Renae Stucky, Kauffman Museum, Collections Manager
In November 2016, a donor approached Kauffman Museum at Bethel College with the offer of this Nazi flag for consideration for donation. The flag belonged to the donor’s father who traveled to do relief work in Europe following WWII. The young Mennonite volunteered as a “Seagoing Cowboy” helping tend and deliver livestock being transported to war-torn countries by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the Heifer Project. The donor believes that the flag was given to his father by a man he befriended during his time in Germany.
While the flag has Mennonite connections, usually a decisive factor in the museum’s collections policy, its Nazi connections made it a controversial case. The decision about whether or not to accept the object evoked many questions. What would it mean to have the flag in our collection? Would accessioning the item show insensitivity to those who suffered under the Nazi regime? Or could we use the flag to expose and confront this difficult history? What role did the flag play in our mission to tell the Mennonite story?
Due to the controversial nature of the artifact, the flag was brought to the full Kauffman Museum board for consideration and discussion. Members of the board, staff, and Bethel College history faculty were invited to offer their expertise and insight to the conversation. A variety of viewpoints were presented. In preliminary correspondence, the potential donor of the flag asserted that if there was no interest in the artifact by an historical institution he would likely destroy it ceremoniously in memory of those who perished. The members of the history faculty acknowledged the sensitivity of the object, however they ultimately agreed that “there are more constructive ways” of dealing with troubling historical topics if used or displayed in the “appropriate interpretative context.”
After much discussion among the board about the flag’s Mennonite connections, the importance of not denying “painful history” and the need to address recent scholarship related to Mennonites and the Holocaust the board voted unanimously to accept the artifact into the museum’s permanent collection.
The flag was officially accessioned at the end of 2017 with the understanding that it would be used to acknowledge the difficult history surrounding the symbol, and to confront hate rather than celebrate it.
In conjuncture with the recent conference “Mennonites and the Holocaust” held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, the flag was displayed across the street at Kauffman Museum along with several other Nazi artifacts from the museum’s collection (including artifacts brought to the United States from Mennonite colonies in South America.) The artifacts were displayed in a tall narrow case with the flag as a backdrop to a Luftwaffe dagger, an iron cross medal, and a commemorative pin from the Nazi era, and a copy of Mein Kampf. Accompanying the artifacts was interpretive text explaining the museum’s thoughtful consideration and acceptance of these Nazi artifacts, specially the flag, entitled “Why collect a Nazi flag?”
Why would Kauffman Museum collect a Nazi flag? In the same way that the conference continued the conversation about Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust, a museum has a unique opportunity to use artifacts, like this flag and others objects like it, as a catalyst for conversation about historical and current topics. We talk about these difficult issues, and display these controversial symbols, in order to confront the troubling parts of our past. If we ignore or destroy evidence of our misdeeds we risk forgetting them, letting them gather dust in the dim corners of our memory—or in this case our storage space. However if we literally, put them on display for all to see, we are forced to come face-to-face with the reality of our past, which could change our future.