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Disposing of Hitler — but how?

Rayna Breuer
January 27, 2022

Trading in goods associated with Nazi history is common online and at flea markets. A Vienna museum is now showing how people can address such problematic objects.

Lightbulb box with the words 'Nazi Dreck' (Nazi dirt) written on it, with pins and medals tumbling out.
A new exhibition in Vienna, 'Disposing of Hitler,' features various Nazi memorabiliaImage: Markus Wörgötter

An Iron Cross medal from 1939 for €1,200 ($1,353), a Waffen-SS ring made of silver for €300 ($338), an armband of the Wehrmacht (the armed forces of Nazi Germany) with the lettering "Grossdeutschland," referring to the Greater Germanic Reich, for €1,100 ($1240). On the website of an auction house, you can find all sorts of relics from the period 1933-1945. A separate tab, "Third Reich," facilitates the search for Nazi-era objects and leads the interested buyer directly to a diverse spectrum of items.

"According to Section 86 of the German Criminal Code (StGB), it is forbidden to distribute, produce, trade or make publicly available on data storage mediums propaganda materials of unconstitutional organizations in Germany," said Michael Terhaag, attorney and IT law specialist.

Unconstitutional organizations in Germany include both left-wing and right-wing extremist and terrorist organizations that have been banned by the Federal Constitutional Court.

In addition, said Terhaag, propaganda materials are also banned "which, according to their content, are intended to perpetuate the aspirations of a former National Socialist organization."

The Wannsee Conference

Blurred lines

So, is the sale of these relics punishable? Not fundamentally. If the objects are historic, and if identifying symbols of the National Socialists, such as swastikas and SS/SA rune characters are taped over, then the sale is generally permissible in Germany. 

"If some grandmother still has an old copy of 'Mein Kampf' in her living room cabinet, she is not liable to prosecution. But if said grandmother is storing 20 copies of them in her basement and then posts them on eBay, that could possibly constitute conduct that could be punishable," said Terhaag.

This is because the "dissemination, production, import and export as well as storage for the purpose of dissemination or making propaganda material publicly available on data storage media" is prohibited — but simple possession is not.

It's different in Austria, though, where it's not enough to simply tape over Nazi symbols. There, the symbols need to be permanently removed.

Throw it away, sell it or keep it?

But what do you do if you find an NSDAP (the Nazi party) badge in your attic? Quickly put it back in the box and not deal with it? Dispose of it, sell it or donate it to a museum?

That's the question that the Vienna-based House of Austrian History museum is literally asking every single visitor to its current exhibition, "Disposing of Hitler: Out of the Cellar, Into the Museum." With the purchase of the museum admission ticket, the visitor receives a piece of paper on which an object from the Nazi era is described, along with the lucid question: "Would you destroy, sell or keep this object?"

Exhibits in the Museum of Austrian History, including tables and posters
Does Nazi memorabilia belong in a museum, like here in Vienna's House of Austrian History?Image: Klaus Pichler/hdgö

Austria and Germany have similar laws concerning the sale of Nazi memorabilia and their distribution. These objects are allowed to be exhibited in Austria only if the intention to create awareness about the Nazi regime is explicitly stated.

A visit to the new exhibition at Vienna's House of Austrian History is therefore not a light, carefree one, in which people can just roam the halls and observe the exhibits undisturbed. Here, they are directly confronted with the past.

"We cannot make this decision for everyone, how we as a society should deal with the relics from this time [the years between 1938, Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria, and 1945 — Editor's note].

Everyone must make this decision for themselves. History concerns us all, especially contemporary history," said Monika Sommer, director of the museum, who curated the exhibition together with Stefan Benedikt and Laura Langeder.

Regardless of the decision one makes, the questions remain: Does keeping such objects mean paying homage to the Nazi regime? Is throwing them away an admission of shame or repression? Does destroying them mean one is destroying evidence? Or is the time ripe to get rid of the many Nazi relics?

In a sober, matter-of-fact fashion, the House of Austrian History is exhibiting 14 tables that display Nazi memorabilia. "We don't want these objects to be interpreted as propaganda material," said Sommer. "We have simply placed them on the table. There are no other devices, which could evoke an aura of the objects. If I place an object on a piece of velvet, it takes on a different meaning than if I just merely place it on the table."

Visitor pulling at card, with various cards hanging on board.
On these cards, visitors are supposed to respond whether they would destroy the Nazi-related object depictedImage: Lorenz Paulus / hdgö

Shame, anger or repression?

Such Nazi memorabilia are delivered to the House of Austrian History in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the objects are simply handed over quickly at the entrance area — without further details. Others are sent anonymously. Yet, one thing is certain: the museum does not purchase the objects, in order not to further fuel the market. The relics are donations, mainly from private individuals, but also from institutions.

The reasons for the donations vary. "Many of our donors want to distance themselves from these issues. It's about wanting to unburden themselves — perhaps also shaking off their own family history," said Sommer.

But it is also about making these objects "productive," in other words, making them available for strengthening democratic consciousness. Furthermore, some people say they want the items removed from the market.

"We also have to deal with the fact that some people think it's illegal to have these objects at home. They worry that they could become liable to prosecution," said Sommer.

For example, the exhibition includes a doll carriage that a Wehrmacht soldier made with materials stolen after the invasion of France and sent to his daughters in Germany. There are many such mementos in the exhibition, but often it's not about the objects themselves, but the stories behind them.

Doll carriage in vitrine and suitcase next to it.
A Wehrmacht soldier built this doll carriage from stolen parts after the invasion of France, and sent it to his daughtersImage: Klaus Pichler/hdgö

Hitler's microphone?

Another object on display is a microphone that Hitler presumably used during his first speech in Linz following the annexation of Austria. For decades, the microphone sat in a regional studio of public broadcaster ORF, Sommer said.

"We have examined this object on the basis of historical photos. It is very likely that this microphone was actually used for the occasion. But that was not decisive for us," said Sommer.

What was interesting, she added, was that the technical director in charge at the time had preserved this object, and it was passed on over the decades. "At some point, the microphone was removed from the inventory because it no longer met technical requirements, but it was not destroyed. Yet the donor was uncomfortable with the idea of having this object at home, and he offered it to us."

Microphone Hitler allegedly spoke through, placed on table
This microphone, allegedly used by Hitler, was donated after the owner didn't want it anymoreImage: Markus Wörgötter

In addition to objects that obviously come from the period of the Nazi dictatorship, there are also those in exhibition that are not immediately recognizable as Nazi memorabilia. These include the small flower badges of the Nazi-era charity organization Winterhilfswerk, which people received back then if they donated something. "These badges seem innocent enough when you see the little rose or gentian flower symbol," said Sommer.

In reality, she said, this system of Nazi welfare served to create a community that followed the ideology of the Nazis. "It was clearly racially motivated, because it was very precisely regulated who would receive support from the relief organization and who would not, namely only so-called Aryan families," she said.

Nazi memorabilia, including pamphlets, medals and pins in boxes
Some Nazi memorabilia at first appears harmless, like these pins and pamphletsImage: Markus Woergoetter

The cards on which the museum visitors have written their decisions about what they would do with the Nazi-era objects — destroy, sell or preserve them? — are hung within the exhibition. The open spaces provided for this purpose are already full, said curator Stefan Benedikt.

A trend is clearly visible: Most visitors would opt for "preservation" for a wide variety of reasons. Based on this alone, said Benedikt, one could write an entire dissertation.

The exhibition "Disposing of Hitler: Out of the Cellar, Into the Museum" runs through October 9 at Vienna's House of Austrian History.

This article was originally written in German

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