Would you choose to live a war?

The most logical answer would be “no”, of course. But there are hundreds of occasions in which thousands of people decide to relive wars – and their potential PTSDs – on purpose. Reenactments, for example, so popular in the US.

On one hand, they are part of the trend of romanticizing and nostalgizing the past, just as the reenactments of other, not so traumatic events and activities, like Renaissance fairs and heritage villages, replicas of everyday life of years past. You get a hands-on, or rather eyes-on, play-on education of what the past actually was. What it meant to be witnessing it.

I can understand that. We’ve got some wars that are already far enough in the past for us to accept as part of our national mythology: Revolutionary war, Civil War, Spanish-American war reenactments and even more obscure cowboy gun battles that definitely qualify as non-traumatic reproduction of history snippets. But it’s different when the war in question is so close in time and emotional connection to us like WWII.  Even if we’ve settled into our collective interpretation of such a war, reliving it unsettles us.

I always wonder what it means to participate in a WWII reenactment playing the villains, namely, the Germans. Sure, if we are to have a game of cowboys and Indians someone has to play the baddies. That’s why it was unfair to accuse that notorious congressional candidate from Ohio for dressing a Nazi uniform and participating as a Nazi. If we are to have a reenactment and we accept it as a valid activity, we have to embrace the fact that someone has to do the dirty job in it, too. But it’s more than fair to ask about the participants’ feelings and the catharsis process they undergo during that reenactment. Why do they decide to participate, even when that means a considerable expense on their part?

It turns out that for some participants, it’s a game of parody. They like to play an exaggerated version of the “German soldier” stereotype. Other participants do it to honor a family member who happened to be a German soldier. For them, it’s  trying the shoes and exploring the emotions of someone who probably was dragged into a bloody historic disaster by societal forces beyond control. It’s a way to acknowledge their feelings. I wonder what’s the congressional candidate’s personal explanation.

But it’s more important to note how history actually is reenacted. That could also say something about motivation and interpretation, and finally about the real reason we do reenactments: our better understanding of the past. Reenactments are never 100% accurate, but it’s the inaccuracies that are often telling of a possibly malicious distortions. For example, in reality Russians were not part of one battle I recently witnessed, but they were participants in the reenactment, just because some Russian-inclined history buffs wanted to see more Russian-related drama to be acted out. Even if not historical, that representation was pretty faithful to the spirit of the generally accepted interpretation of the war today. Still, it’s an interpretation.

Something else bothered me, though, and it was some non-public actions of the German “army” reenactors. Before the battle, they gathered for a prayer – hardly something historically accurate – but what’s more, their prayer was a plea for blessing for fighting communism. Now this is where a tiny inaccuracy turns into a whitewashing distortion. More telling, the prayer was not public; it was the reenactors’ attempt to somehow reconcile their huge internal conflicts: they needed to feel their self-worth, the historical soldier they were playing needed to be validated, but the reenactment of the battle wasn’t going to allow for that. It wasn’t about changing the public perception of German guilt; it is actually about reenforcing that perception. So the only way for them to feel good in a bad historical role is to tweak the motivation: “Germans fought communism and that was their noble guide in their ultimately bad actions, so that’s why they are not totally bad”.

Well, this is a kind of whitewashing that changes the whole meaning of what WWII is. Germany’s participation in the war was never about fighting communism; that may have been used as one of the justifications within a grander desire to control the world and the Soviet Union was only a tiny fraction of German ambition. But it’s telling. It’s telling us that reenactments are about reenforcing stereotypes and those stereotypes are about having one side depicted as bad and the other one heroicized, period. So much expense for just rebuilding a stereotype.

Perhaps all these considerations should make us take another step. We should start thinking about other, older and emotionally safer wars as if they were WWII. We shouldn’t romanticize them, for one, as if their heroic interpretation erases all the other lessons they carry. It’s not just worth it to play cowboys and Indians if we delude ourselves it’s for educational purposes. If we do it at all, we should do it to show how Indians were not necessarily the baddies and cowboys not necessarily the goodies. And battle reenactments are an impossible way to do that, because they are about heroics.

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