Page last updated at 12:42 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 13:42 UK

Is it OK to collect Nazi memorabilia?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A row has blown up over an officer at a human rights group that monitors Israel. He is accused of collecting "Nazi memorabilia". But is it unacceptable to collect material from the Third Reich?

Vases (picture courtesy of Regimentals)
There's been a rise in interest in Nazi memorabilia

Marc Garlasco is not the first person to get into trouble for an interest in an aspect of the Third Reich.

Two years ago Bryan Ferry was pilloried for expressing admiration for the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the buildings of Albert Speer and other aspects of iconography. And in 1999, then GQ editor James Brown had to resign after Rommel and the Nazis were referred to in a list of the century's 200 most stylish men.

Marc Garlasco
Thousands of military history buffs collect war paraphernalia because we want to learn from the past
Marc Garlasco

But on both sides of the Atlantic there is a burgeoning market in Third Reich-era memorabilia. Mr Garlasco is one of thousands of collectors who are seeking rare items from the period.

His hobby has outraged bloggers, who also accuse him of anti-Israel bias, and he has defended himself in a piece on the Huffington Post blog by saying that suggestions he has Nazi sympathies are "defamatory nonsense". Instead, he says he has a long-standing interest in World War II memorabilia from both the German and Allied sides.

"I've never hidden my hobby, because there's nothing shameful in it, however weird it might seem to those who aren't fascinated by military history," he wrote.

Department of Justice official with sword and uniform of Goering seized from drug dealer
The rarest memorabilia can be incredibly valuable

"Thousands of military history buffs collect war paraphernalia because we want to learn from the past. But I should have realized that images of the Second World War German military are hurtful to many."

He admitted making "juvenile and tasteless postings" on two websites. He had been accused of saying an SS leather jacket was "cool".

But is there anything wrong with collecting Third Reich-era memorabilia?

Malcom Fisher runs Regimentals, one of the biggest dealers in militaria in the UK. On his website you can buy original items from as far back as the 18th Century, but much of his business is material from World War II, and much of that is German. The website features everything from an oil painting of Adolf Hitler to vases stamped with swastikas.

But Mr Fisher says the collectors who buy from him are fundamentally just people with an interest in history. "We in no way market these items for any other reason than history. Whether it be British, Russian, German or Italian it is all part of history. That cannot be denied. I handle the artefacts of history."

Man with anti-Nazi badge
In Germany, even anti-Nazi symbols can cause problems

The people who buy the militaria are ordinary people from various walks of life, says Mr Fisher. He says he is wary of journalists who try to represent the hobby.

"There is a 1% fringe element that are loonies but that will happen in any walk of life."

The prices for the kind of items sold by Mr Fisher and collected by the likes of Mr Garlasco can be extraordinarily high, but there is also a parallel market in reproduction militaria. Enthusiasts both collect the reproduction material, but also wear uniforms at re-enactment events.

Anthony Hole runs Militaria-net, which specialises in Third Reich-era memorabilia, all of which is reproduction. The website sells, among a wide range of stock, SS uniforms and badges. Mr Hole says he has also dealt with TV production companies like the BBC.

He describes the collectors as including "a generation of middle-aged men who grew up watching war films and playing with Action Man".

Aesthetic factors

And the notion that collecting could be associated with political leanings is far fetched, he says.

"[Garlasco] being suspended is ludicrous. The first collectors were ex-servicemen. My wife's uncle was a left-wing union leader. He had a Nazi dagger his dad collected in the desert. He passed it down to his son. It's the same as any other heirloom."

He readily admits that a big factor in re-enactors' choices is aesthetic.

"The German uniforms looked better than anybody else's... If you looked at the British uniforms and equipment, [it was] very practical rather than aesthetic."

But while much of the reproduction material may be historic, some of the items on Mr Hole's website, including SS T-shirts and SS coffee mugs may raise eyebrows, to say the least.

Some might make a distinction between the ordinary parts of the Third Reich armed forces, and the SS, a wing of the Nazi party, parts of which led the organisation of the Holocaust.

Mark Frazer, of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, says everything has to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Nazi flag sent back to the UK during World War II
The first collectors were servicemen and their families

"No doubt some of these collectors will have purely academic motives and we'd have no quarrel with that. But we are aware of those at the other end of the spectrum who dress up in Nazi uniforms for role-plays and recreations of life under the Third Reich.

"Such fantasies are certainly troubling if not dangerous and one would have to question their obsession with such a dark period in history. They are certainly entitled to their hobby, just as we are entitled to think less of them when we hear about it."

Some areas of course are totally unacceptable. The organisation would always act on the sale of items from a concentration camp or anti-Semitic material.

The most important aspect is whether collecting memorabilia is connected to politics, says Gerry Gable, publisher of anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.

"It all depends on the circumstances. If you say to me [noted Holocaust denier] David Irving's got a house full of Nazi memorabilia, I would say bad news. Years ago there was a guy who on the surface was a World War II militaria collector but he was a BNP member with a wife in the police service. There you draw a line.

"It is chasing shadows unless you can show the guy has some dodgy politics."

Here is a selection of your comments.

As far as German uniforms looking "cool", that was entirely the point of them. The SS uniforms were designed by film costumers, not by the German army. Similarly, Leni Riefenstahl films and Albert Speer buildings are massively significant artistic artifacts, and if you want to do any kind of assessment of artistic value then it's important to disconnect the visual element from the political context, because German art from that period *has* influenced everyone since. The problem is that no-one before or since has been as effective at propaganda as the Nazis were, particularly in the use of art as propaganda. But that in itself is something we must learn from history too - the country with the most effective propaganda is not necessarily the country who is in the right.
Graham Bartlett, Cambridge, England

My grandfather passed down a small Mauser pistol that he obtained from a captured German officer in WWII- it is still functional, and we even take it to the range on rare occasions. To me it is like a trophy- a memento of the Allies' victory against the Axis forces. War implements are like any other historical memorabilia, in that there is a story to tell behind them... though with instruments of battle the story is often a cautionary one. History is something to be studied and learned from- not feared or censored.
Jim Kenny, VA, United States

I recently saw a BBC documentary about Nazi war re-enactments, where there were a vast amount of Nazi memorabilia on sale. I was astonished to see people proudly dressed in Nazi uniforms, even a Nazi wedding was filmed. I felt saddened that my home country could actually allows such gatherings when every year the war memorial services get less and less. I think all Nazi memorabilia should be on display in museums as a learning tool, a way to show future generations of what happened and what to avoid.
Dean Flexen, Spain

It is too easy to try to wrap this up as if we were simply talking about historical artefacts that people wish to collect. We are dealing with not just a regime, but a philosophy & not just history but something that is underground and real and with us today. If we take Graham Bayley's comment that "under ever uniform there was an ordinary man" seriously, then it is logical to argue that it is the uniform therefore that makes the difference. That being the case, and given what those uniforms made 'normal' people do, then those specific uniforms, those specific badges, are most certainly unsafe for humans to be trading in.
David Collier, Ilford, UK

I collect Mongolian, Japanese, Soviet, South African, Bhutan, and German militaria so I must offend at least 90% of the world. They must see me for the horseback riding, sword wielding communist with apartheid leanings, who likes to go mountaineering while eating sauerkraut and knackwurst evil man that I no doubt am. It is a sad world we live in.
JC Peterse, Thornhill, Canada

Surely people cannot object to people collecting objects of genuine historical interest, no matter how morbid or dark the subject. If so, how far do you go back? World War II? I? 200 years? I know someone with some small roundhead relics from the Civil War...does this make then dangerous anti-monarchists? Reproductions are slightly different as they are not historical collections. But even then you need to be careful before you judge, just because you think a jacket looks 'cool' it doesn't mean you condone the actions of people wearing similar jackets!
David, Birmingham

I recently returned from a trip visiting the d-day beach landing sites of Normandy and old Nazi memorabilia from uniforms to cutlery and deactivated weaponry is readily available in museum gift shops. A huge market exists for these objects as they are now antiques and are priced accordingly. I see no problem with this myself as I am fascinated by the human condition and the effects of war. Plus I think an air of romanticism exists about the 2nd world war about the fight between good and evil which many find appealing. However there will always be those with extreme political views who will look to the past for inspiration and want to feel that bit closer to there ideals.
D Greenwood, London

A soldier handing down to his son the Nazi dagger he captured in battle is a substantially different case to one in which an individual collects items with no such intrinsic personal history. Collectors of art often do so because they admire the artist (or their particular movement) or for material gain, but very often for both reasons. Since there are available significant quantities of Nazi memorabilia, the values of these items is relatively trivial, which pretty much leaves us with a motive of admiration.
D Brookes, UK

My husband has a book that his grandfather picked up in Germany at the end of the Second World War. It's called simply 'Hitler' and is a book full of black and white photographs stuck into a huge album - much like a sticker album today. It has a forward by Goebbels extolling the virtues of the Third Reich. It's a fascinating book in a way (as a piece of history) but I loath it and wish we could get rid of it. It's wrapped up in a plastic bag, high on a shelf in our understairs cupboard - and there, as far as I am concerned - it can stay.
Rosemary Ward

I have an avid interest in the 2nd world war and especially the Nazi party. It is a very interesting point in history and one that should be studied so the same evil can never be repeated. My interest is purely for historical reasons and in no way political, I am extremely anti-fascist and do not see how any person could ever glorify the Nazi party or make it sound anything other than pure evil. This article is very good in getting the message across that just because someone has an interest in something it does not mean they believe in it. Obviously you do get the extremists such as the bnp, who apparently aren't racist but a quick google search show its members giving nazi salutes, but I think to put everyone with an interest in history under that banner would be extremely unfair.
Lee Murray, Birmingham

I collect WHW (Winterhilfwerk) donation badges of the Third Reich era and become extremely frustrated with the reporting of this period of history. The WHW items are virtually banned on certain auction websites, deemed as objects of hate because they may carry a swastika or an image of Adolf Hitler. I do not support or promote the ideals of the National Socialist regime which carried out heinous crimes. However, we think nothing of the collection of militaria of the Japanese (who killed 5.5 million civilians), the Russians (Stalin killed up to 20 Million of his own people), the British (for inventing the civilian concentration camp) and the Americans (their genocide and systematic ethnic cleansing of the Native American Peoples). You cannot undo history, only hide it or drive it underground. Please remember that it is only the losing side that is tried for war crimes and if you take the time to speak to veterans they will tell you that under every uniform there was an ordinary man, except in very very rare cases, no matter which countrys' uniform he was wearing.
Graham Bayley, Bristol

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