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Why the Soviets doctored this iconic photo

This photo conceals a clue to a brutal story of vengeance.

Coleman Lowndes is a lead producer who has covered history, culture, and photography since joining the Vox video team in 2017.

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” and “Raising a Flag over the Reichstag” are similarly iconic photos from World War II. They’re both beloved images of victory, and they were both taken to commemorate significant battles.

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” and “Raising a Flag over the Reichstag.”
Joe Rosenthal, Yevgeny Khaldei

But the Soviet one is different; parts of it are altered. Photographer Yevgeny Khaldei superimposed dark smoke from another photo and manipulated the contrast to give the scene more drama. The comparison below shows the original and the altered version of the photo.

“Raising a Flag over the Reichstag” — the original is on the left, and the altered version on the right.
Yevgeny Khaldei

There’s something darker here. Specifically, a second watch worn by one of the soldiers is edited out to cover up the possibility that he had been looting. The comparison below shows a close-up of the original and the altered version, where the watch is gone.

The original photo is on the left, the altered version on the right.
Yevgeny Khaldei

The Soviet invasion of Germany included brutal acts of civilian murder, rape, and looting, seen as vengeance following Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union that left millions dead, including women and children.

Watch the video above to see how the missing watch ties in, and subscribe to Vox’s YouTube channel for more videos.

Correction: In the video, we erroneously used “Russia” and “Russian” interchangeably with “Soviet Union” and “Soviet.” The Soviet Union was a multiethnic federation, and indeed many non-Russians bore the brunt of Hitler’s initial invasion in 1941. We regret the error — especially in reference to the Soviet soldier raising the flag in the photo, Alexei Kovalev, who is Ukrainian.

Additionally, we inaccurately stated that Joe Rosenthal’s photo was taken following the Battle of Iwo Jima. While the capture of Mt. Suribachi was a significant point in the battle, it was not the end, and in fact three of the six Marines pictured were later killed in action on Iwo Jima.