Remains of forgotten genocide victims returned by Berlin museum

genocide, Herero genocide, NamibiaIt’s the genocide most people have forgotten, a ruthless extermination of men, women, and children while an uncaring world focused on other things.

From 1904 to 1908, German colonial rulers in what is now Namibia systematically exterminated the Herero and Nama people. They had rebelled against the colonizers and the German army quickly defeated them. Not satisfied with a only a military victory, the Germans pushed both tribes into the desert, where they starved and died of thirst. Nobody knows how many perished but it may have been as many as 100,000.

A grim relic of this genocide are twenty Herero and Nama skulls kept in the Berlin Medical Historical Museum. One skull is from a three-year-old boy. Originally they had been preserved with the skin and hair intact and used for “studies” to prove the superiority of the white race.

This week the skulls were returned to tribal leaders after an apology and a ceremony. This is the latest in a series of repatriations of human remains to native peoples from museums. Many nations, the United States included, have passed laws requiring human remains to be returned. Identification and legal technicalities slow down the process, however. Berlin collections still include about 7,000 skulls. Then there’s the question of shrunken heads, which were often sold by tribal peoples to collectors, and of very ancient remains that cannot be traced to an existing tribe.

We forget genocides at our peril. Hitler felt he could get away with the Holocaust because nobody cared about the genocide of the Herero and Nama, or the genocide of the Armenians during World War One. Even many of the Holocaust’s victims are forgotten. While everyone knows six million Jews died, many are unaware of the millions of Slavs, Gypsies, political activists, homosexuals, Born-Again Christians, and disabled who were also killed.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

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]

British tour company criticized for offering ‘Hitler tour’ around Germany

germanyWould you spend $3100 to tour sites only associated with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler? One British tour group put together a trip that does just that, and is under fire by critics over the distasteful offering.

The tour takes 30 tourists on a luxury $3100 trip through Germany to visit sites associated with Hitler, according to a report in The Australian. The articles says the eight-day trip in June – titled “Face of Evil: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” – has been sanctioned by German authorities.

The tour includes more than just visiting a few concentration camps, which is common on many other tour groups through Germany. The concentration camps, which for many are a must-see when in Germany, are a significant part of history. But can you say the same for Hitler’s lakeside villa where he planned the Sachsenhausen concentration camp? That’s one stop on the Hitler tour, along with the spot where Hitler committed suicide.

Tour leaders say the trip is for those with a true interest in the history of the Holocaust era and will prevent any Neo-Nazi members from taking the tour; critics say the trip is a “perverse pilgrimage” to honor Hitler.

We want to know what you think:

Would you pay $3100 to take a “Hitler tour” of Germany, or do you think this tour should be taken off the tourist itinerary offerings?

Exhibition explores Germany’s relationship with Hitler

More than sixty years after the end of World War Two, Germans are still struggling with their Nazi past. While most of the population is too young to be culpable for World War Two, their parents or grandparents were involved. Many Germans opposed Hitler’s rise to power, but many more supported him, at least in the beginning.

A new exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum explores the German people’s relationship with Hitler. Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime brings together a wide range of artifacts and documents showing how Nazism came to dominate every part of German life. Hitler was everywhere–on postage stamps, magazine covers, even toys–and the Nazi party sought to have its ideology permeate every aspect of life.

During the 1920s the German economy was in ruins after losing the First World War and getting caught up in a global economic crisis. In his early speeches Hitler called on Germans to be proud, and blamed Germany’s loss in the First World War on Jews, socialists, and other “foreign elements”. Hitler became even more popular when he got into power and revived the economy. People who suddenly had good jobs after years of hardship and pessimism turned a blind eye to the regime’s seamier side.

Doing an exhibition on Nazism is tricky in Germany and some earlier attempts have been rejected by the police. It’s illegal to display the swastika except in a scientific or historical context, and the common fear is that any exhibition on Hitler will attract neo-Nazis. So far this exhibition has been well received and there have been no incidents.

Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime runs until 6 February 2011.

[Photo courtesy user Professional Assassin via Wikimedia Commons]

Thailand Hitler billboard draws controversy

A Hitler billboard in Thailand promoting a local wax museum has locals and foreign governments up in arms. The billboard campaign, which features photos of famous dead people, included a photo of Hitler making the infamous Nazi salute along with the tagline “Hitler is not dead.” The ad was part of a promotion for Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks, a wax museum based in Pattaya.

Since the billboard’s unveiling two weeks ago it has caused a firestorm of complaints, prompting museum officials to have it covered and to apologize for the offense. Both the German and Israeli embassies in Thailand filed formal complaints. Wax museum director Somporn Naksuetrong has emphasized the campaign was not meant to glorify the Nazi leader.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t the first Adolf Hitler wax museum incident to draw controversy. In 2008 a German man rushed into the new Madame Tussaud’s in Berlin, ripping the head off the museum’s Hitler figurine and shouting “Never war again!”

The use of Hitler’s likeness, whether as a wax dummy or in advertising, never fails to attract criticism. But that hasn’t stopped museums and brands from capitalizing on Hitler to draw attention, a decision that almost always ends poorly. Anyone hoping to draw tourist dollars from Nazi imagery in the future would do well to keep this in mind.

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