was the decisive factor in the questioning. It happened that the interrogator was only a little older, I knew him, was able to build on similarities, answer his questions with counter-questions, and so it almost became a dispute. At the end it was said: "You will report to the Gaufachschaftswart Dietrich in the union building tomorrow!" He was probably responsible for cultural issues. After the interrogation by the Gestapo, I spent another sleepless night at home. I was completely undecided, how should I behave? Should I get weak on my knees and join them? That was the question for me. How can I get out of a tight spot without having to put myself in the service of the Nazis? That’s the difference: when I’m an exile, I’m over the borders, away from Germany. If I'm an immigrant, I'll stay in it. There is still no book about it that has been written about them.

I have to tell you in all honesty that I went to the Gauleitung undecided the next day. But I was very lucky: the man wasn't there that day. So I said to myself: "If they want something from you now, then they have to get you, you won't go back on your own."

In spite of all this, the Nazis had no idea that I had quickly made some 9x12 enlargements on very thin paper of the attack on the trade union building, which were already on the way to Austria by post to warn the comrades there.


Was there a direct ban on taking photos for you later?


W. B.: There wasn't. In 1934 my unemployment came to an end and I was able to start again at Hanomag in my old position as a laboratory technician, material tester. As an apprentice and young worker, I had already acquired good technical knowledge. Soon our company also started working for armaments. From a roof I could still secretly photograph how old halls were torn away, which had to make way for new, higher ones, in which guns for anti-aircraft guns were then built.

Now that I was working again, photography became a question of time for me too. And besides: Who should I still be taking photos for during this time? For the Nazis? No, my interest didn't go that far! In addition, what Hitler had said finally came true: "Give me a few years and I'll get you the unemployed off the streets!" That was the success of their demagoguery. The unemployed were steadily decreasing. Apparently everything turned into a wonderful one Blossom over. There was one festival after the other. Because of the beautiful weather, people talked about the "Hitler weather". On the outside everything was nice. There was no greater peace apostle than Hitler. He spoke of peace in order to be able to prepare the war the better.

I had taken the recordings of the attack on the union building with fear and anxiety. At that time the police already had instructions to take away the films or cameras from all photographers, with the exception of the well-known reporters, of course. It went so far that the cameras were smashed. Taking photos during such an action would have been tantamount to destroying the apparatus.


How did your life go on then?


W. B.: The time I had previously invested in political education and activity, in photography, I now used for my professional further education. I completed six semesters of night school, interrupted for half a year by the start of the war. I finished in 1941. I had married my wife in 1936. At that time we deliberately did not want to have children, because as anti-fascists we knew that the war was coming, that weapons were not being built to be scrapped but to be used, that it was a matter of redividing the world. We didn't want children who would only serve as cannon fodder. We wanted to get away from Hanover, because Hanover was bombed practically from the first day of the war, first on the oil refinery and then on the city. On top of that, and this was quite essential, I was constantly watched in Hanover, in the Hanomag, the ground was simply too hot for me. I also hoped that I could achieve an indispensable position elsewhere. I had the relevant qualification in my pocket. So I studied the offers in the newspaper and the map. I tried to find a place where the bombs would fall last. Plauen in the Vogtland offered itself. It was in the middle of what was then Germany. In a terrible way, it turned out that Plauen was indeed the last to be hit. During the attacks on 9 and 10 April 1945, 75 percent of the town was destroyed.

From the Hanomag armaments factory, I ended up in the Vomag armaments factory. Here they built tanks. In Hanover I was just a lowly employee, in Plauen I was my own boss as a laboratory manager and responsible for examining the incoming materials.


Did this change anything in your attitude towards fascism?


W. B.: No, on the contrary. I sought the connection to the resistance there as well. The betrayal by a colleague in April 1933, that was a slap in the face that impressed itself on me. Of course, I was very cautious about making contact with like-minded people. It was incredibly difficult. In Plauen I hoped to be unknown for the time being. But it didn't take long before I was known. The Gestapo methods were so ingenious. They had the support of the entire population in order to identify such traitorous voices as I was. One must not forget that almost all the notable forces of the resistance fell victim to the Gestapo between 1933 and 1945.


After your move to Plauen, which took place in 1941, you lived in the village of Straßberg near Plauen. There is a strange document from this time, which ultimately also led to you becoming increasingly suspicious of the Nazis. It was on display at exhibitions, and I may quote it: "To the people's comrade Ballhause, Straßberg. I appointed you as block administrator of the NSV. You refused. I do not consider the reasons given for this to be valid, especially since now every German man must give his last for victory and should be proud to be allowed to work for the Führer and the people. Unfortunately, you do not seem to have understood the meaning of the present time, and so I hold you solely responsible for the consequences of your rejection and refusal. You will continue to hear about this. Heil Hitler!" One year later, in September 1944, you were arrested.


W. B.: Again I had to experience a clear denunciation. First four of us, then six, were charged with "subversion of military strength and suspicion of illegal activity". We had sought contact with each other and with the outside world, had used the breaks and other opportunities to exchange ideas. It was also about statements according to which we did not believe in victory and considered the war to be unjust and a crime. As you know, that was enough to lose one's life at that time. My arrest was cleverly arranged. They didn't go to the factory with it because I was too well-known and respected there. One day I received a draft notice for the Wehrmacht, I think for the gunners, because I was athletically built. When we had gathered for a little farewell, a car stopped downstairs. Two men got out, rang the bell, came up, opened the door, the foot was already inside, ID card, house search. They overlooked an inconspicuous cardboard box with rolled-up negatives that was in the pantry. When they took me away and we drove away, my wife immediately put the box in the cellar behind the potato crate because of a possible follow-up investigation. That's how my negatives were saved.


As I know, you were then sent to the remand centre on the Plauen Amtsberg.


W. B.: I was there for eight months, until April 1945, first in solitary confinement, then I was allowed to work. We made blackout blinds. I escaped with my life. Because of the bombing of Dresden, my files were burnt and I was not sentenced. In prison we again did illegal work where we could. When Plauen prison was destroyed, we were transferred to Zwickau, where I experienced liberation by the Americans.


We have now spoken for a very long time, you have given me an insight into your life. I know that everything in you resists calling your photos art. Is there nevertheless something like a credo, an essential experience?


W. B.: I believe that you have to be really beaten up in life to come to the right thinking, to certain conclusions. That is simply part of it. Life is light and shadow, joy and suffering. What shapes us are the confrontations with contradictions.

The pictures you like so much were only created in passing. I didn't want to set up a monument for myself with them. There are a few cracks in the great tree of life, one crack will perhaps remain from it.

And as far as the credo is concerned, I have to tell you again: the workers' photographers didn't want to know anything about art back then, they didn't want to be artists. But of course photography can be art. In this respect, I agree with an American photographer and revolutionary of the 1920s, Tina Modotti, also a working-class girl, who once said: "Whenever the words art or artist are used in reference to my photographic work, I have an uncomfortable feeling. Certainly because people generally don't use these terms properly. I consider myself a photographer, nothing else. And if my photographs differ from those of others, it is because I am not trying to make art. I take good photographs, without trickery or manipulation, while most photographers are still after artistic effects and try to imitate other graphic art forms. This creates hybrid products that have all the qualities except the one they should have, namely photographic quality."

(From the magazine Medium 11/12.1985, pp. 80–84 with the kind permission of the Gemeinschaftswerk der evangelischen Publizistik gGmbH, GEP gGmbH)

bottom of page