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October 04, 2006

The Case of the Missing Insignia

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One recent afternoon while Nancy was visiting the Wittelsbach clan's downtown Munich digs (a.k.a. Residenz), I scooted over to the Deutsches Museum to check out the aircraft exhibit.

Off near a corner of the lower floor was a Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter -- the Luftwaffe mainstay for most of World War 2, if you use production as the yardstick. Certainly an item well worthy of display.

I noticed something odd.

Something missing.

It was the Nazi swastika insignia that Luftwaffe aircraft carried on their vertical tailplanes: nothing there but good old camouflage paint.

Munich Bf109.jpg
Messerschmitt 109 in Munich's Deutsches Museum.
What's wrong with the tail?

Nearby was a set of models of other WW2 German military aircraft, and none of those sported swastikas either.

The reason for this, if my dim memory has it straight, is that Germany has some law or regulation regarding displays of swastikas, and apparently the museum has to "edit" its display.

(By the way, I tried a quick Google search on this matter, but the word "swastika" in a character string turns up some pretty strange stuff. Maybe a reader can post a comment clarifying the issue.)

I think the swastika thing, at the museum display level, is silly. For one thing, it airbrushes out an objective historical fact. Furthermore, I saw plenty of books written in German in German bookstores that dealt with the war and many of those books were filled with photos of swastika-bedecked airplanes. Apparently swastika censorship only goes part way.

Oh, and the WW2 Luftwaffe aircraft I've seen in museums in other countries have swastikas, politically incorrect though they might be.



posted by Donald at October 4, 2006


Well, I suppose there's a precedence (of sorts) - chopping the naughty bits off of those lusty Greek sculptures. But at least that was one culture (Catholic/Germanic/Medieval) reacting against a previous one, however, in our eyes, mistakenly. The Nazis, though, were of our same culture. People still alive today were contributors to the horrors of WWII.

Is the museum staff trying to make us forget that these were Nazi planes? I.e., piloted by those who swore they bought into the whole militarist, racist program of Hitler and his followers?

I guess they want us to think that despite the fact that the Nazis were politically in power, the average German soldier believed himself to be fighting for German glory: so we shouldn't blame him.

It is certainly a museum's duty to come up with a plausible story emphasizing a nation's virtues, sure; but it can't lie about the past. Defacing exhibits? That sounds like Stalinism.

Posted by: ckc on October 5, 2006 1:07 AM

ISTM that leaving off the swastika enables the pretense of separation between the Nazi state and the German armed forces. There are war buffs who drool over neato German war machines and the crack German soldier, while carefully ignoring said crack soldiers' service to an abominable cause. Some air buffs get all fuzzy over Luftwaffe aces. This omission allows them to forget that the Luftwaffe was the most Nazi branch of the armed forced (founded by Goering).

In that sense, I would call the blank tail "politically _in_correct".\

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on October 5, 2006 2:09 AM

Many of the published photos of the Hindenburg also have the swastika on the tail airbrushed out.

Posted by: ThaProf on October 5, 2006 7:38 AM

Here in the states we see similar dust-ups over the Confederate battle flag. Instapundit has been linking to a controversy over whether the flag should be displayed during reinactments of a Civil War battle.
I can understand the offence people take when the flag is displayed over government buildings but it should be appropriate in the correct historical context. I imagine the swastika is even more devisive since many victims of the nazis still live.

Posted by: jake on October 5, 2006 8:22 AM

It never lets up: the endless war between the forgetters and the rememberers.

The forgetters would wipe the slate clean, so that we can...what? advance into the glorious future with no inconvenient dragweight.

The rememberers would honor the past, warts and all, so that maybe, just maybe, we can avoid the worst of it in future.

Whose camp are YOU in?

Posted by: ricpic on October 5, 2006 8:52 AM

You might try googling "hakenkreuz" (hooked cross) instead of "swastika." Much more interesting results. Here is a related thread:

Posted by: lordsomber on October 5, 2006 9:49 AM

Just the other day, I happened to read about the German policy. The article I read said that there were exceptions to the no-swastika policy, e.g. educational displays. I'm afraid I can't remember the source, but I do remember that it was a news item about protesters getting nailed under German law for wearing crossed-out swastikas -- which seems to contravene the letter but not the spirit of the law.

If this is right, then what you saw must be self-censorship. I don't know if that's better or worse.

Posted by: Max Goss on October 5, 2006 12:40 PM

Actually, the reason the hakenkreuz is missing is a bit more complicated than what I am reading above. First of all, anyone who knows anything about post-war Germany will tell you that they are not "running away" from their Nazi past or trying to dump it into a memory hole. There are all sorts of memorials and guilt trip organizations for Germans to engage in self-flagellation en mass. No film of the era or fiction can be produced without the gratuitous self hatred elixir. No, that's not why the hakenkreuz is missing. It's missing because Germany, and Europe, are involved in a massive wave of self-loathing brought about by their new adjustment to the enfeebled post World War II Europe. To them, everything in their past has pointed to the sins of the Nazis and must be expunged. The past is bad, the (multicultural) future is good. In order to make this new Euro-make-believe-land they live in stick, they are now engaged in some very heavy political correctness. Any politcal parties or statements which might threaten the Brave New Socialist International Order are simply not allowed. Freedom of speech is sharply curtailed. Scholars must be careful how they depict the past. Scientists are not allowed to study certain things. Everything is nice and tidy. In this tidy world where certain ideas are banned, hysteria is the likely result when the reality of the past is introduced. Thus, the left have put in place "thought crime" laws and "hate speech" codes. Voila! No hakenkreuz allowed in any setting likely to "incite" hatred. The political elite is convinced that anything glorifying the military is dangerous, and doubly so if linked to the hakenkreuz. And the authorities get to define the terms "incite" and "hate speech." Germans have no desire to openly debate subjects with which they disagree. A sign of weakness. Europeans are embarking on a grand experiment in political and cultural censorship which I am afraid will not do them or anyone else any good. And here are a few questions: If a nation is taught to hate its past, how can it have a future? If young people are brought up to hate their ancestors, what kind of psychological impact does this have on their own children? Can a nation survive if it is actively hostile to its own cultural identity? Is this a phase? How much longer will it last?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 5, 2006 1:02 PM

There's a law in Germany penalizing anyone who uses the swastika for anything.

Though that particular law might be changed, after a man got fined for selling anti-nazi T-shirts, depicting a swastika in a red circle with a red diagonal accross it.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 5, 2006 1:03 PM

There is some kind of law prohibiting the display of the swastika in Germany, although I don't know the details of it. I recently heard a story on NPR about a young man in Germany who was prosecuted for selling anti-neo-Nazi t-shirts and pins with a swastika in the red "no smoking" slashed circle, because they displayed the swastika. The implication of the story was that conservative politicians (it was in southern Germany if I remember correctly) involved were using this old law selectively to harass young people promoting anti-Nazi sentiment.

In the end the guy selling the pins and such just changed the swastika symbol to the word swastika, which made them legal. Apparently just the symbol is forbidden. Given that there is this law, I would not be surprised if it applied all the way up to high-esteem historical and cultural institutions.

Posted by: Kyle on October 5, 2006 2:05 PM

I remember noticing the same thing when I first visited the Deutches Museum waaaay back in 1978. No swastikas anywhere, a result of the anti-swastika-display law (or whatever it's called) designed to keep neo-Nazi groups from displaying the symbol.

Even plastic model kits that were distributed in Germany could not show the swastika on their box art. To allow modellers to create an accurate model, however, the decal sheets included in the model had the swastika separated into two parts, like this ( _|¯ _|¯ ), that could be crossed at right angles to form the tail marking.

Another interesting thing about the Deutches Museum (at least back then--I haven't been back since the mid-80s) was how, on the little display cards next to the exhibits, so many interesting technological things... such as u-boats, V-2 rockets, and weapons... suddenly had their development stopped in 1945, with no explanation given of why. Maybe they assumed everyone knew the reason, anyway...

Posted by: Alex on October 5, 2006 2:45 PM

I noticed the same thing in 1989 on my visit. But by that time I'd been living in Germany a few months, and expected to see the swastika effaced (as it had carefully been from the stone facades of a number of public buildings, if you looked carefully).

What amazed me about the Deutsches Museum exhibit was that they had an actual Me-163 Komet rocket plane, which might be the only one left in the world. The war was a disaster for the world, but at the same time a bizarre technological pressure cooker.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on October 5, 2006 4:58 PM

There's an Me-163B in the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa. See this link:

There's also an He-162a Volksjager, and an Me-109 too.

...And I notice that I cleverly managed to misspell "Deutsches Museum " twice in my post above...

Posted by: Alex on October 5, 2006 6:07 PM

Speaking of the Volksjaeger, I saw one at the French aerospace museum at Le Bourget and another at the Imperial War Museum in London -- I might have this last detail off a bit, but I know that I've seen at least two of them.

But the Komet in Munich is the only one of those I've ever seen.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 6, 2006 9:52 AM

Ah, the He162, the world's first plywood jet fighter, built for the Hitler Youth to take to the skies after what - two weeks of flight school? Man, were things ever getting out of control by early 1945. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on October 6, 2006 10:04 AM

I remember several years ago seeing a dealer at the San Diego comics convention selling a set of facsimile reprints of key issues of Marvel comic books -- published in German for the German-language market. Among them was a reproduction of CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 from 1941. Now, it's hard to imagine anything more anti-Nazi from the get-go (the cover features Captain America slugging Hitler), yet the publishers altered all the swastikas in the artwork (on armbands, flags, etc.) by adding a few lines to close up the outer square and turn the swastika into a cross in a box. In effect, it looked like Captain America vs. the Evil Window-Men.

I later asked a knowledgeable Austrian friend who's involved in publishing about this. As I said, there's no mistaking that CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 is as anti-Nazi as it gets, so why the censorship? As my friend explained it, there are laws in German and Austria forbidding the public display of swastikas. A political group can't wave Nazi flags. On the other hand, the laws don't apply to, say, historical photographs, so history books don't have the swastikas airbrushed out of photos. There is an allowance for practicality, historical accuracy, and common sense. However, there is also an enormous gray area where the laws aren't clear and can be arbitrarily enforced or not. Publishers who put out material falling into the gray area (such as reprinting American comic-book stories with Nazi villains), even with no political propaganda intentions, are treading dangerous ground and have to watch their step carefully.

Some of it depends on clout. The example my friend used was the first Indiana Jones movie, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which ran in Germany with Nazis and swastika flags and all. The movie releasers had enough resources to fight any challenges in court. A small publisher like the Marvel comics reprinter would not, so it would be easier to avoid trouble in the long run by "pre-emptive obedience" -- censoring the comics in advance itself. (The actual term used was "vorauseilende Gehörsamkeit," which has a sense of rushing ahead to obey the law even before any trouble starts in order to head it off.)

In the case of the German Museum, my guess is that if the directors wanted to take a stand, they could legally display the planes with historically accurate swastikas on the tailfins. But instead of complaining that they're covering up the past by not displaying them, people would then complain that they're glorifying the past by displaying them. Verdammt if they do, verdammt if they don't. On the balance sheet, not displaying the swastikas leads to fewer problems and less controversy, thus the result that Friedrich saw on display.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 6, 2006 2:15 PM

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