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Monday, July 13, 2009

Here's another I prepared earlier...

A quick introduction
Regular readers might remember that I posted, last December, my long-delayed recantation on the topic of roleplaying as art. This here post has nothing to do with roleplaying (in the sense of tabletop rpg's, just in case there are those among you who immediately think that there is an element of roleplaying in costumed historical re-enactment); it's just that it too has been sitting on the rack for a couple of years.

So, why post it now? Or, to put it another way, why not post it then? On the latter point, there were 2 reasons I can recall:

  • I had (and still have to some degree) mixed feelings about using my blog as a platform to intervene in actual ongoing discussions from afar, ie. when I'm not joining in at source. "But that's exactly what blogs are for, dummy!" I hear you cry, dear readers. Well, you live and learn, eh?
  • I felt the article was too political for RD/KA!.
The main reason why I chose to post it now was simple enough: I needed some material because I'll be unable to attend to the blog this week. I daresay the Euroelection results also made the topic seem sadly all too pertinent. This all the more so since, not long after the furore over the SBG at Salute, a BBC reporter went to a militaria fair. And what did he discover? Yes, you've guessed it dear readers, the SBG's ranks were replete with neo-nazi ultra-reactionaries.

NB. As with the article on roleplaying and art, there are some temporal references which are well out of date. Again I'm just leaving them as they were first written.

Dubious bedfellows: the 2nd Battle Group
You might remember a few weeks ago when I said that I didn't believe the execrable 300 to be "some kind of crypto-fascistic parable." (Here's someone who thought otherwise by the way; via Ken MacLeod's The Early Days of a Better Nation.) I also said at the time that the "charge that art might celebrate fascistic impulses is... very serious..." Which is why I felt that I just had to comment on the furore which has raged all week over at The Miniatures Page - a hub of the miniature wargamers' ecommunity.

The subject which generated so much invective in nearly 500 posts over 3 threads (first report on the event; Salute organisers offer their apologies; Salute organiser resigns) was the appearance at Salute 2007- Britain's leading independent wargames convention- of the Second Battle Group, a WW2 re-enactment group who choose to represent the 1 SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, ie. Hitler's elite bodyguard.

Without going into too much detail, I can summarise the overwhelmingly negative response something like this:
  • The choice of the SS was offensive because of what they represent, but it might've been better if some Allied units were represented too, for the sake of balance.
  • Even if you can accept the validity of representing an SS unit, dressing your kids up as Hitler Youth was a step too far.
  • And selling Hitler mugs and Nazi flags (a.k.a. "novelty items" in the words of one 'astute' TMP poster) was just beyond crass.
  • Battle re-enactors are a bit weird too, aren't they?-: so SS re-enactors must be outright freaks.
  • Above all, this was a terrible image to present to the world of the wargaming hobby at a major event which was right in the public eye.
The dogged and vocal minority opinion can similarly be summed-up something like this:
  • Stop whining you wusses!
  • PC's gone mad, I tell you, mad!
  • The Nazi's might've been bad, but war is hell, and anyway, Stalin's Russia and Mao's China were worse (which is true actually).
  • Why is it wrong to dress up as the SS if it's not wrong to sell books and models featuring them- which, as we all know, are very popular in WW2 wargaming circles?
Now please don't be misled by my flippant tone. I don't for one minute think that the morality of war toys and militaristic hobbyism is a trivial matter. In fact it is a subject I have puzzled over for many years. My parents' qualms about my brother and I having war toys aside, the issue raised its head for me personally over 30 years ago.

Like many of my generation, my entry into what eventually became my gaming hobby was through making Airfix kits. After a few years throwing together the familiar aeroplanes I discovered tanks, and I was hooked. Tamiya kits quickly followed, and soon I was enough of a hardcore teenage tankie to have a regular order for the Military Modelling magazine at my local newsagents. Oh happy days!

If my memory doesn't fail me, this was at about the time that the first political campaigns were being waged against war toys. One day, I read that toy guns had been banned in Sweden. The case was that playing with war toys contributed to the militaristic culture which was then widely discredited because of the carnage of the Vietnam War. In my youthful innocence I thought that this was frankly bizarre. Surely- I thought- we had war toys because of war, and not vice versa?

Sometime thereabouts I read- in the pages of my Military Modelling I seem to recall- the strange story of how Airfix had to hire women to sit down with scissors and snip the swastikas out of their WW2 German Luftwaffe airplane kits' transfer sheets so that they could be exported to Germany, where the depiction of swastikas was illegal. This too I found odd. The obvious issue of a historically authentic representation came to mind; but more than that, I couldn't help but find something funny at the idea of genuine German neo-Nazis saluting a tiny 5mm swastika clipped from the transfer sheet of a 1/72nd scale model of an Me109.

Strangely enough, this issue resurfaced many years later. I was sitting in a pub one night when I overheard an interesting conversation nearby. Glasgow pubs being what they are, I invited myself into the company: an aging local, and a young German visitor. At last!- I thought, my chance to ask someone about the peculiar issue of the Airfix transfer-snippers which had so perplexed me 2 decades previously. Unfortunately the young German's English was poor, while my German was worse: being the useful conversation-stoppers you learn from a youthful diet of British war comics. This communication left the young German uncertain as to the drift of my questions, so that I left with my curiosity unsatisfied.

All of which brings us back to Salute, the SBG, and a certain disingenuosness on both the SBG's part and that of the 'stop whinging' minority over at TMP. I mean to say: it's not as if they don't have a case. After all, the only 'clean' armies in history would be those which never saw action, and, if such a beast can be found, it's hardly going to interest those whose hobby is centred on a fascination for warfare- real or imagined, past, present or future. So if we accept that one side in any given war can be represented, in whichever media people prefer, then we have to accept that any and all other sides must also be represented- clear historical perspective at the very least requires this, surely?

And the dressing up? Well it's not for me, but let's be honest here: is dressing up really that much more weird than playing with toy soldiers or pretending to be an elf, or what-have-you? Or is dressing up only acceptable at parties, or when someone else has written your lines?

This is all very well, but it's an abstract defence of people's right to 'do history' in any way they see fit. Where the SBG, and the minority over at the TMP were being a bit disingenuous is that the matter of depictions of the SS is not just a matter of history. And I'm not here talking about the feelings of the survivors of the Nazis' genocidal rampages, however pertinent those feelings are. What I'm talking about is the present and future fact of the growing electoral presence of neo-Nazi parties in Europe, parties for whom the SS are symbols of martial prowess, however strenuously this is denied.

And there's the rub for the SBG it seems to me. Let them have their costumed historical reconstructions. I mean, if a famous movie director lavished a vast budget on doing exactly the same, Golden Globes, BAFTA's and Oscars might well be on the cards. But selling Hitler mugs and Nazi flags as souvenirs? What's that got to do with historical re-enactment? Hmm?
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