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Does the past have its price?

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 9 December 2005

Recently, 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.

Of 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 it.

But 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, Hitler’s 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.

A few 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 people’s 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.

And 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.

Brandon 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

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