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]

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]

Across Northern Europe: Terror in Berlin

I’m in Belgium now but I have a word more about Germany because simply being a tourist in Berlin will get you thinking. I’d love to take a history class on the last century in Berlin: WWI leads to Hitler leads to WWII leads to the DDR leads to the fall of the Berlin wall. How’s that for a syllabus?

A couple days ago I was at the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum that lost funding before it was completed. The exhibit stands where the Gestapo and SS once set up shop and is complete enough in it’s telling of terrible things.

“World history sometimes seems unjust, but in the end it reveals a superior justice.” That quote was translated into English on one of the displays from the WWII period and it reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s hopeful formulation that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

But in 1944 it wasn’t that kind of movie and the quote is from Joseph Goebbels the Nazi propaganda minister. He was right, I suppose, but I’m not sure he knew it.

I spent a fair bit of my time in Berlin wishing I was traveling with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president has famously denied the Holocaust and when Mike Wallace interviewed him on “60 Minutes” some months ago, Ahmadinejad basically asked, “If it happened, where is the evidence?”

Berlin, indeed much of Germany, is an answer to that question. Perhaps most stirring at the Topography of Terror are the audio recordings which play with the push of a button at several of the displays. One live radio report describes the hysterical crowd on the night Hitler was named Chancellor.

But the button I wished Ahmadinejad would push was from October 4, 1943. It was Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander speaking at a Nazi party meeting. “I want to talk to you quite openly here about a very difficult topic,” he said. “The extinction of the Jews.”

Germany is peppered with such horrible things. But tonight I’m in Belgium where the museums and monuments don’t make you think so much. That might not be fair though, since it was only a few decades before Hitler that Belgium’s King Leopold II’s pursuit of rubber led to the death of 5 to 22 million people in the Congo.

Back home in the United States of America our wealth was derived with the help of an unspeakable forced migration. Slaves worked land that was free because it’s native inhabitants had been exterminated or relocated.

I thought of that sometimes as I walked through Berlin; how Germans face their grandparent’s misdeeds much more than the rest of us.

“This was the worst event in the history of the world,” a thirty-something German told me. “And it’s important that we remember it, so that it never happens again. But sometimes it’s too much.”

I thought he was right and I thought if there were fewer people like the president of Iran, it wouldn’t be so necessary.

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Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.