By Tristan Bromley @TefaBrom
Porcelain is not something usually associated with Nazism. Yet from 1936–45, the Nazi SS, were fostering this precise link through the Allach Porcelain Manufactory, an SS company.[I] Amongst its produce were animal figurines, vases, candleholders, as well as models of SS men and other ‘Aryan’ figurines. Each piece bore the company’s mark of the double SS sig rune. This porcelain was not however only made by SS men. While the company was founded in the Munich suburb of Allach, most of its production was moved to a factory at Dachau in 1937, and from 1940 wartime labour shortages meant concentration camp labour was employed.[ii] A cursory internet search will reveal that despite these clear links to forced labour, Allach porcelain is still sold today by private dealers, auction houses, and on common marketplace platforms including eBay. It is easily purchasable from the UK and pieces sold internationally have fetched prices of thousands and tens of thousands of pounds, euros, and dollars.[iii]
So why it is possible to trade in this porcelain despite the concept of modern slavery, and these objects clearly constituting Nazi political symbols? The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act is in part designed to regulate against the use of forced labour and slavery in companies’ supply chains. A current example of this are the restrictions on UK companies using Uzbek cotton, as the Uzbek government annually forces many citizens to pick cotton for export.[iv] The moral argument behind this law is clear. People should not consume goods made through the exploitation of others, nor should producers profit from forced labour. Trading Allach porcelain flouts this principle entirely. Its links to forced labour are undeniable, proven by the testimonies of Dachau prisoners who transported coal for the factory’s kilns, as well as painted, glazed and finished Allach models.[v]
This raises a few questions. Should an object made with forced labour eighty years ago, in the peak of what many historians would consider the modern era, fall under the remittance of UK modern slavery legislation?[vi] Should other countries and institutions such as the EU not also try to curb such a trade? Those that trade the porcelain clearly disagree. The forced labour which underpins Allach porcelain is not thoroughly discussed and often underplayed by dealers, with some even disingenuously claiming they trade it to prevent a black market arising.[vii]
The question is therefore how far back should modern slavery legislation apply, and does it implicitly declare an amnesty on historic goods produced through slavery? The act of enslavement may lie far in the past, in Allach’s case the 1940s, but dealers can still currently derive profit from the objects it produced. The porcelain figurines themselves moreover constitute perverse symbols of forced labour, and are traded because dealers find them ‘beautiful’. Vendors try to separate this perceived beauty from the institution of the SS. They frequently only brand figurines depicting Nazi party figures ‘political’, presenting animal and other figurines as resultantly apolitical. This is unconvincing given each piece bears an SS rune as its maker’s mark; it simply shows that the SS succeeded in creating a legacy for themselves as a cultural elite in the eyes of some. Allach porcelain calls into question how moral aspects of the apparently legal art and antiques trade are, and how often ‘beauty’ is prioritised over basic morality.
In Britain, the victory over Nazism and liberation of concentration camps is rightly held up as a positive part of our history. This is however undeniably undercut by the reality that individuals can currently profit from or consume objects made with forced labour under Nazism. Goods produced with forced labour in the modern era, i.e. the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Allach porcelain, remain avenues of profit and examples of fetishised beauty in our society. This fact equally makes one wonder about the provenance of the many colonial objects in Britain which pass through auction houses, museums and private collections. How many might also have direct links to modern forced labour? In all these cases we should consider whether the object in question is symbolic of slavery and forced labour, and whether that means nobody should be able to profit from them. Moreover, we should consider whether ideas of beauty cloud our moral judgement when it comes to considering items or art made with forced labour.
This article has sought to question whether the purpose and remit of modern slavery legislation can provide a solution to these issues. Allach porcelain, a product of Nazism, is simply one particularly emotive set of objects which highlights the need to closely consider the timeline, moral purpose, and jurisdiction of legislation against modern slavery.
[ii] Albert Knoll, ‘Die Porzellanmanufaktur München-Allach: Das Lieblingskind von Heinrich Himmler’, in Dachauer Hefte: Studien und Dokumente zur Geschichte der nationalsozialisten Konzentratiosnlager, eds. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, vol. 15 (Dachau: Verlag Dachauer Hefte, 1999), pp. 126–33.
[iii] See for example Hermann Historica, ‘A79r – Deutsche Zeitgeschichte ab 1919, Online Catalogue, Porzellanmanufaktur Allach’, accessed on 8 May 2020, https://www.hermann-historica.de/de/auctions/list/category/1052/id/180; Dennis R. Porell, ‘Catalogue of Allach porcelain’, accessed on 6 May 2020, http://www.allachporcelain.com.
[iv] See for example Annie Kelly, ‘Lawyers challenge UK imports of ‘slavery-tainted’ Uzbek cotton’, The Guardian, 21 October 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/oct/21/lawyers-challenge-uk-import-of-slavery-tainted-uzbek-cotton.
[v] Knoll, ‘Die Porzellanmanufaktur München-Allach’, pp. 126–33.
[vi] Historians’ debates about modernity are extensive, see in relation to this article, S. N. Eisenstadt, ‘Multiple modernities’, Daedalus 129 (2000), pp. 1–29; Mark Antliff, ‘Fascism, modernism, and modernity’, Art Bulletin 83 (2002), pp.148–69; Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (London: Arnold, 2000), pp. 124-31.
[vii] Georg Etscheit, ‘Warum Himmler Nazi-Kitsch aus Porzellan brennen ließ’, Die Welt, 26 July 2018, https://www.welt.de/geschichte/article179994960/Manufaktur-Allach-Warum-Himmler-Nazi-Kitsch-aus-Porzellan-brennen-liess.html.