The Disposing of Hitler
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
2022 could be considered a year marked by great uncertainty. In the wake of a pandemic with many countries experiencing deteriorating economic circumstances, Russian troops entered Ukraine on the 24th of February. That war could break out in Europe came as a shock despite headlines of significant numbers of Russian troops massing around the border in late 2021 and early 2022 , and questions as to whether deterrence was a possibility . The situation has led to increased global uncertainty, particularly amid other economic problems surrounding the impact of the war on food supplies and energy, for which many European nations are dependent upon Russia. Russian involvement in Ukraine is not new, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 reflected similar motivations, and many of the same methods. The slowly developing sense of crisis could be compared to events in the 1930s where inactivity from other nations emboldened Hitler, leading to the wider conflict of the Second World War as control of the situation was lost and appeasement failed. It was the presence of nationalism in Ukraine, and its association with the far-right, that led to Putin’s assertion that Russia was entering Ukraine in a “special military operation” to “de-nazify” the country, a claim so over-exercised it begins to diverge almost entirely from common understanding of what a Nazi ideology would actually look like .
The debate around the presence of neo-Nazis across Europe, especially in its East, could therefore be expected and discussion of its past is almost inevitable. Just short of 700 miles away from Kyiv is Vienna, where currently at the ‘House of Austrian History’ (Haus der Geschichte Österreich (HDGÖ)) an exhibition entitled ‘Disposing of Hitler’ is running. Here, the debate surrounding the remnants of a regime that collapsed seventy years ago is an indication of the power it retains today, especially relevant as another war is taking place in Europe at the same time. The exhibition is subtitled ‘Out of the Cellar, Into the Museum’ and deals with the legacy of Nazism, specifically its physical remains, and what might be the most suitable way to respond to them. The display is “Nazism without the grey ”, deliberately taking a sombre approach in order to move away from the propaganda-like nature of the objects themselves. Visitor engagement is actively encouraged, reflective of the inevitable debate the matter sparks, making decisions on objects provided on cards which are then displayed as a part of the exhibition . It lays out three possibilities for each artefact: should these be preserved, sold, or destroyed?
One way to deal with the legacy of Nazism, as tends to be common with any valuable or informative object, is the preservation of associated items. This could be in a monetary sense as to what has the greatest financial value, and often in tandem with this is the historical importance of something with regard to the significance of its history, but equally important is the personal value of an item. For many, items associated with the Nazi regime are unlikely to hold much great sentimental value, although there will inevitably be exceptions to this.
The Wheatcroft Collection, based in Leicestershire in the UK is considered to be one of the largest private collections of military vehicles in the world, comprising approximately two-hundred items. However, the Wheatcroft Collection is far more extensive than a collection of vehicles. The owner, Kevin Wheatcroft, as a result of a lifetime of collection, also owns a range of Nazi memorabilia, such as the door of Hitler’s cell in Landsberg Prison in which he wrote Mein Kampf, and various other items such as Eva Braun’s gramophone, furniture from Hitler’s guesthouse in Linz, and Josef Mengele’s grandfather clock. Kevin Wheatcroft states he seeks to preserve such items for future generations and outlined his intentions for many items to go onto public display, suggesting they are not simply being preserved as a private collection for personal interest which seems to be the current position . There is a case to argue that through the preservation of some physical remains of the Nazi regime, subsequent generations can be more aware of what took place and these can act as a warning and deterrent from following a similar path. However, where these items are not seen by the public, it would not achieve this end result. In the United States a warehouse at Fort Belvoir in Virginia houses thousands of pieces of Nazi propaganda artwork. This includes significant pieces like Hubert Lanzinger’s ‘Der Bannerträger’ (The Standard Bearer) completed between 1934 and 1936, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. Both of these represent the historical and monetary importance of an item, and why these generally have been persevered. Yet, as highlighted in the exhibition at the Haus der Geschichte Österreich, items can also be preserved as a result of their significance to the individual. One of these is a toy pram made by a Wehrmacht soldier for his daughters in the aftermath of the war. The pram is made from a German field post crate which had been used to send home belongings which had been looted during the invasion of France. This was painted, with only the original address to send items home deliberately uncovered but hidden on the inside. For the soldier’s daughters, it holds obviously sentimental value as far as it was a childhood toy, but it also represents the connection between that family, Nazism and the events of the war .
Of greater significance than individual items is the preservation of historical sites associated with Nazism. For example, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland. Current estimates for the number of people who died at this site sit at 1.1 million , and being the largest of such extermination camps, for many, Auschwitz has become symbolic of the Holocaust more widely, and its role in beginning the modern human rights movement seems especially significant . Interestingly, the website for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum has an appeal asking for the donation of relevant documents and items currently under individual possession with the statement “Let us build memory!”, stating “memory is not something that is acquired once and stays forever ”. This comment seems especially pertinent as living witnesses to the events of Nazi persecution, and survivors in particular, are diminishing rapidly now.
The Nazi persecution of Jews began in 1933, culminating in the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. Death camps began operating at Semlin in modern Serbia and Chelmno in Poland in December 1941, following other massacres across Europe. For the vast majority of those killed in such circumstances, there is simply nothing tangible to preserve and nothing to dispose of, only reports of what took place to remind readers of the atrocities. In modern Ukraine, 33,000 Jews were murdered by Nazis, more specifically by the Einsatzgruppen (operations groups), at Babi Yar, starting on the 29th of September 1941 following the German occupation of Kyiv . The site continued be used by the Nazis as a site for murder, with an estimated total number of victims at the site of 70,000 . Poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote in his 1961 poem about the site “At Babi Yar no memorial presides./ A rough and looming cliff is the tombstone” , this followed the attempted cover-up of what had taken place on the site by the Soviet government. The year after, Shostakovich, the Russian composer, dedicated his 13th Symphony to Babi Yar, drawing even greater attention to the site. Eventually, in 1976 the first official monument was installed, although this was not associated with Ukrainian Jews. However, after independence was gained from the USSR in 1991, a memorial shaped like a menorah was displayed at the site . This allowed it to reflect the truth of what had taken place, rather than the narrative of the Soviet government which focused on the political conflict between communism and fascism. Following the current Russian invasion of Ukraine there have been reports of a Russian missile hitting the site, drawing attention to the importance of the preservation of such sites in dealing with the legacy of Nazism across Europe. President Zelensky noted how the missile strike forms an attempt to erase the history of the site, the Holocaust, and that of Ukraine more widely . This makes clear the importance of preservation, but also serves as a reminder of how easily destructible such locations are where efforts are not made to maintain them. Towards the end of World War Two, as allied forces closed in on Germany in 1944, many concentration and death camps were razed, meaning in some instances preservation of anything physical was nearly impossible. The preservation of such sites could be for educational purposes or to stand as a memorial and cannot be subject to the accusation of being preserved for a sole individual as a part of their own personal collection.