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.