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The Nazis: A lucrative industry

Nazi memorabilia
A Hitler Youth winter uniform, price $400  

The trade in Nazi memorabilia is an international, multi-million dollar business involving dealers and collectors from countries across the world.

Although three European countries -- France, Germany and Austria -- have banned the sale or display of such material, the appetite for it remains as strong as it has ever been.

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Log on to the Internet and you will find literally thousands of sites advertising items associated with the Third Reich, with everything from Goering's autograph to Hitler's lobster forks available if you have got the money.

One U.S.-based site is currently offering a full Nazi concentration camp Jewish prisoner's uniform, at $1,275, while another, based in Britain, has a catalogue containing, among other things, an army officer's dagger ($495), a Nazi battle flag ($333) and a Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross ($5,449).

Prices for truly rare items -- an SS Honour dagger, for instance, or a decoration belonging to a major figure in the Nazi hierarchy -- can sell for tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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"Nazi memorabilia is the biggest field within the entire military memorabilia market," says Chris Greenaway of Blunderbuss Antiques, one of about 30 shops in London that stocks Third Reich material. "There are hundreds of people who deal in the stuff. It's huge, and has been since 1946."

Buying and selling Nazi-related material does not automatically imply a sympathy with Nazi ideology. For many, the interest is purely aesthetic or historical.

"The Third Reich was an abomination, there's no doubt about that," says World War II expert Bruce Quarrie.

"At the same time, however, their jewellers and sword smiths and medal-makers produced some really beautiful stuff, and to that extent I can understand the desire to collect it."

Brian Matthews, whose company Tomahawk Films is one of the world's leading suppliers of Third Reich military music agrees: "There does tend to be a lot of hysteria surrounding this subject.

"Most of our customers are either TV companies and museums, or else people who went through the war themselves and love the music for sentimental reasons.

"I very rarely come into contact with customers who are attracted to this sort of stuff ideologically, and when I do I tend to discriminate against them."

'Sickos and forgers'

While the interest of many collectors is harmless, however, there remains a distinctly unsavoury side to the whole Third Reich souvenir industry.

Concentration camp uniform
Concentration camp uniform: For sale on the Net  

"Unfortunately there are an awful lot of sickos around," says Quarrie. "People who collect the stuff because they feel an ideological affinity with it."

Dutch army surplus supplier Willem, 36 -- he refuses to give his surname for fear of reprisals -- has first hand experience of such characters.

Three months ago, while at a militaria fair in Belgium, he remonstrated with a man walking around in full SS regalia only to be beaten up by four of the man's friends.

"A lot of these people are pretty nasty," he says. "It can be an extremely aggressive scene. Not everyone who collects this sort of thing is a Nazi, but many of them definitely have leanings that way.

"And even if they don't, it still seems indecent to want to own something associated with a regime that slaughtered so many innocent people, and so recently."

There is also a problem with forgeries, with most experts agreeing that a substantial proportion of the items on the market are fake.

"The industry is dominated by fake stuff," says Nigel Hay of Milweb.com, a portal for militaria collectors and dealers. "During the 1950s people in East Germany started forging Nazi memorabilia and it's been flooding the market ever since."

"You have to be careful," agrees Quarrie. "Unsuspecting people can spend a lot of money on something that was knocked up in someone's shed last week."

Despite this, however, and the efforts of certain governments to clamp down on the trade in such materials, the interest in all things Nazi remains undiminished, especially in Britain and the U.S.

"There is a genuine historical interest in this sort of thing," says Michael Whine, of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, "And to that extent we have no real objection to people buying and selling it.

"Where we do object, however, is when it is used to promote or glorify Nazism and the ideals of the Third Reich. That's when it becomes dangerous."



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