Geneva: War Prisoner’s Aid of the YMCA, late 1940s. 24.8x17 cm. Three beige cloth-covered volumes, containing original pencil sketches, pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors, as well as several photographic prints, all extensively captioned in German. In protective synthetic wrappers. Cloth lightly rubbed, one volume lacking a section, of approximately 50 pp., the odd additional pasted illustration missing. Otherwise in a good condition.
Three sketchbooks with drawings and watercolors, documenting WWII and post-war British imprisonment through the eyes of the German soldier Wilhelm Hansen.
A striking record of a young Hamburg native’s experiences as a soldier or police officer in Norway during WWII, his time in Norwegian and British captivity, as well as an illustrated autobiography, all told through rather accomplished sketches and full watercolor drawings and extensive German captions and commentary. Most of the drawings are dated 1947 and were most likely executed during Hansen’s imprisonment at the former Stalag X-B camp in Sandbostel, which British forces used as an internment camp for Waffen-SS members and civilian suspects from 1945-1947.
The first volume is dedicated to Hansen’s surprisingly uplifting wartime memories. It begins with a journey in April of 1943 through Scandinavia, where Hansen was to take over a new military post just outside Oslo. Far from any military conflict, here he enjoyed the company of Norwegian women, created decorations for lavish war-time parties, and documented his experiences exploring Oslo or hiking trips to surrounding mountains, Christmas spent in a log cabin, as well as his rather active dating life. His identity as a painter always features prominently: whether he is painting portraits of his various female acquaintances or accompanying comrades to scenic locations with his sketchbook. It is unclear whether Hansen later had access to these original sketches, or whether the highly detailed motifs, such as the houses typical of the Norwegian countryside or various folk craft ornaments, were reproduced entirely from the artist’s memory in the three notebooks provided to camp inmates by the YMCA.During the festive inauguration of a new casino for the troops, Hansen and his close friend had a harsh disagreement with a superior, leading to a brief jail term and a six-month alcohol ban (a rule he never observed), an episode entirely in keeping with his unruly character. Drinking games, idyllic hikes, lavish parties and the constant company of young women dominate this account, and the total absence of the war is striking, as this notebook covers the period from April 1943 through 1944.
The second notebook, which features the printed title ‘A Wartime Log: A Remembrance From Home Through the American Y.M.C.A.’, opens with fourteen full-page pencil and ink drawings of Hamburg scenes, all dated 1947. The bulk of the volume is occupied by a lovingly executed graphic-novel-style autobiography in drawings and text (‘Noch einmal leben. “Willi” ein Hamburgerjunge’ – ‘To live again. “Willi”, a boy from Hamburg’), which recalls the artist’s childhood, including key events such as WWI, the November Revolution, the joys and trials of the post-war period, first love and Hansen’s training as an artist, as well as early experiences at work and in the military, family life, and finally a divorce. A larger section containing pp. 75-124 has been removed, possibly due to incriminating information about the artist’s political development or his involvement with the budding Nazi movement and youth organizations.
A third volume bears the title ‘Gefängnis und Stacheldraht’ (‘Prison and barbed wire’) on the spine and details darker hours following his joyful years in Norway. The volume opens with a scene showing the Wehrmachtscamp following German capitulation and his arrest by English and Norwegian forces on May 25, 1945. Hansen and his comrades were imprisoned in the Akershus Fortress at Oslo, and the volume contains highly detailed drawing of the proceedings, including harsh questioning on tip-toes and prison yard walks, sketches of his various cells, prison surroundings, and the jailors and guards, and drawings that reflect Hansen’s fantasies while in his cell, as well as his various daily labor tasks. In September 1946, Hansen was moved to a camp in Norway, a brief interlude before his transfer to Lager Sandbostel, where he arrived in December 1946. The remainder of the volume captures Christmas in the camp, the dreary surroundings, the wooden barracks, harsh winter in the camp, but also his ongoing artistic activity, which produced small reveries by a prisoner including original poetry and vivid drawings. One of the realistic drawings shows a ‘Kunsthütte’, or artist’s hut, where Hansen was apparently able to devote himself to drawing and painting. He also depicts the camp school, the camp church, a camp gardener, sporting events held with the support of YMCA, as well as drawings of the camp theatre and film posters, providing a valuable and vivid record of life in a prison camp in the British Zone. Page 103 of the volume contains information about an exhibition of camp artists at Sandbostel. Pp. 116-117 document the set design for a Christmas play entitled ‘A Christmas legend for orphaned refugees’. Little is known about Hansen. While the three volumes do not touch on his life following the camp, it is known that the internees were summarily charged in 1947, in accordance with the Nuremberg Trial, and typically released immediately, as their time in camp counted toward their sentences. Hansen was presumably also released in 1947 or early 1948, and returned to his native Hamburg. A rubber stamp in one of the volumes identifies him as a ‘Kunstmaler’ (painter) with a Hamburg address.
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