Like white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns, garden gnomes those colorful residents of front yards the world over are icons of the suburban ideal: quaint, cheerful and totally inoffensive. But in Germany, one little gnome is stirring up big trouble. In a case that pits art against the country’s anti-Nazi laws, prosecutors in the south German city of Nuremberg launched an investigation last week after a gnome giving the Hitler salute was put on display in the window of an art gallery.
State prosecutors pounced after a local newspaper published a photo of the figure on July 15. Reporters at the paper had received an anonymous tip-off from an angry member of the public who’d seen the gnome making the controversial hand gesture in the window of the Weigl Gallery. Giving Adolf Hitler’s signature salute or using Nazi symbols is a crime in Germany, punishable by up to three years in prison. So while the gnome is meant to elicit smiles, for the authorities it’s no laughing matter. “We’re investigating whether this is a violation of German criminal law, which forbids the use of symbols from unconstitutional organizations,” says Wolfgang Träg, a spokesman for the prosecutors’ office in Nuremberg.
The gnome’s creator, German artist Ottmar Hörl, says he never intended to offend anyone, and can’t understand what all the fuss is about. He points out that 700 of his saluting gnomes went on show in Ghent, Belgium, at the end of last year to no complaints. “They were part of an exhibition against the far right,” he says. “Nobody had a problem with them.” Each of the gnomes has the word poisoned inscribed at its base. “People everywhere in the world can be ideologically poisoned, just as Germans were by the Nazis,” says Hörl. The artist defends his work as a form of satire he just wanted to poke fun at the Nazis by depicting them as gnomes. “I would probably have been killed by the Nazis if I’d dared to depict the Aryan ‘super race’ as gnomes in 1942,” he says.
Hörl, 59, says he’s fascinated by the symbol of the garden gnome, which has its origins in Germany many believe the first ceramic garden gnomes were made in the central German town of Gräfenroda in the mid-19th century and regularly features it in his work. “The garden gnome is an ironic figure,” he says. “We don’t take it seriously, but it can hold a serious message.”
Hörl’s gnomes were also recently displayed in the town of Aschaffenburg, near Frankfurt. The 300 plastic figures, each around 16 inches tall and each giving the Hitler salute, were lined up next to each other on a stage as part of an exhibition called “Return,” which ended last week. Heinz Bartkowski, curator of the Aschaffenburg Art Society, says he didn’t get a single complaint from the public in the two months that the exhibition ran. “I think it’s ridiculous the authorities in Nuremberg are investigating a common garden gnome,” he tells TIME. “They should be investigating the activities of neo-Nazis instead, and not art. It’s absolutely clear that works of art are exempt from the law forbidding the display of Nazi symbols.” But it’s not only prosecutors in Nuremburg who have a problem with Hörl’s work. An exhibition of his figures was planned in the south German town of Straubing until the local council’s culture committee decided against it, claiming they didn’t want to give a platform to far-right groups.
Prosecutors say they now want to question Hörl and Erwin Weigl, the owner of the gallery where the Hitler-saluting gnome was put on show. Weigl removed the gnome from his window once prosecutors announced their investigation, even though it had been there for several weeks. “I bought this particular gnome because I already had four other gnomes from Ottmar Hörl’s collection,” he says, noting he didn’t even see the Nazi connection at first. “I thought it was a nice, funny garden gnome that was lifting its right arm, waving, as all politicians do, like Obama. I didn’t even think the gnome was making a Hitler salute.”
But for some Nuremberg residents, the gnome’s gesture touches a raw nerve. Nuremberg played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power and its Nazi past remains a sensitive issue. The city was host to the Nazi Party’s annual Nuremberg Rallies and gave its name to the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
Artist Hörl says he’s glad his dinky gnome has provoked a debate. “Germans need to move on from the past and be able to recognize this is just art,” he says. As for the controversial gnome, it’s now in hot demand. Requests to purchase the figure have been pouring in from all over the world. Soon enough, an ironic Nazi gnome could become the must-have accessory on suburban lawns everywhere.