Giant Nazi statue causing public relations nightmare for Uruguay

  • Fernando da Rosa/Wikicommons

     (Fernando da Rosa/Wikicommons)

  • 17th December 1939:  The German battleship Graf Spee sinks in the Harbour at Montevideo. It was scuttled by the German forces.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

    17th December 1939: The German battleship Graf Spee sinks in the Harbour at Montevideo. It was scuttled by the German forces. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Pulled from the briny depths of the River Plate, an enormous symbol of Nazi Germany’s naval might is once again plaguing the South American country.

A 700-pound, 9-foot wide statue of an eagle perched atop a swastika that adorned the stern of the Nazi’s Graf Spee battleship was salvaged from its resting place in the shallow waters just off Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo in 2006 and now is part of a legal battle between the Southern Cone government and local public relations mogul Alfredo Etchegaray.

Etchegaray, who claims to have dropped some $5 million over three decades in retrieving parts of the Graf Spee, is looking for some return on his venture by attempting to sell the half he owns to the government –  Uruguay owns the other half – and putting it on display in a museum.

The Uruguayan government, however, seems less than thrilled about the prospect of unveiling the giant symbol of the Third Reich, currently housed under wraps in a Uruguayan navy warehouse, especially after receiving pressure from the current German government, according to claims made by Etchegaray.

“If the government wants to bury this statue they have the right to do that, but we also have the right to get half the money for it,” he said, according to the Global Post. “Why shouldn’t it be displayed publicly, in an appropriate way, of course, with historical explanation? That’s what happens with the Roman Colosseum, with artifacts from the Khmer Rouge, with torture instruments used by the Inquisition.”

The Graf Spee, named after World War I German admiral Maximilian von Spee, was a so-called “pocket battleship” responsible for the sinking nine Allied vessels bringing supplies from South America to Great Britain in the early days of World War II. It was just over 600 feet in length, cruised at a top speed of 29 knots (or about 33 miles per hour) and featured six 52-caliber guns mounted in two turrets, fore and aft.

The ship, however, sustained critical damage from Britain’s HMS Exeter and two other ships during the Battle of the River Plate and was scuttled – or deliberately sunk – by its captain Hans Langsdorff in December 1939.

In full dress uniform, Langsdorff shot himself three days later in a hotel room in Buenos Aires as the wreckage of the Graf Spee burned off of Montevideo.

Etchegaray has used a private Montevideo art gallery, Gomensoro, to take bids on his share of the statue, which is loosely estimated to be worth more than $15 million. The statue is one of only two used in the “Kriegsmarine,” Hitler’s navy, with the other adorning the prow of the Bismarck, the famed Nazi warship that sunk in the North Atlantic in 1941.

“It’s 100 percent certain it will sell,” gallery owner José Enrique Gomensoro. “But it’s very hard to say how much it will fetch. It could all depend on the whim of a single collector. How badly do they want it?”

Gomensoro said that the reserve price for the giant swastika statue is between $3 million and $5 million.

A former head of Uruguay’s National Heritage Commission, William Rey Ashfield, called the asking price “delirious.”

“Really, the Uruguayan government should never have allowed any salvaging of the Graf Spee,” Rey Ashfield said. “But now that this statue is on dry land, I hope that an agreement can be worked out for it to be put on public display, but not in a triumphalist way, here in Uruguay. This is part of our history, too.”

He also disputed Etchegaray’s claims that Germany is pressuring the Uruguayan government, while acknowledging a controversy would erupt if the stature were to be put on display.

“Germany is on the sidelines” he said “If anything, the problem is that they don’t want to get involved, although they would definitely be concerned at the possibility of a private sale leading to the statue falling into the hands of neo-Nazis or being used to glorify the Third Reich.”

“It could be a good attraction for a museum. But it is a controversial piece that many people will also reject. It is a hot potato,” he added.

Uruguay – and other Latin American nations like Argentina and Brazil – became the homes of many Nazi war criminals following the demise of the Third Reich. Aribert Ferdinand Heim, an infamous SS doctor named Dr. Death by his Nazi concentration camp victims, lived clandestinely in Uruguay until 1983 and Adolf Eichmann, known as the author of the Holocaust, was tracked down by Israeli intelligence in Argentina in 1960.

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