The despicable U-Boat watch.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Dec. 15 2006 6:15 PM

Mr. Hitler, Do You Have the Time?

The despicable U-Boat watch.

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I confess to being in the market for an expensive watch. I say I confess because I know the watch I buy for a lot of money will not be more accurate than a watch I could have bought for a lot less, but there you have it. This explains why I gave more than cursory attention to a double-page ad in the Sunday New York Times for expensive watches. One caught my eye. It seemed oversized, which is the fashion these days, and built to take a bullet or two, which is required these days, and undoubtedly water resistant down to where the homicidal stingrays roam, and it was altogether handsome, although not for me. But it was the name that caught my eye: U-Boat.

U-Boat? The Unterseeboot responsible for sinking untold allied ships during World War II, costing many lives and so impressing Winston Churchill that he said, "The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril"? That U-boat? Yes, apparently. And that raises another question: Who would buy, not to mention wear, a watch named after a killer sub that, while used in World War I, really earned its rep in World War II as a fighter on the side of the Nazis? In other words, who could be so ahistorical, ignorant, or just plain tasteless to wear something on their wrist that immediately brings to mind, among other things, the ovens of Auschwitz?

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One answer is that it has to be the same people who will soon bid on the car CNNMoney.com and AOL both called "Hitler race car." This Auto Union D-Type is expected to go for as much as $12 million at a Paris auction. The car was built by Ferdinand Porsche, then with Auto Union, the company now known as Audi. In the '30s, Porsche accepted Hitler's challenge to build a car that would showcase German technological advances. This 485-horsepower little buggy was the result. It could do a cool 185 miles per hour, but it cannot, at least for me, outrun its unsavory genesis.

I suppose that whoever buys the car can say that Hitler never actually owned it or used it or, maybe, even saw it. It ought to be no more odious than your run-of-the-mill Volkswagen, which was also produced (by the ubiquitous F. Porsche) at the suggestion of the late Führer, or the Mercedes-Benz open touring car, the one often seen in pictures of Nazi rallies—Hitler standing, offering the stiff-armed Nazi salute. Still, the fact that the D-Type has been called "Hitler's race car" is enough for me. I could not slip into the car without thinking of how it came about.

You might think I am particularly sensitive to such matters since I am a Cohen of a certain age and therefore unable to look on the bright side of Nazism. Maybe so. I love my Wagner, but I cannot listen without also envisioning the guests at Hitler's mountain home, the Berghof, forced to listen to the Führer's beloved "Ring Cycle" yet again. Yet, I have owned VWs, BMWs, and Mercedes in my time, in addition to coffee makers made by an assortment of German firms once opportunistically diversified into the genocide biz. What bothers me, I suppose, is a more immediate connection with evil—the name of Hitler attached to the car, either because he used it or he sought its creation. In the case of the U-Boat watch, the manufacturer's Web page says it was originally commissioned by the Italian military but was not made until way after the war. Be that as it may, no one sees the term U-boat and thinks of Napoli.

I once bought a KKK robe at a junk shop in southern Pennsylvania. I considered it historic and well worth the price, something like $1.50. I took it home to Washington, unsure of what to do with it until, that night, it occurred to me I had a problem on my hands: the maid. The woman—a black woman, as if you didn't know—was due the next day and might come across my piece of history. She might not consider it quite as historic as I did. She might even be sickened by it and wonder—could it be?—if the rancid thing was actually, in a membership sort of way, mine. I stuffed the robe in the back of my sweater drawer where it remained, glowing and pulsing in my active imagination, until I gave it to a friend. Like me, he considered the robe to be a historic artifact and, like me, he soon suffered from a suffocating queasiness, the sense the robe was taking over the house. He wound up burning the thing in the backyard, lest D.C.'s sanitation workers discover it in the trash.

So, I can understand that one man's historical artifact is another man's sheer horror. Still, I wonder how anyone could stand having an Andy Warhol silk screen of Mao Zedong on the wall. Warhol executed it back in 1971 to 1972 and it goes for a pretty penny nowadays—$17.4 million, at Christie's just this year. Warhol was a political dunce and probably when he did his Mao screen, he was unaware that the man was not merely Mother Jones in drag, but a genuine ogre who was personally responsible for the deaths of millions—with millions more to come in the nearly incomprehensible Cultural Revolution. Beyond that, and just for the record, he was a slob—unwashed, unkempt, and a serial deflowerer of smilingly reluctant young girls. There is no way I can look at Warhol's Mao and not think of these things and wonder if any of the people who own one are familiar with Mao's history. Would they own a Warhol Hitler print, if he had done one? How about an early Pol Pot, in profile, of course?

Clearly, I am some sort of fuddy-duddy. The U-Boat watch, created by Italo Fontana, apparently sells well enough for it to go for almost $3,000. But, just as clearly, the name resonates with the people who buy the watch—otherwise, why not call it the Nautilus or the Calypso Sun? That is the part that bothers me—they accept the watch on the same amoral terms as those who ran the U-boats themselves—self-described brave men working at the tough business of war and not, in their own turtle-necked-Das Boot way, complicit in the deaths of millions. The people who buy a U-Boat are a special sort. They can spend thousands on a watch but, fundamentally, they cannot tell you the time of day.

Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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