‘Mein Kampf’ and the Troubling Artifacts of History

Almost 100 years after Hitler published his autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf, and nearly 80 years after the demise of the Nazi regime, the display and selling of the book are still illegal in Austria and Germany. This is also true with many other Nazi artifacts. As the wartime generation and their children die off and their homes are broken up and dispersed, their collections from the Nazi era inevitably pass into the hands of collectors and antiques stores.

In a small bookshop just down the road from the Volksoper in the 9th district, Alsergrund, a small rack by the door displays old magazines from the 1920’s to the 90’s. Among them was a magazine called “Frau und Mutter” from June 1940, with a photo of a woman in traditional Austrian dress on a red and black front cover. The Nazi colors. But besides tips on how to keep a clean household, there seemed to be nothing too overtly political and controversial about it. Time to move on.

The owner of a small cluttered second-hand shop in the 16th, Ottakring, simply shook his head: No Nazi collectables. All that was on display was an old coin with the eagle and swastika engraved. 

There was more to find in the 7th, Neubau, where an employee took me to the back of the store and unlocked the drawer to reveal song books, medals, pamphlets and photographs of families and soldiers bearing the insignias of the regime. This was very much under the counter.

Courtesy of the author

These are “Verlassenschaften,” he explained, the things left behind by those who die, the memorabilia of lives lived and ended that re-emerge on the shelves of these shops, the Altwarengeschäften. The families take what they want and allow the antique store to clear the rest, keeping for sale anything of value. 

“Most of the Nazi artifacts are hidden away, in the basement or sometimes in boxes under the bed. That’s where we find them,” he told me. “People also come here, hoping to sell things like that.” Sometimes it’s people in the building trades who find something and don’t know what to do with it. “So they come here.”

At this point a man entered the shop and asked if they had an Airforce Paybook, from the Luftwaffe. Why something so specific? 

He was from Yugoslavia, he said. “It is more difficult to find these things there, especially documents like these.” A couple of days earlier, a friend had given him a diary from an air force soldier from the air bases in Klagenfurt and Zeltweg. It is these things, the personal things, that fascinate him.

Collectors from outside of Austria in search of rare objects is its own kind of cottage industry, one that has been going on sub rosa since the end of WWII. Soldiers returning home from the occupation often brought flags, weapons, cutlery, anything with the insignia of the Third Reich to take home as souvenirs. 

“It’s been portrayed as the most evil regime in history, there is an obvious appeal in that,” explained Holocaust scholar Gregory Weeks, former head of the International Relations Department at Webster University in Vienna. 

Gregory Weeks is a Holocaust scholar and the former head of the International Relations Department at Webster University in Vienna. 

“Most antique shops have copies of Mein Kampf, but usually they’ll want some kind of letter to show that you’re buying it legitimately.  But certainly everyone from that generation had copies on their bookshelves.”

As the allies were closing in the final weeks of the war, the first thing to go was the uniforms, and then anything overtly symbolic of the former regime. But, as many young Austrians know from visiting their grandparents, a copy of Mein Kampf was a piece of memorabilia that survived.

“After [the Anschluss in] 1938, when people got married, they were given a copy of Mein Kampf which was stamped with the date of the wedding and bound in white leather.  So a lot of people have these copies as a nostalgic piece in their homes”.

Weeks took out a large book entitled, World War Two Collectibles, and flipped through the pages that estimate the value of rifles, medals and helmets of the Third Reich. Next to these,  “Mein Kampf has no real value beyond a few euros,” he said. There were too many of them. On the other hand, he was once offered a silver Christmas ornament bearing a likeness of Adolf Hitler’s face…  “I wish I’d bought it,” he said with a laugh.  It turned out later to be quite a valuable piece.

Often these deals must be done with discretion. In January, police and officials from Austria’s anti-terrorist unit raided a Viennese apartment, where they found a cache of Nazi artifacts including pins, medals, uniforms and weapons ranging from daggers to a sub-machine gun. Which on their own might be allowed but collected altogether without proper authority, is strictly prohibited.

Courtesy of the author

It had been a strange journey – Days of walking into antique stores, asking to see Nazi collectables and being shuffled into several backrooms was desensitising. Without a direct comment from the police, it is impossible to tell if these backroom deals are known about or whether they are simply tolerated. This appears to be the biggest open secret in Vienna. 

Courtesy of the author

Many younger people seem to feel a certain apathy, summed up by a Viennese friend: “My grandma has portraits of officers of the regime hanging in her attic, but what are you going to do?” They were soldiers, and they may have been Nazis. They were also her relatives and friends.

For the wartime generation and their children, many of the Nazi artifacts were simply the souvenirs of times that although now politically disgraced, were the times when they lived, loved, married and had children. For others, family photographs with a Wehrmacht soldier or a wedding copy of Mein Kampf leave a bad taste. The sentiments have become disposable memories families try to forget.  

And so they end up in the antique stores of Vienna’s back streets.