On the wrongness of dressing up in an SS uniform
For these guys, the war really should be over
I HAVE just returned from the excellent We Have Ways Fest hosted by James Holland and Al Murray, where I met not only some of my excellent Substack subscribers, but also saw many old friends and new. My most onerous task over the weekend was to help judge the Horrendous Hawaiian Shirt Competition, which was won by Paul Hicks for this truly horrific effort featuring a stetson- and cravat-wearing cat riding a shark vomiting a rainbow. Apparently he found the offending item simply by entering ‘shit shirt’ on Amazon, and for that stroke of genius, he walked off with the Golden Avocado.
However, the one truly tasteless thing I was delighted not to see anybody wearing was an SS uniform. Although there were plenty of reenactors at the fest, not one was sporting the telltale lightning runes on a collar tab, or wearing a cap complete with a death’s head. Indeed, the nearest thing to anything SS was a replica Sd.Kfz. 251 armoured personnel carrier with an SS numberplate, which didn’t seem too offensive. In addition, I don’t think I saw a single wartime German uniform during the entire event.
Five years ago, the situation was very different, and at many history festivals there would have been several – often, let’s be honest, quite portly – men walking around dressed as a members of the SS. If anybody remarked that perhaps wearing such uniforms was tasteless, or perhaps even downright offensive, the stock response was that all sides of the conflict needed to be portrayed, and that by not having Waffen-SS troops as part of the reenacting community, history was somehow being ‘airbrushed’. And no, the justification would continue, simply wearing an SS uniform did not actually make one a Nazi, and that complaining about it was somehow an expression of political correctness gone mad.
The problem with this response is that nobody really bought it. Of all the myriad uniforms worn in the Second World War, why were those of the SS so popular? Or for that matter, any of the branches of the Nazis’ armed forces? Never mind that there is a difference between an SS uniform and an army uniform, because many people really can’t spot it, and take offence at all German uniforms of the period. The suspicion was – and remains – that people who like dressing up in Nazi uniforms are basically a bit strange and inadequate at best, and actual Nazis at worst.
Even if that is unfair, the problem is that wearing such uniforms does cause offence, and outweighs whatever slight historical value that is provided by seeing what an SS soldier looked like at first hand. This is not to deny that reenactors can teach us valuable lessons about what life was like for the fighting man – as I discussed with Paul Bavill – but I’m not entirely certain that having men walking around festivals dressed as Nazi troops provides historians or festival-goers with anything useful, and is actually hugely counter-productive.
There is a place for Nazi uniforms, and that is on mannequins in museums. There, they can be contextualised and explained, and because they are not animated by present day human beings, the offensiveness is removed.
On reflection, perhaps a museum might also be a good place for Phil’s shirt. Either there, or landfill, along with so many thankfully redundant replica Nazi uniforms.
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