The right approach to Nazi memorabilia | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.04.2014
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The right approach to Nazi memorabilia

Trading and owning Nazi objects is legal almost everywhere in the world, but a scheduled auction in Paris has stirred up controversy and has brought back the discussion how to best deal with Nazi memorabilia.

Leading member of the Nazi party Hermann Göring's identification papers, a doily with a swastika and the imperial eagle, dishes from Adolf Hitler's former kitchen cabinet - the Parisian auction house Vermot de Pas planned to auction off personal effects from Hitler's Bavarian residence in the Alps and Göring's neighboring house. French soldiers brought these items to France after the end of World War II.

But the auction, which was scheduled for April 26, stirred up controversy in France. Jewish organizations were up in arms about it and were backed by the public and politicians. In the end, the auction house refrained from going through with the auction, which was judged by French Culture Secretary Aurélie Filippetti as "a necessary decision from a historical and moral point of view."

Fear of personality cult

Adolf Hilter and Hermann Göring at the House of Art museum in Munich in 1937

Adolf Hilter and Hermann Göring at the "House of Art" museum in Munich in 1937

According to France's biggest Jewish organization CRIF, cancelling the auction was a step in the right direction but it did not go far enough.

The organization's Vice President Yonathan Arif told DW in an interview that Nazi artifacts shouldn't be available for purchase by the average customers like simple everyday items. "We don't want these objects to be used to practice a cult of personality."

That's why CRIF is demanding restrictions on transactions of Nazi memorabilia, limiting sales to museums and other historical institutions only.

In Germany it's completely legal to purchase and own objects from the Nazi period - as long as all Nazi symbols are neatly taped off and covered. After all, wearing or publically showing Nazi symbols is forbidden in Germany. In Italy, England and the United States Nazi symbols don't have to be covered.

According to paragraph 86 ff of the German criminal code, it is forbidden to import or manufacture Nazi objects. Nevertheless, the trade of Nazi objects in Germany is flourishing and historic medals, uniforms, weapons or books can be found at flea markets, on the Internet or at so-called militaria auctions. Most of the items are from Poland.

Collectors willing to pay maximum price

Forbidden Nazi symbols in an exhibition from the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution

Forbidden Nazi symbols in an exhibition from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution

"The market for Nazi objects has existed for a while," said German art historian Hans Ottomeyer, adding that Germany and the US in particular have groups of collectors that purchase Nazi objects for a premium price and who are willing to pay up to 4,000 euros ($5,500) for an SS-uniform.

But according to Ottomeyer, the trade in Germany has strongly declined in the past decade. "You have to point out that nowadays many of the items are fake and reassembled." In fact, about 10 to 20 percent of the articles are knock-offs.

Ottomeyer is the former head of the foundation of the German Historical Museum in Berlin and has helped organize more than seven exhibitions about the Third Reich. According to him, the exhibitions were not supposed to contribute to identifying with and glorifying the Nazis but rather to give visitors a clear and critical picture.

Stolen Nazi jewellery: a skull ring with Heil Hitler inscription

Stolen Nazi jewellery: A skull ring with "Heil Hitler" inscription

"It's better to address and discuss something than to hide and conceal it," Ottomeyer said.

Quite a number of visitors came to the Berlin museum and none of them felt offended by showcasing the objects within this historical scope, said Ottomeyer.

Not a general ban

However, it gets more difficult when Nazi objects become private possessions. Most of the collectors are not right-wing extremists, but it is still difficult to comprehend what these objects are being used or misused for.

German politicians have been debating the right approach to Nazi memorabilia for decades. But despite of controversies regularly stirring up, trading Nazi memorabilia remains legal.

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