In the words of that great screenwriter Cameron Crowe, I’m “almost famous.”
Last week I was contacted by Joshua Green, Senior Editor at Atlantic Monthly. Seems there is a candidate running for Congress in northwestern Ohio who has been part of a Waffen-SS re-enactor group. Their aim, like that of re-enactors everywhere, was to “live history,” in this case the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division, a multinational mechanized formation nicknamed “Wiking.” Green wanted to know my thoughts about the Division and those who would re-enact it. I said some negative things, and I stick by them:
What you often hear is that the [Wiking] division was never formally accused of anything, but that’s kind of a dodge. The entire German war effort in the East was a racial crusade to rid the world of ‘subhumans,’ Slavs were going to be enslaved in numbers of tens of millions. And of course the multimillion Jewish population of Eastern Europe was going to be exterminated altogether. That’s what all these folks were doing in the East. It sends a shiver up my spine to think that people want to dress up and play SS on the weekend.
This story has “had legs,” in the journalistic vernacular. It’s been reprinted and reported just about everywhere, and I had the singular experience (for me at least) of being mentioned by name and quoted in the New York Times and by Anderson Cooper on CNN. In the manner of these things, some people have agreed, some have disagreed, and I’ve gotten eMails running the gamut. Hey, no surprise there. This is America.
But there is one further thing I’ve noticed: the number of notes I’ve gotten from re-enactors protesting their innocence and accusing me of accusing them of–I don’t know–all being Nazis, I guess. Such notes I consider to be completely unnecessary. In my line of work, I know somewhere between 100 and a bazillion re-enactors of all stripes. It seems like a neat hobby, and for those who really do the prep work involved in a good re-enactment, it can be a learning experience of the first order. They take their fair share of grief from outsiders, I suppose, but I say: Here’s to the re-enactors!
I’d like to remind my re-enactor friends, though, to beware of the company they keep. I don’t personally have the re-enactor gene, but I have, over the years, been a member of another misunderstood community that has had to endure its share of mockery. I am a wargamer: board wargames, that is, the ones with hexagon maps and all those little cardboard counters. I own somewhere between 100 and a bazillion, from all the classic companies–Avalon Hill, SPI, GDW–as well as their numerous modern successors.
While I had a ball, especially back in graduate school when I actually had time to set up and play a monster game like Drang nach Osten, I can tell you one thing about those days. There was a fringe element in the hobby that worshiped the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS, and, I sometimes suspected, Hitler himself. Ask anyone who was wargaming back in the 70’s and 80’s, and I’m sure they’ll confirm what I’m saying. The number of wargames back in the day that seemed to be channeling the Wehrmacht on their box covers–usually with a cover image of a German army or SS officer in a heroic pose–was a topic discussed constantly in the wargaming press.
We loved the games, in other words, but a lot of us were embarrassed about what seemed to be a kind of adolescent crush on the Wehrmacht. I remember how exciting it was when The Avalon Hill Game Company came out with their second gamette in the Squad Leader series. It dealt with the eastern front, it was called Cross of Iron (German reference there), but it had an image of a Soviet officer on the cover. It seemed things were evening up a bit.
So, to all my re-enactor friends, I say this: I really don’t think it’s good for the anyone in the “Living History” community to be dressing up in the uniform of a criminal organization. The war in the east was more than a mere military campaign, and the Waffen-SS wasn’t just “soldiering.” They were fighting a “war of extermination” (Vernichtungskrieg). The historical record of the Waffen-SS is as clear as you can get, it isn’t a pretty one, and I think there are better ways to spend your free time.
PS: For a discussion of the “Wehrmacht problem” in the wargaming and scholarly community alike, take a look at the interesting recent book by Ronald M. Smelser and Edward J. Davies II, The Myth of the Eastern Front: the Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture. I don’t agree with everything the authors have to say, but it was a fascinating book to read.
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