For more than 30 years, Nazi artifacts were among the World War II relics on display at a Minnesota military collectors show.
A month after white supremacists took to the streets in Charlottesville, Va., organizers of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Military Relic and Weapon Collector show are banning World War II German artifacts marked with Nazi symbols and other images co-opted by hate groups.
“Over time, things have changed,” said Joe Dudley, one of the organizers of the two-day event, which opens Sept. 30 at the State Fairgrounds. “People are very offended by swastikas and photos of Hitler, and those things shouldn’t be in our show.”
But not everyone agrees, including David Feinwachs, a Twin Cities man whose ancestors were killed by Nazis.
Many of those who witnessed the atrocities of Word War II have died, he said, and “the artifacts are all that we have left. ... I understand that no one there wants to be portrayed as a Nazi sympathizer. But all these things have historical significance.”
It’s a sticky debate, and one that has become more complicated after the violence in Charlottesville.
“We’re living in a time with emboldened white supremacy and Nazism,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “It’s a good time to question just how acceptable we want these items available in an unrestrained manner.”
Levin, whose father was held by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, defends the right of vendors to sell some items, although he personally wouldn’t.
“These items have been transmuted from historical artifacts into expressions of disgusting promotions of anti-Semitism and white supremacy,” he said. “I think the risk of profoundly offending people is greater than the benefit of having these items floating aimlessly in routine commerce.”
But banning them isn’t the answer, he added. Instead, he thinks such images should be restricted.
“Business as usual as was in the past doesn’t really work in 2017,” he said.
Context is everything — historical as well contemporary context, Levin said.
“We’re losing people with the memory of who was most impacted by this regime,” he said. “We really should display hate symbols in a tolerant and educational context.”
Those on both sides of the debate agree that history needs to be preserved and never forgotten.
Dudley and his partner, Bob Johnson, have run the military collectors show for 35 years. For much of that time, most of their vendors and visitors were World War II veterans. Some who fought the Germans returned with artifacts, including flags and other items bearing swastikas.
“They were proud that they kicked Hitler’s butt and stopped fascism in Europe,” Johnson said. “These items were souvenirs. Trophies.”
Now these symbols are associated with hate groups, so Dudley and Johnson want them out of their show. Items banned include those bearing a swastika or SS Runic symbol, including flags, banners, armbands, propaganda posters, uniforms and badges. WWII German military items that don’t bear those symbols will be allowed.
The ban also includes photographs of Third Reich leaders, Holocaust items, concentration camp uniforms, World War II Jewish identification insignia, KKK symbols and the Confederate battle flag.
“We just don’t want someone to come through the show with a cellphone, photograph something and put it online, saying we’re a hate group,” Johnson said. “Not one of our vendors is a Nazi lover. … With the current climate the way it is, we put out a blanket policy because it’s getting too crazy.”
Feinwachs, who has visited the show in past years, understands the concerns.
“I don’t question their motives,” he said of Johnson and Dudley. “My concern is sweeping it all under the carpet and saying that we’ll never look at this stuff again.
“It makes it more likely,” he said, that history will repeat itself.
Even more concerning to Feinwachs is that some photographs and books, because of the images on their covers, could be banned. That matters, he added, because “the content of books help people understand what occurred and why it was so horrible.”
Feinwachs’ father survived concentration camps at Auschwitz and Mauthausen. His mother, whose family was exterminated, survived because she was hidden by a Polish family.
“I’m hyper sensitive to how much pain and despair and hardship this symbolism represents. But even in the face of that, history is history,” said Feinwachs, 66. “At some point you cross the line from sensitivity to absolute mindless prohibition.
“One of the craziest books ever written was [Hitler’s] ‘Mein Kampf.’ But I certainly do not advocate that you shouldn’t be able to buy a copy or get a copy from the library. From my perspective, to understand how crazy Adolf Hitler was, just read his book. Some may view it as some kind of holy document, but most people don’t.”
People should have access to study and examine books and artifacts, including Holocaust items, he said.
Ban put in writing
Dudley said he and his partner included Holocaust items in their prohibition because “anything that has to do with concentration camps is really very sacred. People died over there for no reason whatsoever.”
He and Johnson want to preserve history, he added, but not at the expense of being misconstrued.
Every year since starting the show, Johnson and Dudley have walked among the vendors, asking them to remove displays that they deemed offensive. This year, they decided to put a detailed policy in writing. The restrictions are similar to those used by eBay.
“We wanted to make it clear to everyone, given the times,” Dudley said.
About a half dozen vendors pulled out of the show after they got a copy of the policy. Some complained that it was a violation of free speech, Dudley said.
“That’s fine,” he said pointing out that he and his partner have a private business to run.
“It’s their show and they can do whatever they want,” Feinwachs said. But he doesn’t want political correctness to mask history.
“It was a horrible, dark time in history,” he said. The artifacts are a “reminder of what was worst in people, which we must constantly guard against.”