"I can't believe you Collect that Nazi Trash!"
by Bob Treend
That, or something similar is the reaction of most non-collectors when I tell them about my hobby. If they don't say it, they're thinking it. I can always tell. I don't mention my hobby to anyone until I have known them for some time and feel that they know me well enough to at least try to understand.
I'm sure that one thing that goes through people's minds is: 'if he collects Third Reich items, he must 'be' a Nazi.' Unfortunate, and not true. By that logic, anyone who collects old west revolvers must like to shoot people down at high noon on Main Street. Or, if they collect Samurai swords, they must go around lopping off the heads of people they don't like. Ridiculous!
There are numerous theories about why people collect things. In the case of Thrid Reich items (mainly military and political relics) I believe it stems from a basic fascination with the Nazi era. Let's face it, it's one of the most bizarre and interesting chapters in history. Just look at the History Channel or the Militray Channel,and you'll see programs about WWII just about every night. People can't get enough. If the Nazis had never actually existed... no one would believe it.
In order to create, what he thought, was a perfect Nazi state, Hiler had to unify the German people as no socitey had ever been united before. To do this everone had to have the feeling that they were part of something truly important, superior and unique. No one was to be left out. The Nazis organized Germany so that every single German above the age of nine was a member of some political, military or para-military organization. And to make everyone feel 'special' each organization had it's own distinct uniforms, insignia, badges and accoutrements. It is this proliferation of 'Naziana' that makes the hobby so fascinating. If you're not aquainted with Third Reich collecibles, you have no idea of the variety of items that were created during such a short time. It's simply mind boggeling!
Not only did the Nazis make a huge variety and quantity of items, but they made them as 'artistically' appealing as possible. By artistic I mean that they had to appeal to the lowest common denominator. No place for a Picasso, Klee or other free spirit in the the Reich. The 'official' Nazi idea of artistic was based on Hitler's own personal taste, which inclined toward the classical or neo-classical, with a heavy emphasis on the 'heroic' Germanic past he imagined. Hence, the use of runes (ancient writing symbols like the imfamous SS lightning bolts) and simplified designs which made a bold statement and required little or no thought to grasp. And, because it was a male oriented society, most of the art and symbols were designed to appeal to men. I'm sure that's why 99% of the Third Reich collectors I know are male.
Most collectors are history buffs, whether they know it or not. And having some of the actual items from that history makes them feel like they are closer to it. Ok, I know what you're thinking! Why would anyone want to be closer to such a horrible past? Let's face it, the Nazis did some terrible things and its fortunate for the world that they lost the war. However, and this is the part that's difficult to explain, the vast majority of collectors just don't think about those things when they are collecting. (no nasty emails please). Not to belittle the horrors of the holocaust one bit, let me just say that that it is another issue completely. The collectors I know don't have any holocaust or atroctiy items in their collection and don't want any. They are well aware of it, regret it, and condem it, but just don't let it enter their collecting. That's not what the collection is all about.
So, what is it about? For me it was always the artistic side that apealed most. Although I appreciate the 'fine arts', I must be one of those 'lowest common denominators' at heart... The stuff is really cool! If you've never seen, for example, a high ranking officer's uniform or a statue of a spread wing eagle sitting on a swastika, you don't know what I mean. The stuff just looks neat. Another thing that appealed to me was what I call 'the treasure hunt syndrome'. When I started collecting there was still a lot of 'war trophies' in the hands of veterans who 'liberated' them back from Germany. Seeking out and finding these was always fun and scoreing a great find was a real thrill.
If you collect coins or stamps, for example, you have to be wealthy to build a really 'unique' and meaningful collection. But when I started in this hobby, it was possible to find one of a kind items for reasonable prices and build a collection, unlike any other, and without breaking the bank. This 'wildcat' aspect of the hobby always made it more fun than stamps! Unfoutunately, those days are gone. The hobby has gotten organized and expensive.
There is also the history part that appeals to many. Some collectors only collect items from one organization or unit, like the Army, Luftwaffe or maybe the Afrika Korps, for example. I know a collector who specializes in only Kampfzeit items, which are Nazi items from before Hitler was elected chancellor. And another collector who's only interest is Panzer items. This fellow knows more about German tanks that the krauts who rode them!
Then there is the collector who wants it all. These 'general collectors', as we call them, will buy anything with a swastika. Being a 'general collector' is a never ending process and can really break a person financially, because there is literally no end. Show me a general collection of 100,000 different Nazi items and I'll show you a piece that's missing...
There are the obsessive-compulsive types who found the hobby and never looked back. No matter how much they have, they want more. Collecting anything seems to fill a void in their life... If they don't have something 'on the line' at the moment, they feel desperate to find something. Sounds more like women at the mall shoe sale. When you get like this, it's time to find another hobby!
Also, there are the 'completion freaks'. These type fix on a certain category of collectibles and try to complete 'sets' or 'series' of items. I've been guilty of this myself. Years ago I set the goal of getting the insignia of every rank in most of the major political and military organizations. From the private to the general, I went after it all and went after it with a real dedication.
Some collectors will say they're in the hobby for the 'investment'. Yeah, right! Althought Nazi items have proven to be a good investment over the years, if you want an investment buy real estate.
Like any type of collecting, accumulating Third Reich items can become an obsession. I can think of several collectors who spend almost all their disposable income on their collections. When it comes to buying something they 'need' for the collection no price is too high. Then they will turn around and pinch pennies on the basics of life. I know of one collector who lives in a rather shabby apartment complex in a part of town I would call disreputable. He has been in the same apartment for over 40 years and drives an old rust bucket of a car. Yet, in the extra bedroom of this two bedroom dump, he has a collection of Nazi items worth in excess of one million dollars! This is, or course, an extreme example. And don't get the idea this type of behaviour is confined to our hobby alone. Similar people exist in all areas of collecting.
In the final analysis, the only good reason to collect anything is because it's fun!
If I've accomplished one thing with this short article, I hope it was to make you aware that 'Nazi collectors' are like everyone else. We all have our different reasons for collectings. If you meet one some day, try to give him the benifit of the doubt when forming an opinion. I think you'll find that we're normal, nice people just like everyone else... even with our quirks. It's only our hobby, not our politics.
Have to go...just heard about a vet who has a Waffen-SS helmet.
'Those Who Forget The Past Are Condemned To Repeat It'
Bob Treend has been involved in militaria for over 35 years as a collector, dealer, publisher and author. He has written numerous articles on the different aspects of militaria collecting.