Sunday, 14 February 2010

Uruguay/Germany: Eagle of the Graf Spee

The raising of the Graf Spee eagle, with swastika covered over as a mark of respect, image source

This article in Pagina/12 provoked my interest in the bronze eagle salvaged from the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. It's a story I knew nothing about.

The Graf Spee was a small German battleship which owed its dimensions to the Treaty of Versailles restrictions imposed on Germany after WWI. It sank 9 British ships in 1939 before becoming involved in the Battle of the River Plate. It was damaged there and sailed to neutral Montevideo for repairs. However, as the ship was unable to stay in port due to the terms of international law, its captain Hans Lansdorff took the decision to scuttle it delibarately rather than put his crew at further risk. Three days later, he took his own life.

In 2006, divers salvaged the huge bronze eagle with the swastika at its base from the waters off the Uruguayan capital. It's the swastika that is causing the trouble. The German government, as represented by its ambassador in Uruguay, is opposed to the display of the eagle with the Nazi cross. Germany, understandably enough, is sensitive about the ultimate symbol of National Symbolism. Public display of it is generally illegal in Germany although exceptions are made for historical and educational purposes.

There now seems to be some uncertainty about the ownership of the eagle. Germany believes the ship to be part of its cultural heritage. According to Uruguayan law, sunken ships predating 1973 in their waters are generally considered property of the Uruguayan state. Uruguayan businessman Alfredo Etchegaray has the rights to salvage the wreck and he doesn't believe that Germany even has the right to express an opinion on the matter. He points out that Germany has its own share of historical relics from other countries, including the head of Nefertiti which Egypt would very much like back. Uruguayan newspaper El Pais notes that Germany contributes money to the preservation of concentration camp Auschwitz, in modern-day Poland.

The latter example, obviously hinting at hypocrisy or a discrepancy of policy, seems to be somewhat of a red herring to me. Any suggestion that Germany is unilaterally opposed to the memory of the Nazi period is bizarre; surely no other country has been as concerned with apologising for and commemorating its past crimes. Germany is full of monuments and museums dealing with National Socialism, including the spectacular Jewish Museum in Berlin, which is a shining international example. Nevertheless, precisely because of its history, the German state attempts to carefully control public display and even freedom of speech on the subject - hence the fact that Holocaust denial is illegal. It now seems to be trying to extend this reach as far as Uruguay, something which Uruguay cannot really be obliged to accept. Judging by the fact that the planned exhibition of the eagle has not yet taken place, Uruguay is listening to Germany's concerns, but ultimately it should make its own decisions.

I can't say whether Germany's worry about the appropriateness or otherwise of plans for the eagle is justified. Yet Uruguay, with its own history of military dictatorship, is also an interesting backdrop for such an exhibition.

Disputa diplomatica y demanda por Graf Spee (El Pais, Uruguay)

****UPDATE**** More on statements from Germany regarding 'appropriate' use of the wreckage here

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