An Ohio congressional candidate turns out to have been a Nazi reenactor, though he claims he only did it as “a father-son bonding thing.” (WTF)? I grew up in Confederate War reenactment territory, but this strikes even me as really weird.

I spent ten years of my childhood in Tennessee and Virginia. For most of that I lived I Richmond, the once and current capital of the Confederacy. The city’s beautiful Monument Avenue has statues to Confederate generals (and one recent addition, of Arthur Ashe), and the city is dotted with other memorials or institutions devoted to Confederate history. I knew a few people in high school who were into Civil War reenactment. For those unfamiliar with it, this doesn’t involve buying black people, attacking federal institutions, dying of dysentery, or coming home to find your modest pre-war life reduced to ashes; rather it means dressing up in grey uniforms and pretending to fight Civil War battles.

For the people I knew, it wasn’t a matter of keeping ancient grievances alive; Civil War reenactments were more like a hunting or fishing, a hobby that got you outdoors and away from the women. And it wasn’t particularly political: it wasn’t a gateway drug to joining the Klan or agitating for reparations for Southern slave-owners, any more than going to Renaissance faires leads to a belief in monarchy or droit du seigneur. (Though New Republic writer Ed Kigore, “a white southerner old enough to remember the final years of Jim Crow, when every month was Confederate History Month,” once suggested organizing “a Neo-Confederate History Month that draws attention to the endless commemorations of the Lost Cause that have wrought nearly as much damage as the Confederacy itself.”)

There are lots of other kinds of reenactors around: there are even hilarious reenactments of the American Revolution.

But this strikes me as pretty different from dressing up in a Waffen SS uniform and marching around. Even Germans in Germany don’t do this; I haven’t seen arguments that participants here in the States tend to be Germanic-American. It also seems to me a lot harder to disentangle tacit endorsement of the politics of National Socialism from reenactment, particularly when you choose to imitate members of an especially fanatical and murderous component of the Nazi machine. (Granted, their uniforms were fabulous, but still, what’s wrong with the Wehrmacht?) While you can make some exculpatory argument that at least some Confederate soldiers and officers fought to defend their homeland, and weren’t mainly motivated by a desire to preserve slavery (an argument that really cannot be made about the leaders of the Confederacy– for all the whitewash about states’ rights and so forth, they really were about slavery first and foremost), it’s harder to make a similar argument about the Waffen SS: they thought of themselves as a vicious elite. Imitating them says something.

Finally, for those for whom World War II games on XBox just aren’t enough, there are lots of alternatives to pretending to be part of a regiment that cleared the Lodz ghetto. The WWII Historical Reenactment Society has a list of reenactment units around the country. There are a lot of them, and they reveal some interesting national differences. The British reenactors are mainly commando units. The Americans are all over the place, in terms of the branches and types of groups– heck, there’s even a homefront reeanactment group. There don’t seem to be any Japanese reenactment groups (which tells us something about the degree to which wartime Japanese are still regarded as more of an Other than the Nazis). Given that you could join the pretend 81st Airborne or the Royal Marines or the SAS, it’s especially interesting that most of the German reenactors are Panzer divisions, and in a vaguely sinister twist, a non-trivia number of them are SS.

Finally, this bit of comparison didn’t make me feel any better:

Local Tea Party organizer Bill Zouhary told The Blade Saturday that it was important to focus on what Mr. Iott stands for, which is smaller government and a move away from the types of big-spending policies that could result in hyperinflation, or a revisit of 1930s Germany.

“I thank God there are people like him to run. This isn’t an issue about Nazis; this is an issue about what’s going on in Washington,” he said. “The re-enactments, if anything, would bring to light what happens when you end up with an economy which is very similar to the economy we have now, which opened the door for a dictator like Hitler.”

Ah, historical comparisons.

Update: Hitler responds.

Hitler’s take on the whole Rich Iott reenactment thing. from James Urbaniak on Vimeo.