Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
World War II Army veteran Robert Thomas, left, presents two 16th Century books to German
Ambassador Klaus Scharioth at the National Archives Building in Washington, Tuesday,
Oct. 6, 2009.

WWII Soldier Returns 400-Year-Old Souvenirs to Germany

October 07, 2009 06:26 PM
by Shannon Firth
American veteran Robert Thomas presented the German ambassador with books he appropriated during WWII. Often the return of significant relics is a welcome gesture, though in some instances it rekindles old tensions.

Setting the Past Right

Robert Thomas, 83, had taken the two 16th century “souvenirs” from a salt mine in western Germany, where Germans hid them for protection from allied bombing, according to the BBC. Roberts remembers his visit to the underground room, “filled with thousands of books, from floor to the ceiling.” He said the books are in almost the same condition as when he found them. “I kept them in two boxes in the darkest and coolest place at my house,” he said.

Klaus Scharioth, the German ambassador who received the books, told the BBC having the books returned was a “sign of friendship and trust.”

The return of another relic, quite different in nature, did not breed goodwill between the giver and recipient. In July, a Dutch government official returned the disembodied head of a Ghanaian king to tribal leaders, months after they had insisted upon its return. For 170 years, the head of an Ahanta chief had been kept in formaldehyde in Leiden University Medical Center’s anatomical wing. The chief may have been beheaded by colonialists that sought vengeance for the killing of two Dutch emissaries.

Professor Addo-Fening, a Ghanain historian, described to the BBC the head’s significance for the chief’s tribe. “When people die and their bodies are not found and buried, it leaves a lingering fear that they will not find rest with their ancestors until this is done,” he said.

Historical Context: War trophies

Keeping war relics is an ancient tradition. “Roman armor, Spartan shields and other spoils of war often were displayed as war trophies, and relics from modern-day battles have found homes in museums, quarterdecks and living rooms,” according to the Military Times.

However in many countries there are rules governing what soldiers can and cannot take. Policies regarding war trophies in the U.S. grew increasingly strict as the Vietnam War approached its end, reported

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it happens all the time,” Jane Siegel, a retired colonel and attorney in San Marcos, Calif., said of soldiers appropriating war relics. And the practice has continued in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite “very specific” rules, she added.

When the late former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was found in a ditch in Tikrit in 2004, he was carrying a small pistol. Sources told Time magazine that the pistol was mounted and then presented to President Bush by the soldiers involved in Saddam's capture.

“He really liked showing it off,” said a visitor to the White House in 2004. At the time, it was displayed in a study next to the Oval Office, along with other memorabilia.

One of the more heated debates over war trophies concerns the Bells of Balangiga, a set of two church bells taken by American forces after several bloody battles during the Phillippine-American war in 1901.   Each September 28, the Phillippines commemorates the "Balangiga Encounter" and calls the return of the bells its "solitary wish." Despite 12 years of diplomatic pressure, the bells remain in the "Trophy Park" of the Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.   Congressman Bob Filner of California introduced a resolution in the House in January urging President Obama to authorize the return of the bells.

Background: Rules governing trophies of war

According to, General Order No. 1B, issued by U.S. Central Command on March 13, 2006, “prohibits: ‘Taking or retaining of public or private property of an enemy or former enemy.’” But “[c]ommanders, ‘when based on military necessity,’ can seize private or public property, and ‘unit retention of historical artifacts must be specifically approved by USCENTCOM.’”

Related Topic: Souvenirs shared

Not all war souvenirs are taken from their owners; some are purposefully given. Almost 30 years after the Vietnam War, Hal Moore, coauthor of “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,” and “We Are Soldiers Still,” returned to Vietnam and met some of the enemy soldiers he had fought there. He wrote of his experience in an editorial for USA Today.

In the Drang Valley, where former commander Moore lost 79 of his soldiers, he met Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An. “He kissed me on both cheeks!” Moore wrote. Then An, and other soldiers that had gathered at the site, shared memories and cried together.

Moore gave An his wristwatch as a gift, and An in return gave Moore his three-star helmet. Two years later, An died. On a visit to see An’s family and offer his condolences, Moore was touched to see his gift in a display case, “part of the family shrine.”

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