Michael Roders remembers the first time his grandfather showed him what was in the box. He was 11 or 12 at the time, and already knew that his mom's father was obsessed with Nazis—his home in Cleveland, Ohio, was covered in newspaper clippings of local guys who had been outed as former sympathizers of the Third Reich. But while Roders had already been regaled with stories about how his relative had fought in World War II and taken out some of the evil fascists who'd killed their extended family members, he never knew that there were trophies to prove it.
One day, during an extended summer visit, his grandfather popped open the cardboard container hidden in the back of a closet. Inside was a helmet, a pistol, and a handful of knives engraved with swastikas—including one that was child's sized, presumably for Hitler Youth. If that wasn't terrifying enough for a preteen, there was also a red Nazi flag that unfurled to be about eight feet long. "I guess he figured I was old enough to see if then," the 28-year-old recently told me. "I have the feeling that he wanted it to become a family heirloom—that he was trying to share a piece of his history, and of world history."
As he grew older, Roders forgot about the box. He moved to Ocala, Florida, when he was 13, and later, about 40 miles north of that to attend the state's flagship university, where he became my friend, and eventually my roommate. The memorabilia lived in an attic long after the grandfather passed away, and Roders almost forgot it existed until this year, when he got a phone call from his mom asking for help. She was planning a move and needed help figuring out how to appraise and sell the artifacts online. Roders quickly found that while Ebay banned the sale of Nazi artifacts from their site in 2001, partially because there are some countries in which such material is illegal to possess, there are less popular alternatives like LiveAuctioners, where this stuff seems readily available for purchase. He thought nothing of this research until his girlfriend asked, "Won't she just be selling them to a neo-Nazi?"
Randy Cohen, who's best known for tackling all kinds of ethical conundrums for the New York Times Magazine from 1999 to 2011, pondered whether it was ethical to trade in Nazi materials well before Roders did. In a 2014 episode of his podcast, "Person, Place, Thing," the author Jean Hanff Korelitz spoke about owning daggers and a whip that a relative brought back from the war and gave to her father. While she said that touching them was a nauseating experience, she presented the alternative as possibly worse. "There are people out there who want these things, but they're the very people you would not want to have them," as she put it. At a time when Nazis are running for Congress and gloating about murdering college students, the question of what to do with swastika-emblazoned heirlooms is especially relevant to the millennial members of aging families.
Cohen told Korelitz that throwing out the artifacts would amount to "a cleansing of history," and suggested finding someone who might want it for its historical value. But as it turns out, that's easier said than done, as I found upon calling several museums to ask if they'd be willing to take what my friend's mom wanted to get rid of. Curators at both the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the World War II Museum in New Orleans both said that they were very specific on the items they accept—both specified no knives, for instance.
Jay Lockenour is a professor at Temple University who teaches modern German history and also happens to be my uncle. He explained to me that like museum curators, academics such as himself have little interest in collecting what he and his peers call "bad objects." Though he confesses to having a couple of medals a mentor gave him tucked into a drawer, he's not exactly looking for more stuff to fill his house with. As he put it: "What would I do with such an item? Hang it on my wall? Wear it?"
In his opinion, people's "fascination [with these objects] is usually based on a completely false notion that somehow the Wehrmacht [the German army] had remained 'clean' and not participated in the atrocities of the war or the Holocaust," he told me. "That idea is a complete myth and is thoroughly debunked by historians."
So museums are overloaded with the stuff, and mainstream historians don't necessarily want it, either. "The market for such items has always primarily been with military collectors," offered Gary Piattoni, an appraiser for Antiques Roadshow. "I have not personally seen great interest from extreme right groups in these relics. They make their own flags, and may have cheap copies of posters and other regalia, but few in my experience seek out the real thing."
But given the recent resurgence of white nationalism in America, the fact that cultural artifacts are playing a sizable role in its continued spread, its worth asking whether the fact these items go "primarily" to military collectors is enough. In fact, Michael Buckley, an associate professor at Lehman College, was planning to ask his political philosophy class about a similar rhetorical situation the day I hit him up to ask about what Roders should do. He eventually concluded it wasn't a risk worth taking.
"Neo-Nazis don't sit quietly in their basements admiring the historical significance of Nazi paraphernalia, nor do they use them to honor the memory of those gassed by the Nazi regime," he told me. "Instead, they use them to foment racism among their friends, or to promote hate, or to sow the seeds of division between communities."
Ultimately, a local pawn shop referred Roders's mom to an individual buyer they thought might be interested. Though her children were frightened by the prospect of a stranger showing up at their 59-year-old mother's house, she was game for it. In the end, she was only upset about getting low-balled. The dude who showed up apparently offered about $110 for both the flag and the gun. And while my friend's mom told me the man very well may have been a neo-Nazi, having the World War II artifacts in her attic constituted less of an ethical problem for her than a pain in the ass.
"I've been through a lot in my life," she said. "I wasn't scared, and my family was all killed in the pogroms, because they were Jewish. But I don’t care if you’re a Nazi, so long as you have enough money. I'm not a Nazi, and that's why I just want to get this shit out my house."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.