In Defense Of The Swatztika

nazimemAbout 18 years ago I went on a blind date.  That in itself is not remarkable.  I have been on quite a few of those in my day.  She was very striking in appearance.  She was just a little shorter than I am at 6’2, blond hair and piercing blue eyes. While I can not remember it off hand, I do remember her last name was pure unadulterated German.  There was no mistaking this girl’s ancestry was Rhine wine through and through.

After our third date she offered to cook me dinner.  Being that I never had more than a box of rice and 6 pack of Tab in my kitchen(not much as changed on that front) I took her up on it.

When I entered her apartment what I saw took my breath away.  On her mantle above the fireplace was a Waffen SS Helmet ,Hitler Youth Knife and some type of decorative Swastika. The Waffen SS is a notorious Nazi military unit considered  part of the “tip of the sword” in the planning and implementation of The Holocaust.

I couldn’t breath.  I walked to the fireplace and picked up the Hitler Youth Knife.   Trying to remain clam, and in a steady voice,  I quietly asked her where she got them.  She told me her deceased grandfather had served in the German army and had passed the items on to her.  Breathing a little heavier and in a higher pitched voice I asked her if she knew I was Jewish.  She stated that she had no idea what my religion was and that  she was deeply sorry if the items offended me.  I did not say another word, turned around and walked out.  That was that.hitleryouthknife

I had no reason to believe she was Antisemitic.  In hindsight 18 years later, I believe the only context around the items was to show off what her grandfather had given  her.  To this day I have no idea if she even knew the “Jewish significance” of the items.  Believe it or not, there are many out there who have limited,if any comprehension of the Holocaust. They are not deniers, just uneducated on the subject beyond the woefully inadequate coverage in their high school history class.

None of that ran through my mind 18 years ago.  As I held that Hitler youth knife, she was Hitler incarnate.  While her background ruled out a compatible future, beyond that, was I being fair?  Context is everything.

I never thought of that incident again until today.   I was jogged back to that evening by reading a series of articles full of accusations, retorts and supposition surrounding a Huffington Post Blogger’s collection of Nazi Memorabilia.

Marc Garlasco, is a former Pentagon intelligence officer, and senior military analyst of Human Rights Watch(HRW).  He has been a harsh critic of Israel, accusing the state of war crimes.

It is now being reported that  that Garlasco is an avid collector of Nazi and American wartime memorabilia. He has also reportedly made what some would consider insensitive and inappropriate remarks on memorabilia collector web sites with regards to some of his Nazi artifacts.

Many bloggers and other critics have tagged him as a Nazi, Nazi Sympathizer etc.  They have called into question his past and future credibility in work that in some aspects by it’s very nature innately carries the specter of Nazi Germany and The Holocaust.

Garlasco responded with an article in the Huffington Post defending his right to collect such memorabilia and providing the context for the collection.

In my mind, understanding the context of such activities is vital in coming to judgment about them and him or anyone who collects controversial historical artifacts that by their very nature offend certain groups.  Nazi memorabilia would certainly fall within that classification.

Context is important because  the collection and display of Nazi memorabilia  can be and often is a form of Anti-Semitic hate speech in itself.  eBay recognized this when it banned the buying and selling of such merchandise world wide.

Would I be offended if someone had a Nazi Swastika framed or displayed on the wall of their home even if I knew he was a collector? Absolutely.  The only context I take from that is at worst Antisemitism and at least, crass insensitivity to who may lay eyes on it and be offended. I would not even ask for an explanation.  I am out of there never to return.

If I walk into that same collector’s home and saw a plaque with various signs and patches of the Axis, including a Swastika, on one side and of the Allies on the other?   That has a different context to me and I probably would not be offended.  I would want to know more. I would at least want more information to gain better context to know what I am dealing with.

Are there some Nazi items that are so closely associated with human suffering as to transcend appropriate historical context for a legitimate personal collection.  I believe so.  If I find out that Garlasco has a Zyklon B canister in his collection my context for his activities will change drastically.

I do not agree with  Garlasco’s opinions and conclusions as to Israel.  I however, am not going to put his personally distasteful beliefs and conclusions together with his Nazi collection and conclude that he possesses pro-Nazi or antisemitic sentiments.  While there is certainly a creepy paradox in someone who reports on alleged war crimes collecting Nazi items, I am unclear as to what this entire revelation is supposed to clarify.  If you believe he is anti-Israel and biased in his conclusions then what does the collection add to the mix?  Is this supposed to be some “final nail” to say  “a ha I told you so”?  His credibility is now more in question?  It’s backwards circular logic that diminishes and detracts from the real issues.swastika

My friends and family know I am fascinated with WWII history, the Holocaust and yes the history of Nazi Germany. I have write on these subjects regularly on my blog.   I have Holocaust history on my mother’s side.  While I would never buy a Swastika,  I have often looked at Holocaust artifacts for sale on eBay.  While I have never bought anything,  I have though about it.  There are those that may find that creepy.   To me it is part of my lifelong search for knowledge ,understanding and personally historical context.

Context people context…

Copyright 2009.

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7 Responses

  1. Brian, this is a good article, you speak it well. Curiosity is human nature, I have looked at Nazi things on the web also, even the hate sites, but briefly as they are all the same, hateful and lost peoples looking for something to fill thier empty lives. And what a sad way to do it. I applaud your walking-out from a home where Nazi artifacts are on display in a predominant area. It makes a statement and most people do not have the “balls” to do that anymore, just walking out in disgust and mute protest. Good stuff man.

  2. I give you credit and respect for walking out like you did, if you felt that strongly about it, but I think it was a little rude not to offer a dispassionate explanation about why the relationship could never work and why you felt the need to leave so abruptly. I don’t have any Nazi memorabilia, but I might consider it someday, like I might consider anything else of significant historical interest. I’m of American Indian blood myself, and it may not be quite as fresh on our minds, but we were slaughtered pretty handily back in the day. I wouldn’t walk out of a home that has some memento of the old American West on display. Not exactly the same thing I realize, but like you said, context is everything.

  3. Brian, while I understand the negative feelings associated with Nazi-themed artifacts, as you suggest, it’s important to understand the historical significance of such items and their context. You mention your potential reaction to a Zyklon B canister in someone’s personal collection, yet the Holocaust museum in Washington has such items on display, along with many items bearing Nazi symbols. Are the curators of the museum insensitive to all Jews? According to your argument, perhaps they are. Of course, this is not their intention.

    The following paragraph is particularly troubling to me…

    “Would I be offended if someone had a Nazi Swastika framed or displayed on the wall of their home even if I knew he was a collector? Absolutely. The only context I take from that is at worst Antisemitism and at least, crass insensitivity to who may lay eyes on it and be offended. I would not even ask for an explanation. I am out of there never to return.”

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but it appears you aren’t even asking for context here, you are simply dismissing this person as “crassly insensitive” or, at worst, Antisemetic. There must have been hundreds of Allied soldiers that brought Nazi insignia, flags, etc. back from to the States from Europe after WWII. I am sure many items were displayed in homes from coast to coast. Are these men insensitive, Antisemetic, or are they simply celebrating and remembering their victory? Yet you would judge them without waiting for explanation.

    (I am not a Nazi memorabilia collector.)

  4. Another thought-provoking piece, Brian. I’m the former head of content review for MySpace, and one of my duties was to codify our company’s position with regard to hate symbols. Users of social media websites like to upload all kinds of images– including pictures of swastikas, burning crosses, and other pictures that many people would find offensive. Your emphasis upon reading the wider context is crucial to making a positive determination of whether the owner had hateful intent in adding such images. The lessons we learned in monitoring UGC at MySpace may be applied to real-world social interactions as well.

    Reasonable people may ask: “How on earth could someone upload a burning cross and *not* demonstrate hateful intent?”

    Easy. Say it’s the NAACP’s profile, and it’s commemorating the thousands of African Americans who fell victim to lynch mobs in the pre-Civil Rights South. With a little modification, it’s easy to see how any group or person interested in fighting hate crimes could use hate symbols as a way of showing how dire the situation has become for members of a protected class. (The shock value of adding a swastika to your least-favorite politician has a long history in the United States, and– while crass –does not seem to invoke any particular support of anti-Semitism.) Other organizations might use such images out of historical considerations, rather like your example above of the WWII aficionado.

    The best we can do as concerned citizens is to make a reasonable assumption as to the owner’s intention by examining the surrounding context of the symbol. If I employ a swastika in an essay describing the alarming rise of hate groups online, I would hope that my non-hateful intention would be abundantly clear to intelligent observers. If someone else employs a swastika in a work of art paying homage to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the author’s hateful intent should be equally clear.

    What makes it interesting is that *the same image might be used* in cases where different judgments are made. Owing to differences in the surrounding contexts of each case, this does not demonstrate any inconsistency.

    I fear that the breakdown of education in our country threatens to erode the critical thinking skills that will be required to make such judgments. If this continues, we will soon lose the ability to intelligently judge context, and such symbols will be indiscriminately be taken as evidence of the author’s hateful intent, whether justified or not.

  5. It is a thought provoking post and has much food for thought. To the anonymous poster who mentioned the Holocaust museum I would say that it is not a fair comparison.

    You can’t really compare a personal collection of items like this to those included in a museum’s collection.

    I agree that context is of paramount importance. I can’t say that Garlasco is a nazi sympathizer or antisemite. But considering what he does it raises questions about his beliefs and I think that those are legitimate.

    Here is a scenario to consider. What would happen if the IRS was investigating a large business run by an African American and it came to light that the lead agent had a collection of Confederate memorabilia.

    It is not proof that he is a racist or wishes that the South had one, but it raises concerns about his ability to be objective. It may not be fair but…

  6. I would say that Marc Garlasco is an antisemite.
    Not just for “criticising” Israel and not just for having nazi memorabilia.

    What in my opinion makes him an antisemite, is for having what I think he KNOWS is UNFAIR criticism of Israel.

    To claim that Israel is a “terrorist” state is absolute rubbish and based on lies and half truths, and everyone of the specific charges which have been against Israel, have been solidly refuted.

    After being refuted, those who make such claims, then either start name calling, or switch to some other false charge against Israel or against Jews (often using the code word “Zionist” falsly claiming they do not mean “all Jews” are part of the “Zionist conspiracy”.

    They often use a same lies over and over again in rotating order.
    First they tell one lie about Jews and/or Israel and after being refuted go to another.
    After that one is refuted they go to lie #3 and so on usually out to about 5 or 10 separate lies.
    Once they have been all refuted, they start back in again with lie #1.
    This happens often on blogs and message boards where they hope that the earlier refutations have moved down the list of posts and been forgotten about.

    Also every one of these false charges they make against Israel is actually true in some form of many if not all of the Arab and Persian countries but those who focus on vilifying Israel ignore such facts about those countries surrounding Israel.

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