More on Reenactors

There’s been a lot of blog traffic about GOP candidate Rich Iott dressing as a Nazi to bond with his son. As  far as I’ve been able to tell, the best defense of his action is that it’s all in the service of education and it’s no different from dressing as a Nazi to be an extra in a movie. “Somebody has to play the bad guy.”

I’d like to try and take that seriously, because I think professional historians have an obligation to respect the non-professional’s interest. Many reenacters expand from the clothes to the philosophy and they start to get into “mentality”–political motivation, general beliefs, sense of family and self. That’s all good, and you can certainly gain insight from humping a heavy pack or pitching a canvas tent.

But the argument that “somebody has to be the bad guy” is really problematic, because it’s not clear at all that “somebody has to be the good guy.” Do you really gain more from wearing a uniform? I’ve walked up the route of Picket”s charge–you learn a lot from doing that. But would you learn a lot more dressed as johnny reb? I don’t think so, and what’s more dressing as a Confederate has creepy connotations of wanting to be a Confederate. Just walking up the hill in street clothes teaches you 99.9% of what’s useful to know. Why do you need the uniforms at all?

What exactly is the educational lesson being taught in a reenactment? Is it just “this is what it looked like?” Because, of course, cemetery ridge in the 1860s had no giant stone monuments on it. I can concede that some people would find the spectacle vivid and be inspired to learn more–that’d be good.

But what in the world legitimates dressing as a Nazi? Ohio is not Eastern Europe; .Nazis are not “us:” they were the mortal and ideological enemies of “us” and they rejected individualism, democracy, and the rule of law.

If you are going to defend reenacting on the grounds that it teaches history, because it’s accurate, then you can’t do what the “wiking” reenactors did–post a message on your website repudiating racism. Racism was the very core of what the Waffen SS was about. If you “repudiate racism” but claim to be historically accurate in your depiction, then it’s pure fantasy: it’s worse than  nothing because you’ve bleached reality out.

Here’s the “disclaimer” the Wiking reenactors put on their website. It’s completely incoherent. Again, repudiating racism in this case  means you have already missed the entire purpose of the thing you are reenacting. Beyond that, you can’t claim that “As we portray the German combat soldier, we are only interested in recreating his daily life, furthering our understanding of what it took to be a soldier, and at the same time having fun reliving history:what it took to be a soldier in the SS was a commitment to Nazi racism.

And then there’s this: “We honor the men (and women) who really experienced the war, and we salute their courage and loyalty to put their lives on the line in defense of their native soil, no matter what nationality or government.” So they “honor” all people who experienced the war equally, no matter who they were or why they served? That’s just morally and intellectually bankrupt. Do you honor Joseph Mengele the same way you honor his victims? Do you honor Hitler and Churchill equally? If so, then you’re an idiot: you have no apparent capacity for discernment.

But this is exactly the defense Rich Iott made to CNN. The Nazis, he said were “doing what they thought was right.” He added “I don’t think we can sit here and judge that today. We weren’t there the time they made those decisions.” Of course, almost nobody ever acts because they “think they are doing wrong:” we all convince ourselves we are in the right. The challenge is thinking coherently, and if you are arguing that “we can’t sit here and judge” then you are arguing against the practice of history itself.

So reenactors, it seems to me, are left with an impossible choice. They  can ignore history and just play dress up. But if they claim historical accuracy, then they have to own up to the fact that they are reenacting deeply and grotesquely repugnant things, and ask themselves why.

I’m left with the conclusion that reenactment is mostly a bad idea. Nobody has to be the bad guy, because nobody has to be the good guy. History is understanding, not being.


  • Mike, you might be very interested in my friend Amy Tyson’s dissertation “Living History: Producing Historical Narratives in the Service Economy” (on its way to being a very good book). It’s got more of an analysis of people who get paid to reenact, yet it brings up some of the tensions you mention here in the choices they make about what they reenact.

  • Meredith Lair wrote:

    Since you’re still thinking about this, you might find this story interesting:

    Apparently the president of the South Carolina senate is a confederate reenactor–no surprise there. But he was photographed at a party where they hired black people to dress as the, er, servants. Yikes! But it’s all ok, because they paid them. Just like in olden times!

    Also, regarding Iott’s comment that the SS were just doing what they thought was right, that’s pretty much the sentiment fueling Lost Cause Mythology in this country. The inscription on the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery–the tallest memorial in the whole place, except for the mast of the main–reads, “…But in simple obedience to duty, as they saw it, these men suffered all, sacrificed all, dared all, and died.”

    Oh! If only that were true! But they won’t die, because people keep breathing new life into them, like scary, racist zombies.

    I tell my students, who say it’s not fair of me to condemn the mentality of soldiers who shot babies and raped girls during the My Lai massacre, that if we can’t condemn that HERE–in the luxurious safety and reason of a college classroom–then we have no hope of condemning it there, in the terrifying frenzy of an active warzone.

    Thanks for another interesting post!

  • There are people who truly believe Nazi or Confederate ideology. Maybe they’ll let us know by putting on a uniform and marching across a battlefield. Maybe they won’t. But I think that we need to recognize that there are many different reasons for reenacting a German soldier, and not all of them require buying into the ideology.

    I have a friend who reenacts the Battle of the Bulge (in an American uniform) every year, and I asked him about the Nazi reenacters. As he put it: “They fall into 2 categories: the history buffs, who do it because they’re interested in the history and are fascinated by the Third Reich, and then there are the lunatics who believe the ideology.”

    The choice of WHO to portray is important, as is the difference between Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Most of the Wehrmacht (Heer and Luftwaffe) reenacters are either rivetheads concerned with the material aspect, are interested in the experience of a German conscript, or have a family connection to a specific unit. The Waffen-SS reenacters are another kettle of fish. This group has its share of rivetheads who are only concerned with getting precisely the right helmet, canteen and shoelaces so they can better understand the physical experience. However, according to my friend, the majority of the SS reenacters do believe the ideology or some variation of it.

    Here are some questions (and I’m asking seriously): is it putting on the clothes that’s so bad? Why would it be OK for me to study the Third Reich as a historian but not to dress up? Why is it OK to make sure I have precisely the right helmet, canteen and shoelaces for a museum exhibit but not for a reenactment? Is this about performance and embodiment more than history?

  • Shadowboxer, that’s a great question and I with I had a better answer. You can probably learn a lot from putting on the clothes, especially, say, women’s clothes, which were so much different.

    But trying on corsets to see how Victorian furniture worked seems very different from putting the uniform on. First off, It’s not really that different–we have pants and shirts today. What they seem to want is the thrill of group identity, which is not what the museum reenactor wants.

    I think if I were reenacting the battle of the bulge I’d probably argue for putting the Nazis in some kind of generic clothes, like just black shirt and pants. Have them be symbolic, rather than “accurate.” Accuracy raises all the creepy questions about what sort of person wants to merge themselves with the morally repugnant.

  • Cobrahistorian wrote:

    I’m the friend that Shadowboxer referred to. Firstly, let me start by my background: I’m a professional historian, museum curator, living historian (and one time reenactor) soldier and to top it all off, I’m Jewish.

    My grandfather served as a US infantry officer in WWII and that’s where my love of history came from. A good friend of mine’s grandfather served as an infantryman in WWII and that’s where his love of history came from as well. Unfortunately, Noah’s grandfather was on the opposite side. We both came to the hobby as a way to better understand what our respective grandfathers went through during WWII. While one can never replicate the horrors of war (nor would they want to!) the tactical reenactments that I’ve been to over the past seventeen years have given me a better understanding of how and why tactics were adopted and what works and doesn’t under field conditions.

    I’d been in the reenacting community for ten years when I stepped up and said “I’ll go” and signed on with Uncle Sam. Reenacting gave me a much better understanding of the military on a basic level than everyone else I was going through basic with. (The fact that I was 30 and the majority of my platoon was between 18 and 21 may have helped too!)
    I’ve been a helicopter pilot for the past 4 years now as my part-time job and I love what I do. But I digress…

    I still put on WWII uniforms two or three times a year. Going into the field for a tactical reenactment is pretty much a thing of the past for me. It had its place though. It helped me get that initial understanding of what it’s like running a full sprint, carrying a ten pound rifle, 200 rounds of ammunition, and 40lbs of gear on me. I’ve had plenty of “so that’s what it was like” experiences reenacting.

    Picture this: It’s about 9:30 at night. You’re part of an infantry squad providing support for an M-8 armored car moving through hedgerow country. You’re trying to stretch your hearing out as far as you can to the front and sides, while simultaneously ignoring the engine noise from the 8 ton steel behemoth that’s 30 feet away from you…

    Suddenly a flare goes up, turning night into day. MG42 machine guns open up with their buzzsaw-like chattering, from each of the two far corners of the hedgerow. You realize they’ve got you in a crossfire, so you hit the ground as fast as you can. When you look up to assess the situation and start returning fire, you’re able to see the mortar crew dug in at the center of the hedgerow ahead of you dropping a round into the tube. Seconds later, those rounds begin falling on your position.

    Fortunately those mortar rounds were filled with cat litter (clean, thankfully!) rather than TNT. The scene wasn’t in Normandy in 1944, but in upstate NY in 1999. The visceral, intense experiences like that, are what enabled me to gain a bit more understanding of what GIs (and my grandfather) went through on a daily basis in the 1940s.

    I have many friends who put on the German uniform to better understand what Nazi Germany was. One or two of them even do an SS impression. Although I’m very wary of anyone willing to put on an SS uniform, I can understand the attraction to what may very well be the most effective camouflage pattern ever developed. I have literally had reenactors wearing the M1944 dot pattern camouflage lying prone 5 feet from me and didn’t see them until I was almost on top of them. (Remember, I’m a pilot, I’ve got really good vision).

    However, when it comes down to it, many SS reenactors DO believe the ideology. They’ll put disclaimers all over their websites and make all sorts of claims about how they’re honoring the Soldiers, not the ideology. It’s tough to separate the two with the Waffen-SS. The Wehrmacht (Heer and Luftwaffe) swore an oath to defend the Fatherland; the Waffen-SS swore an oath of allegiance to Hitler.

    I could ramble on about this for quite a while, but I think I’ve made my point. Thanks!

  • This is very interesting–thank you.

    A couple years ago i went with my father in law, a retied marine, to the Marine Corps museum in Quantico. We were walking along and a docent asked us if we wanted to “experience the landing at Iwo Jima.” He said yes, I said no.

    He’s a quite heavily decorated combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam. I’ve never been in the military. My reluctance comes from the fact that I don’t do history to experience what other people experienced, I do it to understand what they experienced. It seems crucial to me to preserve the difference between understanding and being.

    By what right do I appropriate someone else’s experience and make it my own? First off, it’s not really possible–no reenactment really puts you under threat of death, for example. But beyond that, it seems grossly disrespectful. I’d much rather read the words of people who survived the landing. That seems to me respectful of the fact that we are different, but at the same time aims to build a bridge of understanding. It seems far more respectful to me to NOT try to reenact, to respect the fact that anyone’s experience belongs to them and not to me.

    It also seems to me that what military reenactors want is not really history, it’s excitement. Nobody reenacts being a file clerk in a domestic supply unit, or if they do, it’s only for a short time.

    It’s none of my business what people do for pleasure, but it’s hard for me to see reenactors as historians, since I think history depends on preserving the difference between ourselves and what we study.

    I always refer back to this tiny little Borges story:

    “Of Exactitude in Science

    …In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.”

  • Cobrahistorian wrote:

    I don’t disagree with you there. Especially since Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, the hobby has grown exponentially with people just wanting to get “trigger time”. It’s pretty disgusting and one of the main reasons I don’t “reenact” anymore.

    Putting on a vintage uniform to gain an understanding is one thing, putting it on to go play cowboys and indians is something completely different. That really is what it has turned into these days. When I saw a whole Company of 101st Airborne reenactors (that’s what EVERYONE portrays) come up on line and move Civil War-style towards dug in German machine gun positions, I realized that this was not the hobby that I wanted to be a part of anymore.

    I think those of us who started out early in the WWII living history hobby were and continue to be interested in the history. We weren’t able to point and click and buy a reproduction uniform and gear set online, the stuff we wore and carried was all original. Just finding it was a challenge. It required an in-depth knowledge of what the WWII GI carried, talking to veterans about HOW things were carried and learning about why certain things carried in the ETO wouldn’t work in the Pacific and vice versa.

    Unfortunately, our WWII veterans are fewer and fewer these days. I will say that my grandfather loved that I was involved in the hobby. When I went out for my first field event, I took as many pictures as I could. When I showed him the photos, he asked me what year they were taken. Last year, (three years after his death) I was able to visit the area where he fought during the Ardennes Counter-offensive. The terrain and the foliage was nearly identical.

    There are those reenactors who do a first-person impression. In my opinion they do exactly what you refer to as appropriating someone else’s history. I’m not too keen on that, especially if you’re talking a dress uniform with ribbons for valor. That’s just in poor taste. They’re usually looked down upon within the hobby.

    I still put on my WWII pilot’s kit and do living history display events a couple times a year. Memorial Day weekend, you can find me at the FDR National Historic Site looking around for my P-47. I portray a P-47 pilot because as a current AH-64 pilot, that is the mission I fly. When I wear my class A uniform (referred to as “pinks and greens”) I’m somewhat anachronistic, but I either don’t wear ribbons, or I wear the ribbons and awards that I have earned. So the Global War on Terror Service ribbon is not the Europe, Africa, Middle East campaign ribbon, but I’m not claiming to have been there.

    Mike, you’re certainly entitled to feel the way you do, but I don’t see it as appropriating someone else’s history if someone is really interested in the actual history. If they’re just in it to pop off blanks at one another and yell “I got you!”, then I’ve got no use for them either…

  • I first became aware of this issue through an e-mail sent out by a living history website, which informed me that Iott, and by extension the entire re-enacting community, were under “siege” by a press hostile to the hobby. In following the media reports about his situation, I do not believe that re-enacting is any way threatened by them. I believe the greatest challenge to the hobby is in fact your comments, not because of any outright hostility on your part, but simply because the arguments here are reasonable, valid, and very difficult to argue against.

    I have re-enacted in many units, in many locations, for over twenty years. I will admit that I have never done WWII re-enacting on either side, however. I am also academically trained in History, and have derived an income from history for the majority of my life — whether that qualifies me as a ‘professional’ historian is a judgement I leave for others.

    I first started re-enacting in a belief that there was a relationship between knowledge and experience; basically that experience is intense compressed knowledge. That relationship fuels my approach to history — the belief that I can come to understand the experience of others through the accumulation of documentation, information, references, and in general the ‘stuff’ of history. If one finally accumulates and assimilates enough, then perhaps a glimpse of that experience will emerge (I never believe my understanding will ever be total). I have to believe that that is possible; if I thought the experience of others would always be completely opaque, unknown and random to me I believe I would abandon the field completely.

    The relationship is also bi-directional, that experience can provide a way of understanding something quicker and better than a massive quantity of reading about it. I can read a wealth of journals and academic theses on the biomechanics of load carriage and perhaps come to some understanding about it, or I can pick up a pack. I can read volumes about a fifteen-mile march, or I can do it and know about it.

    Re-enacting can provide some of those experiences, in some situations. It can provide small slices in certain aspects, which can then hopefully be extrapolated, expanded, and interpreted using historical skills. I can walk fifteen miles in good reproduction equipment and attempt by that to imagine forty miles in bad shoes. Or spend a weekend camped in a field, and then project that tiny slice of experience into what it must have been like to campaign all summer. As a tool towards understanding, I believe that many parts of re-enacting have value. Only ‘towards’…

    The problem as I perceive it is when that next step to extrapolate is NOT performed, or when people forget that the experience we have is only small sanitized slice of the past experience. Without the constant appreciation of how distorted the lens is that we look through and a desire to compensate for that, misunderstanding will grow. I have fortunately never had the belief that, after having fifty clean, slightly overweight men fire blanks at me for an hour, I now know what it’s like to be in combat. But I have heard other re-enactors claim that! Or that the row of tents next to the parking lot in any way mimics the discomfort of an original campaign halt. But some do equate these experiences.

    Many re-enactors will take the experiences of re-enacting and consider the historical experience complete. In most cases that is unfortunate, but harmless. When people begin to believe in the primacy of the re-enacting experience, or consider it a far more pure form of history than ‘biased’ original documents and the ‘subjective’ work of authors, I believe that becomes something more than harmless. Unfortunately, the anti-intellectual view, in my opinion, is becoming more prevalent, and more shrill, in re-enacting today. The growth of re-enacting into eras with living survivors, and into more controversial places and roles, only magnifies the damage that can be done.

    The connection to material culture of a society or event can be an immediate and sensory one. Many significant divisions of History like archaeology and ethnology include the study of ‘things’ as an important component of the discipline. And modern re-created items faithful to the period or location can also aid that study. Modern re-enacting likes ‘things’ and is increasingly interested in getting ‘things’ correct in materials and construction methods. ‘Things’ from the past are easier to confirm and duplicate than more subjective qualities such as manner, motivations, or thoughts, so it is perhaps understandable this attention. Like any cognitive development though, hopefully the beginning focus on the concrete and the immediate, can develop into a comprehension of differences of space and time, and to the existence of others, which hopefully then further develops into a desire to understand the perspective of others, and to be able to empathise with those others. So much of what I have seen, in re-enacting and in other aspects of military studies, stays arrested at the level of things; which is then not history as I understand it but mere fetishism.

    I have always hoped that the few individuals who do develop beyond that arrested stage of historical study, and the harmlessness of the ones that never do, outweigh what could otherwise be nothing but an ephemeral waste of time. Listening to some of the responses by other re-enactors to this issue, and to exhortations by them that I as a re-enactor should unswervingly support any re-enactor or role, no matter how badly represented or how personally repugnant, to show solidarity for my hobby… disappoints me. It draws no distinctions in value, or quality, or educational worth, between anything that anyone does in this field. It equates someone that dedicates a significant portion of time to original research, with a group that arranges beer-drinking evenings in costume. And it equates the people trying to present an important matter sensitively to the public, with a group blatently uncaring about accuracy or the legitimate concerns of the public. The attitude that everything is just relative in ‘Living History’ is in truth an abdication of the role of historians entrusted to provide some sort of context, discernment, and value to the work that they do.

    Attempting to extend that non-judgmental, valueless approach across the hobby perhaps explains where such an attitude of equating Mengele with his victims would come from. When what the members of Wiking do is called ‘re-enacting’, I’m no longer sure that I belong under that umbrella… and I’m not sure that I want to.

    I think today marks the day, that I am no longer a re-enactor.

  • This is such an interesting comment–thank you. I agree completely about the value of “physical knowledge” and the doing is learning compressed. Other senses than the eyes can convey knowledge.

    I think you and I agree on the necessity of critical distance–empathy and understanding are crucial in doing history, but if “empathy” leads to Rich Iott’s comments the it’s entirely valueless. The distance between self and object is the thing that prevents empathy from blanching into moral emptiness.

  • Thank you for your positive comment. I worried I went on for too long, but it is an issue that touches on many historigraphic points.

    Perhaps I used ’empathy’ too impreceisely. I don’t believe that the problem here is that Iott identifies too strongly with the person or role that he tries to represent; I in fact think that Iott has absolutely no understanding about that person, nor does he want to make any effort towards comprehension.

    If he wanted that I would expect to find him studying social histories of Germany in the ’30s; works on education under the Weimar government; the dislocation of political boundary changes and the removal of traditional noble authority by the Republic; the post-war psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram and others on social obedience; demographics of enlistments and volunteers in the German Army compared to the SS; the influence of Bauhaus, Dada, Otto Dix, and the ‘degenerate artists’; and be curious about the ease (or not) of their re-adjustment back into civilian life in both East and West after all that they had done. AND have some interest in the non-battlefield atrocities that these individuals performed!

    Iott and many re-enactors are only interested very narrowly in the crucible of combat, with soldiers nothing more than cardboard symbols of virtue. That’s why their ‘sacrifice’ can be ‘honoured’. Any detail that makes a soldier less than a hero undermines that premise, and I suppose, as much as a re-enactor re-enacts to express this virtue they certainly ARE too close to their subject. Yes, I think we have a similar understanding.

    Hopefully you will put together a future blog just on your impressions of Gettysburg and the battlefield as an historian! 🙂

  • […] I woke up at 2:30 am this morn­ing and real­ized I’d grossly con­tra­dicted myself. I can’t argue against Nazi re-enactors blindly imi­tat­ing their ideal and still praise an idea of “blind imi­ta­tion.” There is […]

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