Observations (& Some Theories) on WWII Memory

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Modern Day WWII Reenactment.

Sometimes when history pops up in current events, a specific topic or era occurs en masse. This past week or so, I couldn’t help but notice there have been several stories about World War II, specifically the Nazis. Most of the news stories relate one way or another to tell how people involved in that movement or era is remembered. First there was the former SS officer discovered in Minnesota, a recovered diary of a Nazi Party leader was released, a German bomber was raised from the depths of the English Channel and then today I see there is a WWII re enactment with both Germans and Allies down the street in Greendale. When you combine this with the recent commemoration of D-Day, there is a lot of World War II memory going on.

It is interesting to me that when you look at the pictures from the Greendale Reenactment, there are young men dressed as German soldiers. This era of reenactments is new to me but it struck me as interesting that this is occurring when former Nazis (94 years old) are still being hunted for their wartime activities. But after a little research, further discernment and discussion it remains a strange phenomenon, but not wrong. That said, check out this link to a reenactment in Peoria, IL. Something does not sit entirely right, but I admit it might just be me as I am not a big fan of any type of reenactment.

1939 Photo showing Wehrmacht soldiers at rest in Poland.

1939 Photo showing Wehrmacht soldiers at rest in Poland.

Many involved in WWII portrayals make a clear distinction between Nazi SS re-enactors and a Wehrmacht soldier. They are not the same thing. Then I asked my two sons who are my resident experts on war and its memory. After I mentioned we would attend the local reenactment today, I asked if it was ok to wear German uniforms in battle. After commenting how cool German gear was, the 7 year old said, of course it is ok “because it reports a war we had and it remembers our veterans and how they fought the bad guys.” My 10 year continued in a “its so obvious tone”, that “Adolf Hitler was the leader, I think the regular soldiers had no choice” whether they joined the army. Great points, indeed. Perhaps these reenactments are good to clarify who was fighting and why some fought as there is not one similar answer for every soldier (I wonder how much interpretation of the difference between German soldiers occurs at these reenactments). This BBC link provides a very interesting account of why two Germans fought in WWII.

Much like the question of why Northern and Southern soldiers fought in the Civil War, we can’t make sweeping judgments or assumptions on past eras. This is something I struggle with at times, especially when it comes to moral questions that appear so clear cut through the 20/20 vision of our generation’s eyes. But rather, we should take the time to use the voices of the present (if available) along with the sources dug up from the past to make reasonable conclusions. The past week has provided us great new sources to help further explain the German perspective through a written source, artifacts and I am sure testimony from the accused SS officer. I suppose enjoying an interpretation of the past through an re-enactment can be a good way to help clarify, illustrate and ask more questions from what we learn through written and visual sources.

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Lingering Questions:

  • I do wonder what current WWII veterans think of these reenactments. Are they flattered by the portrayal?
  • What do they think of German portrayal?
  • And were there similar reactions from Yankee veterans who may have seen Confederate reenactors during their lifetime?
  • Is my hesitance towards these battle reenactments due to the fact I know veterans who fought in the war so there is the idea, I can get the real thing, why see others try it? And will that change when they sadly, all pass away?

All questions I look forward to investigating.

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UPDATE

The American Lookout seen above the kiln was my sons' favorite reenactment.

The American Lookout seen above the kiln was my sons’ favorite reenactment.

My family and I went to the WWII Reenactment at Trimborn Farms and all of us really enjoyed it. I think the fact we all knew veterans who fought in the war and you could see their black and white photographs in living color helps. My sons loved the vehicles, gear and variety of uniforms which included portrayals of the US Army and Navy, Pacific Air Corps, British Commandos, and Germans. It seems, one reenact or said, most veterans appreciate the serious-minded portrayals too, especially the forgotten Vets of the Korean War.

After listening to the reenactor stories I asked most how they got into WWII reenacting. The older guys (Both US and German) said they started out as Civil War soldiers but either were bored by it or tired of the “politics” of that genre. The Germans made it clear that they “were not portraying Nazis” but qualified that by the truthful assertion that Hitler was popular in the 1930s and to be successful in almost any endeavor, one had to be a member of the local Nazi party. But one American soldier said, “Ask the Germans to speak German, that drives me crazy that none can.”

Like most reenactors, most do it to get a feel of the uniforms, the power of a weapon, the camaraderie of a unit

German Reenactors at Trimborn Farms.

German Reenactors at Trimborn Farms.

. In the process the public can come out and gain hands on information. There were, for example, elaborate set ups that included field communications, an Army Chaplain tent, and Pacific Head Quarters. Those are awesome experiences you cannot get in a text book.

So what does all this mean? I was really impressed by this non-combat reenactment. Apparently there is a huge combat event in Rockford, IL where Americans, British, Germans, Russians and Japanese fight. I bet it would be cool to gain an idea of the sound and sights of some of these weapons in action. It could be interesting to see the soldiers in action too. A former Yankee, turned German soldier commented that WWII reenactment battles are more fun because you have more freedom to maneuver than in a CW unit.

Veterans clearly support and are honored by these events but I would like to hear from a veteran, their perspective on German reenactors. I have some WWII family members who spoke fondly and some not so fondly of the Germans after their experiences. One even talked of singing with German soldiers after their surrender in Italy in 1945. He probably would not have an issue at all. On the other hand, there was an universal dislike for Japanese soldiers by my WWII veteran relatives.what would they think of seeing Japanese reenactors “fighting” in Illinois?

One other point is that a “German” told me today that Germany does not allow Nazi-era WWII reenactments to occur in Germany. Nazi symbols are illegal. They do not want to erase their history as much try to eliminate any chance of that era occurring again. It is interesting that it appears Germany does not remove the politics of that time period but we do. Again, I don’t think German reenactment is wrong. I felt the intrigue of stepping into the German camp and seeing the weaponry and uniforms Americans fought. It just has raised a lot of questions, of which some were answered by seeing it for myself. Others may be answered as the WW2 reenactments grow in frequency and size.

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On a side note, from my quick “research” today, it appears Civil War memory is taking a hit on the reenactment front. Is this representative of the Civil War’s place in our memory? Perhaps WWII reenactments will be the norm and Civil War may dwindle in frequency and popularity. I hope there is room for both.

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