Moral issues posed by Luftwaffe watches

September 21, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

A SPIRITED debate broke out on the Internet recently, prompted by a German watch manufacturer's announcement that it would market a commemorative version of the wristwatches worn by Luftwaffe pilots during World War II.

"Does the watch come with a swastika?" sneered one writer in a watch-collectors' chat room.

"You must be kidding!" exclaimed another, who thought the company's plan "the most crass and offensive marketing scheme ever to have come along." He offered his "most sincere wishes for the complete failure [of] this and any like venture."

Collectors are a passionate lot, of course, whether the objects of their desire be wristwatches, artworks, antique silver or beer cans.

Still, the above-noted exchange is a reminder that collectibles possess a moral as well as aesthetic and historical dimension. Invariably, a collection seems to reflect on the character of its collector as much as it does on his or her personal taste and expertise.

People who collected impressionist or modern art, for example, once were regarded as eccentrics or lunatics. Today, many people feel the same way about collectors of contemporary art.

Conversely, there are discophiles who refuse to buy Wagner recordings because of the composer's anti-Semitic writings, and bibliophiles who shun J. R. R. Tolkien because of the author's racist philosophy.

Collectors of pornography or Nazi memorabilia are universally ostracized because their obsession seems to imply low character.

A leveling effect

Yet time has a leveling effect on the moral significance of objects. The older they are, the fainter the negative associations they carry, until finally they become objects of reverence regardless of origin or the circumstances of their acquisition.

The ancient artifacts of the first Chinese emperor recently exhibited at the Walters Art Gallery are a monstrous legacy plainly wrung out of the blood and sweat of his impoverished subjects and extorted at the point of a sword.

Yet today, they are a source of wonderment to the entire world.

Everywhere, the spoils of war and booty of conquest and oppression eventually find their way into the halls of museums. There they are sanctified as priceless treasures that redound to the glory of the nation.

Napolean's loot formed the basis for the collection at the Louvre. British imperialists enshrined their stash in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

And so it is a paradox of the all-too-human condition that the objects embodying our highest aspirations are also tainted by base historical circumstance.

Our own day, for example, has seen a gradual change in the status of Confederate Civil War memorabilia, from embittered souvenirs of bigotry to hallowed artifacts. The change clearly has affected the way many people view the moral universe in which the objects once were embedded.

Thus Robert Moats, the Virginia store owner who portrayed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in last week's re-enactment of the historic battle of Antietam, apparently saw nothing shameful in admitting his belief that the South should have won the war.

For him, the uniforms, equipment and cultural artifacts of the conflict had acquired a historical meaning and value quite independent of the stigma of slavery.

A couple of years ago, the Israeli Philharmonic gave the first concert that included the music of Wagner since the founding of the Jewish state. It was an epochal event marked by controversy on all sides. But it tended to support the proposition that eventually time does heal all wounds.

Cars and cameras

Americans today feel no compunction about buying Japanese and German cars and cameras, to say nothing of listening to Wagner or enjoying a Samurai film. Half a century ago, such cultural acceptance would have been considered treason.

Still, it's hard to conceive the day when Nazi memorabilia will become a socially acceptable collectible. But presumably in the future, people will collect old Playboy magazines with the same insouciance that serves today's aficionados of French postcards or bawdy netsuke figurines. So I suppose anything is possible.

The watch enthusiasts on the Internet, at least, seemed resigned to a certain moral ambiguity in their cherished pursuit.

"Haven't you heard? World War II is over!" complained one collector, obviously annoyed by the day's discussion.

Another wrote: "I survived World War II. Put me down for Serial #1 of the new model!"

It was not, to my mind, a very morally satisfying response. But perhaps the writers were, in their own way, merely restating what history already has proven, that the arts eventually transcend even flawed human nature, and that in any case life must go on.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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