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Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam at Buchenwald

Oxnam at Buchenwald
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD
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tags: Americans abroad US armed forces

type: Photograph

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

To learn more, see the USHMM Photo Archives' Introduction to World War II Liberation Photography.

Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam (1891–1963) was an American Methodist minister, bishop, and academic. When the featured photograph was taken, he was serving as the Methodist Bishop of New York and President of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCC), an ecumenical association of more than 30 protestant denominations. From 1942 to 1945, Oxnam was a member of the Civilian Advisory Committee to the Secretary of the Navy. A brief biographical note for Oxnam is available in the Guide to the Garfield Bromley Oxnam Papers at the United Methodist Archives and History Center. See also the overview of the G. Bromley Oxnam Papers at the Library of Congress. 

G. Bromley Oxnam, The Church and Contemporary Change (New York: MacMillan, 1950), 10.

For more on the activities of the FCC, see the related item, "American Churches to Hitler."

Bishop Henry Knox Sherrill relayed another such appraisal of postwar Germany in the featured interview.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD
Accession Number 89300
Date Created
April 27, 1945
Photographer / Creator
US Army Signal Corps
Location
Buchenwald
Still Image Type Photograph
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