The sale of Nazi memorabilia is banned or at least restricted in a number of European countries, including Germany and France, yet it continues to be a feature of British auction houses.
Anti-Semites in the UK, unlike their European allies, are able, openly and legally, to buy all kinds of “souvenirs” that glorify the Third Reich and offer a chilling aesthetic and material manifestation of their fascism.
This is a particularly concerning problem given the dramatic increase in the number of reported anti-Semitic attacks in the UK this summer. Israel’s actions in Gaza have divided international opinion but there are evidently people who can’t or won’t untangle Judaism from Israeli military policy.
You won’t find Nazi regalia on eBay and the heavy hitters of the UK auction world, Sotheby’s, Christies, and Bonhams, won’t handle it either. But Dreweatts Auctioneers in Bristol hit the headlines in March 2012 for selling a silver tray given by Albert Speer to Hitler as a birthday present, for £28,000. The sale triggered an Early Day Motion from Fabian Hamilton, Labour MP for Leeds North East, deploring “the profiteering on items promoting and glorifying hatred and violence”.
My own local auction house in the northwest of England is an eclectic Aladdin’s cave of treasures in which I have found many quirky and wonderful objects from expensive paintings to a wonky old side table. But a recent event has led me to see it in a new light.
The most recent catalogue for the auction house contains nine lots of Third Reich memorabilia, including shoulder straps; regimental pins; collar patches; a dress braid complete with flying eagle and swastika badge; cloth patches, including a Hitler Youth patch; a Hitler Youth Young People’s Proficiency badge; a Nazi Party badge and many other items. As I scrolled through the catalogue, my reaction to these lots, shoved in between the customary, anodyne costume jewellery and wall clocks, was visceral.
Its presence in the auction room troubled me very deeply. I phoned the auctioneer, a calm, well-spoken man, and told him how I felt. He was disarmingly sympathetic.
The lots had come from one seller, an ex-army officer, and had been in the auction house’s stores for more than a year. The auctioneer declared himself a pacifist and said that, had the items come in a couple of months ago, he would not have sold them, but he had a duty to the vendor.
It was an amiable conversation that culminated in him pledging to make a donation to the Holocaust Educational Trust but some of his arguments didn’t wash. They raised some interesting contradictions about this problem. He told me that “until it’s made illegal to sell war artefacts, we will continue to do so”.
Some would argue that if we allow the sale of other types of military paraphernalia that are linked to terrible acts, we can’t ban one type in particular. But memorabilia of this kind is not just military paraphernalia, it is freighted with a particular cultural resonance.
I don’t agree that we need a private market in such items to keep the “never again” spirit alive. Even if these objects are merely kept in storerooms, they are still circulating in an uncontrolled environment. Properly curated museums are the only appropriate place for Nazi memorabilia.
So, I’m still debating whether or not to go to the sale. I am, I’ll admit, curious to see who will be bidding on these lots – although they will probably do it over the phone. But my gut feeling is that I don’t even want to be an onlooker at what still amounts to macabre Holocaust profiteering.
In a fantasy scenario, I bid on, and win, all of these repugnant lots, taking them safely out of the public sphere by giving them to the national Holocaust Centre and Museum, the wonderful Beth Shalom in Nottinghamshire.
My decision, whatever it is, of course reflects the luxury of first-world privilege. I’m thousands of miles away from the West Bank, and decades away from the Shoah. But Elie Wiesel’s line: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness” is, I think, a powerfully resonant one for me today.