Because Nazi ideology placed a high value on physical strength, exercise became an important part of the Nazi regime’s public health initiatives. Nazi public health officials urged the entire German nation to exercise regularly, declaring that "wholesome life is a national duty."1 Nazi propaganda films depict young men hiking mountains and performing military-style physical exercises, while young women are shown performing graceful movements and assisting children with their gymnastics training.2 Nazi ideology valued strength and athleticism, and Nazi propagandists often exploited German athletes’ achievements to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the "Aryan" race.3
The Nazi regime used physical exercise as a way to increase the strength and overall health of the so-called "German racial community" (Volksgemeinschaft), but Germans in different positions of power also used exercise as a form of humiliation, punishment, and torture. Camp guards routinely used physical exercise to punish concentration camp prisoners and forced laborers.4 Because Nazi ideology claimed that "re-educating" people required physical work and exercise, concentration camp guards also used forced exercise and grueling physical labor to "rehabilitate" gay men and other German citizens whom the regime had imprisoned for "degenerate" behavior.5 Throughout occupied Europe, German forces made Jewish men publicly exercise to the point of exhaustion in order to humiliate them and demonstrate their supposed physical and racial inferiority.
In the featured photograph, a group of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) is forced to perform exercises in an internment camp located at the small town of Rymanów in occupied Poland. Following top-level directives to wage a war of annihilation against the Soviet Union, the German military and security forces systematically neglected, abused, and murdered Soviet POWs. Roughly 3.3 million Soviet soldiers died in German captivity during the war.6 Although the photographer is unknown and this image is undated, the rags tied around the mens' heads and feet suggest that the weather is cold. What other details might be revealed through a close examination of the men’s clothing and facial expressions?