Confederate Reenactors Are Not Nazis, but…

[Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for the link.]

The ongoing debate about Republican candidate for Congress, Rich Iott’s hobby of portraying a Waffen SS soldier, raises a number of interesting questions about what we expect from people who choose to embrace the past through reenacting.  In the case of Iott, there seems to be little patience for the argument that one can reenact the soldier without acknowledging the government for which he fought.  Consider Iott’s attempt to distance himself from Nazi ideology:

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things. I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them. From a purely historical military point of view, that’s incredible.

More recently, Iott had this to say:

I think that it’s an important thing to do because we need to constantly educate people and remind people about the tragedy that happened 70-some years ago…. A lot of time is spent talking to the public, setting up exhibits. It’s a way to keep the public aware of what happened and keep it in their minds so that we don’t forget…. They were doing what they thought was right for their country,” he said. “They were going out to fight what they thought was a bigger evil.

And the reenactment unit in question offers this as a justification, which I quoted in my last post:

Nazi Germany had no problem in recruiting the multitudes of volunteers willing to lay down their lives to ensure a “New and Free Europe”, free of the threat of Communism. National Socialism was seen by many in Holland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and other eastern European and Balkan countries as the protector of personal freedom and their very way of life, despite the true underlying totalitarian (and quite twisted, in most cases) nature of the movement. Regardless, thousands upon thousands of valiant men died defending their respective countries in the name of a better tomorrow. We salute these idealists; no matter how unsavory the Nazi government was, the front-line soldiers of the Waffen-SS (in particular the foreign volunteers) gave their lives for their loved ones and a basic desire to be free.

Iott’s own justification for his reenactment preferences as well as his organization’s rationale for focusing on this specific unit can be seen in much of the discourse related to Civil War reenacting.  How often have we heard that it’s much easier to find reenactors willing to portray the Confederate soldier even outside of the South?  There is a lingering element of the Lost Cause that romanticizes the Confederate soldier as standing up against an overwhelming enemy as well as the continued insistence that the soldier be judged apart from the stated goals of the government for which he fought.

There is a blatant double-standard at work here between what we are willing to tolerate from Iott and his Nazi fetish and Civil War reenactors.  I’ve been to a number of living historian events and I’ve never witnessed an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a discussion of the tough questions of race and slavery.  Most of what I’ve seen focuses on the experience of battle and camp life.  And for those that do take on such issues we tend to praise for their honesty and bravery.  These rare instances can usually be found at museums and other historical sites.  Do we really expect reenactors from  Nathan B. Forrest’s unit to openly and honestly discuss what happened at Fort Pillow or the men who reenact in regiments that served with Mahone at the Crater?  When was the last time you heard a Union soldier discuss his racial attitudes after hearing that African Americans were to be recruited into the United States Army?  Even the movie “Glory” needed to bring the racist comments of a few white Union soldiers to a close as the 54th marched through the dunes in preparation for their final assault.

We don’t question these reenactors about their choice of uniform and interpretation and we certainly don’t question their own racial attitudes. From this perspective our collective outrage regarding Iott’s choices make little sense.  Some are emphasizing the distinction between reenacting a Wehrmacht as opposed to a Waffen SS member, but no one has argued convincingly as to why it matters.  As far as I can tell the distorted history of these men quoted above is just as prevalent in our Civil War reenacting community as well as our collective memory of the war as a whole.  For most Civil War enthusiasts the soldiers were apolitical and both sides fought for equally laudable goals.  My guess is that Iott is no more a Nazi sympathizer or an advocate of some of their methods than a Confederate reenactor yearns for the days of slavery.  The controversy not only reflects a blatant double-standard in the way we view historical reenactors, but reflects our continued belief in the exceptional quality of our own civil war.

Finally, I find it curious that most of us don’t for a minute wonder what all of this looks like from the perspective of black Americans.  Perhaps this double-standard is deeply embedded in our continued embrace of a “reconciliationist” and predominantly white memory of the war.

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William C. Davis on Robert E. Lee

Click here for Gary Gallagher’s lecture at Washington and Lee in 2009.

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Richard Dreyfuss’s Opus

The other day I thought about Richard Dreyfuss and wondered what he’s been up to since his visit to my school last year.  You may remember that I was less than impressed with his method of engaging students as well as his overall message [and here].  Well, it looks like he finally has a website up, but if you take some time to explore its contents you will notice that it is void of any curricular materials or much of anything at all to assist teachers and students in the teaching of civics.  From what I can tell Dreyfuss has done little more than continue his whirlwind tour of America’s classrooms where he has impressed upon students the importance of understanding the Constitution and the importance of rational debate.  Who would disagree with that?

This past week Dreyfuss was honored with the 2010 Empire State Archives and History Award.  I don’t know anything about this award, but it seems to me that this is a sign of what’s wrong with our society and education.  As much as I applaud Dreyfuss for bringing attention to this issue there are people who work day after day in the trenches teaching this material.  Organizations promoting the teaching of civics are a dime a dozen and there are already more than enough curricular materials for the classroom. Can someone please tell me what Mr. Dreyfuss has done to deserve an award?  We give these people awards as a quick fix rather than taking the time to acknowledge the deeper problems within our education system.

In the meantime may I suggest that Mr. Dreyfuss find a more appropriate outfit to wear in the classroom.  Some of us consider ourselves to be professionals when we walk into our classrooms.

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Teaching Limited v. Hard War

Update: The debate went extremely well.  Both groups did an excellent job of articulating their respective positions and pointing out what they perceived to be shortcomings in the other.  I had to remind them that, in the end, they were on the same team.  That is what I find so interesting here.  In the same theater of operations you have very different approaches being employed, which gives students a window into the evolution of the war as a whole.

My Civil War class is now focused on the crucial summer of 1862.  Students now have a solid grasp of the major campaigns along the river systems out west as well as in the crucial military theater of Virginia through mid-July 1862.  We’ve spent a good deal of time examining the evolution of war during this period through a careful reading of Chandra Manning’s study of Civil War soldiers and slavery as well as the push by certain commanders in the field to broaden the scope of the war.  It’s impossible to keep a discussion of slavery out of the picture, but I am trying to hold off on a discussion of the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the actions of Fremont and Butler as well as Lincoln’s announcement of a preliminary emancipation proclamation until next week.  It’s not a perfect plan, but it does follow Brooks Simpson’s approach in his short introductory text, which students are reading.

Today students will debate the merits of a limited v. and expanded or hard war approach through a reading of two documents.  The plan is to divide the class in half with one group reading General George McClellan’s famous Harrison’s Landing letter to Lincoln of July 7, 1862 and General John Pope’s General Orders No. 5, 7, 11, and 13.  Students will be expected to debate the scope of warfare outlined in these documents based on the information known at the time.  In other words, Lee’s army is still outside of Richmond and Lincoln has not issued a proclamation.

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Assessing Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army at the SHA

I just booked my room and registered for this year’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association, which meets in Charlotte, North Carolina from November 4-7. It’s by far my favorite conference of the year as it comes at just the point when I can use a couple of days away from school and it gives me a chance to catch up with good friends.  Perhaps I will even be able to check in with the publisher to get an update on my Crater manuscript.  The panels are always interesting but I am especially looking forward to one on Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army.  I’ve blogged about it here at Civil War Memory over the past year and I can’t say enough good things about it.  Not only is it an excellent synthesis of recent scholarship, but Glatthaar’s analysis of key topics such as slavery, morale, discipline, religion and even black Confederates make this volume indispensable.  An independent study with one of my students has given me the opportunity to go through it again.

POINTS OF DEPARTURE: REFLECTIONS ON JOSEPH A. GLATTHAAR’S GENERAL LEE’S ARMY

Presiding: John Coski, Museum of the Confederacy

General Lee’s Army and General Lee: How Does Glatthaar Fit into a Contentious Historiography on the Rebel Chieftain? — Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia

The High-Water Mark of Social History: The Methodology of Glatthaar’s “General Lee’s Army” — Peter S. Carmichael, Gettysburg College

“They Are One in Reality & All of the Country”: Blending Battlefront and Home Front — Jacqueline Glass Campbell, Francis Marion University

Author’s Response: Joseph A. Glatthaar, University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill

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