Blog Post

The Perils of Playing with the Past: Memory, Play, Historical Reenactment, and the Case of Rich Iott

Last year, photos emerged of Ohio congressional candidate Rich Iott dressed in an SS uniform. Iott belonged to a World War II reenacting group which specifically reenacted as the SS 5th Division "Wiking", and had even gone so far as to adopt a German pseudonym for his hobby, "Reinhard Pferdmann". Apparently he joined with his son, hoping to use it as a father-son bonding activity. Joshua Green of the Atlantic reported extensively on the story (several posts by Green immediately following the one linked also deal with Iott). Numerous prominent military and Second World War historians such as Omer Bartov, Christopher Browning, and Rob Citino had harsh comments for Iott. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iott went on to lose the election.

I will be honest: my immediate reaction to seeing a congressional candidate dressed in an SS uniform is not publishable. My grandfather was an Austrian Jew who barely got out in time; most of his family, including his two brothers, were not so lucky. And yet, I could not help but pause. For one thing, it does not appear that Mr. Iott is an anti-Semite or a neo-Nazi, whatever else may be said about him. Nor could I forget that one of my best friends is a World War II reenactor, albeit one who reenacts as an American. He puts a great deal of effort into his reenacting, and enjoys it tremendously. Furthermore, even though reenacting is not particularly my cup of tea, I don't think there is anything a priori wrong with it, and what's more done right it can be an extremely valuable form of public history and historical education. Reenactors help to preserve the memory of past wars, and many reenactors engage in extremely detailed research in their efforts to portray the daily life of participants accurately. And, let's be blunt, if we accept that Second World War reenacting is valuable, then we also accept that someone has to play the Germans.

Now, one could simply say that they should choose Wehrmacht units--that the SS uniform is simply too powerfully negative an image, that the SS as an organization it was too vile for any decent person to consider putting on its uniform, no matter what the reason. I'm inclined to agree with that statement, especially given what the SS came to symbolize during the war. The problem is that the myth of the Wehrmacht's "clean war"--a myth, ironically, largely built up by the Western Allies, who were eager to rearm West Germany as a buffer against the Warsaw Pact--has been thoroughly debunked. The Wehrmacht was deeply involved in war crimes and atrocities against civilians and POWs, especially on the Eastern Front. They collaborated with the crimes of the SS, and the war they were fighting was quite clearly one of extermination. So, wouldn't reenacting as a Wehrmacht soldier be just as problematic as reenacting as an SS one? Phrased another way, would Rich Iott's political prospects have been any less damaged had the uniform he was wearing belonged to the Wehrmacht? I submit that there would still be a great deal of outrage, even if it might not be quite as severe.

Let's take things one step further. American Civil War reenactments are much more common and mainstream in the United States than Second World War reenactments, probably in large part due to the presence of numerous well-preserved Civil War battlefields, and the fact that the participants were all Americans. And obviously, large numbers of Civil War reenactors reenact as Confederate soldiers. In fact there wouldn't be much point to Civil War reenacting if people didn't. And yet, the CSA's very reason for being was to preserve--and ultimately expand--the enslavement of millions. What's more, every single Confederate soldier was, by definition, a traitor and guilty of treason. Note too that there is a tremendous nostalgia for the "Lost Cause" among many Confederate reenactors. But how often do you hear outrage about Americans dressing up in the grey of the Confederacy? Would wearing the grey have damaged Rich Iott's political prospects, even in a northern state like Ohio? Possibly, but I doubt it. In fact, I suspect that most Americans would consider it perfectly acceptable, nay, even patriotic, in the absence of evidence that he was actually a serious devotee of the Lost Cause--and he'd have plenty of supporters even then. (For the record, Iott has apparently reenacted as a Union soldier, as well).

Let's go even further back. What about Revolutionary War reenactors who portray redcoats? The redcoats were obviously enemies of the country. They engaged in a number of atrocities against American prisoners of war--the prison ships in New York Harbor were especially notorious--and abuses and reprisal attacks in territory that they occupied. They fought to maintain what our Founding Fathers considered to be--and what every school child is taught was--an unjust, tyrannical government. Yet, somehow I doubt anyone would care at all if Rich Iott dressed up as a redcoat on weekends. Or a Prussian officer for First World War reenactments, or a Roman legionnaire, or a Mongol horseman --even though all of these groups were responsible for what would now be termed war crimes. On the other hand, I'm guessing Viet Cong probably wouldn't go over too well.

Alternatively, let's consider that reenactors often aim to recreate specific battles. Film directors do the same. They have been known to hire actors to play SS soldiers, and not necessarily as villains so much as adversaries. These actors are paid to dress up in SS uniforms--which if anything should be worse than reenacting in the woods on the weekend, especially if the film doesn't emphasize SS brutality and criminality (even if the relevant SS unit wasn't historically engaged in war crimes in the film's setting). It certainly reaches a wider audience. Yet I imagine that if Rich Iott had been paid to play an SS man in a Hollywood movie, there would not have been anything approaching the level of outrage that he actually generated. Why not?

Let's take it a step further: what about those of us who play history based video or board games? Should I feel guilty about having played as Germany in World War II strategy games like Hearts of Iron or even Axis and Allies? There, I've literally played out the conquest of Europe, attempting to see if I could do "better" than the Axis. These games tactfully decline to mention that my forces are presumably busily enslaving and slaughtering Jews, Roma, commissars, suspected partisans, POWs, and anyone else who got in their way as they advance deeper into Russian territory. Isn't that similar on some level to Iott gallivanting around the woods in jackboots? Isn't it, too, engaged in the sanitization of unpleasant historical details? Is the Second World War even a suitable topic for games?

My point is not to suggest that all forms of acting or reenacting are equivalent. Iott spent his weekends pretending to be a member of an organization primarily associated with genocide, in fact as a member of a specific unit, the 5th Division 'Wiking', which was itself responsible for numerous war crimes on the Eastern Front. He was, in short, romanticizing the monstrous, for which there is no excuse.

My goal, rather, is to pose some questions that the Iott affair raises about the intersection between play and history. First, what makes some kinds of historical play and acting acceptable, and others not? Second, what are the ethical and historical challenges posed by historical reenacting, can they be resolved, and if so how? Third, how and under what circumstances is it morally permissible to play or roleplay as one of history's villains, and more generally, how do we draw the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable historical play? With the growing popularity of historical reenactments, films, and games as part of education, entertainment, and cultural heritage, it is more urgent than ever to critically examine how we play with the past.

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5 comments

Re: "First, what makes some kinds of historical play and acting acceptable, and others not? Second, what are the ethical and historical challenges posed by historical reenacting, can they be resolved, and if so how? Third, how and under what circumstances is it morally permissible to play or roleplay as one of history's villains, and more generally, how do we draw the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable historical play?"

 

One thing that would make all this a good bit more palatable is playing for both sides. When you play, say, Axis and Allies, there's no assumption that you'll always play Germany. In fact, if in every wargame you always insisted on play as Axis and only Axis, to the point of identifying yourself as a faux-German, complete with a German-sounding name... that would be a little bit disturbing. Perhaps similarly, if an actor would only act out being a Nazi, to the point of identifying himself as a "SS Actor" (and not just an actor who happened to be playing as SS this time, and is just as likely to play some other side the next time there's a military film), that would also be inappropriate.

Yes, somebody has to play the Germans in a WWII reenactment. It doesn't always have to be the same people, though. 

I'm not saying that that would have saved this guy's career. A photo of yourself in a Nazi costume doesn't go away just because the next and previous weekends you were a Soviet. But, in a more nuanced view, that self-identification with an SS group specifically seems like it could be a large part of what differentiates this from, say, playing Axis and Allies.

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This is a really good point, Max--the level of personal identification with and romanticization of the Wikings is really disturbing here. Although I also agree with you that Iott's career would still have been toast even if he had just occasionally reenacted the SS as more generic "bad guys". That uniform has such potent, dark symbolism that to even put it on outside of certain very prescribed boundaries is highly disturbing. Along those lines, perhaps the reason we don't mind when professional actors wear it as part of a film or play is that it's art, which as a society we give more leeway, because it's understood that actors don't necessarily endorse the actions of those they portray, and because actors are trained to keep some separation between themselves and their characters (unless they're method acting, and to be honest method acting an SS man would be really creepy).

Anyway, relevant quote from Kurt Vonnegut: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." (http://www.avclub.com/articles/15-things-kurt-vonnegut-said-better-than-anyone-el,1858/)

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Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, this is Rich Iott. Your analysis was very good. Let me share with you some things that you don't know.

First, the story was a hit piece planned by the Ohio Demoncratic Party. The reporter at the Atlantic was just a cover to create plausible deniability.  The reporter called my office two days before the story broke to ask if that was, indeed, me in the picture. I said yes, I have been a reenactor for 40 years, having done most Civil War (both sides) but also WWI American, WWII American and German. I sent him photos of ALL of those periods, including photos of my son and I doing Civil War.  He obviously ony ran with the SS story.

The story broke on Saturday, and on Tuesday I had a meeting with the head Rabbi here in NW Ohio. His first words to me were "So what's the big deal? Reenacting - I get it!" In reality, the only people who were offended or appalled were those who wouldn't have voted for me anyway.

This is +10 Democratic district. My opponent was the longest seated woman in the House of Representatives (yet she has never even chaired a committee!). To defeat her would have been one of the biggest upsets in the nation. I carried 42% of the vote! That was the best performance by any Republican in any +10 Democratic district in the county! We did polling on the issue three days after the story broke and the day following the election. The results were identical: 60% of likely voters didn't care, they saw it as political mud; 20% said it made them MORE likely to vote for me and 20% said it made them less likely. Bottom line, it made no difference whatsoever.  What all of the media hype DID do was to dramatically increase my online donations from across the country!

Will I run again? It depends. Ohio is losing two congressional districts this fall and in the redistricting, I will likely end up living in Republican district. Naturally, I would not try to challenge a good, incumbent Republican.

I feel that my campaign was a success. Across the state and across the country, I was part of the winning team. We lost the battle in my district but we won the war. So I am fine with it. I also brought out a side of my opponent which many people have never seen: a vicious, lying woman.  Her campaign also blasted me for my business background, claiming that I ran my company into the ground, sold it and took the money and ran, costing 5,000 people their jobs. After some fact checking, even the liberal local newspaper ran a front page story that said it was entirely false. The last five years while I was CEO were the company's best years in sales and profits; when we merged with another company, I didn't get a buyout or golden parachute, I got exactly the same severance as anyone else, and the new company didn't begin to fail until three years after I had left.  FactCheck.org also came to the same conclusion.  Later, at our first televised debate, the moderator asked her if, in light of these findings, did she still stand by her statments about my business career. She replied "Absolutely." And thee press gave her a total pass on that.

I hope you enjoyed hearing "the rest of the story"!

Rich

 

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Just a quick note: Josh Green has penned a response over at the Atlantic.

 

Richard

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Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the heads-ups. Quite a humorous response. I'm not sure how he figured I was "angry", I was just stating the facts. In fact, I was quite satisfied with how the race came out; 42% of the vote in a +10 Democratic district for an unknown candidate who has never run for office before is pretty darn respectable.. and it shows the weakness of the competition.

He may have been technically correct that he had no contact with the Ohio Democratic Party; his contact may have been with the Lucas County Democratic Party, the national DNC, or my opponent's campaign.  What I didn't mention in my previous post to you was that three days prior to his story breaking (and prior to his contacting me) the Ohio Democratic chairman was at a luncheon with the Ohio GOP chairman. He just couldn't contain himself and spilled the beans to the GOP chair about "having the goods" on "your boy" for the coming weekend.  Likewise, it must have just been a "coincidence" that at the same time the story broke, the Lucas County Democratic Party put up a web page about me with various photos of me in a German uniform and links to different sites.  It was very well done and clearly not something thrown together subsequent to the Atlantic story. 

The entire pretense that Josh Green is such an awesome investigative reporter that he discovered this "story" about an unknown candidate in an obscure race in Ohio stretches one's imagination. It was clearly a collaborative effort.

 To top it all off, my opponent blithely maintained that she had never heard about the issue until she saw it in the newspaper. If you believe that, I've got some land in Florida....

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