A few weeks ago on a balmy day in rural Pennsylvania, I passed up the chance to bring home a piece of Nazi Germany.
“Now this one is really special,” the seller told me, picking up a red armband with a black swastika from a case holding other armbands with slightly different swastikas. “It’s from the same unit of SS officers that were in the Night of the Long Knives, where they killed some people…” He trailed off and looked uncomfortable. The Night of the Long Knives was a three-day purge of the Nazi Party in 1934 that killed at least 85 party members Hitler considered political rivals—the last hurdle he cleared before declaring himself Führer later that summer.
“Ehhh...anyway, these are very hard to find,” the seller continued. “And you can tell from the stitching as well as this stamp here on the inside that it’s authentic. It’s $175.”
I didn’t come to the vendor area at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s World War II re-enactment weekend for the Nazi memorabilia. I came to see why thousands of people flock to an active airfield in Reading, Pennsylvania once a year to either re-live, or watch other people re-live, life across a world in chaos in 1943. I left 36 hours later having heard a lot of reasons: to honor veteran relatives, to honor veterans generally, to preserve history, to escape reality.
No one, except a few WWII fighters and an Auschwitz survivor, was there to remember the Holocaust. And no one gave a second thought to donning a German uniform, even though public displays of Nazism have been on the rise in the U.S. since right around last November 8.
On an 85-and-sunny Saturday, I walked through the main entrance, which deposited a stream of T-shirted visitors onto a gravel path between the ramshackle buildings of an occupied French village. Original WWII bombers and training prop planes buzzed around the bright-blue skies in various formations as an announcer’s voice rang across the airfield describing their maneuvers. Open-top Jeeps rumbled past holding quartets of soldiers. This re-enactment is the largest on the East Coast, so it was a little overwhelming to arrive straight into a strange mashup of past and present.
I’d heard about the event from some friends who portray German troops; one is married to a Jewish woman, who’s mentioned that she finds it unsettling. Their explanation, which I’d later hear from others, is that it’s better to acknowledge what the Germans did and take seriously the role of portraying them than to omit them from a story of which they were a key part.
Although there had been Gestapo secret police officers at this re-enactment before, there were none this year—just rank and file Wermacht troops by the hundreds, most in the understated reed-green uniforms of Heer ground troops. A few very imposing fellows wore the handsome, Hugo Boss-designed black ensembles of Panzerdivision tank operators, which include a large Iron Cross medal and lightning bolt SS collar pins.
I saw one of them for the first time about an hour after I arrived, a jarring and nauseating sight. He was strolling with a Wermacht infantryman through the vendor area, which aside from the carnivalesque fried-food trucks was the only place not decked out in historical dress. Most of what was on offer was pretty innocuous: vintage civilian clothes, uniforms of all types, medical and combat knick-knacks, knives bearing signs reminding shoppers they must be 18 years old to purchase. Nazi memorabilia represented a small but mighty contingent, maybe 20% of the merchandise, but just knowing it was there made it seem more prevalent.
A vivid, 20-foot red banner with a huge swastika emblem hung in a small booth whose proprietor, Danae, was black, like several of the vendors and almost none of the re-enactors. When Danae met her husband, who runs the business and is white, “it weirded me out a little, but I got used to it,” she said. “My parents taught me that you have to remember history not to repeat it.”
Her banner was $700 and she said at least three people had seriously considered buying it. Because eBay, Etsy, and most other large online marketplaces ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia, events like this are some of the only places collectors (as well as, vendors assured me, historians and institutions) can find this stuff in multiples greater than one.
A few booths sold contemporary items. The proprietor of the largest one told me one of his most popular items is a T-shirt with “Guantanamo Bay” on the front and “Waterboarding Instructor” on the back, with a medical cross to give it a lifeguard feel. The booth did a steady stream of business, as did one across the way that sold tin signs bearing, among other things, a Hitler Youth poster. Also popular was the fidget spinner booth; since a lot of re-enacting is just sitting around, it’s a shame this fad is too modern for the troops to use.
Instead, they spend their time performing the minutiae of combat downtime. At one of the larger American encampments, I talked to a 21-year-old named Bryan as he cleaned the components of a 1942 grenade thrower. He portrayed an armor, the man tasked with “taking care of the guns,” which his own grandfather did in the war. “My friends think I’m a little crazy but this is really important,” Bryan said. “We need to preserve history from being erased.” Considering World War II is one of the planet’s most obsessively studied historical periods, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
I found out during a chat with a Vietnam veteran named Paul, who was in Bryan’s unit. “Doing this, you learn what’s not in the books, the little details but also the stories of the people who lost,” he said. “I also do Civil War re-enactments, and it’s so sad how some people want to erase that history.” This concern, in precisely this phrasing—“erasing history”—was something I’d hear several more times over the weekend, despite the fact that the Confederate flag is likely not as historical as it defenders insist.
Re-enactors were universally friendly, particularly the ones portraying Germans, who were eager to tackle assumptions about their choice of dress. “I know it’s a fragile topic, but the fighting force was separate from the politics, the people who committed the atrocities,” said Matt, a 19-year-old I approached at golden hour as he played cards with a few friends next to a truck flying a Kriegsmarine flag (“The atrocities,” like “erasing history,” proved a memetic phrase.)
Matt was sort of right: The Nuremberg Trials cleared the Wermacht, which was made up largely of conscripted Germans, of overall criminal activity. But that was mostly a practical concern, since it would have been hard to prosecute individually millions of foot soldiers. Accordingly, historians have since dismissed that finding to argue instead that Wermacht troops were just as responsible for genocide as the Party.
No one besides Matt’s family and re-enacting friends knows about his hobby, he said. “I can tell you that the first thing I’ll have to do when I come home from this is go on Facebook and untag a bunch of photos. People don’t understand that just because you wear this uniform doesn’t mean you believe what they believed.” He told me he wants to be a police officer and knows that if photos of him dressed like a Nazi become public, he’ll never be able to pursue his dream.
As the sky darkened, a friend whisked me back to the village, to a party at the Café Napoleon for re-enactors to unwind after hours. French Resistance fighters held court around a square table, their pistols resting just beneath their hands. One of them flirted with an American nurse, both their faces illuminated by one of the dozen kerosene lamps that lit the crowded cottage. After so many days sharing their work with the public, this was the place where re-enactors finally got to live unperturbed inside a history they’ve spent so much time and money learning about. Save for the occasional phone camera flash, the transportive effect was uncanny and gorgeous.
My reveries ended when a woman stormed up to inform me that, as a spectator, I had to leave. As I walked back toward the encampment where I’d be staying that night, I noticed signs newly planted in the grass that said “Private Party—Re-enactor Wristbands Only.”
Before tucking in, I sat for an hour under the stars with a handful of German, British, and Scottish re-enactors that included a few friends. Between sing-alongs of rowdy campfire songs from the Civil War onward (like most re-enactors, they do more than just WWII events), a few indulged in some political griping. “We’re a very small minority here, and we don’t talk with the other re-enactors about politics, because they’re all Trump supporters,” one of them said, before launching into a tirade about the administration’s environmental policies. Exhausted by the rants and simmering threat of swastika confrontation, I crawled off to bed and slept surprisingly well.
Sunday began with a visit to a 9:30 a.m. Sunday Mass using a 1943 liturgy. The chaplain, in period-appropriate garb, paced across the front row and asked that we permit him some present-day commentary before he stepped into character. “In 54 countries, it’s illegal right now to be a Christian because of Islam and communism—that’s the two religions who are most offended by Christians,” he said. “By the end of the day, 10 Christians will be beheaded for their faith in Jesus Christ.” He paused to let that (baseless) statistic sink in. Acutely aware that I, a Jewish journalist, was doubly intruding, I headed to the Chinese encampment, which was the buzz of this year’s event—re-enactors are delighted anytime someone adds another historical element to the occasion.
On an expanse of flat grass a middle-aged man in a powder blue Chinese National Army uniform drilled, in Chinese, a line of 20 people dressed in the olive garb of the Imperial Japanese Army. They snapped into line and marched across the airstrip to an Allied encampment to skirmish with American forces. Fifteen minutes later the American troops were all dead or captured and a Japanese soldier climbed a watchtower to remove the Stars and Stripes and hoist the Hinomaru. The throng of spectators seemed unsure about whether to clap: It was a well-performed re-enactment, but the Americans lost.
A 45-year-old re-enactor in a Japanese uniform named Nick explained that, despite being Chinese, the platoon sometimes portrays Japanese fighters because there’s no one else to do it. Nick’s grandfather was a soldier in the Chinese National Army, so Nick grew up hearing firsthand about the extensive war crimes China suffered for decades under Japanese rule: human experimentation, chemical warfare, massacres, mass rape.
“So yes, it is hard for me to be Chinese and put on this uniform, but it’s more important for people to understand what was done to us,” he said. Spectators are rarely aware of the Japanese occupation and China’s subsequent support of the Allied forces. Sometimes onlookers think he’s Japanese or Korean; the day before someone yelled “Pearl Harbor!” at him and made a double thumbs-down.
Nick lives in New Jersey and explained unprompted that he campaigned there for Donald Trump. “I supported him because I agree with his views on immigration,” he said. “I worked hard to get here the correct way, and other people should not be able to cheat.” I asked what he thinks about Trump’s equally harsh stance on refugees fleeing Syria’s brutal civil war, which has included chemical warfare, massacres, mass rape. “I feel bad for them, of course, but we can’t just let anyone in.”
I spoke next to an 88-year-old man sitting behind a plastic folding table in the hangar, where during the day WWII veterans greeted well-wishers and signed autographs. But David was not a veteran. He survived the Holocaust, and unlike several of his neighbors, there was no line to meet him.
I asked what it’s like for him to see hundreds of young men walking around in SS uniforms. He spoke so quietly I had to lean in closely to hear his answer. “It does not bother me. I am just happy to be alive to talk to people here.”
He rolled up his sleeve to show his tattoo—141651, from the Pozen labor camp in Poland. David was 12 when he was sent there and was later relocated to Auschwitz. “I do not live with hate in my heart, because that means they will have won. Anger, yes. Hate, no.”
I knew coming in that “politics”—otherwise known as the Holocaust—was a source of discomfort for many re-enactors, whose ability to compartmentalize makes the weekend tick. In 2011 there was an uproar when a woman arrived with her three children in late-’30s clothing that included handmade yellow stars sewn onto the left breast. Some re-enactors considered it inappropriate, but she kept coming for a while in the same garb. She wasn’t there this year, so a few days after getting home, I gave her a call.
Teresa is a native of Berks County and she’s Roman Catholic, not Jewish. Being a local, she grew up spectating at the re-enactment and started attending in vintage civilian clothing as an adult. The stars, she told me, were a last-minute thing she added more as an accessory than a statement. “But the effect was stunning. We had literally hundreds of people stop us to say thank you. Parents used our impression to talk to their kids about the Holocaust.”
Veterans, she said, rose from their wheelchairs to salute. No one criticized her in person, but she heard from re-enactor friends that a smattering of negative comments had appeared on message boards. “There is as much anti-Semitism in the re-enacting community as there is in any other portion of the population,” she said. “Most people are coming here for history or honoring veterans, but there is a very small minority who come because it’s neo-Nazi Pride.”
She didn’t attend this year for personal reasons and lamented the fact that her absence left a conspicuous hole. “When you look at a black and white photograph of someone in a star it seems long ago and far away, like it could never happen again,” she said. “In 2011, when I started doing this, it didn’t seem like much of a threat. But now you have a rise of neo-Nazism. There’s a real danger of these weekends becoming disconnected from the real world.”
Soon, the people upon whom this whole thing is based—the people who fought and lived through the war, who re-enactors seek out to learn from—will all be gone. Two dozen people I met at the re-enactment, and Teresa, too, brought up one statistic over and over: We are losing 400 WWII veterans a day. The youngest ones, the men who enlisted at 18 in 1945, are now 90. When they’ve all died, re-enactments will be the closest anyone can get to knowing what the war was really like.
Thanks to these hobbyists’ obsessive attention to detail and historical preservation, we needn’t worry about accuracy. The buttons will be precisely the right width, the tents precisely the right shape, the platoons drilled precisely the right way. All that will be missing is evidence of why the war was fought.