so apparently a candidate for Congress in Ohio likes dressing up as a Nazi.  I’m probably not the only one who finds this deeply creepy. I‘ve been trying for years to resolve what I think about reenacters in general. Are they creepy wanna-be Confederates? or people who genuinely love history and want to immerse themselves in it?

Probably most professional historians regard reenactors as wrong-headed, because they mistake the trees–the right kind of uniform, the right kind of uniform button–for the forest, which in this case would be the political forces that got the person you are imitating into the uniform in the first place.

Beyond that, reenacting usually makes the same mistakes as Hollywood–it puts modern people, acting modern,  in costumes. For most historians, the key differences between past and present are in the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions of people in the past–they have a different “mentality” or really a different sense of selfhood.

And accuracy is a never ending thing. Look at these guys, reenacting Pickett’s charge. No amount of accuracy in uniforms can conceal that fact that they’re too fat, and too old; too tall, with too many teeth; they are just physically wrong in every way. They would have to be statistically matched in terms of age, height, weight etc. to be even lose to accurate. It’s like the Borges story about the world’s largest map, that ends up exactly the size of the thing it depicts: pointless.

There’s also something morally grotesque about it–reenactors are not going to get shot and killed, or be wounded, and lose a limb to amputation: they aren’t going to get dysentery and die of dehydration in camp. The awfulness of any battle comes from the stakes, the mortal peril, and playacting seems to trivialize that.

The argument for reenacting probably stems from ideas of empathy–that standing in the hot sun in a wool uniform, toting a musket, tells you something important about the experience of soldiering, something you won’t get from reading. And some reenactors will argue that there are many paths to knowledge, outside of the text–we have multiple senses, and hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling the experience tells you something different and something valuable. Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic gives a nuanced and largely sympathetic portrait of reenactors, and makes this argument.

Which brings us back to the guy in Ohio dressing up like a Nazi. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where I would put on the uniform of the Third Reich. Everything about it repels me. And whatever I’d learn about what it was like to be a Nazi soldier would barely matter in light of the hideousness of Nazi idea–the racism, the authoritarian fascism. The Nazi reenactor’s website has a disclaimer, saying “white supremacists not welcome.” That’s nice, but why are you dressing up like a Nazi?

If you are going to dress up like a Nazi, you have to own the whole apparatus–the racism, the aggression, the brutality, the anti-liberal, anti-individualist ideas, just as if you are going to parade around as Johnny Reb, you’ve got to own the fact that you are pretending to fight to defend slavery. Otherwise it’s just shallow non-history, however much attention you spend on the detail of uniforms.

Take a look at the “Wiking Recruitment Video.” Note that they claim to “stand tall.” Stand tall for what? The people they imitate were engaged in an invasion of Russia, with the goal of killing, displacing, and/or enslaving the racially inferior slavs. You want to stand tall for that? It’s simply not possible to separate Nazi Anti-Communism from Nazi anti-semitism, or Nazi contempt for other “races..” The only way you can play act the Nazi’s is if you screen yourself behind a thick veil of willful ignorance.

It sometimes seems to me that evil ultimately consists in not thinking through your actions, willfully not informing yourself. You can be wrong, I think, without being evil. But you can’t be willfully ignorant without committing an evil act.


  • Funny–I also think of a Borges story: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.

    For reasons totally unrelated, I have been thinking about Gunther Barth a lot lately, and this made me wonder what he would think about all of this. Given his history, he must have been a true believer, but the few times he made any allusion to his past, you could see and hear the shame he felt. In this, he was little different from the majority of his countrymen. Sure, there were and still are some in Germany who remain unrepentant, but they represent a tiny minority. And that, it seems to me, points up an important and awkward difference between this Nazi clown and Civil War reenactors: the total lack of shame, then and now, amongst those who lament the Lost Cause.

    While the Nazi-Congressman might be a prick for doing this, his actions are of little consequence. The uniform he wears, and the ideals it represents, are almost universally condemned, especially in Germany; outside of a tiny fringe, Nazism carries no real weight. Those who romanticize the Confederacy, on the other hand, are actively participating in an ongoing fight over race and civil and political liberty that continues to affect people on a daily basis in this country. They give cover to the very people who are working to inflame racial anxiety at the expense of our first black president, etc., etc.

    How do we account for the different reactions to defeat, between the South and the Third Reich?

  • This is something I’ve thought about a lot but still befuddles me. I grew up in Pennsylvania, where the Civil War is history. When I moved to Virginia, I realized it is something different here…a form of memory? There is an attempt to keep it alive. Sadly, I’ve heard more than a few times an individual say at a Civil War battlefield, “Maybe if I keep examining it, the outcome will be different this time.” What is the response to that?? I’ve taken classes for enrichment purposes and actually been an anomaly because I was a “Northerner,” which was basically a pejorative. When I tried to bring up anything about slavery, it was seen as a personal attack on my Virginian classmates.

    I’m not trying to make a blanket statement here about Virginians or even southerners – that would be unfair. I’m just pointing out my personal experience. When I moved to Virginia, I suddenly became a Northerner, which I’d never even considered before as an aspect of my identity. And I’ve met people who really honestly believe that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and that it was an honest fight against the northern aggression of the army of evil Abe Lincoln. I don’t know how to deal with that. And even if I try to speak up, I’m just a “Northerner.” It’s very strange to me.

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    I imagine a Borges story about a group of men who, in an effort to accurately re-enact the Confederate march on Gettysburg, put themselves so much into their roles that they start a new war.

    I think the essence of morality is the ability to think from the perspective of others, without actually believing you can really see the world through others’ eyes. Seeing through the eyes of victims is highly encouraged–not so much for seeing through the eyes of “perpetrators.” I recognize that there could be some value in doing that; however, I think you’d really need to be honest with yourself and others about what you’re doing. I think it’s something that could be done without dressing up like a Nazi.

    The moral of Borges story about the map is not that a scale map of the kingdom is pointless, its that it’s ultimately destructive. They pour all the money in the treasury into the map, and as the map starts to fray at the edges so does the kingdom.

    Very thought provoking article. Thanks for that!

  • The defense of reenacting often hinges on empathy–that it builds a bridge across the chasm that separates us from people who were not us. I think it CAN do that, but more often it’s about sympathy, imagining that Nazis or Confederates were “just like us.” Lots of people who re-enact the Confederacy push the line that the war was about state’s rights, not slavery. They use re-enacting as an excuse to validate present politics and re-enacting is just the present in itchy wool. So the guy in Ohio seems to believe that Nazis were just “freedom fighters’ who hated taxes. In instances like that, re-enacting isn’t history at all.

    I think the Borges map is an instance of losing the difference between representation and reality, which is what the Nazi re-enactors seem to do. The details are right, but the larger meaning is lost

  • If one chooses to select the most extreme position that an individual reenactor can take, and place that same position on a member of the public, it’s still the same level of despicable. Just putting on a WWII German or Confederate uniform doesn’t lend it any more credence, or less.

    As a reenactor myself (neither Nazi or Rebel) I’ve seen the arguments that we are not representing history well, because there is no blood, no disease, and no death. If that WERE done, then what would the reaction be?

    The reality is that for most people enjoy heaping ridicule (and worse) upon reenactors, particularly ones that represent the more unpopular sides in past wars. But despite that, those of us who do participate in this hobby also spend time in classrooms, at events on U.S. Federal Holidays, and at historical sites, and each instance we spend that time talking about the past, trying to pass on the significance of what the common soldier lived through, and giving the public some sense of the past.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *