The fascinating objects of fascism

Roger Moorhouse shows it’s possible to treat modern history properly and in context

Artillery Row Books

When I was a little girl, I inherited a stamp collection from a distant relative. Neatly organised in Stanley Gibbons albums and stock-books on a country-by-country basis, my mother and I spread the lot out on our dining-room table and began leafing through them. 

I’d spent most of my life in rural Australia and the UK’s Home Counties, with brief interludes in New Zealand. I was really only interested in stamps from those three countries, and whiled away an hour or so counting how many had kangaroos on them and working out if I had the complete set issued for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

It took time for me to notice that my mother was sitting at the table, ashen-faced, holding the “Germany” album open at a particular page. 

“Harry,” she said to my father. “We should get rid of this one. I don’t want it in the house”. My father — streaked with dust and sweat from a day on the tractor — scraped his hat off and looked over mum’s shoulder. I stood up, moved around the table, and joined him.

Together we beheld a single stamp, set in what I later learned was called a miniature sheet, featuring what I thought was a sculpture of a lean-faced man with a short, blond aureole of hair. His eyes were shut. Next to the image was the double-lightning standard of Hitler’s SS. Even ten-year-old me knew this.

“It’s Helen’s,” my father said. “She decides whether she wants to keep it or not.”

The man on the stamp was Reinhard Heydrich, and it is item number 86 in Roger Moorhouse’s Hitler’s Third Reich in 100 Objects, a book that somehow manages to be attractive and disturbing at the same time. 

I’m not sure who thought of it, but when I heard Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects series on BBC Radio 4, I was hooked. I downloaded all 100 podcasts and stumped up for the gloriously illustrated hardback. Clearly I wasn’t alone in enjoying this approach to artefacts and their capacity for providing a window into history and culture, as numerous other “100 Objects” books have subsequently appeared. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that the BBC series coped better with older things. Archaeologists seemed to have a stronger feel for placing items from antiquity in context than their modern counterparts. At times while listening, I wondered if it were even possible to treat modern history in the same way I’d been trained to look at Greece and Rome as a classics undergraduate.

Hitler’s Third Reich in 100 Objects: A Material History of Nazi Germany, by Roger Moorhouse

Roger Moorhouse shows that it can be done, and in spades.

By gathering so much Nazi memorabilia together in one place and photographing it so beautifully, all on thick matte paper in full colour, Moorhouse reminds the reader, over and over, of just how good the Nazis were at photography and industrial design. Item 42, a 1938 advertisement for the new Volkswagen “KdF-Wagen” is a breathtaking example. There, behind the instantly recognisable “Beetle” beloved of 60s counterculture, is a swastika nested in a gearwheel where the sun should be. And because Moorhouse is an historian with an extraordinary gift for telling detail, one also learns that “money was thrown at the project and, as a result, the vehicle was submitted to the same quality of tests reserved for aircraft, making it a superbly robust and efficient design”.

No wonder what became the “Vee-Dub” was so durable. People who thought they were going to conquer the world and outlast the Roman Empire designed and built it. 

Even the most mundane or vile objects in the collection have a rhythmic and orderly quality, pleasing to the eye, from the clean lines of the 88mm artillery gun (#35) to the ornate cast iron Arbeit Macht Frei gates (#27) at the entrance to various concentration camps. It is as though a team of brilliant graphic designers, engineers, and advertising executives sat down to help a genocidal totalitarian regime with its public relations: Susan Sontag was right to call fascism “fascinating”.

And once again, there is a revealing Moorhouse factlet: the most likely experience to happen (after being looked at by tourists) to a cast iron concentration camp gate is for the bloody thing to be nicked. I have been to Dachau, the gate is enormous; how anyone could make off with it unnoticed is anyone’s guess, but it happens reasonably regularly. At one point it went missing for two years before surfacing in Bergen, Norway, in December 2016. Meanwhile, the last time the Auschwitz one was pinched, the Swedish Neo-Nazis responsible managed to damage it badly in the process. 

Tellingly, once the Nazis — including Hitler himself, who Moorhouse describes as “a competent artist” — tried to do fine art (as opposed to photography, illustration, or vexillography), the wheels fell off. Nazi art (with few exceptions, mainly architectural or industrial) is, to use an expression beloved of my mother, “naff”. Moorhouse’s object 37 is the catalogue for the 1940 iteration of an annual exhibition of Nazi art. The catalogue cover and layout are superb pieces of design. As for the art it features (he includes a sample), the less said, the better.

A 1938 advertisement for the new Volkswagen “KdF-Wagen”

Precisely because Nazi memorabilia is often so striking, Moorhouse has to do something that, historically, has been the preserve of archaeologists: place what is called “dark heritage” in context. Not for nothing do tourists who visit the Colosseum or various Aztec temples have to be reminded of the purposes for which they were built, and so Moorhouse integrates his description of the Berlin Olympic stadium and its “elegant, almost modest profile” (achieved by construction partly below ground) with the story of Jesse Owens’s sporting success there. He somehow navigates between the Scylla of excessive admiration for the likes of Albert Speer and the Charybdis of refusing to accept that superb design was essential to Nazism’s success as a “political religion”.

The catalogue for the 1940 iteration of an annual exhibition of Nazi art

I sometimes wonder if Hitler bears some of the blame for our contemporary suspicion of beauty. There is certainly a case to be made that the most significant difference between Nazism and Communism was not ideology — in practice murderously similar — or even who was to go to the wall this week, but that the former was splendid to look at while the latter was (and is) not. There is a strange quasi-symmetry between the two regimes in action, one obsessed with race and the other fixated on class.

Sensibly, Moorhouse does not venture a view, leaving his luminous photographs and pellucid commentary to speak for themselves. He does, however, let the thought form organically in the reader’s mind without attempting to undercut it, suggesting by implication that beauty is independently valuable, and not to be abandoned to politics or popular culture, lest it be put to nefarious ends.

What I thought was a sculpture on the Heydrich postage stamp was in fact his death mask. Issued in May 1943, the one-year anniversary of his death, the perforated miniature sheet that had somehow landed in my possession was handed out to dignitaries or people who went to Heydrich’s funeral, and there are only 1,000 in existence. I learnt this from an utterly flummoxed stamp-dealer in the state capital — we had travelled there for the annual Royal Agricultural Show — in a series of staccato bursts directed at my parents. 

It is as though a team of brilliant graphic designers, engineers, and advertising executives sat down to help a genocidal totalitarian regime with its public relations

My father was financially shrewd. He was not the sort to be easily snowed by professionals in the business of buying low and selling high. He suspected — simply because there was a number on it — that the item was valuable, which is why his response surprised me.

“Perhaps the State Library should have it,” he said. 

I never knew how much he — notionally, me — got for the Reinhard Heydrich miniature sheet, or where it ultimately finished up. I do know that a week after the show, my mother was tooling around in a brand new town car and publicly glad that the object would no longer be in the house. I detected something of her response to it in those that laid into Michael Gove when Zoom disclosed he had a David Irving book on his shelves. It was as though, like a religious icon, it retained the power to seduce with beauty and then vaporise anyone who touched it, rather like the chunk of concentrated evil does to Kevin’s nosy parents in the final scene of Time Bandits

Hitler’s Third Reich in 100 Objects performs two essential tasks when it comes to remembering Nazi Germany. First, it conveys how a single, 12-year period — as Richard Overy points out in his introduction — “continues to exert a macabre fascination long after its violent demise”. At the same time, it decouples beauty from politics, forcing the reader to confront how the former can be dragooned into service by the latter, but need not be. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover