Nazi political and civil badges and insignia. Image: Wikipedia/Joe Mabel
During World War II, an estimated 12 percent of the American population served in the armed forces. Many soldiers returned with Nazi artifacts like swastika-emblazoned armbands, helmets, or medals from the Third Reich; spoils of war stolen as reminders of the battles they had just fought.Now, two weeks after the presidential election of Donald Trump—a figure who successfully galvanized groups of white supremacists—descendants of these soldiers are more than eager to rid themselves of the Nazi memorabilia that lay hidden in forgotten footlockers and attics.
According to the Virginia Holocaust Museum, one of the several educational institutions dedicated to the most horrible atrocities of World War II, donation offers from owners of Nazi artifacts have quadrupled since Trump's election."Kids or grandkids are going through their attics, finding this stuff and thinking to themselves, "Oh, we really need to do something with this,'" Tim Hensley, director of collections at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, told me in a phone call.
Vocal factions of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and Nazi sympathizers—occasionally referred to as the "alt-right"—endorsed Trump from the start of his campaign. Trump has since elected Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News Network executive and white nationalist icon, as his White House chief strategist. At a conference hosted by the National Policy Institute this week, crowd-members were filmed saluting Trump in the Nazi fashion, arms extended above their heads, while the media was referred to as "Lügenpresse," a Nazi-era term for "lying press."Following media criticism, Trump has attempted to disavow his white supremacist supporters, stating that he has "continued to denounce racism of any kind and he was elected because he will be a leader for every American." However, in the eyes of many, Trump's repeated tolerance for bigoted behavior and rhetoric at campaign events, along with his own history of racist remarks, offers a tacit endorsement of white nationalism.
As such, Hensley suspects the palpable resurgence of Nazi ideology, along with the increasing visibility of hate crimes, has reminded people of the politically-charged artifacts lurking in their homes."Nine times out of 10, donation offers happen shortly after a relative has passed away. Now, I'm speculating that people are reading stories about upsurges in hate incidents and are reacting to that connection," Hensley said.The museum receives an average of two calls per month from US residents seeking to donate Holocaust-related items, and approximately five calls from those who own artifacts pertaining to World War II. In the past two weeks alone, Hensley added, inquiries from people wishing to re-home their relatives' Nazi memorabilia have "skyrocketed."While the Virginia Holocaust Museum occasionally accepts items that supplement its exhibits, the institution has more or less reached a saturation point for Nazi-related artifacts. It primarily exists to illuminate the stories of Holocaust victims as a means to educate the public about the effects of prejudice.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, research centers such as the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC added thousands of historical and personal artifacts to their collections. Today, donation offers are generally redirected to smaller historical societies that specialize in the individual accounts of World War II soldiers, or larger museums, like the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, that have more space to grow their collections.There has always been a lucrative market for Nazi memorabilia, though many in the collecting community deem the sale of these items morally questionable. Some auction houses refuse to buy or sell Nazi artifacts considered to be propaganda. In 2001, e-commerce sites like eBay and Yahoo Auctions prohibited the sale of these items, with the exception of coins and stamps.Still, there are some private collectors willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to own Nazi antiquities ranging from cars ridden by Adolf Hitler himself to signed copies of Mein Kampf.As for those calling the Virginia Holocaust Museum, "thankfully, they're not pawning their items, and are reaching out to cultural centers," Hensley told me. He recommends that owners of Nazi memorabilia reach out to their local historical societies, as they could be interested in collecting personal histories of the soldiers who brought the items back.Currently, the museum is actively seeking oral testimonies from Holocaust survivors and witnesses of other genocidal acts. One of the institution's core exhibits is called the "Ipson Family Saga," which chronicles the time one family spent in Lithuania's Kovno ghetto and in exile.