Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums
Christopher Caple briefly discusses the inclusion of Nazi war memorabilia in his book, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making. He uses the notion as an example of the dangers of using the past as propaganda, asking if the artifacts “celebrate their views or remind of the dangers of a totalitarian regime” (20).
When I visited the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, I was struck by the images of Nazi propaganda throughout the World War II hall: not because I felt they didn’t belong there, but because I had never seen anything like them before. As a war museum, rather than a history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches has less of responsibility to the overall history of Austria and Vienna, instead focusing on the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the two World Wars. In this context, Nazi propaganda greatly explains how and why Austria came under German rule early in the conflict, making it an integral part of Austrian war history.
What about other places in Europe, or even across the world? Is it important to include Nazi propaganda in a museum of a country that did not experience the Holocaust, or does it detract valuable time and energy away from a more tragic chapter in world history? Caple asks two questions in his book:
- Should they [Nazi artifacts] be collected and preserved as a record of the period and what happened at that time?
- Should they be displayed and brought to the attention of people? (2003: 20)
These are difficult questions, particularly for museums in Europe. Coming from a background in history, I would argue that collecting and preserving artifacts for future generations, regardless of their sensitive nature, is an important job of museums in general. Whether or not they place those artifacts on display, is another question entirely.
For countries in Europe, particularly those directly affected by Nazi occupation, these artifacts are a part of their country’s heritage. They form an integral part of the story of World War II that many people forget, or choose to ignore, giving precedence instead to the tragedy of the Holocaust. An interesting point to make is that Nazi artifacts and memorabilia are part of the story of the Holocaust as well.
For me, the jury is still out on what priority these artifacts should have in a museum. Should museums withhold limited resources from these types of sensitive artifacts, simply because of their nature? How do curators decide what percentage of their museum to use for these artifacts? Are they less important to display because they represent a chapter in history the world would like to forget? Genocide memorials and exhibits across the world speak to this last question.
As a world traveler, I remember being shocked that the first, and last, place I saw that much Nazi memorabilia was in Austria. There were posters, plaques, journals, clothing, and pamphlets: all painstakingly preserved to show part of the story. I will tell you that they made a huge impact on how I viewed the German conquest of Austria and the subsequent events of World War II. I believe that is the goal of the museum: to expose the public to things they have never seen or thought about before, and in doing so, give them a broader historical experience.
Caple, C, 2003, Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.