Objects of Hate: Unwanted and Unremoveable

My grandfather died in the Spring of 2014. A few months after his funeral, my grandmother called his extended family — children, grandchildren, spouses — to her porch, where she had set up many of the artifacts of his life like a garage sale. Hanging from a moveable coat rack were my grandfather’s old jackets and argyle-patterned scarfs. His golf clubs were leaning precariously in a corner. And laid out on a table were the vestiges of his book collections — including a copy of Mein Kampf.

Hitler’s autobiography and manifesto was a surprise find among my grandfather’s belongings. The book itself is small, and comes in a strange case like old VHS tapes. The case is falling apart now, after moving with me from apartment to apartment, but was in good condition back then. It draws added value, for me at least, from the personal inscription penned on a spare sheet of paper and inserted under the front cover. It’s in my grandfather’s shaky hand, and reads “This ‘book’ was picked up in Germany during ‘World War’ II.” The note isn’t dated — I have no way of knowing whether my grandfather added it as soon as he got back from the war, or shortly before he died. But it’s a happy note in an otherwise dark object; seeing his writing is a lovely reminder of him, and noting that he puts the descriptor “book” in quotes is a reminder of where he stood on the matter.

So I snagged the copy — as much because it was an interesting historical artifact as because it held my grandfather’s writing. But over the years I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with this object. It’s a memorial of my grandfather, sure, and his service, but it also espouses hatred and is representative of genocide. But wanting to get rid of it left me with a difficult question: What should I do with an object of history that is both problematic and personal?

Like all good academics, I turned to Twitter to ask for advice.  Users suggested that I reach out to museums to see if any were interested in a donation of Mein Kampf for their collection. This seemed like a good idea — the object could be stored by people who know about its problems, and if it were displayed it would be placed in context to allow others to effectively understand it.

There was just one problem: Museum’s didn’t want it. It turns out that many soldiers did the same thing that my grandfather did and snagged a copy of Mein Kampf before leaving Germany. Museums already have copies of this artifact. This is unsurprising, given the more than 12 million copies of this book that had been sold by the end of World War II. But it wasn’t always the case — after the war much Nazi literature was pulped to provide the paper basis for new printed materials and to rid the world of such ideology. By 1947, Senior Program Curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Steven Luckert writes, the cleansing was “so successful that Library of Congress staff complained that—despite the millions of copies of Mein Kampf that had been printed by the Nazis—they couldn’t find 150 copies for transport to American universities.” But regardless of the historical situation, enough copies seem to have been found by today, and my edition was not necessary.

But the problems that museums have in accepting and displaying this book go deeper than an overwhelmed collection. As historian Irit Dekel argues, ”The spectral images of material objects, such as Mein Kampf or Germany’s national symbol… ‘reproduce’ Nazi ideology, nationalism and its symbolic expressions.”[1] The worry is that displaying Mein Kampf to the public also teaches the public Hitler’s hatred and in a sense perpetuates it. This is an especially pertinent — and problematic — point today, given the rise of neo-Nazism in the U.S.

Moreover, it was pointed out to me that some of the museums I thought to reach out to — museums that specialized in World War II or the Jewish experience — would be filled with people who would be most traumatized by this object. The Holocaust Memorial Museum  provided its staff with psychological consultations during the preparation of exhibits to help them deal with “the possible effects of working with traumatic material.”[2] Cold-calling (well, emailing) with images of Mein Kampf may be a no less traumatic event for many of the staff members I reached.

The combination of too many copies as well as the problems this book poses to the viewer and the museum meant that my attempted donation was turned away. Sometimes in vivid language. I was invited by the Museum of Tolerance, for example, to “feel free to just destroy it in any way that [I] would like.”

And they weren’t likely wrong.

But the problem with this book is that it is one instance of a text — a single copy of terrible content. But once this object was created, it travelled from Germany to the US in the hands of my grandfather and was imbued with additional meaning. This never supplanted the horror that it represented but rather complicated the object. Museums, even bookstores, could only see the original impression, the history of conflict and genocide that it represented, because the personal connection is only present for me.

So a year later, I still have this book. I haven’t destroyed it, as recommended, and I haven’t found any institution that wants it. It sits on my shelf, and every time someone new comes to visit I’m worried about what this book will tell them and I’m worried about how it will make them feel. Because it stands for something terrible and cruel, but contains the only sample I have of my grandfather’s hand writing. Even though it’s imbued with meaning, from many different points in its timeline, it’s now simultaneously unwanted and unremovable.

But it’s story isn’t unique. We’ve seen similar arguments about personal meaning and the history of objects brought up in defense of confederate statues.

NPR journalists Jolie Myers, Noah Caldwell, Melissa Gray, and Maureen Pao discuss some of the problems with dealing with these monuments after they’ve been removed from public display, writing that “contextualizing Confederate statues for visitors is a challenge for curators, considering how racially and politically charged the objects still are.” This is similar to the problems faced with displaying copies of Mein Kampf, except these monuments are usually uniquely crafted and single examples of their type unlike the hundreds of copies of Mein Kampf that the allied soldiers snagged. If museums are struggling with the moral implications of displaying one-of-a-kind objects, it’s no wonder that I’ve been met with such reluctance for my mass-produced one.

Not only are museums are reluctant to accept confederate monuments given their racist nature, they’re also worried that even if they are able to contextualize the objects, simply displaying them will exacerbate their impact and reach. Janeen Bryant, Benjamin Filene, Louis Nelson, Jennifer Scott, and Suzanne Seriff — museum directors, curators, scholars, educators and architect writing for Smithsonian magazine — have discussed this issue in depth.  They wonder whether in displaying problematic artifacts like confederate statues “museums are not continuing to bestow the same value and authority upon them that they ‘enjoyed’ as ‘stand-alone’ monuments – or even worse, further aggrandizing them.” That is, does contextualizing objects of hate do anything to mitigate the hate, or does it just propagate it?

My problem in dealing with this copy of Mein Kampf echoes larger conversations that are being held across this country. But unlike the state and local governments removing confederate memorials, I’m not bound by any particular laws regarding the movement and treatment of my object of hate. And I’m not bound up in lawsuits, preventing me from taking further action.

Which means I could take a metaphorical sledgehammer to mine. If museums don’t want it and I am uncomfortable with keeping it, I could, as was suggested to me, destroy it in any way I like. Except to historians like myself, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to the destruction of historical artifacts that I think is compiled with the hesitation that was already there about destroying this memory of my grandfather. Yes, this is a copy of Mein Kampf, a symbol of the most abhorrent ideologies. But can I just destroy history?

This book, like so many objects in history, is complex. It’s an object of hate and a memory of my beloved grandfather. It belongs in a museum and absolutely won’t be accepted by any such institution. Contextualizing it is the only way to safely understand what it means, and could work to perpetuate its hateful ideology.

It should be maintained and ought to be destroyed.

In the absence of any concrete, intuitive plan for dealing with my copy of Mein Kampf, I’ve done nothing. Like many removed confederate monuments, this book sits in limbo, not emphasized for public consumption but not yet contextualized for public understanding. As the US works to develop a protocol for dealing with these objects of hate, I too will have to work on a procedure that does not elevate this book but fits in with a historian’s sensibility of preserving history without a museum. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m working on it.

E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences at Brown University, with a B.A. in Classics from the College of Wooster. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time. She is a frequent NASA intern, a STEAM advocate, and an amateur circus artist.

[1] Irit Dekel, “Subjects of Memory? On Performing Holocaust Memory in Two German Historical Museums,” Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, 30:3 (2016): 296-314, DOI: 10.1080/23256249.2016.1266990

[2] James E. McCarroll et al. “Working with Traumatic Material: Effects on Holocaust Memorial Museum Staff.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65:1 (Jan. 1995): 66–75. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/h0079595.