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.