What Do You Do with Your Grandfather’s Genuine Nazi Flag?
My grandfather brought it back from the war, and he left it to me. I genuinely don't know what to do with it.
Holding a Nazi flag in your hands for the first time is a surreal experience. The evil it represents and all the hate perpetrated under the banner of the swastika hits you like a punch to the gut.
The first time I saw and held one of these flags was the winter of 2008. My grandfather, who had been a paratrooper in the Second World War, had recently died and my father and I were going through some of his things, saving what we could from my grandmother's desire to throw everything she could into the wood furnace in the basement.
"Have you ever seen his Nazi flag?" my father asked abruptly as we were looking through some old photos. I guess there is no gentle lead up to such a loaded question.
No. I hadn't seen it. And yes, I wanted to.
We walked into the guest room and my dad opened the closet door, then reached up to the top shelf, moved a few boxes aside and grabbed an old grocery bag. He pulled out a red mass of fabric, then slowly unfolded it, revealing the now infamous red, white and black flag.
I studied history while at university and had seen countless images of the flag in old photographs, movies and newspaper articles. The distinctive black swastika on a white circle, centred on a red background is unmistakable.
Yet here it was, a symbol of fear and hatred, just spread out on the carpet.
What the hell?
In the spring of 1945, the Allied forces were squeezing Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich from all directions. The Russians were pushing from the east, while Britain and its allies moved in from the west. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, an elite group of soldiers first created to help defend Canadian soil, but then deployed overseas to take part in the liberation of Europe starting on D-Day, led the spearhead into Germany.
Among them was Pvt. Thomas Jackson, my grandfather, just a few months short of his 22nd birthday.
The battalion was part of the 6th British Airborne Division and their mission was to march northeast to the port town of Wismar, on the Baltic Sea, and prevent German soldiers or officers from retreating into Norway and Denmark. They also had orders to reach the town before the Russians.
On May 2, 1945 at around 9AM, the battalion marched in Wismar, beating the Russians by just a few hours.
The Germans were actually somewhat pleased to see the British and Canadian forces. They knew the war was a lost cause and were worried what might happen to them if the Russians seized the town first.
An estimated 15,000 German soldiers and civilians surrendered to the British force over the next few days, and the pile of confiscated weapons allegedly grew to be 10 feet high and 25 feet long.
I can only imagine the relief young men like my grandfather must have felt to learn the war might soon be over after nearly six years of fighting. The official battalion war diary even states that on May 7, after the unconditional surrender of Germany, "the gin, whiskey, vodka, wine schnapps flowed, and everybody had a grand time acquiring the inevitable hangover."
As for the flag, the story goes that it was hanging inside the Rathaus (city hall) of Wismar and my grandfather was the first person inside the building after the city was captured. The swastika is only on one side of the flag, and there are metal loops at each corner, suggesting it was hung up on a wall.
No doubt grandpa took it as a memento of the war and the friends he lost overseas.
More than six decades have passed since that drunken night when they celebrated the end of the war in Europe, and with grandpa now gone, we're left asking ourselves what the rest of the family should do with an old Nazi flag.
At this point do I need to include the disclaimer that no one in my family is a Nazi? OK fine, none of my family members are Nazis.
The flag itself is in poor condition and has an odd smell that's hard to describe—almost sour. It's also covered in stains and smears, and there's a tear in the material where a black liquid (motor oil perhaps?) was spilled and weakened the fabric.
My dad said the first time he saw it was when he was about 15 years old. He was rummaging through grandpa's drawer looking for a work shirt and found it, along with a dismantled German luger handgun he also brought home from the war. There's something fitting about the fact it spent years folded up so close to my grandpa's underwear and socks.
"I never really thought of it as a war prize," my dad said. "It was just always there, tucked away in a drawer.
"To me it is just something my dad found at an opportune moment and stuffed in his pack before the commanding officers, diplomats or diehard Nazis could claim it."
The way I see it is we're left with three options: A. Keep it in a drawer somewhere, B. sell it to a collector (or donate it to a museum), or C. destroy it.
The first option of putting it in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere is perhaps the easiest, and it would be out of sight and out of mind. But then what's the point of keeping it at all? Just for the sake of having it? The arguments for keeping it (such as educating future generations about the horrors of Nazism) are moot if it just collects dust in the basement.
The second option of selling it is fraught with controversy and has generated strong debate among historians, scholars and the public. The range of Nazi-related items available for sale is astounding, from knives and raincoats to unopened rolls of toilet paper.
eBay has a lengthy list of Nazi-related items it will not allow to be sold (stamps, letters and currency = ok; uniforms, weapons or other items bearing Nazi symbols = banned. Not even Olympic medals from the 1936 Berlin games are allowed).
Over at Amazon, the online store has had a recurring issue with Nazi paraphernalia over the years. A quick search for the terms Nazi or swastika leads to plenty of results, including rings and coins.
B'nai B'rith, the oldest Jewish service organization in the world, has spent years asking Amazon to remove Nazi materials from their website. The Canadian branch of the organization even has an online petition with nearly 700 signatures, yet the materials remain relatively easy to find.
Even the small farming community of St. Jacobs, about an hour west of Toronto, was embroiled in some controversy in the summer of 2015 when the public complained about the sale of Nazi war antiques at a local consignment antique shop, including cuff links, flags and documents signed by Hitler himself.
Landlord Marcus Shantz told the local newspaper, the Waterloo Region Record, the store halted the sale of those items following the complaints.
"These artifacts are hateful symbols and we do not wish to encourage their sale," he said. "My personal view is that the only place this kind of item should be displayed is in a museum where they can be interpreted appropriately."
And that is the crux of the argument for why many believe Nazi items shouldn't be stuffed away in a closet somewhere and forgotten. They're a part of history, and if we bury them we risk forgetting those who died or, perhaps even worse, we risk repeating it.
Apply that logic to my family's flag, however, and the argument loses steam. I doubt any museum would be interested in it given the poor condition. Besides, I'm sure millions of flags were made throughout the 1930s and 40s, so do we really need one more Nazi flag in a museum?
In November, the Virginia Holocaust Museum reported a significant uptick in requests from families to donate Nazi-related memorabilia since the last US election, and the institution has reached a "saturation point" for Nazi artifacts.
That brings me to the third option—destroying it—and I'm surprisingly conflicted by this idea.
The crimes committed by the Nazis are indescribable and continue to horrify to this day. Millions were murdered, tortured, experimented on and starved. Yet, I'm reminded of the dangers of forgetting our past. If I destroy this flag, am I playing a small role in erasing the record of what Hitler did? It's an unsettling question.
And the harsh rhetoric that came out of the United States during this most recent presidential election has reminded the world that Nazis, white supremacists and other vile human beings still exist. And they've been emboldened by some of the race-baiting comments that became the norm over the past year or so.
Now more than ever we need to remind ourselves we're only 70 years removed from Hitler's tyranny. That's less than one lifetime.
So what are we to do?
"I think we should just roll it up in a cotton sheet and bring it out once in awhile when we tell our descendents about their family history," my dad said.
Maybe he's right. We still have grandpa's medals and photos from his time overseas, but the flag is different.
I have no doubt that taking the flag down from the wall filled him with some form of pride and I can just imagine a smile crossing his face as he did it, knowing the war with Germany was finally coming to a close.
And as the years turned into decades, whenever he reached into his drawer to grab a clean shirt and caught a glimpse of the red, white and black flag, I'm sure those memories came flooding back.
Perhaps we owe it to him to hold on to it for just a little bit longer.