What was an authentic Nazi uniform

Summer, Sun and SS: The Bizarre World of Historical Reenactment

There are places where the Third Reich has not yet been defeated. Trenčianske Stankovce, a sleepy town two hours north of Bratislava by car, is one such place. In an abandoned field, in the middle of nowhere between deciduous forests and fields, another battle breaks out between the Slovak insurgents and the SS troops.

The German commander, a man with an angular face and a mustache, is standing behind an embankment and observing the enemy through binoculars. "Forward, men!" He roars - and heralds the second wave of German attacks. A tank flanked by two Mercedes-Benz personnel carriers is rolling towards the enemy positions.

A Junker 87 and a Messerschmid Me 410 appear on the horizon. The rotation of the propellers gets louder and louder, the fighter planes descend and open fire. At the same time, around 60 soldiers in bright green uniforms and black helmets dash forward. Some crouch down, others kneel or crawl on the ground and give their comrades fire protection.

Historical reenactment or living history is the name of this phenomenon, which has existed since the early 2000s and has since found more and more followers. "In Europe alone there are already over half a million people who are serious about historical reenactment," estimates the German historian Karl Banghard, who has done extensive research on the phenomenon. "You can now order all sorts of uniforms, disguises and weapons over the Internet, that has certainly promoted development."

Especially many followers

The scene covers a corresponding number of epochs. Some dress up as Vikings, others as knights, Indians or cowboys, others slip into the armor of Roman legionnaires or wrap themselves in fur coats like Germanic tribes once did. Re-enactment of the Napoleonic battles is popular in France, the battles from the time of the American Civil War in the USA, and the heroic stories of the Ottoman army in Turkey.

In Hungary, Russia and Estonia, on the other hand, the period between 1939 and 1945 has a particularly large number of followers. This dark chapter of history is also booming in Austria's neighboring countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But why?

The festival in the village of Trenčianske Stankovce is one of the largest re-enactment events about World War II. More than 2000 visitors came on this oppressively hot June day and paid the equivalent of ten euros to be there. The nearby parking spaces are occupied from ten in the morning.

Many park their cars on the hard shoulder and have to take long walks to the entrance. Young couples have come here, men with beer cans in hand, families with children of all ages, bald people with rune tattoos on their necks and upper arms, as well as older men with reading glasses, straw hats and khaki pants.

Nazi symbols and devotional objects

The battle between the Slovak resistance and the Germans has now lasted over an hour, and the matter is becoming more and more confusing. Bombs detonate every five seconds at a deafening volume, smoke grenades hiss, cars explode, machine guns rattle, people go down with their faces contorted with pain - until it suddenly becomes quiet just before noon.

The resistance surrendered, the Wehrmacht overran the enemy positions, the Nazis won, dozens of dead lie on the ground. "That was really good, wasn't it? Thanks to everyone involved who made this great spectacle possible," said the moderator over two loud loudspeakers.

The dead stand up and join the enemies, people embrace, the actors bow and wave to their fans, who are crowded behind a temporary barrier and applaud and whistle.

It is 2 p.m. and the heat is getting more and more oppressive. According to the program, there will be a few more tank battles and an air show later. But now it's time to take a break, the spectators flock to the drinks stands, next to them dealers sell their goods, SS buttons, field vests of the Wehrmacht, original helmets and knives of the Red Army, grenade covers and books Home songs of our guide or Heroic legends of the Wehrmacht be called. It's not illegal. At least not in Slovakia, and not in the Czech Republic either.

Nazi symbols and devotional objects from the Nazi era are not allowed to be worn on the street there either. However, the symbols and uniforms are permitted on special occasions such as the re-enactment festivals. "None of this is political at all," assures one of the stallholders and shrugs his shoulders. "It's only about a game for those interested in history, we also provide people with the right utensils to really immerse themselves in time."

History class?

And so you can see in Trenčianske Stankovce what would be unthinkable in Austria and Germany: Hundreds of men in uniforms of the German Wehrmacht, T-shirts, badges and buttons with the logo of the SS, armbands and flags with swastikas as far as the eye can see.

Reenactment organizers see the games as a form of "living history lesson". Many events are not sponsored by ministries for nothing, says one organizer, and is annoyed that the media that report on them simply do not want to understand something like that. "The festivals are harmless and completely apolitical. With us, people don't learn from books or films, they can experience first-hand what happened back then."

That's basically true. The battle that has just ended between the Slovak partisans and the German Wehrmacht is based on real events. The Slovak national uprising against the Hitler regime was one of the largest in Europe. The resistance movement formed in the city of Banská Bystrica in 1944, brought almost half of the country under its control before it was razed in October of the same year.

The Reenactors paid attention to all details, the car brands, the tank models and fighter planes, the matching field blouses, boots and helmets of the Wehrmacht, the trousers, shirts and flat caps of the insurgents.

Selfies with SS lieutenants

The war show is well received by visitors. "You can understand what it really was like back in the war, it is better staged than any Hollywood film," enthuses a young man who came from Bratislava with his friends.

"My children are not interested in books, but they understand this and they get an idea of ​​what it was like back then," says a mother who came from Bratislava with her two sons. "That's better than always playing the computer. Here you really experience something."

Almost 400 active reenactors came to the festival. They pitched their tent camps in an adjacent forest and set up individual stations for the visitors.

If you want, you can pick up Russian Kalashnikovs and reload them, climb inside tanks or in trenches, take part in target practice with plastic cartridges, take selfies with SS lieutenants, French parachutists, Ukrainian Cossacks or American G.I.s. The atmosphere is exuberant, just a real summer festival.

Really romantic

A man with a thick mustache who is wearing the imitation of a Red Army uniform from 1943 arrived on Tuesday. "In the days leading up to the festivals, all equipment is carted in, everything is prepared, and in the evening we grill together and sing songs - of course, true-to-the-original songs from the time," explains the full-time insurance employee. "Festivals like this are the best time of all for me, it's really romantic."

Right next to it stands a man carrying an unformed German infantry. "Field boots and swastika armband, gaiters - I paid attention to every detail, everything has to be exactly right, otherwise everyone can come along," he says. The man comes from the city of Košice and, like his old friend Pavel, arrived on Tuesday.

The man has no concerns about the Nazi uniform: "I'm a Slovak, believe me, there were crimes on both sides, the Communists as well as the Germans." Still, he doesn't want to read his name in any newspaper.

Trojan horse

As in general, many Reenactors prefer not to speak to the media. "We have always had bad experiences. Sometimes journalists come to our events, twice even television. In the end it just means that we are all Nazis in disguise." The historian Karl Banghard mainly dealt with re-enactment in the Germanic era.

This scene actually attracts many right-wing extremists, says Banghard. In 2016 he published the results of his research under the title Nazis in wolf clothing - Germanic peoples and the right edge published as a brochure. "There is a folk fascination with the Teutons, right-wing extremists like to look for the roots of their identity in their ancestors."

The scene that specialized in World War II was at least partially infiltrated by right-wing groups, says Banghard. "A lot of this happens subliminally. Re-enactment is often a Trojan horse with which you can legally get into the middle of society." Of course you have to differentiate strongly. It is noticeable, however, that at most of these events there is no real educational work about the crimes. This then creates a fake historical picture.

This is also the case in Trenčianske Stankovce. You will look in vain for information about atrocities of war, mass executions or even concentration camps. They obviously don't fit into the concept of the festival. It is difficult to determine whether the re-enactment scene in Slovakia and the Czech Republic has really been infiltrated by right-wing extremists.

In any case, the hurdles for political agitation are great. All festivals must be officially registered, the police and the military ensure that everything runs smoothly and non-politically. If you want to immerse yourself in the re-enactment scene in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, you have to join one of the so-called Kluby Vojenskej Historie (KVH).

Over a hundred such clubs

These clubs have an average of ten to twenty members, meet once a month and go to events almost every weekend in the summer months. There are now over a hundred of these clubs in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Political activism is strictly forbidden, whoever does not stick to it and is found exposed, gets a hefty fine and has to leave the club.

One of these historical clubs is called "Fighters of the Wehrmacht", has its headquarters in Brno and is also represented at the festival in Trenčianske Stankovce. The club was founded over three years ago, has exclusively female members and specializes in tracking down the German Red Cross.

Lena, in her early twenties, is studying veterinary medicine in Brno and has been a member of the "Wehrmacht Fighters" for over a year. She organizes club meetings, takes care of the acquisition of uniforms and the social media presence. Together with her colleagues, Lena is in the hospitals almost every two weeks. Everything is lovingly prepared.

Countless surgical instruments, books from the German Red Cross, hospital beds, bandages and oversized syringes lie on wooden tables. Lena explains to passers-by extensively how German nurses worked at the time.

"We are just one big family that share a common historical interest," says Lena, who had her blouse and apron made by a tailor's shop. Her club bought the surgical instruments at flea markets or ordered them through online exchanges.

"I enjoy nothing more"

Why is she tracking the German side and not the Russian or Czech side? "I myself have Sudeten Germans in my family, so I'm just more interested in the Germans' side," says Lena. If you ask the budding vet what she thinks about the Third Reich, she hesitates for a moment.

Then she says: "My family knows very well that there was injustice on all sides, that's just the way war is. Communists were at least as big criminals as the other side." But she and the other members of the "historical club of women fighters" want nothing to do with right-wing extremist ideas.

Shortly before 4 p.m., still scorching heat, still the best festival atmosphere on the grounds of Trenčianske Stankovce. A tank show is about to begin. British, American and German models, all from 1942 and 1943, do a few laps on the battlefield.

Little by little, the spectators make a pilgrimage back to the action. A young couple is standing in front of one of the drinks stands. Both wear sleeveless shirts with the SS logo on them. The young woman is called Lenka and will graduate next year, next to her is her boyfriend Vidor. The 24-year-old works as a computer scientist in Brno. But his real passion is reenactment.

The two met at an event three years ago, Vidor wore an SS uniform for the first time in his reenactment career and was part of an infantry division. Lenka says she saw Vidor and immediately fell in love. The two have been a couple since then and have lived together for a year.

When Vidor was 16, he took part in a small reenactment festival as a spectator for the first time and was immediately enthusiastic. He was hired by a historic club and was accepted at some point. Since then, Vidor has changed clubs three times.

"Historical Club Belgium" is roughly the name of his current club. He specializes in the Belgian Rexists who fought for Hitler under the notorious SS officer Léon Degrelle in Wallonia. "For me, immersing myself in military history is simply the most wonderful thing, the German military fascinates me most because they were the most precise technically and the soldiers were the most disciplined," says Vidor. "I enjoy nothing more."

Perfect setting

Change of location, Slovakia again, a reenactment festival. The event takes place in a nature reserve called Záhorie in the northeast of the country. The largest dune field in Europe is located in the hilly landscape. The area is partly a restricted military area and is used by NATO states for bogus missions in desert areas.

For the re-enactment community, Záhorie is the perfect setting to re-enact the battles of the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Africa Corps against the British troops. The event is called "Sahara" and is one of the absolute highlights of the summer season in the re-enactment community.

Compared to the relatively family-friendly event in Trenčianske Stankovce, the Sahara Festival is rougher. If you want to go to the site, you have to park your car in a parking lot, change to a rickety coach that takes visitors across the desert-like landscape to the festival site.

The program includes tank shows and skirmishes between British units and the German Africa Corps. Among the reenactors and spectators are numerous bald heads who are tattooed with sayings such as "Meine Ehre ist Treue" or "I will declare my betrayal of Germany", some of whom speak German among themselves.

Most of the Reenactors don't even want to speak to the media here, and the group of seven men who came from near Dresden also seems skeptical. Only one of them presents his uniform to the visitors. "I spent 700 euros on an outfit including the weapon, so not that bad when you compare it with other hobbies," says the man. "It takes a while to have all the details of the uniform together, some can be ordered on the Internet, some can be tailored." Once you have everything together, reenactment is a cheap hobby.

Two to three times a year

The man says that the seven friends rent a bus, they buy provisions together in Slovakia, everything is super cheap here anyway. "Most of the Reenactors camp on the site, which of course increases the authentic front feeling and thus also the fun. The soldiers must have gone through a lot worse back then and certainly didn't complain."

If you want to pursue this hobby, you have to go to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, says the man. "We go over there two or three times a year, only here we can play undisturbed without being constantly referred to as Nazis in disguise." The man doesn't want to say more, suddenly he turns away and leaves.

At the festival in Záhorie you can see many familiar faces from the re-enactment scene. Lena and her colleagues from the "Fighters of the Wehrmacht" are there as well as the computer scientist Vidor and his friend Lenka.

For the two of them it is their first Sahara festival and a kind of accolade. "Only really good clubs are invited here, the uniforms have to fit, you need vehicles and you have to be well organized as a club, there are only professional reenactors here," says Vidor with a smile. "With the Sahara Festival, a dream of mine has come true."

Military battles

A few days later, Vidor and Lenka invite the visitors to their home. The two live in Kyjov, a small town about 20 kilometers south of Brno. The shared apartment is almost 50 square meters, a new building that looks inconspicuous at first glance and is furnished with Ikea furniture. Only if you take a closer look around will you discover the small bust of Benito Mussolini on a shelf. And a signed portrait of a Wehrmacht soldier hangs in the kitchen-cum-living-room.

It is Rudolf von Ribbentrop, the German SS-Hauptsturmführer and son of Hitler's Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. "Ribbentrop personally gave it to me and to the members of my club who had contact with him. That was two years before his death," says Vidor.

Why does he hang something like that? "Because I'm a fan of this time and I think the Wehrmacht is particularly good," says Vidor. And how did he feel about the Nazi era, about the concentration camps and the Holocaust? "All of this is terrible and of course I reject it. Reenactment is about the military battles," he says.

"Proud Patriots"

All the reenactment events are not political, he has nothing to do with National Socialist ideas. "I know what the Nazis did, nobody needs to tell me - just as the other sides did a lot of bad things," he says.

Vidor opens his wardrobe for visitors. Well over 20 uniforms can be seen there, most of them are uniforms of the Wehrmacht, but among his costumes are also pieces of clothing from Slovak partisans.

Vidor explains in detail the different models of uniforms, cut, color, gaiters and shape of the caps, why he has which uniform and for which occasions he wears which. He had a lot made, some bought on the Internet, some uniforms were given to him by other reenactors.

Vidor and Lenka ask the visitors whether they should put on their SS uniforms for a few photos and immediately disappear into the bathroom to change and pose in their outfit.

Both describe themselves as "proud patriots" and "patriotic lovers". Both consider Donald Trump to be a "good politician who is right on many points". Both vote for the Slovak National Party SNS. "But that is important to us: Politics does not play a role in re-enactment, just like all members of the historical clubs, we keep politics and games strictly separate, otherwise we will run into problems."

With us you can let off steam

At some point Vidor begins to tell about his Austrian friends in the re-enactment scene. He knows a lot of people from Upper Austria, Tyrol and Lower Austria who attend the festivals and are members of the historical clubs. "Of course they keep a low profile, I know that nobody in Austria is allowed to wear Nazi uniforms in public - so many Austrians come to the festivals in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, they can let off steam here," says Vidor and laughs.

For example, some of these Austrians come to a small reenactment festival in the small Czech town of Plumlov, a 2000-strong community just a few kilometers across the Austrian border.

One of the smaller events takes place here on a mild Friday at the end of September. This time fights between the Nazis and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists on one side and the Red Army on the other side are shown. The venue is a ruined castle that is adjacent to a castle belonging to the Lichtenberg family.

The show in Plumlov is tepid compared to those in Záhorie or Trenčianske Stankovce, there are no planes, no tanks and no pyrotechnics. Hardly more than 150 visitors came to see the fighting. The only highlight is a young man disguised as a Cossack and performing a traditional saber dance.

Farther over there is a man with a severe parting and an SS uniform. He sees the photo camera and the notepad of the visitors, approaches and asks what they are doing here.

The situation becomes uncomfortable, the man wants the visitors to leave the festival and kindly leave the participants alone. The man later said that he was from Vienna. He does not want to reveal his name or what he does for a living, he also strictly rejects photos. Finally, he declares himself ready for a short, anonymous conversation:

DEFAULT: Why do you take part in such reenactment festivals?

Attendees: "Every hobby has its charm."

DEFAULT: What is the attraction of this hobby?

Attendees: "I'm interested in the time, nothing more. War is the worst of all, we all agree on that, but that time was also very exciting. It's about depicting military history as a whole, we also like to play battles of the First World War II, but also after World War II, nothing more. It's a living history lesson. "

DEFAULT: What uniform are you wearing there?

Attendees: "A model from 1943 of the SS that I had specially made."

DEFAULT: Isn't it forbidden to wear something like this?

Attendees: "In Austria, yes, but not in the Czech Republic, so we have to drive over there to take part in such events."

DEFAULT: Do you also wear British, American or partisan uniforms? "

Attendees: "No, not really," says the man and ends the conversation.

Play harmless games

Back in Trenčianske Stankovce, the festival is as good as over. In front of one of the trenches stands a young man in Wehrmacht uniform and a swastika band on his right upper arm. At first he speaks broken English, then German. He doesn't want to say his name, just this much: He comes from Ried in Upper Austria and has been regularly at reenactment festivals in Slovakia and the Czech Republic for two years.

Why this? "Well, quite simply because, unlike in Austria, we can have fun here. The Austrians just don't understand that we only play harmless games here, in truth it's like the boy scouts or a sports club."

For 2020, the calendar for reenactment festivals in the Czech Republic and Slovakia was already full. Then Corona came, and all events had to be canceled without exception. "Yes, we are all sad, but it's slowly starting again, there are a few smaller events we can take part in," says Vidor in a Skype conversation and promises: "2021 will be all the bigger for that, that's where we will be I can promise you to top everything so far. " (Gunther Müller, October 3rd, 2020)