Arbeit Macht Frei and the mass market for Nazism

22 Dec 2009 by CST

The theft of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign from the entrance to Auschwitz is a reminder that the vast consumer market for Nazism owes far more to the pornography of horror than it does to either military history, or sympathy for Nazism.

Thankfully, the sign, stolen in the early hours of Friday 18th December was speedily recovered by Polish police. This followed a tip off from a neighbour of one of five men, aged between 20 and 39, arrested late on Sunday 20th December. (The sign had, however, been cut into three parts).

When the theft first occurred, there were many who immediately suspected that neo-Nazis must be responsible for this, the worst desecration of all. Surely, who else but a neo-Nazi could sink to such depths of immorality? The assumption of neo-Nazi responsibility raised a dreadful question - had they stolen the sign in order to deny the Holocaust had occurred, or had they stolen it to make precisely the opposite point: and to state that their Jew-hatred was unrepentant and unyielding? Or, as with so many neo-Nazis, were they both denying the Holocaust and basking in its horror.

Nevertheless, after the arrests, Polish police quashed all such speculation. Those arrested apparently have no links to neo-Nazis and according to the deputy head of Krakow police

They are all ordinary thieves with past convictions, some for robbery, others for violence.

So, it would appear that this, the worst desecration of all, was primarily driven not by antisemitism or politics, but by ordinary criminal greed. But how does a criminal gang profit by stealing the Arbeit Macht Frei sign and selling it? Selling it to whom? Who would buy such a sign?

It is a vital question. Superficially at least, the answer to it is well known. Society is fascinated by evil, and Nazi memorabilia is a best seller. This leaves Jews, and many others, feeling deeply uncomfortable, and lay at the heart of the previous controversy to arise over Nazi memorabilia: the case of Marc Garlasco, a leading expert for Human Rights Watch, revealed by pro-Israel activists to be a keen collector of German World War Two memorabilia, and anti-aircraft gunnery medals in particular.

There is absolutely no parallel between Garlasco’s motivation and behaviour and that of the Auschwitz thieves, but they still find themselves inhabiting the same marketplace. Human Rights Watch (HRW) appallingly misrepresented Jewish concerns about Garlasco’s hobby, but perhaps this new controversy will help them to better understand Jewish emotions and interpretations about the entire spectrum of Nazi and German WW2 hobbyists, collectors and fetishists. Indeed, if this whole sorry episode does not convince HRW of what truly causes Jewish concerns about the trivialisation of Nazism, then perhaps nothing will.

Marc Garlasco’s stomach may well turn at the mere prospect of even touching the stolen Auschwitz sign, but he is surely within the same spectrum, albeit it at a very different end. This is demonstrated by his own words

That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!

The reason that leather SS jackets make the “blood go cold” and are so “COOL!” is nothing to do with Nazis making fierce soldiers, or having well-cut uniforms, catchy insignia, and a keen eye for homo-erotic pageantry. (Although all of this adds to the lustre.) Rather, it is because of the Nazi Holocaust of Europe’s Jews.

Of course, the Nazis also murdered millions of non-Jewish civilians: worked them to death, bombed them, shot them, left them to die of exposure and starvation, gassed them even. In marketing terms, however, none of this is Nazism’s unique selling point. None of it matches everything that is encapsulated by Arbeit Macht Frei.

A quick glance at the history section of your local bookshop, or the history documentaries on your satellite television will show that Nazism is a best seller: and this most certainly does not mean that the authors of such books, or the makers of such documentaries are Nazis. Furthermore, it most certainly does not make Nazis of the consumers who actually comprise the marketplace for their books, and documentaries (or even SS leather jackets).

The fact remains, however, that the unique selling point of Nazism, the thing that makes Nazis so much more compelling than Stalinists, Maoists, or anybody else, is their industrialised genocide of European Jewry: as epitomised by Auschwitz-Birkenau; and as for ever symbolised by the Arbeit Macht Frei sign.

It is absolutely correct that the entire world should recoil in revulsion at the theft of the Auschwitz sign. That, however, is a very easy response. A more challenging response, begins with acknowledging that the theft of the sign represents the ultimate endpoint of the vast consumer market for Nazism.

This sickening epdisode shows us, once again, that society’s largely inadvertent trivialisation of the Holocaust is immeasurably more dangerous than the outright denial of a few crazed antisemites. It is far harder to challenge social, media and political trivialisation of the Holocaust than it is to simply condemn Holocaust denial lunatics: but it must be done, and those who (wittingly or not) acquiesce in Holocaust trivialisation must be called to account.


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Nick Clegg MP
Former Deputy Prime Minister