Monday, December 21, 2009

Auschwitz sign theft: neo-Nazis, or right-wing private antiquities collectors?

Some reports about the theft of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp sign are more confident than others about the identity of the thieves. I believe we can be confident that the thieves were neo-Nazis or right-wing private antiquities collectors.

There is also some confusion about the basics.


David Randall reported that 'Museum authorities' said the "Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free)" sign was made of 'hollow steel pipes' and weighed 'between 65lbs and 90lbs, light enough for one person to lift'.

Yet Kate Connolly recorded the sign as 'bronze'; and the BBC relayed that '[i]nvestigators' said 'at least two people would have been needed to steal' the sign.

Holocaust deniers, or right-wing private antiquities collectors?

Connolly described 'investigators looking into suggestions that it could have been anyone from scrap metal dealers to Holocaust deniers, from rightwing collectors of Nazi memorabilia to pre-Christmas pranksters'.

Scrap metal

The suggestion that the sign was stolen by scrap metal dealers was lazy, absurd. Despite the poor supervision forced by poor funding, there must have been other, easier sources of metal. Scrap dealers would not have spent so much time planning such a difficult theft.

Moreover, scrap metal scroungers would have taken more metal; they would not have risked so much time during the theft precisely to remove only the sign.


There is no way bored kids, or aimless adults with a lot of time on their hands, could have managed this crime; it seems an almost insulting suggestion, dismissing the blatant, shameful symbolism of the act of desecration.

The sugestion certainly insults bored kids and aimless adults, as it implies they would have no moral problem with desecrating a grave, and a memorial to one of the most horrific acts in human history.

Nazi trophy hunters

Randall, however, observed that while there was 'no hard evidence that neo-Nazis were responsible', the sign was stolen 'less than 48 hours after Germany announced it was donating €60m (£53m)' for the conservation of the remains of the barracks and gas chambers.

BBC News 24 (television) also mentioned the German donation and considered the possibility of 'Nazi trophy hunters'' ordering the theft. (It is too famous a thing - too risky a target - for a gang to steal it without already having a buyer.)

[The BBC seemed a little confused, as it mentioned police's suspicion of a theft-to-order, then said "but" experts had cautioned that it would be too difficult to find a buyer.

The "experts"(1) meant finding a buyer would be too difficult; by definition, a theft-to-order already has a buyer. So, the police and "experts" shared the suspicion of a theft-to-order.]

I don't know whether metal can be re-welded without leaving join marks; but I don't think it can. And while some stolen cultural artefacts/art objects are cut, smuggled and remade, they are ones (e.g. mosaics) where the cut marks can be covered (e.g. by paint, etc.)

Thus, I don't think it was [think it may have been] stolen for a private antiquities collector; nevertheless, right-wing collectors' desire for the object would be more "historic" than "artistic", so they might have ordered its theft (even if the quick theft necessitated damage).

So, [B]etween the limited object of the theft, and the necessary effort for the crime, and the timing and method of the theft (after the German donation and damaging the sign), I [initially] believe[d] the thieves are [were] probably Holocaust deniers, (or) neo-Nazis.

[However, rethinking the difficulty and the timing of the theft - such a difficult theft being committed immediately after the German donation - I think the theft must have been planned before the German donation, so the fact of the German donation should not influence our interpretation of the crime.

It was still definitely a political crime; but it is as likely to have been a vile act of antiquities collecting as a vile act of cultural destruction.]


Agence France-Presse (AFP) noted that Auschwitz was extended to become Auschwitz-Birkenau 'after the Nazis razed the nearby village of Brzezinka' (the German name of which is Birkenau).
  1. I'm not denying their expertise - none of the reports said what their expertise was.
AFP (Agence France-Presse). 2009: "Thieves steal infamous Auschwitz death camp sign". The Age, 19th December. Available at:

BBC. 2009: "Police in Poland find sign stolen from Auschwitz gate". BBC News, 21st December. Available at:

Connolly, K. 2009: "Poland declares state of emergency after 'Arbeit Macht Frei' stolen from Auschwitz". The Guardian, 18th December. Available at:

Randall, D. 2009: "Auschwitz theft 'was a professional job'". The Independent, 20th December. Available at:

No comments:

Post a Comment