Portraying German Soldiers of WW2
To spend several days as guests on an active military base portraying the soldiers of 1944 who fought the Battle of the Bulge is a privilege. Regardless of the uniform worn, we bear a responsibility to conduct ourselves in a manner that mirrors those men as best we can.
That makes us accountable. We owe that to those who served in 1944, to the veterans who are active in the hobby, and we owe it to those serving in uniform today, especially our hosts at Fort Indiantown Gap. And regardless of what got us started in this hobby, our investment of time becomes pointless without honoring the veterans, educating the public (that includes ourselves) and having fun doing all of that. I believe success is defined as doing all three at the same time.
That seems as if it can be challenging enough, and surely it is. However, to portray the defeated enemy (of 1944 – Germany is an ally and partner today) carries all of those responsibilities and more.
As the Axis Commander for this event, I am answerable for how each of you portrays German soldiers of 1944. If we get any of it wrong, we are subject to twice the scrutiny of our friends in the opposing forces and it can come from any and all directions: the media, the public, the survivors of the war and their descendants, our hosts and even our own public institutions.
Getting it “right” involves many obligations:
1. Provide The Sobering Contrast.
The public mission of Allied reenactors has far more impact and poignancy when people can see what they were up against. Our presence provides that foil. Part of supplying that contrast is as simple as avoiding both contemporary and modern “Americanisms” such as American slang and informality. The comportment of the average European of the era was different from Americans and varied tremendously even within Europe. Family life, work, economics, education, politics, and society were all very different.
2. Avoid Fiction. Stick To Facts.
Keep our impressions clear of the caricatures and clichés produced by Hollywood and lazy historians that have crept into portrayals of history. The reality is that none of that was prescribed by the Wehrmacht’s command manual, Truppenführung.
Note in particular paragraph #12:
“Leaders must live with their troops and share in their dangers and deprivations, their joys and sorrows. Only thus can they acquire a first-hand knowledge of the combat capabilities and needs of their soldiers. Out of such a foundation grows genuine comradeship, which is as important between the leaders and the men as it is among the men themselves.”
I expect re-enactor leaders to be good leaders. Be responsible for the men registered for the event under your command.
We carry our obligation to the facts with us into the field as well. In the words of British historian John Laffin, even their bitterest foes will grudgingly admit that the German of WWII was a “bloody good soldier.” But he was obviously not invincible. We should engage our “opponents” using authentic tactics of the time and always “take our hits.”
3. Don’t “Whitewash” History.
Every nation in the world entered what historian Piers Brendon called “The Dark Valley” of the 1930’s. None of them did all the right things all the time. But collectively, enough nations did enough of the right things to pull the rest of the world out of that valley and in doing so, gave the world a better chance for the future.
The larger issue of Axis responsibility is beyond the scope of this event, and it is not the task of re-enactors to sort through issues that have challenged the best minds in the world for decades. Make no mistake, the records of their own governments clearly show the depravity that controlled the Axis nations was simply staggering. Administering justice in 1945 was clearest when culling the obvious orchestrators, but has proven to be a far more complicated challenge beyond them.
We are inevitably drawn into those issues every time we encounter the public. How often have we heard, “Why are you dressed like a Nazi?” before we can even shake someone’s hand? In our effort to portray the defeated, it is not unusual to find an uncomfortable compassion for the average people who faced awful choices and did not always choose well. That is when we discover just how fragile freedom and justice can be. But be careful not to blur the difference between an explanation and an excuse – we will lose immeasurable credibility.
And while I’ve focused on the “German” re-enactors in my comments, ALL re-enactors have an obligation to “get it right.” Because we portray average soldiers, we become the repositories for so much of the details that determined their everyday lives. Even decades into this event, I am still learning things I overlooked or didn’t know.
Over seventy years have passed since the real Unternehmen Wacht Am Rein, popularly known today as “The Battle of the Bulge.” The battle’s veterans who are still alive today are in their upper 80’s and older. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, WWII veterans were all around me and their stories went largely undiscovered. Now there are so few and it seems like the work so many have done to preserve their experience will unfortunately remain unfinished.
Perhaps that is their most poignant yet subtle to gift to us: that our journey of discovery will never truly end and therefore we will never really stop learning.
It is with this in mind that I ask all of you, Allied and Axis, when our field exercise is over and your weariness, thirst and cold are nagging at you, to remember that you’ve done this for only a few hours and you have a fresh uniform, a warm bed and a hot meal waiting for you.
The veterans of the real battle are now almost gone. Please do your part to see that some of that work to preserve their experience is a little less unfinished.