When American armed forces arrived at the Buchenwald camp on April 11, 1945, they discovered more than 21,000 prisoners, many near death from starvation and disease. Over the following weeks, the US Army documented Buchenwald through photography and film footage, gathering evidence of Nazi crimes against humanity.1
The US Army Signal Corps captured the featured photo, depicting American Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam2 in his April 1945 visit to the liberated Buchenwald. As Oxnam stands aside corpses at the camp, four other individuals can be seen in the frame; they appear to be working to remove the bodies. Two wreaths, likely hung as symbols of mourning, are apparent on both sides of the building above the bodies. Although we can only speculate on the Signal Corps photographer's reasons for taking this particular shot, the photo captures a prominent American church leader as he bears firsthand witness to Nazi atrocities.
Direct exposure to these crimes made a deep impression on Oxnam. In a series of lectures he gave after the war, he commented on what he had seen at Buchenwald. "Soon after our forces took Weimar I visited the terrible concentration camp at Buchenwald. Here 52,000 had died. As I looked upon these people still wearing the prison uniform, many hardly able to stand, it seemed that I was in a terrible dream."3
As president of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC),4 Oxnam shaped American opinions on matters of German guilt, complicity of the German churches, denazification, and the potential for rebuilding German democracy—and his experiences at the camp are reflected in his views on German churches and the future of postwar Germany. Conversely, FCC leaders were, on the whole, optimistic about the postwar rebuilding process of the Protestant churches in Germany. This photo reminds us, however, that Oxnam was not uninformed or naive about the extent of German crimes when he reestablished relationships with German church leaders and transmitted positive messages about Germany's postwar recovery to American audiences.5