It looks like an old-fashioned photo album, with vintage black and white and color prints from another era. The people depicted seem to be having a good time, and if it weren’t for the uniforms, you might not see anything objectionable in these men at all. But the images collected in Nein, Onkel don’t show us just any group of soldiers at play: these are Nazis.

We might like to paint Nazi Germany as a brutal anomaly in the troubled annals of humanity. While history describes these men as monsters, Nein, Onkel poses a chilling, sober truth: that those capable of great evil are not unrecognizable monsters at all, but human beings not that different from you and me.

Archive of Modern Conflict publishes consistently outstanding photobooks, and a new reprint of this 2007 book brings back a title that influential photographer and collector Martin Parr named one of the best of the decade. Series editors Ed Jones and Timothy Prus take collections of ephemeral photos and craft handsomely designed, smartly sequenced books that more often than not are must-buys for the photobook connoisseur. As the imprint’s name suggests, the Archive’s publications address conflict, but this is not limited to war. The 2011 title More Cooning with Cooners, edited by Kalev Erickson, is a fascinating look at the subculture of raccoon hunters. The front cover of The Corinthians: A Kodachrome Slideshow (2009), also edited by Jones and Prus, features a die-cut frame in the shape of a vintage Kodachrome slide, which opens up on an intriguing narrative of postwar America culled from 50,000 Kodachrome images.

Nein, Onkel has a more subtle approach, its hardcover bound in an appealingly neutral colored canvas with the book’s title embossed in an elegant cursive script. It’s the ordinary design of the kind of blank photo album in which families pasted memories for generations, and the photos in this book aren’t that far removed from the typical family album. If it weren’t for a few telltale signs, you wouldn’t know there was anything amiss at all.

In fact, the book’s images are on the surface perfectly benign. It opens with a lush, full-page sunrise over a beautiful landscape followed by a color candid of a blond youth caught in the middle of a nap, perched on a windowsill. But jutting out from the wall at his feet, as if a caption in semaphore, is a bright red Nazi flag.

A photo of three uniformed men stopping for a snack by their fighter plane is juxtaposed with a photo of eight men, naked except for leaves tied around their waist to cover up their genitals. The sartorial accoutrements of war are countered by an image that suggests a fall from grace, young men cast out of Eden but seemingly quite happy about it.

This is a study of Nazi Germany with no evidence of war crimes in sight. The book’s images are primarily of men at leisure: drinking, dancing, relaxing on the beach, snoozing in a hammock. These men love animals: they walk their pet dogs, ride burros, milk a goat; one officer holds a hedgehog in his hand. They love their children, playing with them in a field and pushing a baby carriage. These soldiers seem to be people just like you and me.

Still, there are unsettling elements to their rest and relaxation. A group of uniformed men pose at a clothesline, their necks uncomfortably resting on the thin line. Oddly, Nazi soldiers apparently enjoyed wearing women’s clothes: there are more than a few photos of men gleefully in drag. These are men who admire the male figure; more than a handful of these images show Aryan specimens sunbathing or otherwise posing nude.

The book can be seen as a photographic precursor to director Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentary The Act of Killing. That 2013 film followed the perpetrators of Indonesia’s infamous death squads, drawing the viewer into the lives of these men and revealing them to be entertaining and charismatic people who happen to be mass murderers.

Jones and Prus teach the similarly uncomfortable lesson that history’s greatest monsters are not in fact monsters after all, but human beings. The book ends with a color photo of a sunset over Brittany in 1942. It’s a peaceful end to a travelogue that takes us not only across Germany, but to the Soviet Union and even to North Africa. It almost looks like a fun journey. But if Nein, Onkel resembles the narrative of an inquisitive tourist, it suggests that the tourist’s impulse to conquer new lands can be taken to horrible extremes. While the book humanizes some of the world’s most unsympathetic villains, it does so not to glorify their evil. This is a chilling reminder that the evil that men do may appear perfectly normal to us – until it’s too late.

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