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Still Playing Sgt. Schultz

Today’s New York Times “Escapes” section features the antics of grown-up kids who gather in Annville, Pa. to play soldiers and re-enact the Battle of the Bulge. All those involved like talking about honoring history, but every time I see one of these pieces about re-enactors I wonder how people decide what side they’re going to have to pretend to be on.

As the father of an elementary school child I’m under the impression that kids don’t play war the way we did when I was a kid in the 1960s. But, as far as I can remember, the only kids who wanted to pretend to be Germans in the war in which my dad and many other fathers actually did participate were more than a little strange.

I mean, what is the guy pictured in a Wehrmacht uniform on the cover of the “Escapes” section thinking? Yes, I know the picture depicts the dance that all the pretend GIs, pretend Tommies, and their gal friends are attending after the pretend smoke has cleared. But being a pretend Nazi soldier is not quite the same thing as being, say, a pretend Redcoat in Revolutionary War gatherings.

It is true that Confederate re-enactors tend to have a rather distorted view of the history of the Civil War. None of them seem to support slavery and they are all under the misapprehension that the war was only about states’ rights, not the vile “peculiar institution.” Some of them also reflect the strange half-life of Southern revisionism that sees Lincoln as the bad guy of the story. That’s incredibly creepy, but at least they’re portraying fellow Americans and some of them are actually descended from Confederates whose misguided heroism they seek to justify.

But what, other than the fun of dressing up and playing war, motivates Jeremy Burmeister, described in the article as “a young man dressed in a leather trench-coat. After some persistent nudging, he finally flashed his badge, Gestapo.” Isn’t that cute? Dave Sisler, “a 45-year-old Gebirgsjager, re-enactor from Medina, Ohio,” reassured the Times he was actually a loyal American who is glad the U.S. won the war and is at pains to point out that he’s depicting a German, not a Nazi. As if there was much of a distinction at that time.

When the “Hogan’s Heroes” TV show debuted in 1965, its vast popularity outweighed any qualms anyone might have about a series depicting the humorous experiences of American POWs during World War Two. And any objections to it were generally answered by the presence of German Jewish actor Werner Klemperer as the German Col. Klink, and Robert Clary, a French Jew who survived Buchenwald, in the cast as the adorable Cpl. Le Beau who always managed to sweet talk Sgt. Schultz, the German guard whose refrain of “I see nothing … I hear nothing” was one of the show’s standing jokes.

“Hogan’s Heroes” was the product of a time in which service comedies and war shows were a staple. The series probably would never have been produced even a decade later, when jokes about Nazis tended to be no longer seen as funny and no one cared about the war. Perhaps the only people who still do are either Holocaust survivors or those perpetual adolescents who still like to play soldier. That war ended almost 64 years ago, but there’s still something very strange about anyone who wants play one of Hitler’s soldiers.