Difficult History: Olympia Robust

I have been wrassling this week with an Olivetti Praxis 48 that I have fixed once already. I bought it off of Craigslist last year, fixed it and gave it to the Arduino Kid (son of Roia who works at Mozo’s shop down the street)

Roia and Burger

Roia and Dog. This dog has one eye that pops like Marty Feldman’s.

I brought the Praxis home last week with its jammed carriage:

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The Chewbacca mug mistook the Praxis for the Millennium Falcon and came over to see if he could recalibrate the hyperdrive motivator.

I removed some loose hinge pieces that were dangling inside, plugged it in and it worked.  For a couple minutes.  Then it was jammed again.

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And that led to:

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So I was sweating and swearing at this technological marvel when I got a phone call from Moe at Mozo’s.  She got some new typewriters including a really cool Olympia that I just had to check out.  So I walked over to the shop.

Lord.

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In pride of place next to the Tonka Winnebago

On the floor, Moe?  Really? With case open for stepping on?

And of course, it was One of Those.

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Moe didn’t know.  I pulled her over and showed her the SS key.

1943 Olympia Robust
serial number 470745

The typewriter is functional.  The carriage feels a little loose and the typed imprint on the right side is a little light, but it’s typing.

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The case is wooden, a faded blackish-green with a German instruction sheet pasted within it.

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The typewriter has a QWERTY keyboard and German characters.  My guess is that this was a US soldier’s war booty and that when he returned from overseas, he had the Y and Z placement switched.

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The “front panel slide” (“schieber im Frontblech”) is mysterious.  I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to do though it does obscure what has been typed. Would the slider have protected the delicate mechanics out in the field?

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A lot of people have mixed feelings about these SS rune WWII typewriters. There have been lively discussions in typewriter forums about the ethics of owning an SS rune typewriter.  I wish I could say something deep and meaningful about artifacts of difficult history, but I am coming up short.

I wish my father were still alive; I’d love to get his take on this typewriter.  Born in 1918 at the end of the first world war, he was a US Army serviceman during the second world war. He was an expert typist and bookkeeper, skills that did not go unnoticed by his superiors, and he diligently typed and kept the books through the war.  I imagine he would have studied this Olympia Robust with great interest.  It is the machine of his German SS counterpart, possibly a wartime clerk like himself, who used it to type up requisition forms for canned peaches – or status reports from death camps. We don’t know.

My father had a taste for the absurd and he framed his WWII service portrait in a WWI German commemorative frame he somehow came across.  It says around the frame: “Zur Erinnerung an die grosse Zeit – 1914-1915” (Memento of an Important Time, 1914-1915)

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I feel my father would have regarded this typewriter as a reminder of how war is absurd and monstrous – and full of the workaday. It’s really hard to orchestrate organized, large-scale evil-doing without clerks and paper pushers. You need a good typewriter too.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as “the good guys” though we are not as morally superior as we’d like to think. US history has some very dark chapters, and that difficult history should make us a bit uncomfortable. That discomfort should prod us toward a better future.

This Olympia Robust typewriter is a piece of difficult history, an object from a dangerous time and place. I really wouldn’t want the Robust to go to someone who acquires it as a fetish – an object of dark magical power. I’m hoping that it will find a home with someone who appreciates the significance of its history in a matter-of-fact way and who will preserve it and share it as a reminder of a terrible time in the world. Cue Santayana: those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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14 thoughts on “Difficult History: Olympia Robust

  1. ooh, upload to TWDB as sighting? Ignoring history is not a very effective way of learning from it, a lesson that should be especially poignant given the current political situation. People should be reminded that the investment opportunities in companies that manufacture yellow crescent moon identity sew-on patches for clothing are potentially on the rise. /:

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  2. Good observations. That’s a valuable machine, for sure; it’s in great shape. I agree that the Y and Z were probably switched, as the Z types a bit low. I’m in the “no thanks” party on SS typewriters, but of course they are historically important and ought to be preserved.

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  3. Roia says:

    Beautifully written Mary. Because I’m lucky enough to work with antique pieces of history everyday, I’m very conscious of how humans can take things too far and not learn from their mistakes. I also see how we don’t cherish things the way we used to. We throw things out when they don’t suit us any more or when they need to be fixed but we don’t have time to fix them. You have restored these beautiful machines to their former glory over and over again for us and in doing so you’ve enabled a whole new generation of curious kids (and adults) to experience the beautiful “clickity clack” of a smooth running typewriter. The genuine excitement Moe and I feel when we get a new typewriter in, is made even better when we look at each other and say “Mary’s gonna freak!”.

    -Roia

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  4. That is a box that carries a heavy load of twentieth history. What coincidence/contrast with the claimed history of the meek little Corona Four that I’ve been cleaning over the past months.
    Very likely war booty – in Germany such machines all had to have the rune removed.
    Objects such as this really merit being kept around (perhaps in a museum, shown) – not because of what they are (typewriter), but of the context of history that they carry.

    (Oh a dark segment then indeed likely Bakelite – metal was getting scarce, plus Olympia had been gaining experience with the material with the Plana.)

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  5. Nick Merritt says:

    I continue to be most impressed with your dauntless approach with the Praxis — most would not even try to fix it.

    As for the Olympia — whole essays could be written on this general topic –probably have been. (We own three Volkswagens, all made long after the war, but I am aware that a German car, even demonstrably not made by the Nazis, can be a problem for some folks.)

    Here’s a typewriter pretty clearly used by the SS. I guess that doesn’t make the machine per se evil, unless you can show me it was made by slave labor, and certainly buying the typewriter now isn’t going to benefit anyone other than the person who offers it for sale second hand. And no one says you have to use that rune, ever. In sum, definitely it’s appropriate for a museum, but there’s no reason you can’t look at it simply as a German-language machine made by a top manufacturer.

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    • Oh my goodness, that Praxis! It’s still on my kitchen counter, and I’ve been poking at it without success.

      Regarding the Olympia Robust: it has found a proper new home. A follow-up post is coming soon.

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  6. Guillermo Fernandez Boan says:

    I have an Olympia Robust too, complete in its box, and with the German officer´s name engraved on it. As a matter of fact the typewriter came with a 1944 picture of the officer in wehrmacht uniform, and I was able to get in touch with its grandson, who confirms it was his grandfather’s typewriter.
    Possibly there are very few Robust in which you can undoubtfully identify the owner.
    You can take a look to the typewriter in the page http://www.typewriterdatabase.com, where I am identified as “ORTBRAKER”. Of course, you can not see the officer´s picture or his name.
    Mr. Richard Polt once take a personal look at my very humble collection and I show him the picture and tell him the rest of the history.
    German history during WWII is for me a horrible one, an by no means I intend to support nazis. But history should be preserved. That´s what Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower do, as Supreme Commander of the allied forces, when he bring deliberately his soldiers to the Orhdruf death camp, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these awful things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “American propaganda.”

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    • I have admired your extensive and beautiful collection of typewriters at Typewriter Database for quite some time. You have some wonderful typewriters.

      The Olympia Robust is a full of history. You are very fortunate to have the back story of the the Robust in your collection. I assume the one I wrote about was part of a US serviceman’s war booty that he hauled home from Europe after the war.

      I bought the Robust I wrote about in the blog post and will donate it to the Virginia Holocaust Museum when I am in Virginia in December. They will use it on a rotating basis in their exhibits. I think that’s the best place for it. It will be safe and useful in an educational sense.

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