Hot! Ask A Reenactor: Playing the Bad Guys

My friend Robbie, dressed as a Cossack volunteer in the German army in WWII.

“How do people handle being “the bad guys” – like Nazis in WWII reenactment? (I imagine this particular case can be highly sensitive.) When people spend so much time/money/care on uniforms and etc, it must raise some questions about their choices. What is the community view of such things?”

This is another very, very common question. However, unlike some of the others, its answer is not so straightforward. For sake of ease, I’m going to break this into segments.

Someone’s gotta play the bad guys.

You can’t accurately portray WWII without the Nazis, the American Revolution without the British, or the Civil War without the Confederates. Most reenacting is based around various conflicts, which means that there’s always going to have to be someone playing “the bad guys”.

Some reenactors enjoy portraying the losing side.

Marc is one such reenactor. If you look at his impressions, almost all of them are from the losing side. He plays a German for WWII, A Frenchman for the Algerian War, a Republican for the Spanish Civil War, a Czarist for the Russian Civil War, a Confederate for the American Civil War, and a Loyalist and British Redcoat for the American Revolution. Some reenactors feel that since the winners are usually the ones who write history, that it’s important to humanize the losers by educating the public about them.

A reenactor portraying a WWII German soldier guards another reenactor, portraying a captured Soviet soldier.

Most reenactors do not espouse the beliefs of the people they portray.

Marc isn’t a monarchist and I’m not a fascist, but that doesn’t stop us from portraying them. Some reenactors do lean in the general direction of their impressions, but they’re never as extreme (for instance, though I love portraying WWII Soviet communists, my personal beliefs are more in line with Scandinavian socialism).  If you were to ask reenactors about their motivations for choosing a particular impression, I can guarantee you that the beliefs and politics of the person they portray would be somewhere near the bottom of the list.  While it does matter to some, they are in a very, very small minority.

Some impressions are discouraged, and reenactors who choose them are regarded with suspicion.

While portraying an SS member is generally regarded as okay within the WWII reenacting community, a unit that portrays concentration camp guards would find themselves uninvited to most events. While there is a range of opinion on what constitutes an “appropriate” impression vs. an “inappropriate” one, most reenactors do have a pretty good sense of what should and shouldn’t be portrayed, and judge other units accordingly.

My friend Bren, dressed as a Chinese Communist soldier from the Korean War.

It’s all about how far you take it.

If someone is dressed in an SS uniform but seems to be aware of the symbolism it carries and acts with respect to that, it’s fine. If someone portrays a Confederate soldier but socializes with folks of all races, it’s fine. When you see an SS reenactor who also sports SS-themed tattoos or who drives a car with a bumper sticker that announces their reenacting unit allegiance, it’s time to start worrying. If a Confederate reenactor starts talking about “The War of Northern Aggression”, it’s time to start worrying.

Some reenactors choose an impression because they like the clothes or equipment.

I know of many reenactors who initially chose to do a German impression because they thought that the uniforms were cool looking (they were designed by Hugo Boss, after all). I chose to do a Vietcong impression because the clothes are extremely comfortable. Marc has chosen to do a Czarist impression because he likes the uniform. Some reenactors choose to do an impression because they want an excuse to own a particular firearm. Every reenactor has their own reasons for choosing each impression, but for most, personal beliefs do not play into the decision much, if at all.

My friend Will, dressed as a fallschirmjager officer from the German army in WWII.

Reenactors are pretty good at self-policing.

Reenactors who seem to be too fanatical often get a reputation as such rather quickly, and once such a reputation has become established, it’s difficult for them to find a unit that will accept them. In all likelihood, any unit that *does* accept them is already full of such types, and thus probably isn’t invited to all that many events. Have I met these types? Most certainly. Are they common? Not very.

To summarize:

The reenacting community recognizes that someone has to play the bad guys, and reenactors know that someone’s chosen impression isn’t necessarily a reflection of their personal beliefs. However, the community is also quite vigilant when it comes to watching for more questionable members, and is quick to ostracize them from the hobby.

9 Comments

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  1. Its hard to have a German reenacting boyfriend sometimes, but a little explanation to family, friends, etc can go a long way. I’m not so sure if bumper stickers is too much. He has a few WW2 related stickers and unit sticker on his car, I think, but I have several Rev War ones on mine… so… I don’t really see much of a difference.

  2. Even though I am Jewish, I still cannot condemn all WW2 German soldiers for the Nazi Holocaust, or even for the many atrocities the WW2 German Army itself committed.

    This is because not all WW2 German soldiers were Hitler’s willing executioners or Nazis. The WW2 Wehrmacht also had a great many soldiers that were completely innocent draftees, who were conscripted and forced to serve.

    It is well known that the Nazis under Hitler killed six million Jews and five million non-Jews. But it is very little known the Soviet Communists under Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s, created an artificial famine that starved to death an estimated seven million Ukrainians. Stalin killed even more people than Hitler.

    However, likewise not all Soviet soldiers were not Communists. Many of the Soviet soldiers during WW2, hated the Communist system and Joseph Stalin, but bravely fought against the Nazi invasion to defend their Russian motherland. And of course, many Soviet soldiers in the Red Army were not Communists, but also were innocent draftees.

    Legitimate WW2 reenactment units that do the German Army do have rules to screen out neo-Nazis and and other kinds of hate group members who would otherwise want to join. Members of WW2 German reenacting groups are understandably not allowed to wear their reenacting uniforms outside of the WW2 reenacting area. There are even Jews who join these reenacting groups.

  3. I do ww2 reenacting as a member of the 2nd panzer division we are pioneers or engineers some people at events get the wrong idea about someone who portrays the “bad guys” I joined because my uncles have fought in the waffen SS, Wehrmacht and other branches

  4. Comparing someone who believes in the fact the confederacy had the constitutional right to secede, and that the federal government entirely over seeped it bounds, to a neo nazi is just a little ridiculous.

  5. For me, joining a German HEER unit at 14 (8 years ago, haha), just felt natural. I’ve always been drawn to learning about the under dog, the side of the conflict who everyone else shuns and avoids. Whether it’s the confederacy in the War Between the States, the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, or the Wehrmacht in WWII. is I was picked on a lot as a kid for being different, IE History nerd, “Smart Kid,” etc. I saw myself as the under dog who was often misunderstood by people because they did not care to get to know me. See the parallel?

    At the same time I found that doing things that rattled peoples’ cages was fun. I would always get a kick out of the people who say “why would you even wear something like that!” or “how could you possibly be interested in owning NAZI memorabilia” and so on. I think too many people these days are thin skinned and should spend less time being “offended” at things they have no understanding of and ask questions instead and LEARN. These days I love studying the era I reenact and the unit I portray, I love my unit even more and I would never consider us to be extremists in any shape form or fashion.

  6. I joined once a german reenactment group, but I left it after one training… They were all good guys, a part one who shared on facebook pictures of zyklon b (the infamous gas of the death chambers), a day shared a pile of orange agent bombs, writing that he wouldn’t mind killing some.. The worst was when he posted a picture of his bed room.. with a nazi flag hanging on the wall. That’s all.

  7. Can a latino join wwii german reenactment?

  8. I have a problem with this post our view of a bad guy is the side we are not on,like my group is a union regiment and so I view the confederates as the bad guys but if the confederates don’t have some people show up we put on gray jackets and join the confederates now the union is the bad guy and I know it will drive some reannactors crazy that we have blue hats gray coat us belt Buckle and blue pants think about this the confederates where rag tag uniformed troops unless you where high up in the ranks you probably would take things from a union solder there for we are not farbs