I visited the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, designed
by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. The museum, which
focuses on how war shapes lives, is impressive in design. The various
parts of the building are said to resemble the shards of a shattered
world. But, despite all the symbolism, it was a minor incident at
the museum that stuck in my mind. While perusing the various World
War II artefacts, I noticed a group of schoolchildren who seemed
mesmerised by various Nazi-related items. They seemed drawn to them,
snapping photos of swastikas and a large gold Nazi eagle. Of all
the objects that could draw their interest, from fighter jets to
tanks, it was these symbols that captivated them.
course, this need not be negative. There is a growing focus on the
horrors of genocide and research continues to unearth the causes
of Nazi tyranny. More school curricula now focus on learning about
the Holocaust. This helps us understand the past and not repeat
there is also a downside. Why would such symbols intrigue children?
Is it curiosity or research for a school project? Or is it the allure
of the power and abuse linked with such symbols? The line between
fascination with the macabre and genuinely learning from a repulsive
past seems a thin one, not only for children but for adults, too.
This is evident in the continuing debate about collecting Nazi memorabilia.
The American writer Susan Sontag writes that collecting Nazi memorabilia
gives the collectors a type of thrill similar to doing something
forbidden or breaking social taboos. Consequently, the Nazis remain
big business. An autograph of Hitler can fetch up to £2 000.
Paper with his initials and Nazi insignia on the letterhead can
fetch up to £50 a sheet. Recently, Hitlers Nazi party
membership badge, engraved at the back with the number one, was
stolen from the archives of the Russian Federal Security Bureau
(formerly the KGB). If it is the genuine article, it could be worth
up to £2-million.
years ago, following public pressure, eBay had to put restrictions
on what could be bought and sold on online auctions. It claims that
items bearing symbols of the Nazis, including authentic German World
War II memorabilia, are no longer allowed on the site. However,
a quick visit to the US site revealed a plethora of items for sale,
including an allegedly genuine Nazi battle flag for $750. So should
eBay and others be prevented from selling such material? Many collectors
claim that collecting such items is purely historic. But, if collecting
was a historic exercise, then why the hefty price tags and why are
such items not handed over to museums for proper archiving, explanation
and display? But, equally, is banning the sale of such items the
answer? Would this not increase their value, while infringing on
peoples basic rights to trade freely? One thing is clear,
however. It is deplorable that people should continue to make money
out of such memorabilia. It also makes me think that it is time
we South Africans started to think about our past. A quick scan
of eBay suggests there are only a few items from the apartheid past
available at the moment, including a few anti-apartheid records,
T-shirts and badges, and old South African flags. But it may be
a growth industry.
what if more inflammatory items started to find their way to auction?
Such items could include infamous instruments of torture or soldiers
photos of their dead enemy, as was allegedly the case recently in
Iraq. I do not want to sound like a prophet of doom but, surely,
given the lessons from the Holocaust, this is all possible. Are
South Africans prepared to make their past available to the highest
bidder? Should trading in some items be regulated or should we just
let the market take control.
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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