Auction of Hitler family portraits raises questions about Nazi memorabilia

Hitler, Klara HitlerFamily portraits of Hitler’s parents are going up for auction.

Craig Gottlieb Militaria, a leading auction house in California, will be auctioning off paintings of Alois and Klara Hitler via Gottlieb’s website from September 1 to 17. Gottlieb is also selling Hitler’s desk set. The shop is open to prospective buyers by appointment.

The subject of Hitler and Nazi memorabilia comes up regularly here on Gadling. An article about a Hitler tour around Germany started a flame war, and my discussion about the other meanings of the swastika got some interesting and somewhat more level-headed responses. More than sixty years after the fall of the Third Reich, these symbols still elicit strong reactions.

This raises all sorts of questions about how we portray the past, and what should and shouldn’t be included. In Germany and Austria, for example, it’s illegal to display the swastika expect in specific historical contexts. My article on swastikas probably couldn’t get published in a German magazine because it skirts the edge of the law. Other countries display these items freely. At the Imperial War Museum in London you can see a variety of Nazi items. An Orthodox Jewish friend commented that such a context is OK. It makes her wince to see it, but it’s part of history and needs to be discussed.

On the spectrum of what’s acceptable and what’s not, museum displays are on pretty safe ground, although it took many years before a Hitler exhibition was allowed in Germany. But what about selling Nazi memorabilia? Gottlieb’s store is full of SS items. He’s even written a book on SS Totenkopf (“Death’s Head”) rings and currently has 44 such rings up for auction. Some countries ban selling Nazi memorabilia, as does eBay, yet an article in Forbes estimates the sale of these items to be in the hundreds of millions.

%Gallery-129938%I’m a military historian and collector myself. I’m also a struggling writer with a kid to feed, so my collection is pretty small. We collectors buy these things because they give us an immediate connection to history. Yet the thrill I feel when reading a postcard from the Western Front or holding a Civil War bullet is far different than what I feel when I see a swastika flag covering a coffee table. Yes, that’s an example taken from experience. I don’t have any Nazi items in my collection and I’m not interested in buying any.

London is my favorite place to shop for militaria. Provincial Booksellers Fairs take place all over England and offer up lots of rare books on military and other subjects. Shops in places like Grays Antique Markets and Camden Passage Islington offer a huge variety of medals, weapons, and uniforms. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are two types of shops: those that sell Nazi memorabilia and those that don’t. Those that do often have a lot of it. In one shop I saw an entire set of instruments from an SS marching band.

I asked a shopkeeper who didn’t stock Nazi items why he made that decision.

“Because I don’t having those people in here,” he said.

“Perhaps they’re just interested in history?” I offered.

He shook his head and replied, “That’s not why they buy it.”

While I won’t go as far as to suspect anyone fascinated with the Third Reich as being a closet Nazi, I do have to wonder what they get from it, and shake my head in amazement at how much power Hitler and his goons still have over our emotions sixty years on.

Attached is a gallery of the kind of Nazi memorabilia prized by some collectors. What do you feel when you see them? Do you think they should be for sale? Would you accept one as a gift? Is it OK to have them in museums? Tell us what you think in the comments section!

[Photo of Klara Hitler courtesy Wikimedia Commons]