Local reenactors who play World War II Germans say they aren't the bad guys they depict.
As lunchtime approaches, Burns Darsie and George Lococo have a big decision to make: Denny’s or the Rise N Dine Pancake Cafe. Standing alongside guys dressed as everything from medieval knights to Mongolian invaders, they’re trying to determine which greasy spoon would take kindlier to all the Nazi iconography they’re sporting.
The men are portraying soldiers in the Waffen-SS, Hitler’s elite fighting force, as part of Reenactor Fest, a historical reenactor convention held recently at the Westin Hotel in north suburban Wheeling. Darsie and Lococo, members of the 9th Reenactment Society, worry their frighteningly period-perfect uniforms—including the Nazi Party’s formal symbol, a badge of an eagle perched atop a swastika—will alarm other diners. “People tend to have an averse reaction to the German uniform,” says Darsie, 26, a student and Web-design consultant from Rockford.
Taking on the role of the 20th century’s most hated group, World War II German reenactors¬ naturally face an uphill PR battle: convincing people that they’re hobbyists and history buffs—not neo-Nazi nutjobs. “To say that we’re ‘Nazi reenactors’ is incorrect terminology,” Darsie says. “What we represent is German infantrymen who may or may not have been Nazis.”
“People always ask, ‘Why are you wearing that Nazi uniform?’?” says Mike Kowalski, a fireman and 12-year reenactor from South Bend, Indiana. “Well, it’s not. This is a field-gray German officer’s uniform. The Nazi uniform, as the uniform of the party, was brown. There’s a big difference.”
Though the SS reenactors lecture for history classes at schools and stage battles against Allied forces for events such as Veterans Day (rule No. 1: The Germans always lose), the hobby is still a magnet for drama. In 2009, for instance, the Westin had the unfortunate luck of booking a bar mitzvah at the same time as Reenactor Fest. “The [bar mitzvah] party planner had all these nutty ideas: Nazis are going to crash the bar mitzvah!” recalls Michael Bollow, Reenactor Fest’s founder and a German WWII reenactor. “She called the hotel and said, ‘How dare you! One of our guests is a Holocaust survivor.’?” Bollow smoothed things over. He prohibited the SS reenactors from wearing their uniforms in the hotel’s public areas.
But given the breadth of history available to reenact, why don the controversial uniform at all? “Somebody’s gotta be the bad guy,” says Lococo, 37, a machinist from Elgin. “You can’t play cowboys and Indians without the Indians.” (Um, okay.) Others tout the aesthetic appeal of the SS uniforms, weapons and vehicles. “Germany lost the war but won the fashion show,” Bollow says. Perusing Reenactor Fest’s merch tables, we stumble across Mark Foster, a vendor for Glendale Heights–based Worldwide Militaria. He chalks up his brisk business in SS memorabilia to the same villain mystique that made John Dillinger a celebrity: “People are always fascinated by the bad guy,” he says.
The SS reenactors are quick to point out that, despite the role they take on, they reject the Nazi ideology. New recruits to the 9th Reenactment Society must sign a statement: “I certify that I will not use this organization for the furtherment [sic] of goals of any radical and/or subversive organization to include but not limited to: any Nazi, KKK or other hate group.”
The agreement does little to win over Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. “Of all the hobbies!” she says. “World War II German soldiers, whether they liked it or not, were asked to serve the purposes of Nazi Germany. There’s not a neutral way to reenact such a horrific period.”
Kowalski disagrees. “If we don’t reenact,” he says, “people will forget. And if you forget about history, it repeats itself.”