News that someone is into Nazi memorabilia or more generally that there’s a ready supply of and demand for Nazi memorabilia is met, predictably, with widespread outrage (if perhaps also with some measure of titillation). If no one seems all that shocked that it’s legal — the sanctity of the First Amendment is baked deep into the American psyche — then I think it’s fair to say that people are upset, or at least weirded out, that such items are bought and sold, promoted, profited from, and treasured. People cannot imagine how any non-Nazi could be into this stuff, with the corollary that anyone who is into this stuff must be a Nazi or basically a Nazi or is sufficiently Nazi-philic to warrant extreme suspicion.
The criticism and commentary are especially charged nowadays, given the increasing visibility of racist and antisemitic sentiment and rhetoric and violence, of emboldened neo-Nazis and white supremacists; downplaying the trafficking and promotion of anything Nazi as innocuous or ironic or someone’s innocent hobby feels, to many, stupid and dangerous.
This is a valid and justifiable response — it’s an excellent rule of thumb, to be on the side that’s against Nazis — but at the same time it strikes me as incomplete. It does not reckon with who the collectors are or why they collect nor does it address the principles the market is built on, or what it in fact espouses.
The truth is that many collectors of Nazi memorabilia are, in fact, collectors, a term I’m using semi-technically to describe those who dedicate themselves, often obsessively and for reasons inscrutable to the outsider, to amassing some or other class of objects, usually something interestingly varied in terms of condition, provenance and rareness — action figures, stamps, coins, Pez dispensers. This isn’t to say there’s never a profit motive, but there is, or at least at some point was, a base desire on the part of collectors to, simply, possess.
“There’s a lot to collect,” Michael Hughes, the author of “The Anarchy of Nazi Memorabilia: From Things of Tyranny to Troubled Treasure,” told me. “Absolutely, Nazi memorabilia appeals to the systematic collector who collects complete series, like baseball cards.” Dr. Hughes, an academic who describes himself as a “reformed collector” and who has interviewed or otherwise interacted with hundreds of collectors of Nazi memorabilia, says most aren’t all that strange or exceptional, at least with respect to the larger collecting community. “Generally the people I have met over the last 30 years are just your average Joes,” he said.