Hey do you love history? “I may still haven’t gotten over the burning of the Library of Alexandria, yes.” Do you want to get out there and share your passion with similarly-minded people in an exciting and immersive way? “YES! Unless this is another scam to get free waiters for your Civil War-themed plantation wedding because I’m not falling for that a third time.” Do you mind occasionally dressing up as Nazis or Confederate soldiers? “Umm… will it make me racist if I say no?”
Actually no, which is just one thing I learned from Shane, an avid Civil War and WWII reenactor who also told me that:
A Lot Of The Reenactors Are Women
The popular view of war reenactments is that they’re bigger sausage fests than a hot dog stand at the annual Socks & Sandals Appreciation Day. It’s not that women haven’t existed throughout history (recent studies say women may date back to at least the 16th century) but with very few exceptions, their role in war has been less than glamorous, and not many people want to spend their weekend roleplaying a washer or a field nurse. Which is why many female reenactors play male soldiers instead.
“Probably about forty to sixty percent of all re-enactors are women,” Shane explains.
“I’m talking about the soldiers you see on the field … A lot of them cut their hair short, use make up to add lines, change the appearance of their face (as in make themselves look rougher), cover themselves in dirt, and I’ve seen more than a few with glue-on moustaches. It’s not like there’s a stigma. No one really cares whether you wear dresses or trousers, so long as you love history and want to portray it.”
And I know what you’re going to ask next: do these women take off the fake mustaches when hooking up with their fellow reenactors because that is probably a thing that happens from time to time? Shane doesn’t know but confirms that it does indeed happen.
“You may already suspect as much, but having women and men in the same camp, often sharing the same tents (these things are made to house six and usually get two to four), means that, almost inevitably, things are going to get… intimate.”
“I never actually considered this until one night I overheard a couple next door. It’s just something that happens and no one really blinks about. Re-enactment is a tight-knit hobby by nature, and so when someone catches onto something like that, it’s rare that they say anything, and if they do, it’s usually ‘Could you keep it down, next time?'”
Just Because People Portray Nazis Or Confederates, It Doesn’t Mean That They’re Racist
“I’m not going to pretend,” Shane says, “[racism is] there. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t, but it’s no more–and in some cases, less than–you see in the world today … There’s always going to be some nutjob ranting about ‘those dern negroes’ or how Hitler was totally right, but usually they aren’t invited, and they’re often banned from events because they’re not the sort of person who’s there for the re-enactment, they’re there to try to justify their backwards beliefs.”
Everyone with a slightly older dad who inevitably gets into World War II history knows this. Just because you study and try to understand history doesn’t mean you approve of everything that happened during it. Besides, in the end, reenactments are really all about trying to put yourself in the mindset of regular people during that period, completely separate from their political or ideological beliefs.
“Objectively, the south were the ‘bad guys’ [but] I have to say that most of what I’m thinking of is ‘in the moment’ stuff, like what’s cookie making tonight, or whether my musket’s been properly cleaned, or the next move in my game of chess (it’s one of my favorite camp-life pastimes).”
“Some people do it because they like playing the underdogs and historical losers, some people do it because the uniforms are nice (have you seen the German Marschstiefel?), some people do it because they want to get into the head of the soldiers of that side and figure out what made them tick, why’d they fight for a cause we now know to be in the wrong, etc.”
So, no, WWII German reenactors aren’t all secretly Nazis, same as WWII British reenactors aren’t all rampaging Tories who will propose making poor people into pies as soon as the reality of Brexit sets in.
It Can Be Quite Dangerous
If you put the word “tactical” in front of anything (but especially a toilet), it instantly makes it 100 times cooler. The same applies to reenactments. “Tactical reenactments” are probably like nothing you’ve ever seen in your life.
Rather than a bunch of people putting on an open-air play according to a preset script, they are week-long Battle Royale-esque matches with judges, fighters, dive-bombers, tanks, tank destroyers, jeeps, troop transports, artillery, smoke grenades, the works. It’s probably the closet you’ll ever get to an FPS game come to life, with the added bonus of being able to instantly ban any dipshit that calls you the n-word.
“For aircraft and vehicles, they have smoke emitters hooked up to them that they activate when they’ve been hit–pilots will actually dogfight over your heads, tanks will duke it out, it’s awesome.”
“They give you grenades designed to make a loud ‘bang’ and emit smoke, and if you’re in a certain radius when one goes off, you’re dead. It’s super fun. There’s no designated winners or losers, and all the allocated area is your playground.”
But with all that extra fun comes extra danger. One time at a tactical that Shane was attending, a guy playing a German Lieutenant decided to take it upon himself to start “an unscripted melee,” which are three words any reenactor with experience dreads and hates the most (even more than “authentic Nazi tattoos.”)
“It’s probably the leading cause of wounds in the hobby and is strictly banned from all events. You want a melee, you have to request it. Most of us went down almost immediately because aw hell naw we weren’t dealing with this BS, and then the Staff Sergeant and a Corporal were all that was left. They did the whole prisoner shtick with actually fairly good German, and then the Lieutenant shot him in the back of the head, point blank. It was a blank, but if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet he could have been seriously hurt or killed; gunpowder is still an explosive. As it was, he had a big black mark on his helmet.”
The Lieutenant ended up banned from the event for life.
Some Reenactors Really Get Into The Whole Thing
It turns out that there is one kind of Nazi that reenactors are mostly cool with: the stitch kind.
“Hardcore Re-enactors, also known as ‘Purists’ and, derogatorily, ‘Stitch-Nazis’, are re-enactors who are accurate to the bone. They wear the right clothing, eat the right food, refuse any modern comforts, and even the way their clothes are made tend to be accurate. They’ll go so far as to wear long-johns instead of modern underwear and will generally stay in character as long as they’re wearing their clothing or are on-site.”
You can easily spot them in any given Civil War reenactment by the fact that no one wants to shake their hand after they’ve used the latrine. There’s of course nothing wrong with trying to do things the right way. Most reenactors want to immerse themselves in the world and truly believe that they’ve traveled back in time, and someone who doesn’t take it as seriously can actually ruin that hard-earned illusion. As long as it doesn’t result in harassment, being a purist can be a very admirable thing. Just… maybe try to avoid standing downwind from them.