Commentary Magazine

Reenacting Evil

In the midst of last year’s election season, the website of the Atlantic revealed that Richard Iott, then Republican nominee for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, had an unusual hobby. He liked to dress in SS uniforms.

Iott is not, in either his political or recreational capacity, a neo-Nazi. Rather, he is a World War II reenactor, one of thousands of Americans who devote extraordinary amounts of time and resources to the meticulous simulation of key moments from that war. Whether dressed as storm troopers or G.I.s, reenactors produce exquisitely detailed battle facsimiles that are (in their minds) divorced entirely from politics, ideology, and the larger currents of history. Obsessed with the minutiae of period military life, they show up to look, sound, and act like the fighting men of an earlier generation—nothing more. Carl von Clausewitz’ famous line, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” does not resonate with Iott and his fellow hobbyists.

Nevertheless, the news of Iott’s particular interest in World War II caused something of a political uproar. Several prominent Jewish and non-Jewish Republicans quickly denounced him. Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition declared that Iott’s “Nazi-focused historical reenactments,” in fact, “showed that he clearly lacks the judgment we should expect of lawmakers,” and the National Republican Congressional Committee took him off its online list of preferred candidates.

There is something decidedly not innocent about innocent Nazi-play, even if those involved have no philosophical affinity with the Third Reich. In fact, there is something altogether unsatisfying in the very claim of innocence, no matter how sterling the non-fascist credentials of the reenactor. To articulate what that something is, one needs a fuller sense of what purpose such battle reenactments serve.

The American “Living Reenactment” or “Living History” movement has some obvious allures. War is one of history’s most fascinating phenomena. Undoubtedly, it is also good fun to put on old-fashioned uniforms, carry authentic-looking gear, and emulate war heroes. During weekend outings, like-minded individuals get to collaborate on the restaging of famous battles. And, as with all social enclaves, group-affiliation is a powerful force; the more earnest members condemn as “farbies” (false or inadequately turned-out reenactors) anyone whose uniform is made from fabric with a thread count different from that used in the original.

Of course, war reenactment is not new. Practitioners have been depicting the battles of the Civil War and the American Revolution since the eras in which those wars were actually fought. And both wars remain extremely popular among the Living History set. The standard estimate of the number of Civil War reenactors is 50,000. In 1998, on the 135th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, 30,000 to 40,000 individuals directly participated in a re-creation, with another 50,000 looking on; this is generally considered the largest event of the kind ever held, anywhere. Revolutionary War reenactments are far smaller, with the major organizations having a combined membership of about 5,000.

American reenactments of the First and Second World Wars began much later, largely because those wars weren’t fought in the United States. Any battlefield study or attendant memorial pageantry has occurred in what were those wars’ European and Pacific theaters. So it was not until the 1970s, when America’s first World War I and II reenactments were staged. In her 2004 book, War Games, Jenny Thompson estimated that there were 6,000 members in World War II reenactment groups nationwide. The numbers stretch somewhat beyond this, however, if one includes spectators and smaller groups that are not part of the official reenactment movement.

With a few horrific exceptions, members of World War II reenactment groups are not neo-fascists. Although many dress in Wehrmacht and SS uniforms, they express heartfelt condemnations of Adolf Hitler and would be appalled by any violence carried out against ethnic groups. They are far more interested in researching which belt buckle was fielded in which year than in investigating the animating ideas behind the German war machine. The dedication shown to small details can produce impressive results.

An anecdote from Thompson’s book makes this clear. A major World War II group permitted Thompson to study one of its events as long as she asked questions and took notes in the role of “war correspondent.” Reenactors outfitted her with the required uniform and gear and even arranged for a letter to be delivered to her from her supposed newspaper during mail call on the eve of battle. Among the studied details contributing to the undertaking’s verisimilitude, Thompson noted, was that the participants snacked on Tootsie Rolls, which were in circulation during World War II. Twix, a later creation, were verboten.

Authentic candies are one thing; authentic enemies are another. Someone—in fact, many—must play the Nazi. And they must embrace the role, which means more than donning the correct regalia, including swastikas and SS runes. It means singing German military songs, for example, and generally composing oneself in a way that reflects an accurate understanding of SS culture. To consider that some type of camaraderie is built up among American reenactors singing “Deutschland über Alles” is to recognize signs of a fatal flaw in the reenactors’ claim that they exist outside of ideology.

In her book, Thompson conducts a lengthy interview with a Nazi-portraying reenactor who claims to have “no connection at all with the ideology of the Nazi,” and resents being associated with the Hitler regime “because obviously that’s the worst thing you can call somebody.” Interestingly, he also states that he does not know “why, out of all the people are we—why do we have this deep-rooted fascination with that subject matter.”

There is a problem here: what Thompson’s interviewee does not grasp is that to obsess devotedly over Nazi refinery and Nazi songs is to have some connection with Nazi ideology. This is a phenomenon that does not apply in the same way to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or World War I. But to the fighting forces of the Third Reich, regard for the aesthetics of Nazism was fetishist in nature. A “deep-rooted fascination” with Nazi fashion, art, and song was the nationalist focal point of a self-deifying culture that sought to exterminate those who did not measure up. Among today’s neo-Nazis, a similar infatuation with this Reich-defined standard of aesthetic virtue prevails.

The Nazi emphasis on noble appearance was, of course, inextricably tied to Hitler’s ideas about eugenics, the primacy of those he determined to be “Aryans,” and the lowliness of Jews. And to be fastidious about one’s commitment to the Nazi aesthetic was to ward off the contagion of lesser peoples and corrupting cultures. This is why the Nazi reenactor’s devotion to precise ornamentation, composure, and song is, in the end, a bit sickening.

Yet, the reenactor does not understand such things. Why? Because, as Ronald Smelser and Edward Davies note in The Myth of the Eastern Front, “reenactors rarely move beyond the detail of the war or the dress and weapons of individual soldiers.” The authors go on: “The larger issues of morality, culpability, and economic and social forces…remain noticeably absent” from discussions. As an objective description, this makes sense. As a defense for wearing swastikas and singing Nazi songs, it is an inexcusable failure. While these men are not immoral, they are amoral.

It is tempting, and not wholly misguided, to categorize World War II reenactors as thoroughly innocuous oddballs, a combination of role-playing gamers, theater geeks, and history buffs. And in some sense, what they do is not at all out of the ordinary. Nostalgia and simulation are the guiding precepts of today’s Western popular culture. The past is routinely plundered—lovingly, ironically, or disdainfully—and reproduced in fashion, entertainment, media, and so on. The mild interpretation of these reenactments would suffice but for one thing: von Clausewitz was correct—war is the continuation of politics.

And, in fact, if you scratch the surface of the right World War II reenactor, you will find something of an unmistakably political nature. Thompson quotes a participant who states, “People have to get beyond…the vilification of the enemy.” Whether the speaker is aware of it or not, this is an ideological statement. If one’s enemy is involved in an activity heinous enough to inspire vilification, refusing to vilify him requires one to enforce a certain framework of ideas about morality and virtue. It demands, in short, moral relativism—the belief that nothing is objectively wrong but merely determined by the factors of a given situation.

And this is the exact doctrine to which many reenactors subscribe. Thompson explains: “Reenactors largely reject the idea that soldiers should be judged on the basis of their positions on a moral landscape.” They repudiate the notion of a war between good guys and bad guys. According to Thompson, one of their number feels that this kind of perspective is the “Smurf” view of reality; another dismisses it as naive. As one of them puts it, “under that uniform, they’re all the same.” The equating of American G.I.s with Nazi storm troopers is many things, but apolitical is not one of them. That it is ahistorical is without question.

Yes, soldiers fight for their buddies, and some fight blindly for a flag, and some even for pay. But they also fight for ideals. The ideals over which World War II was fought would determine the shape of Western civilization. If the Axis powers had won, the unprecedented freedom that now defines America and Europe would have been but a figment of the imagination. Instead, the West would be Hitler’s totalitarian dream writ even larger than it was. Soldiers on both sides of the fight understood this. They were not merely supplied with different insignias, pouches, and boots. They went into battle subscribing to very different—indeed, opposing—ideas. American combat troops understood the importance of free and popular elections and the safeguards in the Bill of Rights. On the other side, every German had heard Hitler’s speeches and his rants defending the extermination of other peoples on the grounds of their inferiority. In this war, national flags stood for values. The Stars and Stripes and the swastika were not content-free Monopoly tokens arbitrarily representing one party or another.

The reenactors deny all this. The World War II Living History Association, for example, claims on its website that they “do not allow any political involvement to enter our actions.” But history drained of political involvement is not history at all. The clash of rival parties on a field, void of politics and ideology, goes by another name: sports. And then if you remove that rivalry from the situation, you’re left with a collection of choreographed movements, or dance. The Living History movement is therefore a misnomer.

Not only do World War II reenactments on American soil fail to reflect the historic record. They work against the noblest aspirations of the historian. By cleansing war of ideas and policy, they purge history of human meaning and of its moral dimension. The effort to simplify war leads to a false depiction of the conflicts reenactors purport to bring to life. Thompson writes of reenactors that “their fascination with war is…linked to the ‘average’ people who experienced it.” They do not portray famous generals; instead, they focus on what one of them referred to as “the common man, the common guy, the common foot soldier.” And it is in this, their stated focus, that their greatest offense lays. The most vital and maddening question about German conduct during World War II is how the average man came to embrace, worship, and fight for an idealized evil without precedent in human history. The answer is not to be found in the leggings or mess kits of the German army. One would do well, instead, to examine the appeal of a moral indifference that allows free American adults to dismiss the notion of evil so they may play dress-up on weekends without being burdened by the truths of history.

About the Author

Robert A. Slayton is professor of history at Chapman University and the author of, among other books, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.

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