Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | October 9, 2010

When is it all right to dress like a Waffen SS soldier?

Guys, I’m looking for some input here. I have no idea how to think about this.

There’s a House candidate in Ohio named Rich Iott. Mr. Iott is, among other things, a historical re-enactor. You’re probably familiar with the basics of military re-enacting: get dressed up in period gear, maybe set up camp and mill around, and on a good day, shoot some blanks at people dressed in different uniforms.

But Iott is a member of a group modeled after the  5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, an honest-to-god formation of the Schutzstaffel, an armed wing of the Nazi Party. The 5th served on the war’s eastern front. Soldiers from the division have been implicated in atrocities committed near the war’s end, including helping one formation of the notorious Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) round up Ukrainian Jews for execution.

The Wiking re-enactors’ website is troubling. The group’s goal, according to the site’s ‘History’ page, is to

bring you a bit of actual history behind the men who fought against the “Bolshevik scourge”; volunteers who came from the various Northern European countries allied with Hitler’s Germany who only had a desire to see an end to Soviet Communism. [emphasis mine]

Here’s my question: what the hell are we to make of this? I think this crosses a line, but I can’t really articulate why. Years ago, I wrote a newspaper column arguing that Civil War re-enactments can serve as a kind of recurring catharsis, a way for people to encounter a traumatic, violent past where (unlike in real war), there’s really nothing at stake. Later this semester I’m going to look into some of the sociological literature on re-enacting (if there is any), and maybe I’ll know more then. But in the meantime, I have a hard time not finding this uber-creepy. Why choose a Nazi unit? Why choose a unit of the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi Party’s own “protective service,” instead of a regular Wermacht unit? And why gloss so profoundly over the serious moral implications of recreating the exploits of a group of men who dedicated themselves to a murderous, genocidal dictatorship? What is happening here?



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