Nazi Memorabilia Ethics?


I haven’t checked in on The Ethicist column in the New York Time Magazine in a while: the current resident, Kwame Anthony Appiah, is the real McCoy, unlike all of his predecessors, and his analysis of various queries from readers is usually valid and properly reasoned. This week’s featured issue is a strange one, however.

A Peter Hulit of Los Angeles wrote to ask what was the “ethical way” to deal with  a belt buckle from a Nazi uniform that was stored in his late father’s box of World War II memorabilia, collected during his service overseas. Hulit explained,

“I have kept it stashed in my desk. I’m now in my 60s and really don’t want it in my house..I have checked resale sites, and it does have some monetary value, but I do not want it to fall into hands that may use it symbolically for what my father fought against.”

I rate this question as more evidence of Nazi hysteria, one of the side-effect of the 2016 post election Ethics Train Wreck that includes the effort by the Left to slander opposition to Democrats, Clinton and Obama as nascent fascism. It is also a continuation of the historical air-brushing that Orwellian progressives seem to think will magically eliminate all evils from modern society.

World War II artifacts are history and are tools of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is what those seeing German Nazi motivations in President Trump and his supporters sorely lack. There is no such thing as dangerous history. What is dangerous is to forget history, or to try to pretend that what happened did not.

Nor are objects cursed, or evil. People are evil, and history leaves evidence of evil deeds.  “I don’t want it in my house” smacks of superstition. It’s a belt buckle.

Hulit’s question seems to suck The Ethicist down some unethical holes that he should avoid, and usually does. For example, he writes,

Well, we are required not just to act in accordance with morality but also to have the right moral emotions. And having this stuff around suggests that you just might have a problem there. Indifference toward a genocidal regime is bad. Active approval is, of course, worse.

Wait, what? What are “the right” moral emotions? Emotions are emotions: they are not right or wrong. Only how we allow emotions to govern conduct is right or wrong. Having an old soldiers souvenirs of the Allied victory over Hitler in the house does nothing more than honor his service, and symbolically celebrate the defeat of the Third Reich. My Dad brought home lots of Nazi stuff, including a gigantic party flag. Mu mom took it, cut out the swastika in the middle, and made beautiful red curtains for our playroom on the basement. My sister and I had no idea about the origin of those curtains until decades later.We both thought it was great. Take that, Adolf! Did “having this stuff around suggests that we just might had a problem”? No, making such a silly statement suggests that Appiah has a problem. His problem gets worse, as he writes,

“Because you, like me, are repulsed by this sort of celebration, you naturally don’t want to allow this belt buckle — presumably it’s the kind with the eagle and swastika — to be misused in this way. Now, here’s the problem. As far as I can see, if you want to ensure that the buckle is never misused, you can’t really sell it to anyone. You can tell buyers that they must not use it in this way, but that stricture isn’t enforceable. Even if you gave it to a responsible museum, it can’t stop people coming in to look at it for the wrong reasons. And again, the museum could always decide to sell the buckle later. Are you right to be concerned about the uses that might be made of the object? No doubt most buyers of this sort of thing are military-artifact collectors with no untoward predilections. And we’re not generally responsible for what people do with the things we sell them, mostly because we can’t be expected to foresee those things. Still, the more obvious the possibilities for an object’s misuse, and the more serious its consequences, the more diligent you need to be in avoiding selling that object to the wrong buyers.”

Oh, get over yourself. It’s a belt buckle. What damage is a belt buckle going to do, under the most over-heated, hysterical theory imaginable? is the fear that the belt buckle might fall into the hands of someone who likes it? You know, one of my father’s WWII souvenirs was a German infantry cap. It was made of heavier material than the American caps, and was black; it also had a small Nazi insignia on it. I loved it. I wore it sometimes. I once brought it to school for show and tell, and nobody misconstrued what interested me in it—the history, and my father’s heroism in WWII—or thought I was a Nazi sympathizer. You know why? Because they were sane. That’s why.

We don’t know what anyone will do with anything we sell. I wouldn’t sell one of my father’s Nazi daggers to a drooling maniac, but would I sell one to a collector of Nazi memorabilia? Sure. He has a right to collect what he wants, and I make no judgments about what he chooses to collect. As for a belt buckle: what misuse is “The Ethicist” imagining? Wearing it? That’s not misuse. That’s free speech. or more likely, as when I wore that black cap, no speech at all.

To be fair, The Ethicist waffles all over the place; the question clearly has his emotions battling with his sound ethical instincts. He writes,

“Finally, in any sale, you’re connected with those who would use the buckle to signal pro-Nazi attitudes, because their preferences are one source of the economic demand that sets the price. I’m inclined to think that this connection is too remote to worry about, though. Many objects have morally unattractive elements shaping the demand that sets their prices.”

..but concludes,

“A sensible precaution would be to identify an interested buyer who doesn’t intend to sell it and whose collecting interests don’t seem guided by neo-Nazi sentiments. But if you’re really determined to avoid any possibility of misuse, I suggest you give your father’s buckle a decent burial.”

Burial?  Sure, why not? Pretend those Nazi trousers never needed to stay up! Better yet, pretend there were no Nazis, no war, best of all, no Holocaust.

The less we know the better, right?

35 thoughts on “Nazi Memorabilia Ethics?

  1. Yikes. While I normally enjoy the Ethics columns in the Times as well, this one was pretty cringe-inducing.

    I found the issues with donation to a museum especially confusing and strange. Would this ethicist advocate the same treatment if an old artifact of the Crusades was found in a church in Istanbul? This is probably the closest equivalency that I can come up with, and there is no way such an artifact wouldn’t immediately be sent for preservation.

    Just because something was shameful does not mean that we can afford to bury it; rather, the very point must be that we allow people to learn and grow from the lessons of the past. I know there is likely not much to discuss here, but I was also flabbergasted by the idea that this would be the thing to stump a usually qualified ethicist like Appiah.

    • What the left wants is a culture where cringing is too easily induced, like JK Rowling’s wizards talk about Voldemort as He Who Must Not Be Named, as though mention of his name alone was some kind of horrible thing and they were all children who you shouldn’t mention the boogeyman near, lest they have bad dreams that night. History is full of villainous people who did villainous things, but in the end they were just people, and in the end most of them lost the fight. The fact that you can sit there with that buckle in a box, taken away as a souvenir from a land where those who wore it are dust and ashes is an illustration of that. Despite legends and myths, the spirit of the owner doesn’t reside in his possessions, and you will not have any of his evil seep into you if you touch them.

      • To be sure, that fear was grounded in a real threat: it was a case of “Speak of the devil and he shall appear” which later proved to be partly true as speaking his name caused all spells and enchantments a witch or wizard had envoked to be nullified which in turn was equal to sending out a GPS signal. 😉

        • Yeah. He wouldn’t have spoken so bravely if Vo…He Who Must Not Be Named was still around! Though there’s still She Who Must Be Obeyed to reckon with . . . .

    • The crusaders sacked Constantinople (now Istanbul) when it was part of the Eastern Roman Empire, so that’s a bad example.

      • Nobody in that 2 century conflict has clean hands, the Byzantines included. That said, the Turks don’t dwell too much on that time nor try to erase that part of the past, so something like that would probably end up in a museum next to the chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Now, if you want to talk about the Armenian issue…

  2. I happen to have a limited collection of material related to the Holocaust. Books, letters, notes and even several interviews with survivors. I grew up in a neighborhood that had several survivors and that caught my interest and later in graduate school, I expanded upon it. So of the material I have discovered has value to collectors, but that is of no interest to me. The collection will eventually be offered to a Holocaust Museum since there is a number who may find it a worthy addition to their collections.

    In the 1950s many much Nazi memorabilia was readily available. I had friends whose male relatives had served and many had substantial collections acquired in Europe or in Asia from the Pacific war.

    I would suggest that anyone who feels uncomfortable donate to an appropriate museum – maybe even something like the World War II is Fredricksburg, Tx.

  3. What dangerous times that owning a stolen Nazi thingamajig collected by a member of the LIBERATING military risks one being accused of Nazi sympathizing.

  4. I collected soldier figures from about 1997 to 2015 as an extension of my interest in history. Pretty much every era is or was available, and of course most manufacturers made figures for both sides of whatever conflict they were focusing on, from the Graeco-Persian wars to the War on Terror. That includes the American Civil War, all of “Queen Victoria’s Little Wars,” and both World Wars. The manufacturers don’t flinch from making pieces that reflect the realities of history and the collectors don’t flinch from buying them.

    Sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right scene – I personally own several soldiers from both sides on the Civil War and WW2, including several SS figures in combat uniform, which I bought because I wanted to show the Americans fighting the baddest of the bad. My personal favorite story, though, is about a set of figures who were made in the wake of 9/11. Crusaders and Saracens were of course not unheard of before this, but one of the manufacturers got it into his head in the wake of 9/11 to make a set that showed a Crusader on a rearing horse, thrusting down with a lance at an Arab officer who looked a lot like the author of that dastardly attack.

    He made the set with three different sets of heraldry and came to a hobby show in early 2002 with five of each at $225 each. The doors opened at 9 AM, and by 10:30 he sold them all. Did that mean that the collectors or the manufacturers had the wrong moral emotions? What utter nonsense. It’s just another way of the left trying to control everyone else’s thinking.

  5. I would also point out that most of the Wehrmacht, with the obvious exception of the SS, were NOT Nazis. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    • That is a distinction unfortunately lost on most ordinary people. I’ve come away from WW2 weekends a few times and patiently had to explain that there is nothing inherently evil about a staged skirmish in a mock French village, or bringing out the Tiger and the Sherman, or having a P-51 and Me109 stage a mock dogfight. To them German=Nazi=tainted=must be hidden away from decent eyes. It’s a culture of fragility.

  6. Well there are plenty of WW2 Japanese swords up for sale probably some which were used to slice the heads off of Allied POWs or non-combatants. Nobody seem to have a problem with their showing at auctions. Remember it wasn’t the sword that did the dirty deed but the officer wielding it.

    • But you aren’t *just buying* the sword. With artifacts, you are buying the history as well. In this case, there is a “recentness” and a savage evil attached to that history that is a key component of the artifacts “value”, no?

  7. I see no reason to think “I don’t want Nazi memorabilia around my house” imputes any superstitious or other beliefs to it by the letter writer.

    And ignoring recent SJW nonsense, I can also understand not wanting to sell it to anyone who might use it as part of any sort of celebration of the Third Reich. They can find their own memorabilia, I have no need of that source of funding.

    The concerns with the museum seem entirely created by the Ethicist, lettter writer didn’t mention them.

    Donate it to a museum. If you take the tax deduction donate that to any charity of your choice.

    • If an object is not worthy of selling to a particular person because of some stigma attached to it, then the object is not worthy of selling to any person.

      I wonder if this can be related to the topic of discriminating against people coming to shop at your store….

  8. “Wait, what? What are “the right” moral emotions? Emotions are emotions: they are not right or wrong. Only how we allow emotions to govern conduct is right or wrong.”

    I’m not so sure of that. I think it can be said that Not All emotions have a moral quality to them, but some do, in certain contexts. Between someone whose has joy seeing an old person crossing a street get killed by a bus and someone whose who doesn’t, I’d say there’s a clear moral difference between “having” those particular emotions. But this doesn’t expand to all situations. And for this particular, I’d say there’s no “moral” emotion…it would seem the author thinks the “moral” emotion upon seeing a nazi symbol is a certain level of disgust.

    Who knows, maybe so.

    Ethical way to deal with war trophies?

    Well, what are they? Reminders that your side won. And if your side has the moral upper hand of the conflict then the reminder is all the better. Two basic options seem to me to be:

    1) Public display at a museum – to be a constant reminder for our descendants.

    2) Re-purpose the trophy. Such as Jack’s play room curtains.

    I’m really on the fence on the topic of profiting from war trophies…or even taking “trophies” at all.

  9. My father has some Nazi memorabilia in his possession as he is 76 and was born before the war in which his father died and we are actual Germans. Never have I thought that my father has pro-Nazi tendencies (my grandmother held Hitler in high esteem) and I actually played with that stuff as a child.
    As Germans we are bound to be overly conscious of such matters but I’m acutally surprised that Americans are as well…
    Now if you wore that belt buckle outside the house in my country, it would be considered unconstitutional and is therefore an actual crime.
    I don’t reckon you have to make any such considerations in the United States as to Americans it is just that: history.

  10. NJ Steve wrote: “What the left wants is a culture where cringing is too easily induced, like JK Rowling’s wizards talk about Voldemort as He Who Must Not Be Named, as though mention of his name alone was some kind of horrible thing and they were all children who you shouldn’t mention the boogeyman near, lest they have bad dreams that night. History is full of villainous people who did villainous things, but in the end they were just people, and in the end most of them lost the fight. The fact that you can sit there with that buckle in a box, taken away as a souvenir from a land where those who wore it are dust and ashes is an illustration of that. Despite legends and myths, the spirit of the owner doesn’t reside in his possessions, and you will not have any of his evil seep into you if you touch them.”

    The ‘cringing culture’ is an established fact, but to talk about this is not easy, and especially among people who show all the signs of having absorbed it into their DNA structure.

    While it is easy, and sort of satisfying I suppose, to look to Germany and Hitler and to see it and they as ‘pure emblems of evil’, and then to interpose this Emblem as one projects the absolute evil to something outside of one’s own self, and to do this as a predictable psychological mechanism and one that looks a little Pavlovian from my angle of viewing, harder it is to see all the players in Europe at that time as deeply complicit in the creation of literal catastrophes.

    But all this is too much to go into really. It requires pages and pages of explanation and then the reading of months worths of books on the topic. It ivolves reading difficult and shunned authors and those who explore the ‘received histories’ and wish to apply truth and understanding and not merely a comic-book-like analysis of the events of the world.

    Because it takes so much time and energy to counter and articulate a more genuine story about all these tragic events, and because many people have constructed their own relationship to their own selves through specific, binary stories which paint their side as gloriously free of evil and wonderously and divinely working in the dark hellish realm of Earth to establish a Kingdom of Light, you simply have to accept that they will not allow themselves to be influenced.

    The loss is in that however. Because the truth, if painful, and complicity, if shameful, is still the truth. But how can these *truths* even be uncovered if, reflexively, and in a chorus like in a Greek Theatre, all the voices intone the same line? and if to look at things different, and Heaven forbit to see things differently, is made to seem a veritable evil?

    Whenever I notice this branding of an exterior evil, when I notice the mass-mentality of coercion and lying, my chosen reaction is to say to myself ‘Here is something I must investigate because there are likely important things there to be understood’. It could be rigid ‘fascist’ right-leaning interwar rection against Communism and Marxism (a treasure of interesting and powerful ideas I have found); it could be in the blanket view that Germany was ‘evil’ when, in truth, Germany has always been the very heart and soul of Europe and, all at a certain moment, was deliberately described differently, and then the dogs were let loose. It could be the reflexive hyper-patriotism that enduces Americans to have little reflexive capability when seeing the deeds and interests of their own country (why is this so hard?!?). It shows up in thousands of ways!

    The cringing damage has already been done, and the minds are already subservient to partial truths if not to overt distortions.

    • The heart and soul of Europe? Germany didn’t even exist in its present state until around the time of our Civil War, actually. Both it and Italy are relatively late arrivals to the modern European scene. Before that it was a pretty loose union, and before that it was the Holy Roman Empire, which might have had a claim to being the heart and soul since it dated back to Charlemagne.

      The history of any nation that’s been around an appreciable length of time is necessarily complicated and necessarily full of shades of gray. Anyone who pronounces a whole nation “evil” is just simplistic.

      • I mean Germania and the Germanic. Perhaps Germanic Culture as the heart of Europe is a better way to put it. The influence extends beyond the border of present Germany. Perhaps the HRE and Germania at the core of Europe. This is what my researches are indicating but I have a long way to go …

        In my own case, I have not concluded, for myself and free of coercion, if indeed Germany in the early 1900s and into the century was the ‘evil’ it is said to have been. I have come to entertain as a possibility that Germany, after unification, was indeed becoming powerful culturally, and that England was very threatened by it, and set out therefor to provoke and destroy it. And that there were many collusive in this.

        This seems to me to be a basic true fact but I also think it is simplistic and that the *truth* of it would be a nuanced revelation. If it is true, therefor, it follows that some aspect, large or small I do not know, of the hatred against Germany was manufactured, just as now there is a manufactured hatred against, say, Iraq or Iran, and if you do not get on the board with it you are made to seem a bad and an evil person.

        • It’s quite a story, starting with the rise of Prussia and Bismarck and the first Kaiser racking up a pretty impressive series of victories, then a new Kaiser who wasn’t quite up to that level jumping into what started as a regional conflict in the Balkans. There’s a lot more to it, but it’s a discussion which would empty our coffee cups several times and burn away the candles. .

  11. There is an unseen slippery slope where political correctness being controlled by snowflakes could be a severe detriment to future generations.

    Isn’t there a tipping point that we’re slowly approaching where it is so inappropriate to talk about the terrible things that have happened in the past, Nazi’s, the holocaust, slavery, etc and we no longer allow the existence of things that represent those terrible things, belt buckles, flags, hats, clothing, etc no matter how innocuous they may be just because it might offend some snowflake, that we essentially eliminate the historical record by no longer allowing the actual knowledge of such things to be openly taught?

    I’m sure there could n… e… v… e… r be any negative consequences to whitewashing history by the process of eliminating the knowledge.

    There have been people right here in these blog discussions that have stated that they never got to learn about WWII in High School. How many students today in any country get a real education about their own history and the history of the world. When that knowledge is lost, for whatever reason, what happens; history is doomed to repeat itself.

    Does anyone know why ISIS murders those who think differently than they do? Does anyone know why ISIS physically destroys historical artifacts that differ from their ideology? Does anyone know why ISIS doesn’t want “their” population to be educated by anyone but them? Strategy, that’s why. Knowledge that can contradict “popular” ideology is literally the enemy of that ideology; destroy the knowledge by outlawing any references to the knowledge and suppressing all those that contradict the ideology and eventually the ideology wins by default.

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