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Friday 26 April 2013

Olympia Robust: Typewriter With a Dark, Secret Past

Is it ever morally wrong to own a particular model of typewriter?
Is it poor form, in the last hours of Anzac Day in Australia, to admit to owning an Olympia Robust, the so-called "German army field typewriter"?  A show of bad grace, of insensitivity? Or is it instead timely?  Entirely appropriate? More to be the point, should this typewriter perhaps be in the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra, rather than the Australian Typewriter Museum?
How I came to have this typewriter is explained in my typecast. Please excuse the poor typing in this, especially as the "D" typeslug has been replaced and doesn't fit on the typebar properly.
What I know about this specially-made Olympia model comes mostly from a lengthy discussion about the Robust on the Yahoo online typewriter forum in 2005, a blog post last December by Bryan Kruk of Pennsylvania (Typewriters 101), and a YouTube video from the same collector. I've gathered that the Robust has a rather uncertain history (was it really used just by the SS? Was it used in post-war forgeries? Were models souvenired by Allied soldiers and taken back home after the war?). And that apparently I should have put a green ribbon in it, not a purple one.
What I still haven't worked out is the purpose of the vent on top of the ribbon spools cover. Or whether eBay really does thinly censor Nazi insignia in items such as this, or whether sellers do the censoring themselves, to heighten interest in  Nazi memorabilia. In the case of my Robust, the seller did not highlight or censor the SS key, simply because (as he later claimed) he didn't know it was there. Either that, or he didn't realise its significance, or decided it was better not to highlight it, especially in Australia, where one would naturally have to wonder how such a machine got into the country.
Certainly, as was stated on the Yahoo forum, a lot of these Robusts do appear on eBay (and in other auctions) in Germany and in the US. Mine cost me 1/20th of the asking price of $1395 (upped by $1000 from the initial listing) for one relisted in Bavaria two days ago. Another sold in the US for $1000 after 30 bids less than two weeks ago.  
Wikipedia says the SS symbol above the figure 5 on the top bank of the keyboard is the runic insignia of the Schutzstaffel (known in German as the SS-Runen). It appeared on flags, uniforms and other items, symbolising various aspects of Nazi ideology and Germanic mysticism. It also represented virtues seen as desirable in SS members, and were based on völkisch mystic Guido von List's Armanen runes, which he loosely based on the historical runic alphabets. List reinterpreted the symbol as a victory sign. It was adapted into the emblem of the SS in 1933 by Walter Heck, an SS Sturmhauptführer who worked as a graphic designer for Ferdinand Hoffstatter, a producer of emblems and insignia in Bonn. Heck's simple but striking device consisted of two sig runes drawn side by side like lightning bolts, and was soon adopted by all branches of the SS. The device had a double meaning; as well as standing for the initials of the SS, it could be read as a rallying cry of "Victory, Victory!" The symbol became so ubiquitous that it was frequently typeset using runes rather than letters; during the Nazi period, an extra key was added to German typewriters to enable them to type the double-sig logo with a single keystroke."
Someone who seemed knowledgeable on the Yahoo forum said the Robust was "a special production from Olympia for the German military, only used within correspondence between Hitler's SS.  The Olympia Robust was only produced in limited edition as a different type of the Olympia Progress and it shows three major differences to the Progress:  green typing colour, a special cover for the machine to protect it against damage during fighting, and the 'SS' button."
But let's remember that other German typewriters also offered the SS symbol; it's often found on Groma portables and Continentals, for instance. Let's also bear in mind that the Fraktur script font used on some German typewriters was once popular with the Nazis, until the Third Reich realised that Fraktur would inhibit communication in occupied territories.
I have to admit I am still wrestling with the morality of owning this typewriter. I have canvassed opinions among friends and family, and one friend said, "After all, we have to preserve signs of evil in order to remember and avoid it ... no one should assume that [by owning such a typewriter] you sympathise with Nazism."  


Ted said...

owning an historically significant machine isn't the same as accepting the worldview of one of its long-dead previous owners.

People and even whole nations seem to get all out of whack about Nazi items, as if the items themselves were evil, and might rub evil off on them, and certainly there are crazy people who collect Nazi memorabilia primarily because they *do* agree with Nazi idealism, but most people collect it for the same reason they would collect any other historically significant artifact: they want to preserve knowledge and own something interesting from the past.

The Nazis might have been horrible, but certainly no more horrible than the Catholic Church has been in past times, and I don't see anyone condemning anyone else for being Catholic or owning old Catholic artifacts.

notagain said...

came to say much the same as Ted, but not like as well as he did. Plus which, a gap in a museum collection is a hole for ignorance to collect. Far better to document rigorously and display.

Richard P said...

It is certainly legitimate to keep an important piece of history, and as its keeper you do not endorse what it was used for.

But count me in the "personally wouldn't want one" category. I like to get joy from my typewriters and this one would just bring shudders.

Miguel Chávez said...

Perhaps I am too young, but I don't see anything wrong about having a typewriter that belongs to a quite significant historical period.

Two examples come to mind of German stuff sought after by collectors all over the world, but particularly from Allied countries: wartime Volkswagens and weapons. Both are objects that would carry the same load of psychological connotations as your typewriter, yet you see them displayed proudly in conventions, museums, and even used on a regular basis (especially the VW). If you ask the owner of a, say, Kübelwagen that saw action in the desert front or the Russian front and is still decorated with Rommel's ensignia (there are quite a few of them around), he'll most likely tell you proudly the story of the car, but mostly the story of how it came to his collection and how he prides himself on preserving such a significant piece of history.

I think that the saving grace of these objects (the Kübelwagen and your Olympia) is precisely their utilitarianism. They were made with the purpose of serving as tools to aid in their country's war effort. Ideologies apart, they are no more special or relevant than a Jeep or a Remington typewriter from the same era; both the German objects and their American counterparts were built for the same purpose, and served that purpose until the turn of events determined who won and who lost the war.

When you consider the historical background of an object under this light, taking the ideologies out of the equation as much as possible, and focusing on the function the object had, it's a lot easier to come to terms with it. After all, like Ted said, it's not like the typewriter itself was a member of the Nazi party, or that owning it and appreciating it for what it is (a typewriter) will automatically mean that you sympathize with the Nazi ideology.

In any case, and to put the machine in context, maybe you could set up a comparison between the machines used by both sides during the conflict. I'm sure you have in your collection an American, British, Italian and maybe even a Japanese typewriter of the same vintage. I would be more than thrilled to read your expert opinion on those machines!

Miguel Chávez said...

If you ever decide to part with this machine, drop me a line. I'd be happy to give it a home where it would be used and appreciated for what it is, and not for what it once stood for.

TonysVision said...

I'm impressed by the well thought and well expressed comments your post has prompted. I agree with them all, and can only add that while I would have no hesitation in possesing it, I can understand your hesitancy. It's OK to respect and act on ones feelings even if they might be illogical. I would suggest that if you do pass it on, that it not be hidden away, but displayed by some institution as a touchstone to history that hopefully will never be repeated.

John said...

I can only agree with all the posted comments and add my two- bobs worth. There is nothing wrong in keeping war memoribilia, they are just objects from another era, you are not identifying with them.
However if the burden of ownership becomes to uncomfortable, I will challenge Miguel to an arm wrestle and then you can sell it to me!

Scott K said...

Rob. I would not say no to this machine, even with its history. While some people collect Nazi momaribilia to feel an association with the evil that it may have been used for, others - and I would include myself in this category - would maintain this piece of history to remind them that people often have a dark side... And we should always be mindful of that.

Spiderwebz said...

You know, in the end, it's just a key. ;-)

jacques perrier said...

Hello Robert,
I could buy a aujourd'hi Olympia Robust.
Olympia is the brand which I am training my mechanic typewriters and I have no affinity with the Nazi regime.
But what joy I felt at the time of purchase of the machine to expose in my museum. I have no doubts that you expressed on your blog.
I think the best place for this kind of objects is just a museum not to leave in the hands of mad nostalgic for this period.
It is important to keep track of this period, without wondering how many people have died because of this machine, as I told my friend at the time of purchase.
I hope once to go to Australia to see your collections. With my best regards.
Jacques Perrier
Museum Typewriter Lausanne / Switzerland
thank you google translation


This is a interesting topic. I am currently researching the SS with my History class and i am becoming more and more aware of what damages this political party has done. Observing a piece like this related to that is something to swallow indeed...but then think of it like is a typewriter.

You only know it's past because it presents it too you. You are afraid it will give you bad thoughts and feelings keeping it, because you know it's past. But please do realize that many other typewriters you own can have pasts like this. It just is not presented to you in the same way. Maybe one of your typewriters is used for ransom notes...would you keep it if you found that out.

I agree, kidnapping somebody is something totally off topice, related to the SS era, but it comes down to it. The ideas behind it is what makes us less appreciate it.

My opinion is...i totally understand the hesitation you have of owning a piece like this. I am not too sure i would feel comfortable putting that in my museum either, but then again...there are worse things to own related to the 30s and 40s WWll era then a typewriter, isn't it?

And set aside it's is not a ugly typewriter really. The machine seems to be a real tank (no pun intended :)

What i would do if you don't mind not preserving the dirt and dust on the machine is...clean it off, make it look nice, type a friendly letter on it too a good friend, and i am sure that the pressure will have been lightend.

Keep in touch.


Anonymous said...

I have an Olivetti A40 typewriter with the SS above the 5 key.I would be interested in any advice about selling it.

Unknown said...

I just bought a VERY dusty olympia robust for 3,54 $ at a local thrift shop. What now?

Unknown said...

I just bought a dusty olympia robust for 3,54 $ at a local thrift shop. What now?

GailSP said...

Hello everyone, I have an Olympia typewriter, complete with the SS rune, which my father "liberated" from somewhere during WW2. He used it for writing articles and letters, and used it purely and simply as a typewriter. My dad was of Jewish extraction, so I think this was a kind of poetic justice. He never made a big deal out of it, but that was my dad.

I'd prefer to sell the typewriter now - I see it as an artefact, and it doesn't have any emotional charge for me but I'm worried it will end up with some Nazi nut job, who will use it to somehow feed their unhealthy obsession with this kind of thing. Does anyone know of any genuine historians or collectors who would be interested in buying it as an interesting bit of militaria, and who do not have any ulterior motives? If so, could you let me know?

I should say that it is not in great condition but I'm confident it can be brought back to working condition with a good clean and oil.
Thanks for reading and hope to hear from someone.

badger said...

I think you had actually explain what the moral problem is supposed to be, because as often as I hear it mentioned, there never follows any such explanation. Those who object to the very existence of such items seem to rely on the fact that it is 'obvious' that they should be shunned, but never say why, exactly.
As in many similar circumstances, the unstated assumption is all. If someone thinks that there is more to owning such an historic object, they had better say what that 'more' is, in their opinion, or say nothing at all. I believe they never do say, because stating the precise nature of the assumption would make it obvious to more people that it is absolutely baseless.