Confederates on the Rhine

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Why are so many Germans participating in Civil War reenactments—and siding with the South?

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"On a warm spring morning about 50 miles north of Berlin, Union troops and their Confederate rivals prepare for battle." That's the attention-grabbing lede of a PRI story on the bizarre phenomenon of Germans reenacting the American Civil War. The reporter explains that many participants feel "a personal connection to the war," and that everyone with whom she spoke took care to note that 200,000 Germans had taken part in the fight:

After World War II, any talk of military glory became socially taboo here...So for those at the reenactment, it is appealing that the U.S. Civil War took place in another country, in another time. It is safer, even romantic.   

But the two parties to the fraternal conflict exert unequal appeal. When Germans gather at the reenactments, "more people want to be on the Confederate side." That produces a surreal spectacle. Germans marching about in butternut and gray, pretending to dwell in Dixie. With Teutonic precision, they have replicated every detail, down to the brass buttons and the brightly colored piping on their trousers.   

They have missed only one thing. In their search for an anodyne conflict, lacking the baggage of their historical wars of mastery, these Germans have taken a wrong turn. The units they prefer to recreate fought to preserve an abhorrent system that kept more than three million men, women, and children in bondage while denying their very humanity. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens famously explained the essential principle of his new nation:

its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

There is no escape from this uncomfortable truth. And unlike their American counterparts, most Confederate reenactors in Germany cannot claim to be honoring their ancestors or their heritage. There were, in fact, some 200,000 Germans who fought in the war. But by donning Confederate gray, they are betraying their legacy, not preserving it. 

"Take the [Germans] out of the Union Army and we could whip the Yankees easily," Robert E. Lee allegedly remarked. The quote, likely apocryphal, captures an important fact. Immigrants born in Germanic lands were enormously overrepresented in the Union Army. By one estimate, 176,817 donned the army blue, half again as many as their share of the overall population would have predicted. Other reliable estimates range as high as 216,000. And adding in the descendants of earlier generations of German immigrants would more than triple that total. The Germans, one contemporary judged, understood "from the beginning, the aim and the end of the civil war, [and] they have embraced the cause of the Union and emancipation with an ardor and a passion."   

If the German reenactors actually "model their characters in the reenactments after...German immigrant soldiers," as they explained to the reporter that they do, then those who wear gray have their work cut out for them. Less than 10 percent of the Germans immigrants in the United States, scarcely 70,000, dwelt in the entire territory controlled by the Confederacy at the outbreak of the war. Many fled north, with perhaps 2,000 joining the Union Army. Hundreds of those who remained petitioned the consuls of German states for protection from the draft. There were certainly some ardent secessionists, and even a few slaveholders, and between 3,500 and 7,000 Germans may have served in the Confederate Army. But of that number, many were conscripted, a large number deserted, and some mutinied. "The German minority of the South," one scholar concluded, "was all but insignificant politically, economically, and militarily during the American Civil War."  

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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