Military antiques, known by collectors as militaria, are closely associated with military and police artifacts, and collected for their historical significance. Within the militaria trade, there’s one category of memorabilia that evokes controversy and heated debate among collectors, dealers, governments, and the general public; Nazi artifacts. Inevitably, a familiar question is posed: Is it okay to buy, sell, trade, or collect Nazi related artifacts, especially those bearing the swastika?
Too Hot To Handle
Some dealers and collectors find Nazi memorabilia either too offensive or too controversial to handle. For example, eBay, the world’s largest collectible marketplace, outright bans items that “amount to Nazi propaganda, or that are disrespectful to victims.” However, they do allow stamps, letters, envelopes, and currency issued by the Nazi German government. They also allow “historically accurate WWII” military model kits, and historical and religious items that bear a swastika, as long as they were made prior to 1933. Furthermore, several European countries have laws in place banning the display of Nazi symbols, including Germany, which passed such laws shortly after the end of the Second World War.
For others, the historical significance of Nazi artifacts far outweighs the offense they may give others. Most often history enthusiasts, collectors of Nazi militaria amass such artifacts for historical purposes; as symbols of an inexcusably murderous regime that was unequivocally crushed, and an ideology that was discredited throughout the world.
Nazi Militaria Demand
Despite its controversy―or because of it―the Nazi militaria market is thriving. Although it’s difficult to know with certainty, the Guardian estimates the market’s annual global turnover to be in excess of $35m. And according to militaria appraiser Jeff Shrader, he estimates that Nazi militaria accounts for more than half of the entire militaria trade in the U.S. alone.
Such demand can be attributed to several factors. For starters, World War II was the largest war ever waged; and for many, there remains a generational connection to the conflict. One of the strongest forces driving demand, is the desire to collect historical artifacts that are connected to the theaters of war that collectors’ parents or grandparents fought in.
From a supply side, Nazi Germany used its industrial strength to pump out a staggering amount of military supplies leading up to, and during, the conflict. Simply stated, the Nazi government made a lot of stuff: insignias, medals, knives and daggers, pistols and rifles, bombs and ammunition, uniforms and badges, flags, statues, stationary, currency, and much more.
Why Have So Many Nazi Artifacts Survived?
The primary reason behind the survival of Nazi artifacts can be attributed to their design. The Nazi regime’s attention to bold, ornate, and aesthetically pleasing design was very intentional. The Nazis wanted adorn their army with the most striking accoutrements as possible. They believed such accoutrements would embolden the ranks of fighting men, while striking fear in their enemies.
The unintentional side effect to such design, is that the conquering Allies were more apt to keep the accoutrements as war trophies―symbols of the enemy they had defeated―instead of discarding or outright destroying them. Many of those wartime trophies have now been passed down to family members, or have entered the militaria market for sale.
Has The Swastika Always Represented Evil?
By today’s standards, the swastika represents the worst of humanity―the cruel persecution and systematic slaughter of millions of innocent lives. But Hitler and the Third Reich were not the first to use the swastika. Not even close.
The history of the swastika dates back almost 5,000 years, beginning with Hindus and Buddhists. The word ‘swastika’ (or svasktika) is rooted in Sanskrit, the ancient liturgical language of Hinduism. Translated, svasktika means “Well Being”, “Good Luck”, or “Good Existence.” In Buddhism, the swastika is closely associated with Buddha and symbolizes prosperity, good fortune, and eternity.
The symbol was used by Ancient Greeks, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons, and it was used among Native Americans. In fact, to pay homage to the Navajo people, the Arizona Department of Transportation marked its state highway signs with a swastika on an arrowhead. It wasn’t until 1942 that the department replaced the symbol on their signs. The swastika was even used in early Coca-Cola advertising!
In the 1920s, though, the Nazi Party in Germany embraced the swastika as the symbol of the Aryan invasion theory, in which they claimed that the early Aryans of India, from whose language the swastika was formed, were the prototypical white invaders. Those theories were seized upon by the Nazi’s. In turn, they appropriated the swastika as an Aryan symbol to boost a sense of ancient lineage for the Germanic people, forever tarnishing a once welcoming symbol shared by diverse cultures around the world. By the 1930s the symbol’s positive associations had been all but erased. And by the end of World War II, the symbol was inextricably linked to hatred, evil, and genocide.
Is It Okay To Buy, Sell, Trade, And Collect Nazi Artifacts?
While I can’t answer that question for you, what I can tell you, is that from my experience in the militaria collector space, those that collect such artifacts are attracted to Nazi militaria for reasons no more disturbing than a genuine interest in history. Furthermore, militaria collectors are well equipped with a deep understanding, appreciation, and respect for history―all of it―the good, the bad, and the evil. By collecting Nazi militaria, they are able to show, and tell, the story of an evil regime that was defeated by forces of good.
I also understand that militaria collecting, like any other genre of collecting, is a microcosm of society. Just as there are hateful racists in society, there inevitably will be hateful racists who collect militaria. But do I believe that everyone who collects Nazi militaria is a hateful racist? Absolutely not. By and large, the collector market for Nazi militaria is made up of well intentioned, responsible collectors, that have great love and a deep respect for history as it happened.
The phrase “Never Forget” is often associated with such horrific tragedies as 9/11 and the Holocaust. The statement is made so that we will never forget such tragedies. And when we don’t forget our history, it cautions us from allowing it to happen again.
A collector market in which history-focused collectors spend money on Nazi militaria, serves a role in preserving history for others to learn from. And the fact that such artifacts are of monetary value, helps ensure such objects, and the history they represent, will not be discarded, destroyed, and completely forgotten.