When German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries recently called a line of Italian wines “tasteless,” she wasn’t referring to the grapes.
Since 1995, a winery in northern Italy called Azienda Vinicola Alessandro Lunardelli has produced a line of “historical” wines featuring images of important men of history on the label — among them, Napoleon, Che Guevara and Adolf Hitler.
The Hitler line — called “Fuehrerwein” and featuring pictures of Hitler and slogans from Nazi Germany on the label — made headlines worldwide this month after a family of Polish tourists found the wine in an Italian supermarket. The family brought a bottle back to Poland and handed it over to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, which ran a photo of the bottle on its front page. Since then, vintner Alessandro Lunardelli has been under attack. Zypries wrote a letter to her Italian counterpart, Roberto Castelli, calling Fuehrerwein “contemptible and tasteless,” and asked Castelli to try to take the wines off the market. Castelli told Radio Padania, a northern Italian radio station, that there was nothing his office could do.
Fuehrerwein is only the latest effort to market images of Nazi Germany that has met with public outcry. In August, the Hong Kong-based clothing company Izzue took its Nazi-themed line out of stores after staunch protest from the Israeli and German embassies.
But Hitler continues to be a popular commercial draw for other businesses. Reuters reported earlier this week that Hitler’s Alpine retreat — the “Berghof” — has become a tourist hot spot, with over 100,000 visitors every year and a thriving gift shop filled with books and videos about Hitler and Eva Braun.
“There’s always been a perverse interest in World War II,” said Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League. “You find a lot of Nazi memorabilia in gun shows, in auctions, on eBay… There’s something about evil that attracts people’s interests.”
Ron Guth, a California-based coin dealer who specializes in German coins and has sold Nazi-era coins to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, agreed that the current wave of “Nazi kitsch” has always been around to a certain extent. “I’d say 90% of [buyers of Nazi-era coins] are legitimate coin collectors,” Guth said. “And then you have 7% or 8 % who are interested in the historical aspects of World War II. Then you have 2% or 3% who are kooks who really believe in the stuff.”
Joel Anderson, another California coin dealer who sells Nazi-era coins, puts the number of “kooks” higher — more like 30%. For Anderson, Nazi-era coins are “what I would call a large, steady seller. I sell a few every week… [primarily] because of the historical aspect. After all, there aren’t a huge number of World War II artifacts that you can buy for under 10 bucks.”
Foxman said that Nazi imagery is a good way to attract attention. “The commercial people know that there’s this thing out there; it attracts people. They know it gets people’s attention… Where do you find a lot of it happening? In Asia and Southeast Asia, mostly. They don’t really have a concept of Hitler. I’ve seen a lot of really bizarre things [in Asia] — like [advertisements for] ‘German pianos at Jewish prices.’ It’s bizarre. There’s a bar named after Hitler.”
In a 2001 interview with the Associated Press, Lunardelli said that the historic labels were “a great marketing success.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, helped to organize protests against Lunardelli when the Hitler wine first came on the market several years ago. Jewish groups brought a suit against Lunardelli to take it out of stores based on an Italian law forbidding the glorification of fascism, but the presiding judge ruled that a picture of Hitler did not constitute a celebration of him. Back then, Cooper said, “there was no interest whatsoever on the part of the mainstream political establishment, the church… anyone.”
Cooper speculated that the latest round of criticism leveled at Lunardelli might have come from the German government as a way to get back at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who likened a German member of the European parliament to a concentration camp guard over the summer. “It would be a little bit of a tit-for-tat,” Cooper said.
Lunardelli did not return calls and e-mails by press time, but in a statement reported in the British paper The Guardian this month, he said, “I am sorry if there are some people — German politicians, Jewish groups or that type of thing — who get upset. But it’s just history. I see no reason for such a fuss.” “People like these characters,” The Guardian quoted Lunardelli as saying, referring to the historical men who grace his labels. “They make good table conversation. So I’m not about to stop selling.”
The Hitler wine, Lunardelli told the newspaper, is his bestseller, moving more than 30,000 bottles a year.