The revelation that Rich Iott, the Republican candidate for the 9th Congressional District seat in Ohio and a Tea Party favorite, has been in the habit of dressing up as a Waffen-SS soldier, is just one more sign of the heroic ignorance that characterizes large sectors of American politicians, the media that covers them, and the public that votes for them. Such monumental ignorance, of truly Wagnerian dimensions, is the product of a failed educational system, which has relegated the study of history to a marginal spot in the curriculum and has completely forgotten the dictum that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat its errors, even if at times such repetitions turn out to be nothing more than farce. But while Mr. Iott may well have been just a fool masquerading as an expert in military history, the organization in whose activities he participated, the military unit it professes to support, and the ideology that formation believed in and implemented, were and are anything but funny. Criminal war and genocide are not a joke, and before one dresses up in the uniform of its military instruments, one should be informed of their deeds.
Mr. Iott, who features in several photographs wearing an SS uniform as a member of “Wiking,” an organization that portrays Nazi soldiers at World War II reenactments, denies having any sympathy for Nazism. As he said to The Atlantic, he is merely “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.” Thus, the 80 million citizens of the Greater German Reich were, to Mr. Iott’s mind, indeed engaged in a heroic undertaking, and one assumes that his donning the uniform of their most lethal representatives must, in some way, indicate his desire to partake of those heroic qualities, however vicariously.
Mr. Iott is in good company. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan was also incredulous when his plan to visit the German military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Waffen-SS were buried, met with a storm of criticism, forcing him to compensate by also visiting a concentration camp. Both Reagan (implicitly) and Iott make the same argument, namely, that while the Nazi regime was bad, its soldiers fought heroically for what they believed was a good cause, such as protecting their nation and their families from the really bad guys, whose uniforms no one seems interested in wearing at such infantile reenactments, namely, the troops of the Red Army: precisely those who in fact defeated Nazi Germany at an extraordinarily high price of blood after a murderous occupation of their country. The “Wiking” organization, named after the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, speaks of Heinrich Himmler’s Black Corps as “valiant men [who] 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.”
Freedom is apparently a relative term. The SS fought for a Jew-free Europe; it also disliked the Sinti and Roma (gypsies), blacks, the disabled, homosexuals, Slavs, as well as liberals, democrats, socialists and communists. It was a serious, quite humorless organization, and it never joked about its ideology. Hence, it was deeply involved in the genocide of about 6 million Jews, alongside the mass murder of altogether millions of Roma, Catholic Poles, Soviet citizens and PoWs, gays, inmates of insane asylums, members of trade unions, and so forth. The Soviet Union alone sacrificed about 28 million lives in the struggle against those who allegedly “gave their lives for their loved ones and a basic desire to be free.” Under the rule of these freedom-loving SS legionnaires, Europe and possibly much of the rest of the world would have indeed become free of all those who were not healthy and Fuhrer-worshipping Aryans.
There was a time, in 1950s West Germany, that veterans of the Waffen-SS claimed to have been “soldiers like all others.” That notion was dismissed by the 1960s and 1970s, when research demonstrated the direct involvement of many members of these elite fighting units in war crimes on a vast scale, particularly but not exclusively in the Soviet Union (war crimes also occurred in Western Europe, as in the case of the massacre in the French village of Oradour by the Waffen-SS Division “Das Reich” in 1944). By the 1980s, historians, including myself, began to show that regular army units were also engaged in mass murder and genocide. Thus the distinction between the SS and the regular army was largely eroded in scholarship, as it had been during the war. Indeed, the SS alone would not have been able to accomplish crimes of such magnitude on its own.
But Mr. Iott and his supporters know none of this. They may simply be happy military history buffs, playing at being soldiers on weekends. Some of them may also be among those who demand to “take our country back,” back, one assumes, from those who have stolen it from them, those who would be unlikely to put on SS uniforms on weekends because of the color of their skin, their religion, their ancestry, or their convictions. Playing at being a Nazi is playing with fire. And political pyromaniacs are a very dangerous lot indeed, perhaps especially when they have no idea of the kinds of demons they may awaken, having sheltered themselves so hermetically from any knowledge of the past.
By Omer Bartov
Omer Bartov is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and Professor of History and Professor of German Studies at Brown University. He is the author of “Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich” (Oxford, 1992) and “The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).
Reposted with permission from the History News Network.