I don't want to leave the Rich Iott controversy without addressing the question that has been filling up my in-box: What's so bad about Nazi re-enactments? I'd have thought the answer obvious, and to most people it is. But I've gotten a lot of email from re-enactors upset to see their hobby being condemned. So, with some outside help, I want to take a stab at explaining.
Their main defense--it's also Iott's defense--is that donning Nazi uniforms and pretending to fight is somehow "educational" and reflects only an interest in history. The problem with this defense is that it's categorically false, because these re-enactments downplay or simply ignore the most historically significant fact about the Nazis: the Holocaust. I spent a good deal of time on the Wiking website, the outfit that Iott was part of, and didn't once see the words "Holocaust" or "Jew." Yes, there was a pro forma disclaimer that Nazis did some bad things. But the thrust of the "history" presented therein was devoted to glorifying the exploits and implicitly excusing the atrocities of the Waffen SS soldiers. Worse, a number of re-enactors have chastised me for quoting actual academic historians because, as one of them put it, "historians of the winning side always write history the way they see it," and only they--the grown men earnestly playing soldier in the forest--are the true authorities on Nazism. It's this perversion of history that's so troubling.
Since the story broke, two legitimate academic historians who have far more experience with reenactors and Nazi history than I do wrote in to express similar concerns. One was Rob Citino of the University of North Texas, quoted in my original piece, who laid out his thoughts in this fascinating column about how certain people develop "an adolescent crush" on Nazi history, which he witnesses through his own fondness for board games (it turns out many of them are devoted to Nazi history). The other correspondent was Andrea Orzoff, who teaches Central and East European history at New Mexico State University, and draws an important distinction between those who deny the Holocaust and others who simply aren't interested in it. She's kindly given me permission to publish her email, and I'll let this be the last word:
I think most of us understand the Holocaust denial movement as comprised mainly of its worst, noisiest, most extreme fringe -- the folks who yell about a "Holo-hoax" and claim that Germany, and the West, were victims of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to set up the Jews as martyrs. They're revolting, that little gang, but they're few and far between, and they're so desperate for media attention that they're relatively easy to keep tabs on.
But in fact there are far more people out there like Rich Iott. They don't specifically deny the Holocaust; they'd just rather not think about it too much. They're more interested in the Nazi perpetrators, whom they see as cool -- powerful, purposeful, casually and overwhelmingly violent, glamorous, almost sexy.
If they think at all about Nazi policy, or about the ideology to which the people who originally wore those uniforms pledged loyalty, they tend to focus either on military strategy or domestic policy. In this portrait, the Nazis reestablished unity, order, and an appealingly traditionalist set of family and gender roles (at least nominally). They managed an astonishing set of early victories against significant odds and stood down the Communist threat: again, nominally, but the facts aren't what matter here. The fact that neither domestic policy nor military strategy can be divorced from Nazi genocidal intentions -- that it was all for the protection of the Volksgemeinschaft, the idealized Nazi racial community, and all threats to that community needed to be eliminated -- gets waved away, or just misunderstood.
I'm not calling Iott a Holocaust denier, not in the classic sense of that word. But I think it's fair to think of him as a Holocaust minimizer, at the gentler end of the denial continuum but still undeniably present on that spectrum. People like Iott, seemingly just a geek running around in uniform on the weekends, share certain qualities with hardcore Holocaust deniers. Specifically, both deniers and minimizers are interested in rehabilitating Nazism, and ignoring or lying about the millions of Jewish and non-Jewish innocents the Nazis killed.
It's an ugly business, no matter how Iott tries to defend it. Much more
than just a weekend game.
Department of History
New Mexico State University
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