Thursday, July 05, 2012

Food for thoughts

By Ben Marks

When we started inviting people to post items from their collections on Show & Tell, we knew that sooner or later we’d be faced with a Nazi swastika. At first, we simply followed the lead of eBay and deleted anything with a Nazi swastika on it that was not a coin or a stamp. But then we noticed that the handful of people who were uploading these World War II medals, helmets, and badges appeared to be sincere militaria collectors, not neo-Nazis trying to sneak an offensive image onto our site.

The problem, of course, with anything bearing a Nazi swastika, regardless of its historical value, is that most people find the symbol offensive. It was the banner of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, which was responsible for the slaughter of some six million Jews, millions of ethnic Serbs and Poles, and hundreds of thousands of gypsies, people with disabilities, and homosexuals. Of the countries the Nazis attacked, the Soviet Union lost almost 20 percent of its population or 23 million souls, roughly three million of whom perished in prisoner-of-war camps.

But for collectors like Kevin Mackey, Nazi memorabilia, particularly those bearing the swastika, are unambiguous reminders of this suffering. Though upsetting to many, Mackey believes these pieces have a place in any discussion of World War II. “To obliterate the symbols of Nazi Germany,” he says, “would be to obliterate that period from our knowledge, and to forget what took place. We need to be aware of what caused Nazi Germany, what happened, and how much horror came to this world because of it.”

1. Theodor Fritsch's "Handbook of the Jewish Question" laid the groundwork for German anti-Semitism in 1896. When this edition was printed during the Nazi era, its cover bore a swastika. 2. Many of the flags and pins collected by people interested in Nazi artifacts were made by a company called Bernard Richter, whose 1935 catalog is shown at top.

Mackey served in the United States Navy from 1979 to 1983 and left active service, honorably, as a second-class petty officer. Today, he continues to serve his country as a commander at his local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. For the past 25 years or so, he’s also been a collector, gravitating toward belt buckles, pocket watches, advertising pieces, and practically anything else that tells a story or can be pegged to a particular moment in U.S. history.

Not surprisingly, then, Mackey also collects militaria, including medals and insignia worn by U.S. and Allied forces during World War II. Less intuitively, considering his passion for U.S. history and his past and present service to his country, he’s also collected a few Nazi-era items.

But you don’t have to look very far, Mackey says, to see what happens when history, however upsetting, is expunged from a culture or society. “We have a leader of Iran today who says the Holocaust did not take place. But even my youngest daughter knows better, and she’s in junior high school. So we should not remove these pieces from the public knowledge, from public view. I don’t see it as a glorification of Nazi military items. I’m a historian—these are pieces of history.”

3. A pair of pages from a 1935 German spelling book shows how the swastika was integrated into daily German life.

According to Mackey, the collecting of Nazi military items is not especially common among U.S. vets. “The World War II vets really didn’t get into collecting Nazi stuff,” he says. “But while they were over there, they picked up some souvenirs and brought them home. As those World War II vets have been dying off, these things are coming out of their hidden war chests and hitting the market. A lot of vets never talked about their experiences when they were alive because they didn’t think anyone would understand.”

“To obliterate the symbols of Nazi Germany would be to forget how much horror came to this world because of it.”
One of the purposes, Mackey says, of organizations like the VFW is to give members a chance to share their experiences with people who really do understand what they’re talking about. “My suggestion to families is to get their family member who’s a veteran together with another veteran, then sit back and let them have a conversation,” says Mackey. “Maybe record it—they will glean a lot of information about their family member and the history of those items that way.”

Mike, who prefers not to give his last name and posts on Show & Tell as stepback_antiques, is another collector whose wide interests include Nazi militaria. Unlike Mackey, who has military family roots, Mike did not serve in the military or have relatives who did. “Growing up in the 1960s, I was influenced by TV shows like ‘Combat’ and ‘Rat Patrol.’” he says. “When you’re a kid, you play soldiers all the time. One day a couple of neighbors came by and gave me a two badges from World War II that they had obtained while they were in Europe. One was German, and one was American. I just threw them in a box. When I was a bit older, probably in the mid-1970s, I was in an antiques store and saw a Japanese helmet. I thought it would be cool to have so I bought it. From that point on, I went to flea markets and antiques stores, and my collection just built from there.”

For Mike, Nazi and Japanese World War II militaria was intriguing for numerous reasons. “The American pieces were pretty easy to obtain,” he says. “Part of the attraction of collecting the German and Japanese pieces was the hunt—a lot of the Japanese equipment at the end of the war was melted down and destroyed. U.S. vets came back with pocketfuls of German badges, a helmet, a rifle, or a flag, but they were harder to find.”

4. Much to Adolf Hitler's dismay, an African-American sprinter named Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Aesthetics were also a consideration. “The German pieces had more visual appeal to them. An American helmet would just be green, whereas the different branches of the German Armed Forces had different colored helmets with different decals on them. Each branch of the service also had its own badges.”

While Mike has specialized somewhat on pieces associated with the Kriegsmarine, or German Navy, all of his Nazi pieces have one thing in common. “I only collect military items that were carried by the soldiers,” he says. “I don’t care anything at all about Hitler or flags. It doesn’t interest me. I’m just a guy who collects things that your average soldier carried every day through the war.”

For Mike, this is an important distinction between what he’s doing and the motivations of others who are interested in Nazi materials more broadly. “You have other people,” he says, “who are really focused on Hitler and all that stuff. I don’t have a picture of him anywhere in my house. I despise the man. I’m interested in what it must have been like for a common German man to have to go off and fight for his country. There was a fear that if you didn’t do what you were told to do, your family would suffer the repercussions. What would I have done if I had been in that position?”

For some, any sympathy at all for anything related to the Nazis is unacceptable, as Mike quickly found out. “I got a couple of comments on Show & Tell from two different people who said, ‘Why don’t you get a job, you Nazi?’ That’s hard. I am not a militarist. I don’t like war. But at the same time, I look at things from a war historian’s point of view.”

5. These German World War II badges were awarded to soldiers, or their families, for being wounded or killed in battle.

While the controversy over Nazi material is a relatively recent phenomenon, the history of the swastika itself goes back almost 5,000 years. Beginning in the Bronze Age, Hindus and Buddhists living in the Indus River Valley considered the swastika an auspicious emblem. Ancient Greek artifacts are frequently decorated with swastikas, some of which are interlinked, and the use of swastikas among Native Americans dates to pre-Columbian times. In fact, the symbol was so common to the early-20th-century Navajo that official Arizona highway signs from the 1920s through the 1940s featured swastika-stamped arrowheads and pottery shapes on them.

In the 1920s, though, the Nazi Party in Germany embraced the swastika, and by the 1930s the emblem’s previous positive associations had been all but forgotten. By the end of World War II, this almost timeless symbol of good had become the banner of the Holocaust, genocide, and evil.

Given the swastika’s mid-20th-century past, many people believe it will never be possible to have a dispassionate conversation about the swastika without inadvertently invoking the specter of the white-supremacist ideology promoted by the Third Reich.

“There’s unfortunately no way to address the topic without potentially offending the sensibilities of people who have been traumatized by the Nazi regime,” says Stanislav Vysotsky, who teaches sociology at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and has written extensively about contemporary hate groups.

6. Nazi military pieces, such as this Luftwaffe M-42 helmet, are popular among World War II history collectors.

Vysotsky describes himself as “fairly sympathetic” to what’s known as a no-platform position. “You should never create a platform for hate,” he says. Still, when it comes to the swastika, he believes there is a place for open discussion, “especially when that public discourse is about educating and enlightening people to the history of the items, and to their continued cultural significance and meaning as symbols of racism and genocide.”

“The swastika certainly has its place in historical archives, but if a person is just focused on Nazi material, then I think it’s perverse.”
For Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, intent determines whether the public airing of the swastika is considered acceptable or offensive. “Yes, it is okay to display a swastika, but it depends on the context. It could be very important to someone who fought in or survived World War II. It’s a part of their history.”

Stanislav Vysotsky agrees. “If you have people who are history aficionados,” he says, “then you’re talking about people who are collecting these items for historical purposes, as symbols of a reprehensible regime that was defeated and discredited. In the case of war veterans, they’re justifiably proud of their participation, or possibly a family member’s, in World War II. That’s very different from the way in which somebody who is a member of a contemporary neo-Nazi or supremacist group might be using these images.”

For neo-Nazis, owning a historic item with a swastika on it is a way to signal status within the group. “They’re being used,” says Vysotsky, “as something that can be displayed to other members to say, ‘Look at this cool thing I got that ties me back to the original Nazi movement, that ties me back to this hate.’ So in that sense, it’s a symbol of hate used to say, ‘This is how hardcore I am.’”

7. The front, back, and bottom of a porcelain mug typical of ones used by SS officers in their mess halls at concentration camps, field camps, city offices, and training camps.

Foxman goes further. “There are a lot of people who collect Nazi stuff for the wrong reasons,” he says. “The swastika certainly has its place in historical archives. But if the person is just focused on Nazi material, then what does that say about them? There is a lot of stuff associated with World War II. Are they also collecting Soviet material? In other words, are they really a World War II collector? If all they collect is Nazi stuff, then I think it’s perverse.”

Other people specialize within the universe of Nazi materials for reasons that would be understandable to any collector. David Witte, who has written a yet-unpublished book on Camp Hale, Colorado, where the famous 10th Mountain Division was based and trained, has been collecting World War II era German porcelain for about 12 years. “I have no interest in the neo-Nazi aspects of today and only collect these items for museum purposes and to preserve the truths about the past,” he says.

Witte was drawn to porcelain because many other Nazi items—from medals to uniforms to daggers—are reproductions created for the contemporary hate-group market. “Porcelain is harder to fake,” he says. “And when I got started, not as many people were collecting it.” That changed in 1999, when the Academy Award-winning film “American Beauty” was released. In that film’s famous revelation scene, a son sneaks into his father’s study to steal a glance of his father’s prized Nazi plate. In “American Beauty,” Dad was definitely not a history buff.

8. On the left, a pre-1920s good-luck watch fob touting the virtues of Kansas City's livestock market. On the right, a pre-Nazi-era membership emblem distributed by the Boy Scouts.

Like Mackey, Witte sees the pieces he’s collected as a bridge to history. “The Luftwaffe, DAF, RAD, Wehrmacht, SS, Police, and Kriegsmarine all had their own markings that German manufacturers put under and over the glaze of their porcelain when they were contracted to supply dishes to the German military and other organizations during the Third Reich,” says Witte. “The contracts were probably too good to pass up, and these porcelain companies were as caught up in the nationalist hysteria of Nazi Germany as everybody else.”

Because the swastika was once the banner for genocide on the march, both Vysotsky and Mackey doubt that the swastika will ever be associated with anything other than Nazis for a long time to come. “I’ve got a watch fob that has a swastika in the middle of it,” says Mackey. “It dates from around 1900, definitely pre-Nazi. So I think the swastika can mean other things to people who know its pre-Nazi history. But for most folks, it will always be associated with Nazi Germany.”

9. As explained on the back of this pre-Nazi good-luck postcard from around 1907, the swastika "forms a combination of four ‘L’s’ standing for Luck, Light, Love and Life.”

Vysotsky concurs. “I highly doubt it will ever mean anything else because the symbol carries such political and emotional weight. Plus, people who still adhere to Adolf Hitler’s ideology continue to venerate it. I think it’s become such a collectively understood symbol that it’s highly unlikely its representation will change.”

“Every time somebody sees a swastika, they’re going to link it to Nazis and World War II because it impacted so many people,” says Mike. For that reason, he’s careful not to foist his collection on people who visit his home. “When people come to my house, they see my baseball collection, my furniture. But I don’t show people everything I collect because I don’t want to offend anybody.”

As for the use of the swastika by contemporary white-supremacist groups, for Mackey, that’s just plain illogical. “If they want to glorify and aggrandize the Nazi movement,” says Mackey, “they need to look to the end of the book and see what happened—Germany lost. Hitler described America as a mongrel people, but the mongrels proved to be stronger than his Aryans.”

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