Ethics Quiz: Hitler’s Watch

Adolf Hitler’s watch, shown above, recently sold at auction for over a million dollars. (The auction house had been expecting more, between 2 and 4 million.) The sale provoke some angry rhetoric online: many believe that it is unethical, indeed immoral, to acquire, keep or sell artifacts from Nazi Germany. In several countries, putting such things up for sale is illegal.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:

Is it unethical to sell or buy Hitler’s watch?

My mind is a teeny bit open on this issue, but where I stand now is: No, of course not.

At worst, this is an Ick Factor situation, where the fact that some people have a strong emotional reaction to conduct makes them conclude that the conduct is wrongful. I’m not even certain “ick” is justified. History is a record of the human race, and it should be maintained, studied, and thought about. The people who want all Nazi artifacts destroyed or quarantined are in the same censorious, historical airbrush-happy category as the people responsible for banning the Confederate flag in Civil War battlefield gift shops, and those who want to tear down the statues of every important American figure who was a slave-holder.

Full disclosure: I have a bias here. My father, a WWII veteran who fought in Europe, came home with a lot of trophies from his various battles. He had a German Luger he took off a prisoner, several Nazi Army ornamental knives and swords, and articles of clothing, including military headwear, all with the Nazi insignia on them. He carried and used captured German binoculars throughout the war (he said they were far superior to the American model); I took them to baseball games. It wasn’t until I turned them over to my son that I noticed the tiny swastika on the hinge. I also have the spoon from the field utensil kit Dad used in Europe; it has the Nazi emblem too, though I never noticed it when I used it camping with my Boy Scout troop.

Our basement play area in Arlington, Mass. had rooms separated by brilliant red, ceiling to floor curtains. It wasn’t until many years after moving to Virginia that I learned my mother had made them out a giant Nazi flag my father brought home.

Objects aren’t evil; it’s the people who use them in the course of doing evil things who should be shunned. The theory that Nazi artifacts encourage and enable evil is the product of emotion rather than ethical analysis. It is akin to superstition.

But I am open to being convinced otherwise.

32 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Hitler’s Watch

  1. Something as unique and personal as Hitler’s watch probably belongs in a museum, but if a private person owns it, he has the right to sell it. My question is why would anyone want something like that and what would he do with it once he had it? Doesn’t that say something about the buyer? People collect all kinds of odd things, but collecting something like this is odder than most.

    As a Roman Catholic, I was brought up on the idea that certain amounts of power remained within certain objects, especially physical remains. That’s why Church altars often hold holy relics, the more important the church, the more important the relics it holds. There was some serious fear when the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris had that fire a few years back that the crown of thorns, supposedly worn by Christ Himself, and the tunic of St Louis, worn by that saintly King on crusade, would be destroyed and with them the physical link to those personages. I don’t think the belief in relics and similar items is unique to Catholicism, I think it was around long before that. Supposedly the tree that Siddhartha achieved enlightenment under, the burning bush where Moses received his mission from God, and the three items that the sun goddess Amaterasu gave to the first emperor of Japan all exist still. You can see the first two if you are willing to travel, the three items are kept at the Great Ise Shrine in Japan and none but the appointed guardian clerics are allowed to see them.

    I think that the human belief that after revered or reviled figures are no longer in this world that something of them remains and can be accessed via whatever physical links there are transcends modern religion and goes back to very early beliefs. The belief that certain symbols have certain power is also a very ancient belief, and why, to this day, we all seem to believe that the display of the cross will repulse a vampire or similar creature. Does any of this make logical sense? Not really, but we are humans, not Vulcans, and therefore the feelings associated with these beliefs remain part of us.

    Those feelings can be played upon and amplified, of course, and a lot of individuals do just that, to harness them and hopefully lead others into doing as they say or making the leap from feeling to action. Symbols can serve as points to rally around or against and focusing points for causes. That’s why in the various crusades and jihads it was common for the victor to throw down the defeated’s symbols.

    Supposedly, in this modern era, we are supposed to have moved past giving these symbols inordinate amounts of power. However, certain political figures have found that rallying against certain symbols is a shortcut to power and mob rule. There is a certain level of dopamine hit that goes with feeling like you’re a righteous member of a righteous cause, and a certain other level of hit that goes with destroying a symbol that someone says is bad. The problem is that, like any other kind of addiction it becomes harder and harder to get the same amount of high with the same actions. Eventually you graduate to hurting and even killing others that you associate with whatever is opposed to your righteous cause.

    There is nothing per se unethical about dealing in historical artifacts, whether they be associated with those were thought of as very good or those who are thought of as very evil. Any unethical actions lie within the use of those artifacts. Would I personally want to own some item that was personally possessed by a genocidal dictator? Not really. Do I have a problem with someone else owning such an item? No. Do I have a problem with such an item being displayed in a museum? No. Destroying the physical reminders of History is ultimately unhelpful. Do I wonder what the owner or buyer of such an item is thinking? Yes. However, unless I actually discuss it with him, I don’t get to assume he’s a bad guy. Am I going to empower someone who claims victimhood to insist on the concealment or destruction of anything? No. I think the sanctification of victimhood ultimately leads to the pussification of society.

  2. A flip side — spoils of war, damnit!

    We were the good guys, we won, and cast down the bad guys (yeah, very simplistic, but in this instance also very true).

    We can look on it as a reminder that that evil regime was defeated and cast down.

    But no, I don’t think collecting artifacts from history is unethical. Somewhere in the house I think I have a million mark bank note from Weimar Germany. Is it unethical to keep that? I don’t think so, and yet the Weimar Republic is also part of the history leading up to Nazi Germany.

    • Dad hated Germany (and was barely tolerant of Germans) for the rest of his life. It infuriated him to see Volkswagen Bugs and Buses on the street. We never had German food. There was a popular German restaurant in Harvard Sq.: my Dad refused to dine there.

      • It has crossed my mind more than once — how can Progressives (and antifa, especially) not cancel Volkswagen? I mean, that was Hitler’s creation! How is that any better than a statue of Jefferson Davis?

        Now, of course, I know the answer to that question. It is for the same reason that the Allies ultimately could not get rid of I G Farben, to use one of the worst examples (not every German company had their own forced labor camps, I don’t think). The names change, owners and managers change, but the company endures. I want to say Bayer was part of IG Farben at one point, but I could be remembering wrong. And the big munitions maker (or steel), what was their name?

        Ultimately your alternative basically is to raze the country and sow the fields with salt. I think something along those lines was actually considered during the war, making Germany a solely agrarian nation.

        • I asked a Jewish friend how he was comfortable driving Mercedes cars. He was very adamant that Germany, more than any other nation, had done great things for Israel. Go figure. (I’m currently driving my fourth VW GTI.)

        • Actually by WWII I don’t believe that was nearly so much of an issue as it was in WWI. Guess they’d assimilated or emerged from some sort of melting pot or something.

          Besides, we had Japanese descended Americans to vent our nativism upon, a number of whom were eater to pull the trigger against the Germans and Italians.

          • I’m more curious why Jack’s dad eschewed all German cultural artifacts in America. I get the visceral disgust with Germany and what they perpetrated but to boycott their descendants here?

            • He had a deep anger about all the German citizens who swore that they were thrilled at seeing the American army and that they never supported Hitler. “Do you know there were no Nazis in Germany? It’s true,” he said once. “Nobody was a Nazi. Everyone opposed Hitler. That’s what every German said. We never found a Nazi.”

                • Second reference to the old Chad Mitchell Trio (during the Denver period) this week! The other was when the Beatles Channel played the group’s weird, s-l-o-w folk version of The Beatles “She Loves You.” Yes, the trio left out the “Yeah, yeah, yeahs.”

  3. The taking of war trophies has a very long history; “to the victor belong the spoils” is not a new saying. Both The Hague Conventions and the Geneva Conventions seem to imply that the taking of military items of an enemy, as opposed to personal items, is acceptable. As you might expect, the U.S. military has regulations and procedures to be followed.
    The taking of military items does not raise an ethical issue for me because the taking denies its use by the enemy. The taking of personal items which have no military value, however, is different. I think the golden rule is applicable here. Were I to be killed in battle, would I want my grandfather’s watch to go back to my family or to the enemy soldier who killed me or happened upon my body? That question answers itself.
    But, those who do the taking or acquiring should be fully aware of the picture of themselves they are painting for others, and here the origin may matter greatly. Given the widespread, enduring hatred of Nazism, why collect or keep anything that reflects that regime? Will you be seen as a supporter, a neo-Nazi? Will you create WTF — ‘Do I really know my grandpa?’ moments? Keeping a Taliban flag, for example, would not create the same image.
    Personal items of high officials are a special case. Why buy Hitler’s watch? To wear it to the next staging of The Producers, or to place it in your private tribute to the Nazis room, or was it just an investment? Greed in what looks like a solid investment notwithstanding, some things simply belong, not in private hands, but in a museum.
    Given all this, it is no more or less unethical (as opposed to unpopular) to acquire, keep, or sell articles taken from enemy combatants in Nazi Germany than from enemy combatants in any other war zone. Why draw the line there? Other regimes have been just as horrible.

  4. I can think of only a few situations that would make the purchase of an object that’s not prohibited for private ownership unethical. Off the top of my head:
    1) The object is stolen and you have no intention to return it to its rightful owner. (status unknown on this one)
    2) You intend to use the object for evil.
    3) You know or suspect the seller intends to use the proceeds for evil.

    Re #3: Last night, we ate at a middle eastern restaurant and market. The food was good, the staff friendly. After buying a few sweets in the market section of the building, we exited through a different door from the entrance. At that door was a rack offering free Qurans, both English and Arabic versions.
    I consider true Islam, that is, accurately following the teachings and life-example of its prophet, to be a threat to humanity. The business operations either fund the Quran display, or at the least enable it, which in turn, could encourage new adherents to Islam.
    Should we ever eat or shop there again?

    • Hitler has a few Great Nephews left, some in the US. None of them will ever claim that watch.

      The last relative that would have, his sister, died in 1960.

  5. Old English law has an principle relating to objects that had been involved in human death called a Deodand. For example, if an oxcart had run over it’s owner, it was considered to be forfit and surrendered to the church/state. Perhaps this was done out of necessity, people believing evil intent or simple bad luck bound to an object and abandoning it. Perhaps this is also a core cornerstone of gun control philosophy–weapons capable of death, or worse, “designed to kill”, have no redeeming qualities and must never be possessed by mere citizens and surrendered.

    Presumably this superstition would apply to Nazi artifacts if it were still in place.

    For even more ick factor, Eva Braun’s panties and nightgown have sold several times at auction for thousands of dollars.

    • “Perhaps this is also a core cornerstone of gun control philosophy–weapons capable of death, or worse, “designed to kill”, have no redeeming qualities and must never be possessed by mere citizens and surrendered.”

      Nah. The cornerstone of gun control is disarmament ans subjugation of the citizenry and dependence on the states for everything.


  6. Interesting. This apparently was just one of a whole slew of WWII memorabilia (Nazi, Italian, and even Stalin’s signature).

    The Hitler watch is spectacular, but how would you regard a cap worn by a concentration camp guard?

    • It’s all cognitive dissonance games. If WordPress hadn’t made polling too complicated (and expensive), I’d list a bunch of artifacts and ask the assembled to vote on whether and how much it triggers ethics Alarms and Ick Alarms… like,

      —a bill of sale from Jefferson to Madison regarding a slave
      —Booth’s Derringer
      —Lizzie Borden’s ax
      —Jeffrey Dahmer’s tooth brush
      —Typhoid Mary’s apron
      —John Wayne Gacy’s clown suit.
      —OJ’s football helmet.

      • OK, I’ll bite:

        1. Probably a legit piece of history although subject to abuse.

        2. On display in Ford’s Theater, where it belongs, in this writer’s opinion.

        3. Lurid, but might belong in a local history or true crime museum.

        4. Ewwww.

        5. Double Ewwww.

        6. Probably would work in a true crime museum.

        7. Maybe in the Buffalo Bills’ Museum?

        OK, let’s play a bit more, what about the following items:

        1. A gallows from Salem, MA, thought to have been where some of the accused witches were hung.

        2. The sword of Hernando Cortez, conqueror of Mexico.

        3. The riding jacket of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

        4. John Laister’s rifle, used to shoot a 17yo UK soldier charged with cowardice in WWI.

        5. The scimitar of Nana Sahib, who ordered the Cawnpore Massacre.

        6. Captain James Cook’s telescope.

  7. Jack,
    Your post triggered a few thoughts. I agree that inanimate objects in themselves are not evil. It would follow then that the possession of Hitler’s watch is not evil. It is only people committing evil actions that are evil. I further believe a person cannot be considered evil if they themselves don’t commit evil acts. However, can they be considered to be evil if they belong to a group that commits evil acts, but they don’t participate? I think not.

    A follow-on thought, however, concerns the price paid for Hitler’s watch. Except for the purpose of investment, I have never been able to relate to the drive some people have to spend vast amounts of money to possess unique or rare items. I can understand acquiring art for its esthetic appeal but not just because of who created it. Is the drive to possess expensive items so they can demonstrate their wealth. Is it to bolster a feeling of superiority? If so, then isn’t it unethical to pay a million dollars for Hitler’s watch?

    • Well, one of the things I deal in is books, mostly used books. It is a fact of life that many people are willing to pay a premium for books signed by the author. They are also — more for older books — more valued if you have the first edition of a given book. To give an example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had a relatively small print run for the first edition back in the 1950s, as in perhaps a couple thousand or so. Even early printings of The Fellowship of the Ring will tend to be pricey.

      Typically an author’s first book would have a small print run, because he’d be an unknown at that point. As big a career as John Grisham or Tom Clancy have had, their first books had very small print runs and consequently are relatively scarce. It’s an interesting dynamic.

    • Most of the time, I think it’s just that someone has money to burn, wants an object, and can have it without feeling any pain. If you’re rich enough to pay a million for Hitler’s watch, you’re rich enough to buy a lot of junk. Jay Leno has old motorcycles that he has probably mot looked at for years. He can afford an indulgent hobby. I can’t call it unethical.

      I also understand someone buying paintings by Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, George Bush II, Winston Churchill and other famous amateur artists. If they aren’t hideous, they have legitimate value as pieces of history.

  8. Putting it in a museum is a nice sentiment, but these things are probably safer in private hands. I seem to remember the case of an American collector who bought items looted from the British museum by a researcher and it looked like the practice was common among British Museum researchers. Although the American had to give the items back, no police report was ever filed listing them as stolen and the researcher who took them was never charged. Museums also don’t necessarily keep mechanical things in working order (buying a collectible car from a museum would probably be a disaster).

    If you don’t like Hitler’s watch, here is a collectible you might be interested in:

    Also in this auction are guns from Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. Numerous Nazi firearms are included in this auction as well, including a fully transferable MP-40 submachine gun. Private collections have a vast range of items and, with the internet, these items often are more accessible than ones held in the museum storeroom, only available to researchers. A museum would never allow you to shoot an STG-44 Stumgewehr, for example.

    • If you’re looking at Rock Island’s auction stuff, you probably know it, but in part because of their sort of “steam-punk cool” design (likely why they chose it for the “blaster”), the broomhandles have been sought-after for some time now, and the “right” historical collectable one can bring a good price. But you have to be pretty knowledgeable about what you’re buying (I’m not, though I am looking for a decent condition “shooter” in 9mm).

      This reminded me that Springfield trapdoor carbines that just fall within the possible serial number range of those that might have been carried by Custer’s men bring a premium from collectors. Which, in turn, reminded me that I have something which may carry a bit of ick factor as well, an 1873 trapdoor (rifle, not carbine) with about 15 “kill” marks on the stock. Of course, no idea for what…deer? elk? Buffalo?…Indians?

      • The Mausers are pretty pricey for what they are. I was looking at some of the Astra clones and the Bergmans, but by the time I had the money they had gone up as well. Some of the full-auto versions are exempt from the NFA and allow you to own a full-auto firearm that is not(?) a machine gun.

  9. Each year we allow parishioners to display images of their deceased loved ones for remembrance on All Soul’s Day (November 2). Each year there appears the image of a man dressed in his SS uniform. (baton and all) in a proud stance. Each year my ethics and the moral alarm go off . But I have to remember that although he practiced evil he was someone’s husband, brother, father, etc

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