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German Civil War Reenactors

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Yoni Applebaum has an interesting piece on the popularity of reenacting the U.S. Civil War in Germany. While one might poo-poo any real analysis of this as being just Gone with the Wind romanticism without any political meaning, I’d be skeptical to agree. As one German Union reenactor says, I think some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority. They are obsessed with your war because they cannot celebrate their own vanquished racists.”

That’s certainly my first thought. It would be quite fascinating to get a sense of the political beliefs of Civil War reenactors in Germany and break it down by which side they “fight” on. Are these people who lament a lost past of bravery, manhood, and beards? Are they just obsessed by Gone with the Wind? Or are they anti-immigrant or even anti-Semitic at heart and see the Confederates as, if not a model, a noble cause in some similar ways that American racists might? I’m not going so far as to say that Hitler’s own lament for the lost Confederacy really matters today. But there might be some connections there.

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  • DocAmazing

    Dashing officers? Check.
    Snappy gray uniforms? Check.
    Expansionist state that appeals to its soldier-class with appeals to hearth, family, and rural virtue? Check.
    White supremacy? Herrenvolk, please.

    • Stag Party Palin

      So they’re acting out their racist fantasies. Just what does this prove? That some Germans are racists? Wow. Hold the front page and get me re-write.

      • Stag Party Palin

        (cut off in mid splutter) – I forgot to point out that there are no racists in Belgium, Poland, Italy, the UK and with significant exceptions, Rabbit Spleen, South Dakota.

    • Sean Peters

      While I’d be the last person to claim that there’s no element of racism involved in Civil War re-enacting (whether in Germany or the US), one should never underestimate the simple attraction of playing what amounts to cowboys & indians. I’m not a re-enactor myself, but I’ve known quite a number of them (both Federal and Confederate, and a couple of switch-hitters), and the overwhelming impression I got was that it was just really fun to run around in period costumes and pretend to shoot people.

      • DocAmazing

        Cowboys and who, again?

  • Wrye

    The word some winds up carrying a lot of weight in that first paragraph. The worldwide existence ofNapoleonic reenactors suggests to me that some folks are just in it for the uniforms.

  • It’s a lot easier to play around in someone else’s history than in your own. Society for Creative Anachronism, for instance. The summer I lived in Poland, I saw people doing American Indian re-enactments, and I am pretty sure there are similar groups in Germany though I don’t know the names of any organizations.

    • IM

      Yes. Western Societes. A lot of confederate flags there too. But all in all I think that is quite harmless and based on ignorance. The battle flag is code a thin disguise, true – for racism in the US.

      But this code isn’t working in Germany.

      And of course you can play on the german side in Second World War reenactments. The SS units are particular popular. If you want to spend a weekend or so on reenactment, the additional travel time to another european country doesn’t matter that much.

      So I don’t really think we are talking about racism here, because you got just could go for the real thing.

      • blowback

        But they could play on the Prussian side in the Franco-Prussian war. They could even drag along some frogs.

        BTW, there are World War 2 re-enactment groups in the UK that often include people dressing up as Germany. So far it is only a Wehrmacht (which is dodgy given its history) but I have yet to see any dressing up as Waffen SS.

        However, I wonder if this lot are repressed Confederate supporters.

        The 9th Re-Enactment Society is group of dedicated hobbyists who have a common interest grounded in the Second World War. Our members live in the eastern parts of Pennsylvania, all over New Jersey, the southeastern parts of New York, and the northern areas of Virginia and Maryland. We constantly seek new resources and information to improve our impression, and are always looking for new members that fit the bill.

        Their mission statement:

        Our mission is to portray the life of a German combat solider assigned to the 9th Waffen-SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen as accurately and safely as possible. We strive to put forward the most realistic impression that we can, and to keep the memory of WWII alive.

        Watching them portaying life in an Einsatzgruppe must be fun, fun, fun.

        • IM

          BTW, there are World War 2 re-enactment groups in the UK that often include people dressing up as Germany. So far it is only a Wehrmacht (which is dodgy given its history) but I have yet to see any dressing up as Waffen SS.

          That is what I was talking about; I recently did read a report that indeed playing SS is quite popular (among germans and non-germans). In Germany you just have to obscure the swastikas, SS-Runes etc. on the uniforms.

          So you don’t need to take refuge in the confederate army.

        • A Silberman

          For what it’s worth, the 9th SS Panzer was formed of 18-year old conscripts with a cadre of experienced soldiers from the 1st SS Panzer. Also, the Einsatzgruppen were an entirely different sort of organization, being specifically designed to conduct genocidal operations, rather than being military units founded for regime stability and to satisfy Himmler’s need for empire building.

      • Jon Hendry

        You know who else liked Westerns?

        Yeah. Hitler.

        • rea

          The French of course were far and away the most pro-Confederate European power,wanting to take advantage of US distraction to grab Mexico. An Union army under Sheridan confronted the French and forced their withdrawal from Mexico at the end of the war. Prussia was correspondingly somewhat pro-Union. The Franco-Prussian War saw Sheridan as an observer/advisor at Prussian headquarters, where he became bff with Bismarck. So Neo-Nazi German Confederate reenactors is something of an anomaly.

          • Hogan

            I read once that when von Moltke was trying to figure out the logistics of moving large groups of men around by rail, with rapid disembarkments, camp construction, activity, reassembly and reembarkment, he sent obervers to the US to travel with the Ringling Brothers circus. I’ve never been able to confirm it, but it’s such a great story that I’m compelled to believe.

            • steverino

              What I heard (“Guns Of August”?) was that when the circus toured Germany the Kaiser was impressed with the speed of loading/unloading and that was what drove the interest.

              The circus opened the rail cars at both ends, hitched them together and laid track down the length, and just drove everything right in.

    • DrDick

      There is in fact a whole cult of German Indian re-enactors, based on the (truly awful) novels of Karl May. This generally is simply a manifestation of the longstanding German romantic tradition.

  • Western Dave

    “are these people who lament a lost past of bravery, manhood, and beards?”

    My guess is yes. The Germans will re-enact anything. As others have mentioned, there is a pretty big Native American re-enactment scene in Germany, but I’ve also heard of Route 66 re-enactors/enthusiasts and met a few of both. I think this is just part of the subset of crazy for things American that afflicts certain Germans with no real understanding of the politics of it.

    A colleague of mine once argued that Germans were fascinate with Native Americans because they couldn’t talk about the Holocaust and Americans were fascinated with the Holocaust because they couldn’t talk about Native Americans. I found this misguided because a) Karl May and b)non-Jewish Americans could generally give a crap about the Holocaust once they finish their test on Anne Frank in 8th grade.

    Finally in one of my weaker moments of despair, I contemplated moving to Germany to make a living as a white shaman selling Native American authenticity. I didn’t because a) I don’t speak German and b) it would be wrong. I hope it’s mostly B.

  • I submit that reenactors are, first and foremost, reenactors – people who want to dress up in period costume and play at war, with the war in question coming in a distant second.

    Since there is already a strongly-established Civil War reenactment ‘infrastructure,’ it’s not surprising that would-be reenactors end up reenacting that war.

    • Murc

      God, when the LEAST suspicious and judgmental comment in the thread comes from Joe, you know you’re in trouble.

      I’ve been going to re-enactments for years. I was a re-enactor back when I had a lot more free time. And for the most part we’re not people who want to ‘play war,’ although there’s a certain element of that, because playing war IS kind of awesome.

      I can’t speak for all re-enactors, and maybe where I live (Upstate NY) its different than in, say the Deep South, but we were history nerds. GIANT fucking history nerds. I’m talking ‘if you couldn’t quote large parts of Foote, Catton, and McPherson from memory, you were laughed at’ nerds. And the focus was on providing accuracy and versimilitude.

      I personally have portrayed both Union and Confederate enlisted men and officers, and in one memorable case a white officer leading a Union company of black soldiers. Part of the ‘job’, as it were, was to stand around and converse with people who came up to you as if you were living in the time and place you were re-enacting. We would usually have a little sign saying something like ‘Lieutenant Derpface of the 2nd Virginia Bumblefucks is being portrayed by Re-Enactor Joe Blow.’ And there’d be a little pamphlet with some historical references to the real person in question.

      If we all did our jobs right, tourists, schoolchildren, and gawkers would come away with a greater understanding of and curiosity of the history involved.

      I’m starting to get real tired of the massive amounts of skepticism or outright derision directed toward re-enactors I see… well, in too many places to count in left blogistan, really. FYI: putting on a gray uniform and spending three weeks reading the letters of a damn fool from South Carolina who got his head exploded at Gettysburg so you can accurately portray his life doesn’t make you a crypto-Confederate or a racist.

    • Ed

      Agreed. I know a re-enactor, a well-meaning middle aged white guy who likes to call himself a “living historian.” (He plays fighting for the Union.) These well-intentioned people seem genuinely oblivious to the questionable aspects of getting into uniform and participating in make believe fighting of what were once real and bloody battles, no matter how allegedly historically accurate the proceedings are. I attended one of my friend’s re-enactments. I thought it was a sad joke in bad taste but I would never say so to his face. I’ve made excuses to get out of going to others.

    • Sean Peters

      Yep. I had a long conversation with a guy at a WWII re-enactment camp. He was mostly a civil war re-enactor guy, but dabbled in WWII. This time he was playing a Nazi. We asked “don’t you get kind of creeped out putting on a Nazi uniform?” The reply: “frankly, yes, but if you’re going to have a re-enactment, somebody’s got to play the bad guys”. And seriously: does anyone think that PORTRAYING a Nazi makes you a Nazi sympathizer? If so, how do you feel about WWII movies, and specifically, the actors in those roles? If re-enacting famous battles is insensitive, in bad taste, immoral, etc (which are sentiments I’ve heard quite a lot of in various blogs), how should I feel about watching “The Dirty Dozen” or “Gettysburg”? War re-enacting is not really very different from war movies, but somehow the war movies are ok.

      • DocAmazing

        An actor takes a job, shows up on set and is issued a costume. Re-enactors get very serious about their gear and their characters; they try to get things extremely period-accurate and deride those who merely make do with something that looks close as “farbs”.

        There is no comparison. Re-enactors might or might not share the political leanings of the people they portray, but they go way beyond actors in their portrayals. They get into the role in ways that would make Stanislavsky raise an eyebrow.

  • A Silberman

    I’ve seen film of Russian WWII re-enactors portraying Germans, FWIW.

  • Randy

    “. . . some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority.”

    Possibly. It might interest them to know that German immigrants in the US at the time of the Civil War tended to be strong Unionists. The large German population is St. Louis is credited with helping to stop Missouri from joining the confederacy.

  • Mrs Tilton

    Somebody upthread mentioned the Germans who like to holiday in what they imagine to be teepees, dressed as what they imagine to be Native Americans. This is utterly unresearched personal observation, mind you, but at a guess I’d say there are a lot more German “Indians” than German “rebel scum”.

    What you do see a lot of are Confederate battle-flags (including, indeed mostly, as car-window displays etc. rather than as actual flags run up actual poles). I’ve never encountered a German who displayed one out of racism and nostalgia for the days of the Slave Power reverence for the southern cultural heritage. Ironically, the Germans who have the things tend to be highly Americanophile. They really don’t grasp what the flag means — to them, it conjures up a vague atmosphere of The Frontier, country & western music, long-distance trucking, gigantic steaks on the grill and Jack Daniels.

    I’ve tried on occasion to explain to them that, to an American*, seeing Germans display the Confederate flag is only very slightly less offensive than seeing Americans display the Hakenkreuz would be to a German. They genuinely don’t get it. I think they display it to identify not with 19th century slave-owning traitors but with the Americans who themselves display the battle flag today. And those Germans doing so don’t get what is objectionable about these people — to them, they just symbolize pick-ups and gimme-caps and line-dancing.

    * I know that most of the yahoos in the US who like to display the Confederate flag are Americans in terms of citizenship. In the context of this comment, however, I am using the word to refer to those Americans whose allegiance is to the country and its constitution.

    • Marek

      This is consistent with my experience. The number of gawd-awful German country & western bands boggles the mind.

    • rea

      They genuinely don’t get it. I think they display it to identify not with 19th century slave-owning traitors but with the Americans who themselves display the battle flag today.

      A great many of the real Confederates weren’t slave owning traitors, but decent, honorable guys fighting for the neighbors, or because they were conscripted. It’s the 20th and 21st Century displayers of the flag who are almost invariably racist assholes.

      • merl

        You’re right. Most of the Confederate enlisted men were fighting for their States and their neighbors or draftees. Poor people didn’t get exemptions from the draft and draft dodgers were shot or hanged.
        My ancestors didn’t own slaves.

        • Western Dave

          Aspirational slave owners perhaps? The Shelby Steele stories about “Why are you here?” “Because you’re here” deny that large portions of the South tried to stay Union or were actively Union (see West Virginia, Alabama hill country.) But yeah, also the draft. Although you’d think there would have been more incidence of desertion and fragging. Reminds me of the recent revelations about Lee that revealed he was, in fact, interested in the defense of slavery after all.

        • Perhaps the best demonstration of the adage “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” in history. These people were literally dying for a system that diminished their own value.

      • Let’s not forget that the “Confederate battle flag” we see today was an invention of the 1950s. It never flew during the Civil War.

        There were similar flags used by Confederate units – one that was a square, others that had some of the elements of the design but not others – but the iconic flag was an invention of the anti-civil rights movement.

  • Surprised nobody’s brought up Rich Iott.

    If you want to run for elected office, don’t put on a Nazi uniform.

    • How hard would it have been for him to say, “Well, somebody has to be the bad guys?” Bam, done, next story.

      The only logical conclusion is that he didn’t want to say that.

  • Jim Lynch

    “I’m not going so far as to say that Hitler’s own lament for the lost Confederacy really matters today. But there might be some connections there”.

    As both a Civil War (ours, that is) and WW2 guy, that Hitler ever spoke of, much less lamented, the South’s defeat is news to me. When and where did he say as much, and who recorded his remarks?

  • Bill Murray

    Confederates in the Attic is an excellent book about Civil War re-enactors in the upper South

  • Jim Lynch

    Mr. Loomis: Just checking back, a few hours since I inquired about your attribution concerning Hitler’s lament (how’s that for a book title?). I hope you can find the time to respond. Please consider it a friendly gauntlet laying at your feet.

  • MR Bill

    I used to work for a Confederate reenactor, and the guy was a bigot, racist, and former Republican party candidate for County Commissioner. That said, the reenactments were generally just weird camping events, and he had a side business supplying canvas tents, tripods for cook fires, and ‘authentic’ goods. And it’s a weird mix, some blacks, and more than a few local unionists.
    Amusingly, his group was in the field when Dick Cheney came to the Chicamauga Battlefield in ’08 for a 145th celebration (he had an ancestor in that battle) with full retinue, and, when asked how it was, was pissed that the security people had taken all the arms from the reenactors mustering for Dick.. “Some of us were pissed enough to shoot the bastard..” he darkly muttered.

    And, sorta on topic, the Internet Movie Data Base says the Josef Gobbels favorite movie was “Gone with the Wind”.

  • Jim Lynch

    “..[the reenactor] was pissed that the security people had taken all the arms from the reenactors mustering for Dick.. “Some of us were pissed enough to shoot the bastard..” he darkly muttered”.

    At a battle of Gettysburg re-enactment 15 years ago, two re-enactors got in a knock down, drag out fight when one insisted that the other was obliged to surrender his rifle after having been “killed”. If the spirits of those slain in July 1863 were looking on, they must have had a good laugh.

    (P.S: Loomis, you’ve got bupkus on the “Hitler’s lament” attribution, don’t you? It’s OK to admit it).

    • Well, if you’d read the linked article, you’d see the direct link to Hitler’s lament for the Confederacy in it.

  • According to Jude Stewart, those people think this is hilarious. I wouldn’t read too much into anything.

  • Jim Lynch

    Thanks for the reply (it wasn’t so hard, was it?).

    As to the purported “lament”? A quick search of Google revealed:

    “Many prestigious historians, inculding Leon Poliakov, Gerhard Weinberg, Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Nora Levin and Robert Payne, used choice quotations from Rauschning’s memoir in their works of history. Poliakov, one of the most prominent Holocaust writers, specifically praised Rauschning for his “exceptional accuracy, while Levin, another widely-read Holocaust historian, called him “one of the most penetrating analysts of the Nazi period.”

    But not everyone has been so credulous. Swiss historian Wolfgang Haenel spent five years diligently investigating the memoir before announcing his findings in 1983 at a revisionist history conference in West Germany. The renowned Conversations with Hitler, he declared are a total fraud. The book has no value “except as a document of Allied war propaganda.”

    Haenel was able to conclusively establish that Rausching’s claim to have met with Hitler “more than a hundred times is a lie. The two actually met only four times, and never alone. The words attributed to Hitler, he showed, were simply invented or lifted from many different sources, including writings by Juenger and Friedrich Nietzsche. An account of Hitler hearing voices, waking at night with convulsive shrieks and pointing in terror at an empty corner while shouting “There, there, in the corner!” was taken from a short story by French writer Guy de Maupassant.

    The phony memoir was designed to incite public opinion in democratic countries, especially in the United States, in favor of war against Germany. The project was the brainchild of the Hungarian-born journalist Emery Reves, who ran an influential anti-German press and propaganda agency in Paris during the 1930s. Haenel has also found evidence that a prominent British journalist named Henry Wickham-Steele helped to produce the memoir. Wickham-Steele was a right-hand man of Sir Robert Vansittart, perhaps the most vehemently anti-German figure in Britain…”

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