Artist Ottmar Horl puts ‘Nazi’ gnomes on display
No one expects much from a German garden gnome: typically, he has rosy cheeks, a white beard and sits on a plastic log next to a plastic pond. A new breed has appeared, however, in the Bavarian township of Straubing - 1,250 of them, all with an arm raised in a Hitler salute.
For humans, the gesture can bring a three-year jail term. Displaying the swastika, placing a copy of 'Mein Kampf' in a shop window, signing a letter or e-mail with the words "German greetings" or otherwise glorifying the former Nazi leader are equally unacceptable -- so the provocatively styled gnomes, the work of the artist Ottmar Horl, have immediately found themselves at the centre of controversy.
Professor Horl tested the waters this year by displaying a 16in (40cm) golden gnome in similar pose at a local art gallery. The public prosecutor was quick to act, but Professor Horl mounted a sterling defence. "In 1942 it would have been the Nazis massacring me because of this piece of art," he said. "I am presenting the master race as garden gnomes and that falls into any sensible definition of satire."
The prosecutor dropped the investigation -- but the Straubing exhibit, which opens today, poses a much sterner challenge.
The exhibit has been shown on a small scale in Belgium without any major protest from the locals -- or from the Jewish community.
The Hitler salute is seen as intrinsically evil and there is no pressure within the German legal community to relax the ban. Neo-Nazis bypass the law by making an abbreviated salute, raising their arm from the elbow. Instead of greeting each other with the outlawed "Heil Hitler", they say either "Heil", which is borderline-legal, or simply "88" -- the letter "H" being the eighth letter in the alphabet.
A growing acceptance among cinema and theatre that Hitler can be a figure of fun has strengthened the hand of anyone who wants to argue that he saluted the Fuhrer for artistic rather than political effect. The Tarantino film 'Inglourious Basterds' has been playing to packed audiences and appreciative critics in Germany, as has a stage version of Mel Brooks's 'The Producers'.
Now it is up to the humble garden gnome to take the debate one step farther. Police leave has been cancelled in Straubing. (© The Times, London)