A Swastika, 60 Years Submerged, Still Inflames Debate

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
August 25, 2006
Montevideo Journal

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Aug. 24

For more than 60 years, the scuttled wreck of the Graf Spee rested undisturbed in 65 feet of murky water just outside the harbor here. But now that fragments of the vessel, once the pride of the Nazi fleet, are being recovered, a new battle has broken out over who owns those spoils and what should be done with them.

The private syndicate that recovered them wants to put the pieces up for auction, with the money to be divided evenly with the government, as law requires. But Uruguayan officials, fearing that an auction might let neo-Nazi groups acquire the artifacts, threaten to suspend the syndicate's permit and take control of the salvaging operation themselves.

There are ethical limits on the promotion of Nazi symbols in museums, so who are the potential buyers of these icons if not neo-Nazis? said Miguel Esmoris, director of the government's National Heritage Commission. We're not against salvagers making a profit, but this is formally an archaeological site, and we cannot allow illicit trafficking in cultural and historical items.

The first items recovered, a cannon and a rangefinder, in 2004, caused little debate, except when the rangefinder was used in a fashion show. There are other pieces, too. But the recovery of the vessel's imposing nine-foot-high tailpiece, an eagle sitting atop a swastika, in February of this year and the announcement of plans to sell it ignited the current dispute.

Alfredo Etchegaray, a public relations executive, wedding and party organizer and amateur historian who leads the syndicate salvaging the Graf Spee, said that thus far his group had sunk $100,000 into the effort, excluding donated equipment and services.

His lawyer, Daniel Ferrere, said most of the investors were Uruguayans but risk capital put up by Europeans and foreigners resident in Uruguay was also involved.

Commissioned in 1936, the Graf Spee was the most lethal of a class of pocket battleships developed by Nazi Germany. When World War II broke out, the vessel preyed on Allied shipping in the South Atlantic until a British-led battle group tracked it down at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata in December 1939.

In the battle that ensued, 113 crew members were killed. The Graf Spee's captain navigated to the safety of Montevideo harbor, a neutral port, but when told he had to leave, he scuttled his vessel rather than let its innovative technology fall into British hands. Shortly afterward, he committed suicide.

This was the first important Allied victory of World War II, so the Graf Spee is also a valuable trophy for Germany's enemies, Mr. Etchegaray said.

He cited recent reports in British tabloids that collectors in Asia and the United States were willing to pay $15 million or more if he succeeded in putting pieces of the Graf Spee up for auction.

I've received e-mails from colleagues in Europe saying that neo-Nazi groups there are very interested in acquiring the eagle, said Roberto Bracco, a marine archaeologist here who has worked on other projects and is critical of the Graf Spee syndicate. This shows that the past, especially the recent past, must be managed carefully and that Germany, Britain and the Jewish community all need to be involved in the disposition of these pieces.

Mr. Etchegaray said that all potential bidders for the eagle would be carefully screened and that out of respect for the Jewish population, the insignia, at the moment in storage at a warehouse here, had been covered up so that the swastika was not visible. Leaders of the Jewish population here, just under 1 percent of the country's 3.3 million inhabitants, have applauded those steps but say they still have concerns.

We do not object to the recovery effort itself, said Ernesto Kreimerman, president of the Uruguayan Jewish Committee. This vessel is an historical artifact that offers testimony to one of the darkest periods of modern times. But when it comes time to commercialize the insignia, we believe that it must go to a museum, not into private hands, and that photographs be controlled.

Surviving crew members have expressed mixed feelings. Most of the Graf Spee's crew of 1,150 was interned here or across the river in Argentina during World War II, and many remained after the war.

This is madness, too expensive and senseless, Hans Eupel, an 88-year-old former torpedo mechanic, told reporters here last year, referring to the salvage effort. It is also dangerous, since one of the three explosive charges we placed did not explode.

Hector Bado, the syndicate's chief diver and Mr. Etchegaray's partner in the recovery effort, said exposure to sea water had eliminated the possibility of that charge going off. It's easy to criticize when you're doing nothing yourself, he said of the Uruguayan governments position. We're willing to work with them, but they have to be respectful of the efforts of others.

Another complicating factor is that Germany may also be claiming ownership of the vessel. Mr. Etchegaray said that he had received information to that effect, and that even rumors of such a claim had slowed his efforts to raise money for further salvaging efforts and the auction.

A German Embassy official here, Theodor Proffe, said his government expressed its views to the Uruguayan Foreign Ministry in a note sent “a few weeks ago.

He declined to make a copy of the document available or to explain the official position, saying, We know this is a very sensitive issue, and so we try to play it on a low and quiet level.

Mr. Etchegaray said any German claim would be invalid because early in 1940 the Nazi government sold salvaging rights to the vessel to Julio Vega, an Uruguayan businessman. Official documents recently released in London, he said, show that Mr. Vega was actually acting on behalf of the British government, which later lost a pair of divers when they tried to examine the wreck. But any rights Mr. Vega or the British government might have had would have expired under Uruguayan law.

Both Mr. Etchegaray and Mr. Bado said they hoped to use earnings from the sale of the eagle to continue their work at the Graf Spee site and to finance other projects involving sunken vessels from the Spanish colonial era.

Were interested in this as pure history, and not in taking one side or another,Mr. Etchegaray said. History is full of horrible crimes, which have to be handled maturely, seriously and respectfully.
Well I think the ship needs to stay at the bottom of the ocean as a grave for the few people that scuttled it.

Imagine what kind of uproar it would recieve if someone wanted to raise the Arizona or the Hood.

If they were to raise it though, it should be returned to the German government.
Pictures of the wreck of the ship is pretty rare, but I say raise her and show us. I think the whole thing is being thrown way out of proportion and it is a WW2 relic and thus they should stop fighting over bull and get real.
The more I think about it, the more I disagree. I think the ship should be left at the bottom where she lies along with every componant of her. She is a war grave, and therefore the souls (even though it was just a skeleton crew) should be left to rest in peace there.
Yes you are right, I forgot about that the the Captain and the demolition crew left on a barge before she blew up.

Still to me it is a grave and a memorial to those that did die from the ship.
im pretty sure the british recovered some things from the ship right after it was scuttled before it sunk completely
I'm not sure how I feel...

Those that oppose - did you also think it would have been better to leave the P-38 buried beneathe the ice?
Should that be the case, how many LESS warbirds would there still be around in museums and in the air today? I think that it's a very thin line to walk and each subject deamands a very careful line of thinking....when it comes to respect etc.
How many wouldn't love to see those Type-XXI buried in that bunker come back into daylight and restored? Just to mention one thing....
I think its gotta be taken on a case-by-case basis. Glacier Girl was simply an airplane crash, nobody died IIRC. All the pilots in that group were rescued, and returned to battle. The Graf Spee was scuttled after the battle. I can understand the arguements for leaving her in place as a war monument/mausoleum, but I can also understand the side that wants to raise her, restore her, and turn her into a monument/museum. The USS Arizona, and countless other ships like her (someone else mentioned the HMS Hood) are tombs, pure and simple. Leave them be. In this case, though, I'm undecided. No matter what you do, you're gonna piss someone off.
Now, how about raising USS Yorktown CV-5, restore her and anchor her next to her namesake sister the USS Yorktown CV-10...hmmm? :lol:

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