America's old soldiers of World War II are fading away in quickstep. Of some 17 million men and women who fought for the United States in that war, less than 5 million are alive today. The death rate is on the order of 33,000 each month. With their passing, their sons, daughters and other heirs often face a complex dilemma: what to do with the mementos, souvenirs and trophies that American soldiers returning from war often brought back--daggers, banners, helmets, documents and all sorts of spoils--perhaps to prove where they'd been, or to mark their place in history, or in hopes of profit, or simply because a sword, medal or beer stein caught their fancy.
Dealers and collectors in militaria tell INSIGHT that more and more World War II memorabilia is emerging today from attics, basements and closets where it was stored when returning soldiers got on with their lives more than 50 years ago. Often rejected by overstuffed and underbudgeted museums, the memorabilia often is consigned to specialized sales and auctions that once were remote from the eyes of the general public but are hard to miss today on the Internet.
While in some cases the question simply is one of finding a dealer or museum interested in the items, there are real complications in the case of Nazi memorabilia. Because of lawsuits and protests from activists who loathe the sight of anything Nazi, many major auction houses and Internet sales sites have banned items bearing Third Reich symbols.
Many people believe it is immoral to trade in items linked to the genocidal atrocities that Nazism wrought upon millions of innocent people. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, among the most outspoken critics of the sale of Third Reich-related items and an official with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, frequently is in the news condemning the sale of "items which glorify the horrors of Nazi Germany." In congressional testimony, he has called for a variety of legislative and voluntary efforts to ban such sales, maintaining that they "market hate."
The Anti-Defamation League, another very active anti-Nazi organization, says auctioning off items related to Adolf Hitler gives the architect of one of humanity's greatest nightmares "celebrity status." That comment was occasioned by a San Francisco sale that included a bedsheet embroidered with the Nazi eagle emblem and the initials "A.H."
Bans are in effect in many European countries, where it is illegal to buy Third Reich memorabilia. The result has proved a dilemma for those who market such items over the borderless Internet via auction Websites such as eBay and Yahoo. In a lawsuit filed in France by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Union of French Jewish students, a judge ruled that in electronically facilitating sales of banned items in France, Yahoo was guilty of an offense against the collective memory of a country profoundly wounded by the atrocities committed by and in the name of the Nazi criminal enterprise.
The judge ordered Yahoo to accomplish a feat that most experts agree is technologically impossible--to screen French viewers from U.S.-based sites offering Nazi memorabilia or pro-Nazi commentary. The battle is a factor in a far greater debate over freedom of speech and regulation of commerce on the international Internet, major issues bound to compel global attention for years to come.
Yahoo appealed the French ruling to courts in the United States, and in mid-May a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the company's auction listings are protected by the First Amendment. The problem of trying to apply local or even national laws to an international medium is far from resolved, though.
But as a result of the pressures, both eBay and Yahoo now have policies prohibiting the sale of obvious Nazi items. At least two major auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, have similar policies. …