This is not a story about a white supremacist or neo Nazis.
I found a Nazi flag in my father-in-law’s attic. It was 2001. He had moved to an assisted living facility and I was doing what one does when that happens—clearing out a life’s accumulation of things and memorabilia.
There were 200 pieces of carnival glass. Confederate money. A pre-runner for IBM’s Magnetic Tape “Selectric” Composer. Books and books and books on cars.
And the Nazi flag.
This was an actual Nazi flag—it had clearly been confiscated by American servicemen. In the white circle that encased the swastika, they had signed their names and included their ranks and hometowns, big and small, that ranged from Missouri to Pennsylvania to Alabama to New York to California and so on.
The flag itself was blood-chilling beautiful. I believe it was made from wool, the deep crimson color setting off the white circle that contained the black swastika. One could not dispute the perfection of the design.
Yet, its beauty was its malevolence. And malevolence rose from it like pain from a third-degree burn. The signatures of the American servicemen bore witness to the desecration of the human spirit perpetuated under its spell.
My father-in-law’s name was not on it. He had been in the Navy and the ranks indicated the servicemen had likely been in the Army. It was a mystery why he had it.
We did not know what to do with it. I began searching by towns to see if any residents by that name still lived. This was 2001; many WWII veterans were still alive. I found a few phone numbers, called them, and left messages.
In the meantime, we wrapped up the flag so it would not deteriorate, and returned it to the attic when we moved into Tom’s family home. On occasion, we would tell people about it, bring it down to show them the signatures of the servicemen. Each time we unwrapped it, its malevolent beauty sucked the air out of the room. We’d return it to the attic where it was out of sight, but still, we felt its presence lurking above us.
After about five years, we got a phone call from a man who recognized his father as one who had signed the flag. Because Tom and I do not share the same last name, it took a while before the man realized that he was Tom’s cousin on his mother’s side. It still was not clear when or how the flag had been turned over to my father-in-law. It didn’t really matter. The flag, at last, was going to where it belonged—the son of a man who bore witness to the desecration perpetrated under the Nazi flag.
Current events kindled my memory of this story. I’ve been pondering this post for a week or so, then decided to watch two movies and an episode of Band of Brothers to provide some contextual research: “Conspiracy,” a 2001 HBO film that dramatizes the January 1942 Wannsee Conference in which the final solution for ridding Europe of Jews was devised, and set in motion the laws that enabled it; “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the 1961 film that told the story of the trials of the judges who were instrumental in enforcing those laws, as well as those that preceded them; “Why We Fight,” the episode of Band of Brothers in which they discover a concentration camp.
“Conspiracy” is chilling. The conference, planned by General Reinhard Heydrich (Kenneth Branagh) and Adolf Eichmann (Stanley Tucci), takes place over the course of a few hours. “I want to be done by 2:30,” Heydrich proclaims. “Evacuation” becomes the euphemism for executing Jews. They cite and revel in the statistics that show how efficiently they can exterminate Jews in concentration camps, up to 60,000 a day. All the while they partake from a sumptuous array of food, wine, and cigars. One participant interrupts his praise for the plan to note how tasty the wine is.
They end by 2:30 and go their separate ways and the final solution begins days later.
“Judgment at Nuremberg” pulls you into the horror of what was. Spencer Tracy is perfectly cast as the American jurist who is selected to preside over the tribunal. He is conflicted, reads the writings of Emil Janning, one of the judges on trial, wants to admire him, wonders if they have in common good legal minds. The prosecutor, played by Richard Widmark, had liberated one of the concentration camps. He shows films from the camps—the ovens, the “showers,” the emaciated bodies that for health concerns, were bulldozed by British soldiers into mass graves. I suspect it was the first time the American public had seen the reality of the Holocaust.
Emil Janning (Burt Lancaster) who you almost come to admire, begs of Spencer Tracy to understand that no one thought it would end in the horror that it did. Spencer Tracy replies, “It started the first time you sentenced a man you knew was innocent to die.”
“Why We Fight” made me think of the servicemen who had signed that Nazi flag I found in my father-in-law’s attic. They are tired of the war. Want to go home. Do not glorify it. And then they discover the concentration camp on the edge of the small town they have occupied.
We Americans, of course, began confronting our own demons after the war. The internment of American citizens. The terror inflicted on Black Americans as they registered to vote and brought to light our own racial atrocities. Our history of slavery not even 100 years gone when we entered WWII. The inklings of recognizing that genocide is at the core of the settlement of White Europeans on this piece of real estate we call the United States of America. The war in Vietnam.
I have always believed that we could look at our flaws, acknowledge our own atrocities, and find a remedy that would find room at the table for everyone. The distribution of power over three branches of government along with an adversarial press would, in the end, turn us to the better angels of our nature.
Then this past year happened. This can happen here. I fear that it is happening here.
What particularly struck me in “Conspiracy,” was that the Nazi and SS officers greeted each other with a salute and a “Heil Hitler.”
They pledged their loyalty to Hitler.
As we pondered what to do with the flag, before we heard from Tom’s cousin, someone told us we could sell it, that it was unique and therefore more valuable because it had not been urinated on.
Those servicemen did not urinate on Hitler’s flag. They bore witness to its depravity and their triumph over it. We need to honor them for bearing witness to how it ended, and remember that how it ended was also how it began.