A Human Rights Watchdog's Strange Fetish: NazisS

Human Rights Watch has suspended a senior military analyst because he has the slightly odd hobby—given his day job—of collecting Nazi relics.

Marc Garlasco is a former Pentagon analyst who currently does the Lord's work at Human Rights Watch, traveling the world to monitor and expose the effects of war on civilians, holding governments accountable. He is also obsessed—to the point of writing a 400-page book and posting more than 7,000 messages to an online forum—with Nazi memorabilia, medals, and trinkets. After a pro-Israel blog revealed Garlasco's hobby last week, Human Rights Watch suspended him "pending an investigation," according to the New York Times.

Garlasco's unsettling side-gig is particularly thorny for Human Rights Watch, which—because it tells the truth about Israel's conduct of war among civilian populations in Gaza and the West Bank—has long been criticized by advocates of Israel as anti-Semitic. Now those critics have some hard evidence to back up the claim: Look! One of their top investigators loves Nazis!

But do they? In a defense on the Huffington Post, written last week before he was suspended, Garlasco acknowledged that his hobby might seem "disturbing" to some, but explained that his grandfather had been conscripted into the German army during WWII, and said his collecting of Nazi artifacts was an attempt to learn the lessons of the past:

I've never hidden my hobby, because there's nothing shameful in it, however weird it might seem to those who aren't fascinated by military history. Precisely because it's so obvious that the Nazis were evil, I never realized that other people, including friends and colleagues, might wonder why I care about these things. Thousands of military history buffs collect war paraphernalia because we want to learn from the past. But I should have realized that images of the Second World War German military are hurtful to many.

Collecting Nazi memorabilia doesn't just seem weird: It is weird. We've known a few people who go for that sort of thing, and we can't get past the simple fact that it is quite literally a Nazi fetish—a reverence for and investment of meaning in trinkets that are associated with Nazism. Does it make its practitioners apologists for Nazism, or Nazis themselves? No. But there's more going on there than just fanboy enthusiasm for historical artifacts. It's a fascination with the remnants of an evil regime, and it seems to us that the fascination bears some relationship to the magnitude of the evil.

Whatever is going on, we sincerely doubt that Garlasco's blood runs cold at the prospect of owning a leather SS coat because of all the historical stuff he can learn from it—that's an expression of visceral awe. Not necessarily admiration or approval, but still. All manner of collectors lose sight of reason in their pursuits, and we completely understand the dynamic of getting drawn into a dusty little corner of history and wanting to own and catalog it all. But at some level Garlasco made a decision to surround himself with symbols of horror and dread, and "I'm a military geek" doesn't have a lot of explanatory power.

It's a shame, because Human Rights Watch does good and important things, and as one supporter of the organization told the Times, its critics "have been given this deus ex machina gift about the discovery of Garlasco and his out-of-hours hobby."

[Photo via Flickr by Foxgirl.]