Human Rights Watch - it is "absurd" to question motives of Nazi medals collector
11 September 2009
The reaction of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to concerns about its military advisor Marc Garlasco's keen interest in Nazi German WW2 memorabilia is a shocking indicator of the failure of many NGOs to decently engage with Jews on antisemitism and related issues.
HRW is one of the world's leading NGOs. Based in America, it reports internationally on human rights issues, and its work on Israel has been the focus for furious debate between critics and supporters. In this context, HRW has used the fieldwork of Garlasco to make detailed reports accusing Israel of war crimes, and these reports have then been the subject of detailed counter-claims.
CST's concern, however, is with antisemitism. We do not claim to be expert on the rights and wrongs of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor on what is and is not correct in Garlsco's reports. Nevertheless, myself and colleagues were alarmed to read in blogs and elsewhere that Marc Garlasco is not only HRW's battlefield analyst: he is also a leading collector and author on the subject of Nazi German WW2 memorabilia. To be precise, he specialises in the medals awarded to anti-aircraft 'flak' gunners, and is the author of a leading reference book on the subject.
The book is one of eight similar titles published and distributed by B&D Publishing LLC, an American company who's url is www.ironcross1939. (The Iron Cross has been Germany's leading military medal since it was first awarded by the Prussians in 1813. Nevertheless, it is the 1939-45 variety that appeals to B&D and its audience). The eight medal books seem to be the full extent of B&D's output. There is nothing on the site to suggest that B&D or any of its featured authors have a fondness for Nazism; but then again, there's nothing to suggest that they don't.
Military re-enactment societies and militaria buffs are not by any means all Nazis; and that includes those who dress up in Nazi uniforms and collect iron crosses and the like. (Although it does remain head-scratchingly hard for this Jewish author to imagine why a person would want to play the role of the SS officer, rather than that of the American jeep driver). Nevertheless, it is blatantly obvious that B&D Publishing, its authors, and the intended clientele must have some kind of 'thing' about Nazi Germany. Otherwise, why on earth would they devote such energy and passion?
The basic version of Garlasco's 460 page book sells for $109. Leather bound, it's $145. You can buy a special leather bound set of all the books for $1,079. So, there is certainly a specialist market for this kind of thing. It is of course a market that very much exists for other military fields, but it does not appear to reach the same intensity elsewhere.
The covers illustrations of each B&D title bear scrutiny. These are pictures that speak many words. Each cover carries at least one swastika, which is not surprising given that they each feature a different type of Nazi medal. Neither is it surprising that each cover also features what would appear to be a recipient of the medal. What is surprising, however, is what fine figures of Teutonic youth these particular Nazi German servicemen appear to be. Never mind the swastikas, and cast the Holocaust imagery from out of your Hollywood infested mind. Here, come look at these flowers of German manhood. Look at their fresh faces, come see how wholesome and innocent and selfless they are:
When it comes to Nazism, you either contribute to the struggle against it, or you do not. Human Rights Watch insist that their expert, Marc Garlasco, is not a Nazi, and is not an antisemite. They relate how in the foreword of his book he says to his daughters that the war was horrible and cruel, that Germany lost and for that we should be thankful.
In all of these claims, HRW may well be correct. They know Garlasco well. But, if Garlasco wants to immunise his daughter (and all our children) from Nazism, then fetishising Nazi medals for public consumption is a stupid way of going about it. You do not fight Nazism by helping to promote the marketplace for Nazi medals and trinkets and accoutrements. You do not fight Nazism by presenting its soldiers as brave, handsome, fresh faced youths - and you most certainly do not fight Nazism by normalising the wearing of Nazi-themed sweatshirts as Marc Garlasco does in this picture:
Does he wear this sweatshirt in front of his daughters? Does he wish more people would walk about wearing such items? Does he - or his HRW colleagues - think that it is appropriate for a man with his role to do so? Does he wear it when he meets Israeli Army officials?
Worst of all, however, is not Garlasco's behaviour in all of this. Worst of all, is the reaction of Human Rights Watch. None of the concerns that I have outlined above seem to matter to HRW. Their defence is all embracing, and their condemnation of his critics lacks the remotest empathy with why Jews, or any other people, might express concern at Garlasco's behaviour in view of his role as one their leading (anti) Israel experts.
Instead of engaging with the issues, HRW resort to the public equivalent of giving Jews the finger. They explain Garlasco's 'thing' about Nazi Germany by his family background, whereby a German grandfather manned an anti-aircraft gun, and an American great-uncle flew in American bombing raids. (HRW's description of this, "Garlascos great-uncle was an American B-17 crewman, who survived many attacks by German anti-aircraft gunners", is itself a moral inversion).
HRW assert that complaints about Garlasco are not motivated by heartfelt Jewish concern about Nazism, but rather because people want to take a cheap shot at them:
"This accusation [that Garlasco is a Nazi] is demonstrably false and fits into a campaign to deflect attention from Human Rights Watchs rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government...
...To imply that Garlascos collection is evidence of Nazi sympathies is not only absurd but an attempt to deflect attention from his deeply felt efforts to uphold the laws of war and minimize civilian suffering in wartime. These falsehoods are an affront to Garlasco and thousands of other serious military historians."
The full text of HRW's contemptuous response to concerns about Garlasco is at the foot of this detailed report by NGO Monitor. The NGO Monitor report includes further links to Garlasco's Israel related work, and criticisms of it.
To repeat, however, HRW are far better placed than me to say whether or not Garlasco is a Nazi sympathiser. I believe him to be a moral imbecile for wearing an Iron Cross sweatshirt, but that does not make him a Nazi. (Whilst many Nazis are idiots, thankfully the opposite is less true). Despite this, HRW need to cast aside their arguments with Israel and instead engage with the issues, and in particular with the human right of Jews and others to protest that a senior HRW activist should be an Iron Cross sweatshirt wearing Nazi medal obsessive.
That, however, is not all. Garlasco also goes by the name Flak88, and has even had this on his car number plate. This also has a considerable bearing on the question of Nazism, and the morals of both Garlasco and (now) HRW. The reason for this will be obvious to anyone who is seriously committed to anti-Nazism, as the number '8' is routinely used by Nazis to denote Hitler; '88' to denote Heil Hitler; and '18' for Adolf Hitler. (For instance, the former British neo-Nazi group Column 88, and the more recent violent Combat 18 gang). Despite this, those interested in WW2 will likely be aware of the well-known German anti-aircraft 88mm flak gun, which of course brings us back to Garlasco's grandfather and great-uncle and his personal non-Nazi reasons for being so interested in the subject.
Nevertheless, as NGO Monitor point out:
"It is bizarre enough for a human rights activist to choose the name of a gun as an internet screen name and for his car license plate. Coupled with the neo-Nazi iconography, however, the adoption of Flak88 as Garlascos alter ego is evidence at the very least of highly questionable moral judgment."
Again, when HRW tell Jews and other anti-Nazis that their concerns are "demonstrably false" and "absurd", we are fully entitled to question the credentials, impartiality and judgement of a person who would so closely cleave to the number "88".
Finally, NGO Monitor's report also includes the following:
"Regarding Garlascos 430-page opus, HRW defense declares that in the foreword he writes of telling his daughters that the war was horrible and cruel, that Germany lost and for that we should be thankful. Was this statement a calculated move precisely for this situation? Indeed, prior to publishing, Garlasco used the site www.germancombatawards.com to post the following query:
Flak88: So I am trying to figure out what to do. My book is clsoe to done, but I am not sure if I should put my name on it. If folks at work found out I might very well lose my job. That is the reality, so don't dwell on it - ok? But this is a small group of people - should I worry? And shouldn't I stand up for myself? And if I use a psyeudonym isn't that worse, like I am trying to hide something?
A poster named Skip responds:
Skip: Put your name on it and F**k ´em.
I don´t think theres much chance of anybody outside of this hobby just happening to pick such a book up. Of course, if they google you it will probably turn up but hey, like everybody said, its a reference book and not a political work.
Don´t forget in the foreword to mention how terrible war is and that your book is to remind people of this fact. Yes, WE all know this but a lot of non-historically minded people might not understand otherwise. [Emphasis added by NGO Monitor]"
The actual correspondence on the German combat awards blog is more comprehensive and more complex than this small excerpt may suggest; and there is no way of knowing if the above comment by Skip was what moved Garlasco to write his foreword in the manner that he did. The correspondence also shows that others on the thread certainly do not consider themselves (or each other) to be Nazis, but rather "collectors". Garlasco's final response appears to be:
"Posted by Flak88 on 14.09.2007 at12:59:
Thanks for the advice guys. What complicates things is I have a public life too. I have been in film, TV, and there is talk of politics. I love the Pope reference - yes, he did ok. But this is a hard decision. I will talk quietly to some at work that I trust - a small group indeed.
I have worked hard on this and I do not see why I should be crucified for making something to remember my Opa, but that is the world we live in.
As Garlasco notes, this is indeed the world that we live in. It is a world where Jews and others who understand the reality of Nazism do not fetishise its trinkets, or normalise its symbols - and it is also a world in which leading human rights organisations should be able to dispassionately hear concerns from Jews without condemning and dismissing them as Zionist liars.