I have to confess to feeling distinctly out of my comfort zone at War and Peace 2012. If you don’t know it, the annual event is billed as the largest gathering of its kind in the world for people whose hobby is 20th Century warfare. It happens every year at The Hop Farm just outside Paddock Wood.
I should explain ‘hobby’ here a little. I’m not talking about people who have a few books about Stalingrad or ‘The Fall of the Third Reich’ on their shelves. I’m talking about people who dress up as GIs and Stormtroopers, who get a kick out of digging a trench and sleeping in it for three days, who have a Soviet T34 tank parked on their lawn.
Growing up I loved military history. These days I can’t separate the battles from the events that lead to them and the consequences that followed. If I was to pick a period that really interests me it would be the ‘Long Enlightenment’ from 1629-1832 because it traces the rise of Liberty in the English speaking world from the moment Charles I dissolved his second Parliament to the passage of the Great Reform Bill that set Britain on a course that resulted, almost a century later, in universal suffrage.
So while as a ten year old I buried myself in Peter Young’s Military History of the English Civil Wars, these days I’m far more interested in its causes and ramifications. I’m intrigued by the notion that the same conflict was fought out again and again first in England, Scotland and Ireland and then again in the Thirteen Colonies and later still between the Union and the Confederacy. It was, the thesis goes, all about the right of people to choose by whom they were governed – by King or Parliament, from London or Philadelphia, by the Federal authorities or by their states. It was the cause of Liberty.
That said I’m not immune to the romance of the English Civil War (or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms as they’re now called) and the American Revolution. I know that some people find The Sealed Knot a bit odd, but I wouldn’t hesitate to share an ale with them (so long as they were for Parliament of course). Lots of people like to dress up now and again and some use it as a gateway into a much deeper involvement with a period.
However War and Peace freaked me out somewhat. Why exactly? I think it’s a combination of reasons.
Firstly I struggle to find the romance in twentieth century warfare. It resulted in the deaths of civilians on a scale never seen before. Wars have always been cruel to bystanders but never was the deliberate targeting of non combatants so central to military strategy as it has been over the last hundred years.
It’s also the industrialised nature of modern war. Whereas once you faced your enemy, technology has put an ever greater distance between killer and victim. As the physical distance grows so does the moral distance from the act. Soldiers become more detached and less aware of the consequences of what they do.
Then, conversely, there’s the lack of distance in terms of time passed. My parents lived through the Blitz. My grandfather served in the RFC. I’ve met more veterans than I can recall. Many of my teachers served in North Africa or Italy or Europe. The people affected by the 1939-45 conflict still live among them; veterans and civilians both.
And lastly there’s the whole issue of dressing up in Nazi uniforms and flying swastikas.
He politely stressed that they were really in it for the tanks and other vehicles they restored and that they weren’t political in any way.
I put it to him that it couldn’t avoid being political. We’re not talking about any old regiment here, we’re talking about ideological Nazis who formed a division that grew out of Hitler’s personal bodyguard.
He countered that there were 22 or 23 SS Divisions and that not all of them were bad. Indeed, he explained, the Russians were worse. The trouble is that the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was bad. It carried out massacres of Jews. It murdered 80 British POWs during the invasion of France and up to 5000 other prisoners of war, mostly on the Eastern Front and the division was collectively found guilty of war crimes at Nuremberg.
Putting aside the findings of undercover reporters who discovered a few years back that the group had been infiltrated by neo Nazis (Second Battle Group put out a statement to unequivocally distance themselves from racist views), it still strikes me as in dubious taste.
To dress up as the Waffen SS is to celebrate their memory and you can’t really pick and choose which bits you celebrate. I’m sure there was martial prowess, bravery, comradeship, discipline and all those things. However you can’t separate those from the war crimes the units they dress up as committed. Do you see Brits recreating the Amritsar massacre? No. How about an Abu Ghraib re-enactment society? You can imagine the small-ad: “Afghan-looking members wanted to help re-stage systemic humiliation and torture for public entertainment at shows and conventions.” Hey, put it out there on Craig’s List and see where you get.
I think I’d feel more comfortable if the Second Battle Group guys were a bit more honest and admitted they’re re-enacting the bad guys and staged massacres of POWs. Then we might get away from the ‘fun, crazy SS guys’ routine. This isn’t the mockery of ‘Allo ‘Allo, a means of exorcising our fears and anger through ridicule. There’s no satire in the Second Battle Group’s re-enactment. They’re in deadly earnest. So if they’re in earnest it needs less whitewash and more warts and all. If they value historicity then accuracy demands it.
But my feelings of discomfort at War and Peace went further than that. It was a Mecca for entire families who are deeply into the whole tanks and fatigues thing. Little boys and girls dressed up in uniforms. Mum, dad and the kids riding around in an armoured personnel carrier. It’s almost like a Tea Party manifesto – ‘Cut crime – arm every family to the teeth. Vote for ‘one home, one tank’.’
There was very little of the misery of war on show at War and Peace. The fact that there are so many impressionable young people there demands a rounder account of what they’re seeing.
I don’t normally wander off into politics on Land of Oak and Iron. I just wanted to write about a local event I took Luca to. We had a nice time in the model tent. I went to the show mainly to help out the very nice chaps from the Tunbridge Wells Wargames Society who were running a ‘Flames of War’ game. It’s tabletop wargaming rather than dressing up and yet still I feel slightly odd about playing such a recent and brutal conflict.
For what it’s worth I helped command the French in a 1940 defence of France scenario and we won.
So would I go again? Quite possibly, yes. I try to keep an open mind about the people who get involved in the bits that make me feel uncomfortable and I enjoy the bits that don’t. And for some reason the sight of a cheery looking chap in British North Africa kit standing outside a very smart bivouac made me smile. Actually it made me feel positively warm. Perhaps it’s the fact that he was playing someone doing his bit in the fight against tyranny. It’s the ‘reasons behind the conflict’ thing again. Uniforms come and go. The cause of liberty is eternal.
I’m guessing from their descriptions that the chaps on the left may be Allgemeine SS on which case they still seem to be attracting their share of fanboys (and fan-grown-ups-who-should-perhaps-know-better).
The Second Battle Group people don’t re-enact Allgemeine SS, they re-enact these guys. Make up your own mind.