Monday, March 31, 2014

His Kampf


Not long after moving to Wellington, Justine and I went into a second-hand shop in lower Cuba Street and were confronted by a large Nazi flag. It wasn’t tucked away at the back of the shop either, but displayed – fully unfurled – behind the counter. Our first instinct was to leave, but then we went back and asked the owner if he would please take it down. The request, I’m sorry to say, was delivered poorly and in a shaky voice. Much more calmly and assuredly, he replied that if we wanted it taken down, we’d have to take it home, and it would cost us $50. We left for good.

Now I go home to Italy once a year and the second-hand stalls of our city centres sell Fascist memorabilia. Trinkets, mostly, or party membership cards, but occasionally larger items as well, including the odd bust of Mussolini, whose semblance also graces the pages of calendars sold in the odd sympathetic newsstand. The normalisation of Fascist nostalgia is one of the most visible signs of our ongoing political and ideological crisis, and is so endemic that it would be pointless to confront individual purveyors of the stuff. Somehow around the turn of the century we just let the small-time commerce happen, lost among far larger and more pointed instances of historical revision or the restoration of public monuments like the landscaped forest outside of Antrodoco that spells the honorific of il duce.

Yet there is nothing that is remotely innocent about the nostalgia of Fascist pins or insignia. It indicates, at the very least, a disgraceful level of comfort with the symbols of our collective criminal past. In its commodified form, it also grotesquely mirrors our economic crisis, and the lengths that we will go to extract profit from all the wrong things. But mostly it’s the casual denial of history that should trouble us. It’s a very small step from the superficial, aesthetic fascination with Fascist-era design and iconography to the revisionist statements of our political leaders.

One of the reprehensible lines used in defence of fondly reminiscing about Italian Fascism is that we weren’t as bad as the Germans. German people don’t have that luxury, and although I cannot speak from any direct knowledge of this, it seems they have kept a firmer grip on what can and cannot be published, what will or will not be sold. Neo-Nazism, of course, exists (as it does outside of Germany), but it’s more effectively cauterised from institutions and the wider society than neo-fascism is in Italy.


Which makes it all the less likely that a German person would wear a Waffen-SS helmet as a joke, or do so out of mere ignorance. Kim Dotcom’s explanation for the photo above, taken at a Gumball Rally in 2004, is that someone asked him to wear the helmet so that he could take his picture, and he obliged.

I ask you: who would do that? And not just because the photo may come up again at an inopportune time – it seems safe to presume that the last thing on Mr Dotcom’s mind at the time of that rally was that he might some day enter politics in any country – but generally. What kind of joke is it to wear an SS helmet? What does it say about your understanding of politics and history, about who you are?

That explanation – 'I did it as a joke’ – is the whole damning thing. It’s like with the signed copy of Mein Kampf that Dotcom has admitted to owning: it means nothing more than that he’s the kind of person who would wish to own a signed copy of Mein Kampf. But it means nothing less, either. There is, again, that unacceptable level of comfort with atrocity, and an atrocity perpetrated by your own people to boot. (This matters.) But there is also what participating in this commerce means.

Liberals – not all of them, but many – love defending Dotcom, and they’ve come at this from a variety of angles: that it’s a distraction; that the revelations matter less because they were obviously timed to coincide with the launch of the party, or because some of them come from Cameron Slater, or because some of them come from disgruntled, gagged former employees; that it was just an investment (et tu, Hone); that it’s no big deal and certainly no reason to think he’s an actual neo-Nazi. I even heard someone opine that it’s no different from a library or a museum owning such an object. But the best defence came from Dotcom himself, who explained that he bought that copy of Mein Kampf because he’s really into Call of Duty.
Look, I’m a Call of Duty player, right. So if you know the game Call of Duty, it’s all about World War II, how you play it... and I’m a big fan of that. I’ve bought memorabilia from Churchill, from Stalin, from Hitler.
It’s an extraordinary admission, from an aspiring politician, to be fascinated with Hitler because of a videogame. It’s also a piece of misdirection. The original Call of Duty was released in 2003, and in a Bloomberg interview from 2001 – back when his name was still Schmitz – Dotcom compared the decision to become a businessman he made while under partial detention to the famous turning point in the Führer’s life:
Wasn't Hitler writing Mein Kampf while being arrested? Not that I like Hitler hehe, it's just that strange people can have strange ideas while being arrested.
Another joke, like the SS helmet he would wear three years later, but also evidence of a less naïve, less juvenile Dotcom. His current image of a game-addicted geek is a much better fit with the eligible non-voter whom the Internet Party is supposed to appeal to, and who is also chronically infantilised by the media. Never mind that I suspect that the party will attract more wealthy urban liberals currently voting for the Greens or Labour than disaffected, politically disconnected gamers. It’s really about selling a post-ideological political project reduced to few simple policy-slogans: internet freedom, personal freedom, high-tech jobs. That the figurehead may have flirted with Nazism might not do much for the ‘freedom’ bit, but so long as we can sell it as a Call of Duty-related shopping binge, it won’t hurt the product unduly.

I don’t accept the explanation, and wouldn’t accept it even if it were true. A signed copy of Mein Kampf is no more an ordinary piece of historical memorabilia than that Nazi flag in the Wellington shop was just another antique. Both are powerful symbols of hate, not to be acquired or owned lightly. Every time they are traded among private individuals like mere commodities, they dull our perception of the living link with real history and real genocide. If, in spite of this, you still wish to indulge in the thrill of buying and possessing such totems, you had better be prepared to be asked why, and for progressives to think that you are their enemy.



Credit for finding the Bloomberg interview goes to the indispensable Philip Matthews.

35 comments:

Ray said...

At last, a sensible look at the ownership of vile tosh

Stephen said...

I see a few different factors at work here.

- for many younger New Zealanders, WWII is so far away geographically and temporally that Hitler is just a bogeyman.
- the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend disposes people who dislike the Key government to make excuses for Dotcom
- Dotcom's disruption of NZ politics has been welcome to many people
- Dotcom seems to be the victim of an organised leak via Slater and Farrar, and people smeared (even with a factually true claim) by Slater and Farrar deserve our solidarity.

Of these, only the first is in any way acceptable to me, as it's a historical inevitability.

Thanks for laying this out so clearly. It's been such an irritating phenomenon for me to see people who should know better essentially whining that Dotcom is a victim here -- I gave up participating in that argument in the interests of preserving my peace of mind.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Of these, only the first is in any way acceptable to me, as it's a historical inevitability.

Agree, although guarding from fascism - which as an ideology is very much alive and current - should be a political priority for any generation.

Asher said...

Excellent piece Giovanni.

As an aside, when I read the first line I thought you would be talking about a different Wellington antique shop, one with a very large Nazi collection. The owner of that shop has a long history of being close to NZ & Australia's neo Nazi scenes.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Could it be the same guy? He was in Cuba around 1998-99 but then moved at least once before I lost track of the shop.

Draco TB said...

It’s an extraordinary admission, from an aspiring politician, to be fascinated with Hitler because of a videogame.

Don't be so surprised. A lot of people only have a rudimentary knowledge of history and so a game which introduces a real place where a real battle took place does, as a matter of fact, encourage people to look into the real history. That knowledge does, then, encourage people to go out and buy memorabilia of it. KDC just happens to be in a position to buy real artefacts rather than the fakes that most gamers buy.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Except we have established he knew about Hitler and Mein Kampf already by the time Call of Duty came out.

Andrew R said...

What interests me about your article is that no weight or consideration is given to him also owning Churchill and Stalin memorabilia. Does that mean his explanation about Call of Duty leading to interest is more plausible, or that he should be condemned as a Stalinist and a supporter of chemical warfare (Churchill) as well?

Eric Crampton said...

While I agree, I do wonder why the same treatment is not accorded to Maoist or Stalinist iconography.

Greg said...

It's a bit of a stretch to pin it all on Call of Duty. Presumably he played other games before then, as any other gamer of his age would have.

And the third reich has been the go-to bad guy in a huge proportion of games since they first got underway, just like historic settings have been used over and over instead of building a world from scratch. This would be the biggest early example that most people would know about - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfenstein_3D (1992)

Draco TB said...

Except we have established he knew about Hitler and Mein Kampf already by the time Call of Duty came out.

Sure but you didn't prove that his desire to purchase memorabilia wasn't due to his playing games.

Giovanni Tiso said...

What interests me about your article is that no weight or consideration is given to him also owning Churchill and Stalin memorabilia. Does that mean his explanation about Call of Duty leading to interest is more plausible, or that he should be condemned as a Stalinist and a supporter of chemical warfare (Churchill) as well?

The portraits of Voltaire and Gramsci on my wall wouldn't explain or excuse my owning the signed diaries of Benito Mussolini.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Sure but you didn't prove that his desire to purchase memorabilia wasn't due to his playing games.

I would think it's enough to cast serious doubt on what is a very dubious explanation to begin with. And really, are we expected to just accept such facile thinking on matters of genocide from a guy who aspires to lead a new progressive movement in this country? Please.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"While I agree, I do wonder why the same treatment is not accorded to Maoist or Stalinist iconography."

While I'm not especially impressed by his fetishism of Stalin either, it's just that it's harder for a German to claim ignorance of Hitler and Nazism. Much less a German with political aspirations.

Russell Brown said...

I'm glad you've gone for the "tasteless political idiot" conclusion rather than suggesting, as some people have, that he's a neo-Nazi, because there's really no evidence of that.

But we only know about the helmet thing because (it appears) it was released via the same channel as the rest, and I think it's stretching it a bit to use it as evidence. It's one pic of him wearing a comedy helmet in a comedy car rally 10 years ago. It's not his helmet (it clearly doesn't even fit his head) and I have no trouble believing that a British acquaintance thought it would be a wheeze to convince him to wear it. A surprising number of Britons still think "don't mention the war!" is the height of comedy.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Maybe. But he still wore it, and posed for pictures. After joking about how Hitler wrote Main Kampf in prison. And going on to buy a signed copy of the book (come to think of it, does anyone know when he actually bought it?). None of this builds up to "he's a neo-Nazi", but the picture I get is of a person who's pretty comfortable with playing with the association and the symbols. Which is disqualifying in a politician courting the liberal progressive vote, I think.

Incidentally, his Italian counterpart, Beppe Grillo, also plays periodically with breaking the taboos around Fascism. In his case I believe it's a more overtly political move - part of establishing his party's post-ideological credentials - but it's an interesting parallel nonetheless.

Asher said...

Gio - Don't know if it is the same guy or not - I'm talking about David Harcourt, now of Thorndon Antiques - http://thorndon.co.nz/about-thorndon.htm

He wrote this book about Aus & NZ fascism in 1972 - http://www.amazon.com/Everyone-wants-fuehrer-socialism-Australia/dp/0207124159

Giovanni Tiso said...

Doesn't look like the same guy. The shop with the Nazi flag was more second-hand than antiques, he moved a couple of times downtown then closed down I think.

Stephen said...

"I do wonder why the same treatment is not accorded to Maoist or Stalinist iconography."

I've always thought the Pravda restaurant in Wellington (is it still going?) is in terrible bad taste.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I only recall a bust of Lenin. Is my memory faulty?

Stephen said...

I recall a bunch of banners etc, not Russian language but something else Cyrillic, in red and gold, they looked like parade display stuff. And just general Soviet iconography. I asked myself how I would feel about a Nazi-themed cafe decorated the same way, and how the victims of Bolshevik and then Stalinist terror would consider the place. Maybe Soviet-chic is a bit less clear cut than other totalitarian-inspired design, I don't know. I do think Eric has something of a point, anyway.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'd make a pretty bloody large distinction between "Bolshevik terror" in the context of an ongoing civil war and its normalisation under Stalin. Not sure that the history of the world's revolutions is best explored via the medium of restaurants though. (So how do we deal with Cuba Street?)

James Robb said...

I recall that when I was in the states of the former Yugoslavia in 1996, just after the siege of Sarajevo had been broken, there were numerous street vendors selling fascist memorabilia on the streets of Zagreb and especially Belgrade, (although none that I saw in Sarajevo.) Nothing innocent or apolitical in that context either, or course.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Less flippantly: you are probably aware, Stephen, that Primo Levi was asked this question often by the students he met with - why do we condemn and revile Nazism, but not communism. To which his answer was that its many perversion and crimes committed in its name notwithstanding, communism wasn't an ideology of hate, quite the opposite: it was an ideology of human emancipation. Nazism, on the other hand, simply worked as advertised. It had no other outlet but genocide and war.

Sanctuary said...

For a man opposed to authoritarianism you spend an awful lot of your time telling us what people can and can't say, and what they can and can't own, Mr. Tiso.

I can only imagine it is your Italian upbringing. Italy is a nation noted for a laid back lifestyle that masks a semi-middle eastern country that never really quite grasps British style liberal democracy.

stephen said...

I'd be astonished if this is anything more than that tastelessness peculiar to the extraordinarily wealthy.

After all, look at his other tastelessnesses -- Coatesville Mansion, dress sense, awful music etc.

stephen said...

And the answers to some other questions are:
- The 2nd-hand shop is undoubtedly "Fly", formerly "Super Fly", dormant for years but now operating out of a premise in Swan Lane
- Pravda is still open.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"For a man opposed to authoritarianism you spend an awful lot of your time telling us what people can and can't say, and what they can and can't own, Mr. Tiso."

I'm defending our right - mine and yours - to pass political judgment on people who own and say hateful things. If you can't tell the difference, I really can't help you.

Brooke Mitchell said...

On the side topic of disturbing Wellington restaurants, special mention has to go to the Bangalore Polo Club's nostalgic celebration of English colonialism. Creeps me out every time.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"The 2nd-hand shop is undoubtedly "Fly", formerly "Super Fly", dormant for years but now operating out of a premise in Swan Lane"

Yes, it does ring a bell.

"On the side topic of disturbing Wellington restaurants, special mention has to go to the Bangalore Polo Club's nostalgic celebration of English colonialism."

Yikes!

stephen said...

My god, I'm not the only person who gets that Bangalore Polo Club thing! Horrid place..

Madam Backslash said...

Eric: I can't help wondering if he bought it because he knew he wouldn't be able to if he was still living in Germany (Nazi memorabilia being illegal there).

If a Russian oligarch had moved here and bought Stalinist memorabilia when it was illegal "back home" (which to the best of my knowledge it isn't but no analogy is perfect) then I'd be giving them the same side-eye.

Anonymous said...

There are two separate issues being conflated into one.

The first is Kimdotcom's ownership of a copy of Mein Kampf and whether that affects his suitability to be the "incubator" of a political party seeking office.

The second is Whale Oil's use of the issue to damage Kimdotcom's credibility.

To address the first issue - yes, owning such a book does raise questions that, so far, have been only partially addressed by Kimdotcom. On the face of it whilst Kimdotcom's explanations seem fairly reasonable they also reveal a rather adolescent mindset rather than that of an out and out far-right Nazi.

One the second point I think we can say without any doubt whatsoever that Slater and Whale Oil didn't reveal Kimdotcom's ownership of this book because of some kind of commitment to ending fascism. In fact, to see a "libertarian" like Slater attacking on an issue like this only reveals him to be an unprincipled opportunist.

Rest assured if Slater discovered a copy of Mein Kampf in John Key's library he'd be part of the cover-up, not the stitch-up.

Samuel said...

"While I agree, I do wonder why the same treatment is not accorded to Maoist or Stalinist iconography."

I think there's a big part of the distinction in Nazism's record of essentially pure unadulterated hatred and destruction, where for the other two above there was at some time some figleaf of higher ideals (even if only on the barest and most mendacious level with Stalin).

I've sometimes told myself that as a student of modern Chinese history I have enough of a rationale to own some of the iconography associated with Mao; at the time I was studying the 50s and 60s I did pick up a bilingual Little Red Book in China but it's stayed pretty much untouched in the shelf since. Certainly I wouldn't feel anywhere near comfortable owning any other stuff more directly associated with that era - the "collector/student" figleaf only stretches so far compared to the creep factor I get from knowing the broader context.

Gio, thanks very much for the post and I may have some reading material of interest for you shortly on this. Will email.

Scott said...


Just to complicate things, up here in Auckland we have a remarkable young Tongan artist painting his own version of the Nazi flag on a wall in Glen Innes:
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2014/04/kim-dotcom-benjamin-work-and-tongan.html

ShareThis