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