Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Nazi Fanboys

Posted in Education, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on October 20, 2010

There are exactly four blogs on the intertubes that haven’t addressed the recent revelation that a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Ohio is a military reenactor. Specifically, a World War II German reenactor. More specifically still, an S-freaking-S reenactor, from a unit that has been implicated in serious war crimes. Make that three blogs, because I’m now putting down some of my own thoughts on the matter.

Not long  ago, Josh Green of The Atlantic broke a story that Rich Iott (left), the GOP nominee for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District (Toledo), was for three years (2004-07) a reenactor with Wiking Division, a group of World War II reenactors based in the Upper Midwest. Iott is a long-time reenactor, but the fact that he spent a few years play-acting a Nazi is, understandably, a political bombshell. Though he was always a long-shot in the general election — he’s running against a long-time Democratic incumbent, Marcy Kaptur, in a deep-blue district — the Wiking revelation effectively puts paid to this and any future campaign Mr. Iott may be considering.

In the political scheißesturm that followed, the Wiking group rallied some support from other reenactor groups, including this statement from the Mid-Michigan Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association, which accuses Iott’s critics as playing a “twisted political game” and perpetrating a “blatant lie:”

Reenactors reflect every nation involved in WWII. We have seen not only American and German reenactors, but British, Dutch, French, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Italian and a host of others. To use an educational hobby which provides a teaching tool for all Americans in some twisted political game is not only omitting the true facts, but a blatant lie by conversion of the truth.

They doth protest too much. One of my uncles was a member of the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. I don’t know many details of his service; he died when I was little and he didn’t talk to other family members about those parts of the war. But I know that he witnessed the liberation of some of the concentration camps they discovered at the end of the war. (It may have been a situation like that depicted in Band of Brothers; I don’t really know.) I have no idea how he would’ve viewed modern hobbyists recreating American airborne troops, but it’s impossible for me to believe that he would’ve had any use at all for Rich Iott and his Wiking reenactor buddies.

Rich Iott is not a Nazi. But the objective evidence is that, as a practical matter, he is an imbecile, ein schwachkopf, and that he and his Wiking kameraden are willfully ignoring the very ugly history of the unit they model themselves after. It’s a degree of intentional compartmentalization that’s just staggering. They aren’t Holocaust deniers, who are (for better or worse) straight up about their beliefs; they’re something more insidious, folks for whom it just doesn’t much register. Of all the World War II German military formations, these guys have chosen to recreate the SS, and specifically a unit, the Wiking Division, that was recruited in the occupied countries in the West — Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands — to be composed of men of similar Aryan characteristics to the German SS, or “related stock,” as Himmler put it. The division was explicitly recruited to serve in the East; the antisemitic underpinnings of the SS are explicit in the division’s recruiting materials. Recruiting posters, printed in the local language, sought volunteers to join the fight against Bolshevism, which — inevitably — the Nazis intentionally conflated with Judaism. It’s very ugly stuff, and the Wiking Division was in the center of it, including putting down the Warsaw Uprising in the fall of 1944.

Just last year, a former member of the Wiking Division was charged with atrocities:

A 90-year-old former member of an elite Waffen SS unit has been charged with killing 58 Hungarian Jews who were forced to kneel beside an open pit before being shot and tumbling into their mass grave.

The man, named in the German press as Adolf Storms, becomes the latest pensioner to be prosecuted for alleged Nazi war crimes as courts rush to secure convictions before the defendants become too infirm and the witness testimony too unreliable.

Mr Storms was found by accident last year, as part of a research project by Andreas Forster, a 28-year-old student at the University of Vienna. . . .

Mr Storms was a member of the 5th Panzer Wiking Division which fought on the Eastern Front, moving through Ukraine into the Caucasus, taking part in a bloody fight for Grozny and the tank battles of Kharkov and Kursk before wheeling back through Eastern Europe. By most accounts it left a trail of bodies behind.

By the spring of 1945 the unit was heading to Austria with the intention of surrendering to the Americans rather than to the Red Army.

But first the Wiking Division, led in the early days by General Felix Steiner, who is still revered among neo-Nazis, decided to clean up the evidence against it and eliminate the slave labourers who had dug its fortifications and defensive lines.

According to a statement issued by the regional court in Duisburg, where Mr Storms has spent most of his retirement, 57 of the 58 victims were killed near the Austrian village of Deutsch Schuetzen. The mass grave there was excavated in 1995 by the Austrian Jewish association and the bodies given proper funerals.

Storms died in June 2010, before he could go to trial.

Robert M. Citino of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, hit the nail on the head when he pointed to what he sees as “an adolescent crush” on Nazi history. He goes on to summarize it nicely in a short essay on HistoryNet:

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.

I don’t buy for a moment that these reenactors are naive innocents who had no idea that their weekend warrior games were simply beyond the pale of polite company; their reenactor website clearly shows otherwise. It’s been heavily scrubbed in the last few days — including removal of event pictures dating back to Iott’s time with them — but archived copies are still available, including this one from August 2007, the year Iott reportedly was last a participant. None of the reenactors are identified by their real names, including the Wiking group’s public contacts. Iott is included as “Reinhard Pferdmann,” and all the other group member identify only under similar alter-ego names. They are hiding, because they know, they understand, how offensive their identification with the Wiking Division is, and they don’t want to have to answer for it. I’ve known a lot of reenactors, and visited lots of reenactor websites, and never encountered one (including Confederate reenactors) who didn’t identify at least the key members of the group publicly. To me, that’s prima facie evidence that these guys knew very well how their hobby was perceived by the public at large, and (unlike most reenactors) very clearly didn’t want to be publicly associated with it. Iott and his buddies know damn well what they’re doing, and why it’s deeply offensive to so many; that’s why they cower behind names like “Reinhard Pferdmann.” Unlike the Waffen-SS men they so admire, these modern reenactors clearly lack the courage of their convictions.

Twenty-some years ago a Civil War reenactor I knew– he was part of a Union artillery battery —  cautioned me that “Civil War reenacting is the lunatic fringe of living history.” His observation was tongue-in-cheek, but endearing. I’ve known a lot of reenactors over the years, and often toyed with the idea of diving into the hobby myself. (Much to the relief of both my wife and my wallet, the feeling passes after a few days.) Reenacting has a lot of appeal, and I think it lends itself well to helping educate the public in certain areas. Reenactors particularly excel in explaining the details of daily life, civilian and military, in earlier times. While it seems unlikely that I’ll be putting on a period uniform myself, I get the appeal, and I understand how folks become so devoted to it.

But there’s something fundamentally different about what Iott and his buddies are up to. They are not exploring their own nation’s history, or their family’s, as many Civil War reenactors are. Their open admiration for the Waffen SS — specifically, a Waffen SS division composed of men who betrayed their own fellow Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian citizens and went over to the enemy — is simply unfathomable. (Later in the war, from 1943 on, some Waffen SS men were conscripted from the occupied countries.) It is reprehensible, and they know it; that’s why they hide behind character names. There are thousands of survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front still living, and millions more of their relatives and friends who have heard firsthand of their experiences and the hands of the Waffen SS  and others like them. The Wiking reenactors don’t particularly care about those things, or even acknowledge them; they want to focus entirely on their ehrfurcht gebietend MG42 machine guns — “we also have full automatic weapons for rent!” — and downloadable food tin labels. The people aren’t doing history, or education; they’re getting their jollies at playing at being Nazis. They give living history and historical reenacting a bad name. That they don’t own up to their identities online shows that, on some level, they’re embarrassed by what they do. As they should be.

If Rich Iott wants to play dress-up as a member of the Waffen SS, an organization that was declared criminal at the Nuremberg Trials, and simulate a unit that has been implicated in numerous war crimes, then he is free to do so. The rest of us are free to call him out for it. They want to run around playing Waffen-SS, but not be held accountable for it, individually or as a group. Note to the Wiking kameraden; if your hobby is such an embarrassment that you don’t want others to know about it, do us all a favor and get another damned hobby.