Robert Citino on re-enacting the 5th Waffen SS “Wiking” Division, et. al.

Posted: October 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

I read this a few days ago, from Robert Citino’s page, and it’s a topic I think more folks should read about, and ponder.  His column on History Net from a couple weeks back, “On Being a Wiking,” has drawn a variety of reactions, some good, some bad, some nuanced, others not so much.  Re-enacting is a huge hobby, and one to which, however much I might poke fun at its practitioners’ eccentricities now and again, I give considerable respect.  After all, at the practical level they know a lot more than I do about Civil War battle drill, or the practical realities of skirmishing in the Revolution, or problems with American gear in World War II.  And I believe that often it is in the details that our interpretations ultimately stand or fall…

But one area of re-enacting that is contentious (and rightly so)  is the portrayal of SS units, and, regardless of the value of such (hopefully well-researched) portrayals, there exists a distinct and unfortunate tendency for such close involvement in Nazi military unit histories to parallel an extreme admiration–and concommittant de-politicizing of–their fighting qualities.  Which, as Dr. Citino rightly observes, misrepresents the whole nature of the Ostfront war.  The phenomenon has been often-remarked, and was particularly pronounced in the old board-gaming hobby world.  Everyone wanted to play the Germans (myself included), and the idea of the outnumbered, tactically superior a-political soldier fighting the inept Allies (or saving Europe from the Reds) was reinforced in any number of ways.  Not that I’m knocking board games–I still love to play them, when I have the time (which these days is virtually never)–but it’s all too easy to lose perspective when you go too far down the rabbit-hole that is the hobby.  Same thing with re-enacting, I believe.  Does this mean that the congressional candidate under scrutiny was promoting neo-Nazi ideas?  Not at all (or at least, not necessarily).  Does it mean that his re-enacting unit modified their website and clarified their stance when people began to ask questions and call the group’s intepretation of the Ostkrieg?  Yes, as they should.  This is one of those instances where apparently innocent activities have serious consequences, and Dr. Citino hits it right on the money.

  1. William Hawkes says:

    I agree with the above. As I have mentioned in my comments on the original article, there is something that I find disturbing about donning the uniform and equipment of a WWII German soldier.

    Despite all of the disclaimers that are a part of many if not all of the re-enactor websites, there is a distinct shadow over the German soldier in WWII. To deny this is to deny history. Many who have commented have suggested that since some soldiers in all armies have at times acted badly, to paint the entire German military with that brush is unfair.

    That misses the point. While there were crimes and atrocities committed by troops from all countries at some time or the other, there is a very big difference in fighting ( as a Nation ) to oppose tyranny, rather than fighting a war to spread it.

    There were tens of thousands of regular Wehrmacht soldiers who spent time as prison and camp guards, and who participated right alongside SS units when they committed planned atrocity and genocide.
    ( I thank my good friend Dr. Robert Larson at Lycoming College for his research in this area during his many travels to Germany over the past years ).

    It is not my contention that all who take part in groups representing German Units are either neo-Nazis or in any way condone the actions of the units they portray.

    At the same time, it is simply impossible to separate the the two completely.

    Bill Hawkes

  2. Don King says:

    “At the same time, it is simply impossible to separate the the two completely.”

    If its impossible for you to separate a re-enactor from the entity that he or she is reenacting your ability to make even the most coarse distinctions borders on pathetic. It is intellectually dishonest and you know it.

    Is the person that dresses up as Thomas Jefferson at colonial Williamsburg condoning slavery?

  3. William Hawkes says:

    Dear Don –

    My, you are a bit harsh here… disagreeing with me is fine , but “pathetic” ? .

    Really now.

    It is certainly true that each any every person that one might choose to represent has some flaws, as do we all.

    In the case of Jefferson, that was true as well. He owned slaves. He was also deeply in debt. his personal and political relationships were not always what we might consider the best.

    He grew up in a society that condoned slavery, but his writings and other contributions to the government that we now enjoy paved the way for the abolition of slavery, and for the creation of a free society.

    When one dresses in the image of Jefferson ( or perhaps Washington as well ) , we celebrate the efforts they put forth to create the United States; we do not do so to celebrate those aspects of their character of which we ( legitimately ) find fault.

    And everyone understands this.

    When you re-enact in the dress of the SS, it is very different. With the exception of martial skill, there is nothing to redeem a member of the SS.
    WE are talking about a group whose sole purpose in life was to destroy and enslave.

    And everyone understands that as well.

    There is a line here, a tipping point if you will. We may disagree exactly where that line should be drawn. Personally, re-enacting a unit of regular Wehrmacht unit is perhaps acceptable ( though many veterans or surviving victims of German aggression may well disagree ), but an SS unit is in my mind crossing the line.

    I would ask you to note my comments on the Citino site, with specific reference to the Book ‘Wargames’ by Jenny Thompson. Note her comments after spending much time with re-enactor units of both US and German units.

    Thank you for your comments.


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