What Nazi Garden Gnomes Tell Us About Memory

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Image via Associated Press

Artist Ottmar Hoerl has been busy posing 1,250 Nazi garden gnomes in the historic central marketplace of Straubing, a town in southeastern Germany. The exhibit is called “Dance with the Devil”, and it almost didn’t happen. 

Germany’s post-World War II constitution, written in 1949, guarantees basic rights like freedom of speech, but it also gives the state the power to ban organizations or displays that threaten democracy, including the use of Nazi symbols. In 1960 it became a crime to display any sort of Nazi symbol anywhere in Germany, and the law has seen its share of challenges. Everything from WWII era model airplanes to vintage newspapers from the late 1930s have been the source of court battles, and eventually squashed. 

And then came the gnomes.  What could be more innocuous than a garden gnome, the perennial terra cotta lawn dwellers with wee little hats and cherub smiles across their plump faces?  How about a garden gnome throwing the Hitler salute? How about 1,250 of them, colored black and gold, strewn across a public square? 

After much controversy, the gnomes were allowed to salute at will, since they are, after all, obvious tools of satire and not a glorification or endorsement of fascism.  But as obvious as that may be, this is something of a watershed historical moment in post-war Germany.  The laws restricting Nazi symbolism, fascist groups, and just about anything signifying the state of affairs during the Third Reich have become increasingly strict.  In one sense this is entirely understandable–these laws are not merely symbolic. They’ve also been used to deflate the rise of neo-Nazi groups and quell the unfortunate Holocaust denial movement. 

But in another sense I think the laws say a lot about the management of national memory.  At root, the prohibitions hew closely to fear–fear that a re-representation of Nazism might spark a fresh movement against the democratic order–and the fear is well-founded.  Hitler’s Germany is still the most profound historical example of mass manipulation we can look to for knowledge about how these movements take flight. 

The Reich was well ahead of its time in understanding the malleability of memory, and how a well-structured national myth can circumnavigate individual discernment to reach the level of mass acquiescence.  It’s because of the terrible potency of Nazi messaging strategies that we now formally study the science of mass communication–a discipline combining elements of psychology, sociology, and, more recently, neuroscience.

Since the end of the War, Germany has carefully managed the dissemination of symbols, almost as if sequestering the evil power that once infected the country.  But it’s really about much more than symbols. It’s about caretaking the national memory to ensure that German fascism remains in its tailor built prison, not allowed to revision itself  in the minds of those detached from the old memories.  Memory is too pliable a thing to take the chance. 

Hence, the Nazi garden gnomes represent an interesting liberalization of the caretaker’s code.  They might just be wee little mockeries, but also a not unimportant bit of history. 

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