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.