Today makes 145 years since Pickett’s Charge and the defeat of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was one of the most important days in United States history, the climax of the American Civil War, the turning point that, along with Grant’s victory at Vicksburg a day later, galvanized the Union and spurred them on to victory against the South. For those like me who come down on the side of the Federals, it is a day to celebrate; for those whose sympathies lie with those lousy, rotten Secesh, not so much.
Lovers of history commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg in many ways. Some might pile the family into the car and make the trip to the little Pennsylvania town where the battlefield still stands, a national park now, decorated with monuments and museums, surrounded by gaudy tourist traps. Others might be satisfied with just sitting on the couch watching the History Channel, popping in their DVD of Ken Burns’s The Civil War series, or cracking open their copy of Shelby Foote’s history of the conflict to the relevant section and reading it over again to themselves like a tragic and blood-soaked bedtime story. There are still others, though, for whom neither the visit to Gettysburg nor the quiet reflection are quite enough. These guys (and they are almost all guys) don their authentic Union or Confederate uniforms, grab their muskets and flags, maybe a nice hunk of salt-pork or some hard-tack, and gather together to reenact the battle.
As my friend and co-conspirator Varjak asked in a piece he wrote for his website two years ago, why would anyone want to reenact the Civil War? It’s a good question. Why would anyone want to reenact the Civil War — especially when it’s for no larger purpose — nobody’s making a film, it’s not one of those living history things — just a bunch of guys in costumes, marching around, pretending to kill each other? Throw in a set of six-sided dice and it’s exactly the sort of thing I make fun of D&D nerds for doing all the time. Only it’s a little more disturbing. The Civil War actually happened. Tens of thousands of people actually died, it tore the country apart. I don’t think, as an adult, I’d want to play dress-up and pretend to participate in one of the bloodiest and most tragic conflicts in human history, just for kicks.
Varjak made another observation in his piece: “If some guys got together and reenacted the signing of the Treaty Of Ghent, people would think they were nuts.” I got to thinking . . . do they do this in other countries? Are there reenactors in Britain? In France? Do Belgians get together on weekends, dig trenches and relive the fun of the Battle of Flanders? I doubt it. No one who’s ever heard that John McCrae poem could seriously play at war with all those poppies around — you’d feel way too guilty.
So I looked into it. Historical reenactment is practiced all over the world, but it’s usually in the form of something like a Renaissance Fair or a medieval-style joust. I found a few other organizations, like the Company of St. George, that do military-themed living history programs, but that weren’t quite like the casual hobbyists we have here in the U.S., who seem to do it mostly for fun.
Then, thanks to that bottomless well of wisdom, Wikipedia, I hit the jackpot. It turns out people in other countries reenact their wars, too. I took this as a relief. At least it’s not an embarrassing American idiosyncrasy, like our deference to fundamentalist Christianity; it’s a bad habit we share with the rest of the world, like our deference to fundamentalist Islam.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I’ve discovered groups from all over the globe (though mostly here in the U.S.) that get together to pretend to participate in horrific battles from all eras of human history. For fun. There’s The Spartans, who reenact the Battle of Thermopylae (thanks, 300). There’s The Vikings! Of Middle England, who bring to life all the rousing enjoyment of the Dark Ages! There’s Kompania Wolontarska, which recreates great battles in Polish history — and I don’t suppose that one needs any more editorializing from me. There’s The English Civil War Society, which reenacts the — you can probably guess. And every year there are massive reenactments of the Battle of Hastings in England, and the Battle of Waterloo on the original site, so I guess the Belgians are reenactors afterall.
Some folks also get together to reenact more recent wars, like World War II or the Korean War. No shit. People actually get together in places like Florida and pretend they are fighting in the Korean War. It’s the WWII reenactors that I find a bit creepier. But why should that be? Wasn’t that the good war, the noble war, the necessary war — the war without all the bothersome moral quandaries that have plagued subsequent conflicts to this very day? Yes. But I never said they were all reenacting for our side. It’s not the guys pretending to land on Omaha Beach that weird me out — it’s the guys dressing up like members of the Waffen-SS.
The members of the 9th Waffen-SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen Reenactment Society are aware of how troubling their group is to people like me. They even made it the second question on their FAQ: “What are you guys, a bunch of Nazis?”
. . . [W]e never use the German raised arm “Heil Hitler” salute or anything that can be construed as being political. That aspect of the time period and of Nazi Germany is of little interest to us as a whole. In an abstract sense, if one were to think of what we are doing as being a “real-life” video game. To follow that train of thought, one may choose to “play” the German forces in a video game and not be thought of as a closet Nazi. We also would like to think that same logical, reasoned approach is extended to us.
At least these guys have a smidgeon of self-awareness and aren’t trying to rationalize their questionable hobby in any way.
I’m aware of the strain of admiration for the Nazi army that exists among American historians. It’s not the politics they admire, goes the excuse. It’s not the genocide, the fascism, the white supremacy — it’s the tactical acumen, the precision and efficiency of the German army that are so highly regarded. That sounds fair. I think it’s possible to express admiration for Hitler’s army on a purely technical basis without being a Nazi.
And on a purely practical level, if nobody pretends to be the Nazis, who are the guys pretending to be the Allies going to pretend to fight? I’d probably feel better about the whole thing if there weren’t people like this guy running around, taking the whole thing way too seriously.