Robert A. Slayton: Reenacting Evil






Robert A. Slayton is professor of history at Chapman University and the author of, among other books, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.

In the midst of last year’s election season, the website of the Atlantic revealed that Richard Iott, then Republican nominee for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, had an unusual hobby. He liked to dress in SS uniforms.

Iott is not, in either his political or recreational capacity, a neo-Nazi. Rather, he is a World War II reenactor, one of thousands of Americans who devote extraordinary amounts of time and resources to the meticulous simulation of key moments from that war....

There is something decidedly not innocent about innocent Nazi-play, even if those involved have no philosophical affinity with the Third Reich. In fact, there is something altogether unsatisfying in the very claim of innocence, no matter how sterling the non-fascist credentials of the reenactor. To articulate what that something is, one needs a fuller sense of what purpose such battle reenactments serve....

...Someone—in fact, many—must play the Nazi. And they must embrace the role, which means more than donning the correct regalia, including swastikas and SS runes. It means singing German military songs, for example, and generally composing oneself in a way that reflects an accurate understanding of SS culture. To consider that some type of camaraderie is built up among American reenactors singing “Deutschland über Alles” is to recognize signs of a fatal flaw in the reenactors’ claim that they exist outside of ideology....

This is a phenomenon that does not apply in the same way to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or World War I. But to the fighting forces of the Third Reich, regard for the aesthetics of Nazism was fetishist in nature. A “deep-rooted fascination” with Nazi fashion, art, and song was the nationalist focal point of a self-deifying culture that sought to exterminate those who did not measure up. Among today’s neo-Nazis, a similar infatuation with this Reich-defined standard of aesthetic virtue prevails....



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