Candidate's Nazi Reenactments Fuel Heated Debate

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Last Friday, The Atlantic's Josh Green reported a controversial discovery about Republican Congressional nominee Rich Iott: a military history and reenactment buff, Iott "for years donned a German Waffen SS uniform and participated in Nazi re-enactments":

Iott, whose district lies in Northwest Ohio, was involved with a group that calls itself Wiking, whose members are devoted to re-enacting the exploits of an actual Nazi division, the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, which fought mainly on the Eastern Front during World War II. ... When contacted by The Atlantic, Iott confirmed his involvement with the group over a number of years, but said his interest in Nazi Germany was historical and he does not subscribe to the tenets of Nazism.

The Wiking site, however, "makes scant mention of the atrocities committed by the Waffen SS," and, though it includes a disclaimer regarding Nazi ideology, it also calls the Nazis "idealists" and "emphasizes how the Wiking unit fought Bolshevist Communism." Even as some of the right-leaning blogosphere defends Iott, saying it's unfair to accuse him of being a Nazi sympathizer since he has also done plenty of other reenactments, critics insist that this is letting him off the hook too easily. Meanwhile, Republican politicians are distancing themselves from Iott, and have removed his name from their "Young Guns" website, further angering conservatives who feel there is "nothing extremist about military reenactment."

In Defense of Iott

  • 'Guilty of Being Little More Than a Giant History Nerd,' judges Newsweek's Daniel Stone, one of the few mainstream journalists to take this position.
To prove that he's an equal-opportunity war re-enactor, Iott also posted photos on his campaign website of him reenacting other wars, including World War I and the U.S. Civil War, for which he wore a Union Uniform. It’s also worth noting that swastikas are prohibited by the re-enactment group of which Iott is a member.
  • I Meant No Offense  "Never, in any of my re-enacting of military history, have I meant any disrespect to anyone who served in our military or anyone who has been affected by the tragedy of war, especially the Jewish Community," reads a statement on Iott's website. "... In fact, my respect for the militaryand our veterans and my concern for the victims of war is one of the reasons I have actively studied military history throughout my life."
  • 'Biased Reporting'  Ann Althouse asks, "How evil is it for a candidate to play the role of a Nazi in war reenactments?" Althouse follows up in a later post, asking rhetorically: "How evil is it for a journalist to write about that and bury--in the 13th paragraph--the news that the same man ... has also done reenactment as a Civil War Union infantryman, a World War I doughboy and a World War II American infantryman and paratrooper?" She thinks "Green should be ashamed of himself for minimizing this. ... A decent journalist would have ascertained how many war reenactments Iott has done and which roles Iott played in them."
  • Republicans Ditching Him Should Be Ashamed  Conservative blogger Dan Riehl decides Republican Eric Cantor, who repudiated Iott on Fox News, is either a "lightweight" or a "sell-out." Protests Riehl: "There is nothing extremist about military reenactment as a hobby. And it takes both sides of the battle to conduct such an activity, which is popular in all fifty states. ... The Left," at least, he adds, "doesn't bail on its candidates when they are unfairly attacked."

Recommended Reading

Except ... He's Dressing Up as a Nazi 

  • Trust Me: Reenactments Aren't Innocent  "I'm going to share my own personal experience here," writes karoli at the popular Crooks and Liars blog. "I was married to a Confederate Civil War Re-enactor for 10 years, and it is far more than an 'interest in...history.' They choose the side they're sympathetic with, for starters." The research is exhaustive, and "they don't just re-enact it. They live, eat, breathe and admire it." Iott isn't necessarily a Nazi, karoli says, but neither is it "as simple and harmless as Iott paints it. ... Don't be fooled."
  • The SS? Really?  "Iott’s explanation, strained as it is, might be slightly more convincing if he and his friends had chosen to emulate a standard unit of the German Army, or Wehrmacht" writes Jay Bookman of The Atlanta Journal Constitution. "The moral culpability of draftees conscripted into the German military is at least arguable." Instead they went for the "Waffen SS, a volunteer arm of the Nazi Party that played a prominent role in the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews and millions of other 'undesirables.'" He is also intrigued by right-wing bloggers' defense of Iott as a "victim of liberal smears. ... In other words, they’re all right with this behavior, and are willing to defend it."
  • The Two Sides to This Story  "In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that the re-enactors' website includes a disclaimer noting that they 'do not embrace the philosophies and actions' of the Nazis, and 'wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities which made them infamous,'" notes liberal Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly. But here's the big "but":
On the other hand, Iott's little troupe also said it exists in part to "salute" the "idealists" and "front-line soldiers of the Waffen-SS" and their "basic desire to be free." It also characterizes Wiking volunteers as "valiant men," overlooking the minor detail that they also rounded up Jews to be slaughtered.
  • 'The Whooshing of a Moral Vacuum'  The Guardian's Simon Jeffery is shocked by the quote from Iott in Green's piece, in which the candidate calls the Nazi takeover of "most of Europe and Russia ... from a purely historical military point of view ... incredible."
  • The Problem With Reenactments  Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic says he's all for reenactments as "a healthy tool in reaching a complete understanding of history." But he draws on his experience with Civil War reenactments, and suggests that many "are staged to do exactly the opposite, preferring to 'clean' state-sanctioned killing and excise war from the uncomfortable politics from which it emerges." Here's the problem, he explains:
I'm much better on the Civil War, than I am on World War II. But I know enough to know that this kind of hamfisted Manicheanism (Communism=tyranny, Nazism="New and Free.") is almost certainly wrong. There are people who are enamored with the tactics of war, and I get that. But then there are those who become drunk on war tactics, who want to be there--but then, not really "there." They want to go to idealized, fantasy of "there," where women waved handkerchiefs and the Waffen "gave their lives for their loved ones" and, evidently, murdered no Jews.
  • No, I'm Not Running a Retraction  "I've gotten a lot of angry emails from historical re-enactors," writes Josh Green in a followup, "including some who, like Rich Iott, dress up as Nazis, most condemning me for 'smearing' or 'demeaning' what they insist is an admirable and even an important hobby--you see, it's all about 'education.'" He declines to retract the story as some have demanded, since "Iott readily admitted to doing everything I asked him about." He also points out that the Wikings group Iott was a part of has now removed their recruitment video from the site, making him wonder if they are "quite so proud of their hobby after all." He reposts the video to let readers decide for themselves:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.