Nazi Memorabilia Boom: 'The People Want Souvenirs'

PHOTO: Nazi Memorabilia Boom The People Want SouvenirsAP Photo
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, left, reaches out to people below him to deliver autographs at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.

The trade in Nazi relics is booming in the United States, driven by private collectors who want to own a piece of world history's most notorious era. This week a US auction house at the helm of the trend will sell personal documents left behind by Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler's closest cohorts.

It turns out National Socialism is still worth something in Stamford, Connecticut. A well-preserved two-page statement written and signed by Hitler's Armaments Minister Albert Speer at the start of the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, for example, is worth $10,000 (€7,500).

That price seems like a deal compared to the going price for journals kept by concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele during his exile in South America. A private collector recently purchased them at an auction for nearly $300,000 (€224,000).

Even larger bids are expected in Stamford this Thursday, when a portion of Joseph Goebbels' estate goes up for auction. Items include letters and postcards sent and received by the Nazi propaganda minister during his younger years, as well as school report cards and poems and plays he wrote. There's even a lock of hair from a former girlfriend, preserved inside an envelope through the decades.

These will add up to a spectacular sale in a business with a seemingly endless supply of curios: the trade in historical relics. At a time when many people are turning to material assets, this is a flourishing business, and the most sought-after objects for this sort of investment come from Germany. Nazi documents provide collectors a story unique in the course of world history, with the brand name selling power of world-famous mass murderers. A striking number of recent buyers have been wealthy Russians.

'Nazi, Nazi, Nazi'

Alexander Autographs, the auction house in Stamford, a suburb northeast of New York City, is one of the market leaders in this booming business. Nestled in among supermarkets and junk dealers in an office building behind a courtyard, it looks as if the Third Reich has risen again here, in the form of SS cups, decorative plates bearing Hitler's portrait and hundreds of yellowed documents.

"People want souvenirs," says Bill Panagopulos. The owner of the auction house is 53 and divorced, a former firefighter with a quick natural wit. In the business of military and other historical objects for a quarter of a century, he says he has sold a total of 40,000 items.

A few of his current offerings: a bronze desk set, complete with inkwells and blotter, which Adolf Hitler supposedly used to sign the Munich Agreement in 1938; and an old writing desk ostensibly taken from the Berghof, Hitler's mountain residence near Berchtesgaden, Germany. There is also a wooden plaque with an image of two ducks flying along a reedy lake shore, with an inscription identifying it as the first prize for a gentlemen's wild fowl hunt organized by the commander's office at the Dachau concentration camp.

Panagopulos jokes that he would "even sell Hitler's mustache." In reality, he specializes in documents, and is visibly proud of his first two acquisitions: the autographs of American Civil War Generals William Sherman and Joseph Johnston. The autographs hang in his office, next to some old slot machines and a bar stool patched with tape that was favored by singer Frank Sinatra for his performances.

Such bits of Americana, though, are declining, giving way to a hard new currency. "Nazi, Nazi, Nazi," Panagopulos explains, pointing at objects all around him. He doesn't like the things, calling them "bad karma." To him this is no joke: His family comes from Greece, where German troops burned down his parents' home village.

Too Pricey for Public Institutions

But Panagopulos is a businessman, an American by birth who values freedom of opinion and free enterprise. He receives a 20 percent commission from buyers, plus a variable fee from sellers. New historical films are fueling demand in the US, Panagopulos says, and World War II has become part of American pop culture.

Many historians find such transactions obscene. "Our buyers aren't neo-Nazis," Panagopulos counters. "They wouldn't have the brains or the money." Quite to the contrary, he says, it's often wealthy Jewish people who buy items such as Mengele's journals. Universities and museums also have the opportunity to bid.

The items come from other traders or from family members who discover the objects in the homes of the war generation when they pass away. Some of it makes its way across the Atlantic by airfreight. There's certainly no lack of material, and there are even trade fairs for experts in Nazi memorabilia.

Public institutions generally don't have budgets large enough to bid on these items. Achim Baumgarten, director of the division at the Federal Archive in Koblenz, Germany, that handles estate matters, laments that he only has a few tens of thousands of euros at his disposal each year. For larger purchases, he must first obtain authorization from the federal cabinet.

In other words, it's unlikely that the documents up for auction in Stamford this week will end up making any contribution to historical research. The documents include treatises written by Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann during his time on trial in Israel, and a manuscript said to have been written from prison in 1983 by Klaus Barbie, the notorious head of the Gestapo in Lyon.

Goebbels' Girlfriends

The auction house, as is customary in this business, won't identify the seller profiting from these apologist babblings, only stating that the papers come from Europe. But there are a number of indications that Swiss businessman and Nazi admirer François Genoud, who died in 1996, had them in his possession.

Genoud essentially founded the trade in relics from the Third Reich, wanting both to preserve legacy of his idols and profit from it. It seems he took a liking to papers of Joseph Goebbels' from the period biographer Peter Longerich calls the influential Nazi's "pre-political era."

Goebbels, who studied German literature and history and styled himself "Ulex" after a character in a novel, spent his student years in reading, writing and amorous banter. For example, he maintained relationships with both sisters of fellow student Karl Heinz Kölsch, as can be seen from their effusive correspondence. After one of his frequent visits to the town of Werl, Liesel Kölsch wrote on December 5, 1917: "My lips don't work at all anymore, so it won't be possible to use them on Saturday." Her sister Agnes wrote: "My head can't be used either."

In the end, Goebbels made both sisters unhappy. On August 15, 1918, Agnes wrote him, "Do you know, Ulex, that I unfortunately estimated you to far too elevated, noble and mature?"

Next, he was involved with fellow student Anka Stalherm, but this relationship, too, ended in rancor. Goebbels blamed his girlfriend for a "terrible time," and in 1921 Stalherm's lawyer sent him angry letters, demanding the return of various gifts.

Else Janke, another girlfriend, whose mother was Jewish, expressed disappointment following a quarrel "about the race question" in 1923. "I couldn't shake my thoughts about it and really very nearly saw in the problem an obstacle to our continued life together," she wrote.

Owning a Piece of History These words won't necessarily rewrite world history. They're small footnotes compared to the entire biography of the man who paved the way for the Holocaust with his rants against Jews. Goebbels left behind thousands of pages of documents, and the Federal Archive already holds copies of many of the letters.

But in the world of document collectors, that's an insignificant point. For them, the important thing is to be among those to possess some of the original documents from the time in question, and the more closely the documents are connected to the major players and the centers of power, the better.

Correspondingly, the auctioneer sensed a business opportunity even in a bound accounting book that notes large sums paid for items such as "health care" or "aid, donations and support." The book records payments to Hitler's personal physicians Theodor Morell and Karl Brandt, and to functionaries such as Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, who received a payment of 764,000 Reichsmarks. The last entry bears a date from mid-April, 1945. The book could be an original from the Reich Chancellery, a duplicate, or even a fake, although many of the regime's funding allocations are supported by evidence elsewhere.

Historians would surely like a chance to compare the accounting book to these other documents, but it's unclear whether they'll ever get a chance to see it. The auction house, which is advertising the item as "Hitler's personal account book," has set the starting price between $5,000 and $7,000.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein