The summary is simple:
Republican congressional candidate Rich Iott dressed up as a Nazi, repeatedly, for over three years, with others who enjoyed his pasttime. He did so because he thought it was fun, and, he said, to bond with his son.
Understanding what happened is more complex than this summary makes it seem.
Rich Iott put on a Nazi SS uniform in order to join a group of grown men who liked to pretend to be Nazi members of the SS. Iott encouraged his son to join the group, but claims it was never done out of admiration for the Nazi ideology. Rather, Iott says, in pretending to be a Nazi military group called the Wikings, which was a hybrid of German Nazis and non-German Nazis, he was finding camaraderie while exploring the history of World War II, and educating people about that history.
It’s true that not all military re-enactors agree with the political ideology of the armies that they portray on pretend battlefields. However, it’s also true that many military re-enactors seek out opportunities to pretend to be involved in past military conflicts because they sympathize with the political agenda of regimes associated with those conflicts.
I participated a Civil War re-enactment in Missouri once, invited to join in by a co-worker. The re-enactment was purposefully inaccurate, however, portraying a Confederate victory that never existed. A few of the participants were interested in history in an abstract sense, but most of the people I talked to there were involved in the re-enactment because they identified with the Confederacy, and wished that the South had won. Some even expressed support for a new Southern secession.
The official line of Rich Iott’s Nazi Wiking re-enactment group is that the group does not tolerate racism. “This page or anyone involved in its creation, or members of reenactment groups listed here, are in no way affiliated with real, radical political organizations (i.e., KKK, Aryan Nation, American Nazi Party, etc.) and do not embrace the philosophies and actions of the original NSDAP (Nazi party), and wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities which made them infamous.”
The sad truth, however, is that many White Supremacist groups also post such disclaimers to the public, while promoting vicious racial hatred in private. Is the Nazi Wiking re-enactment group’s disclaimer of this variety? That’s not certain.
However, the Nazi Wiking re-enactment group’s web site shows some disturbing unwillingness to acknowledge the role of the German Army in supporting Nazi ideology and atrocities. The group contends that German soldiers who fought as Nazis are worthy of “honor”, declaring, “we salute their courage and loyalty to put their lives on the line in defense of their native soil, no matter what nationality or government.”
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong in putting on a Nazi uniform in order to depict a World War II battle so that people can learn about history. However, in honoring Nazi soldiers, Rich Iott’s Nazi Wiking re-enactment group went further than that. In particular, the Wiking re-enactment group claims that the Wiking Nazis were “volunteers who came from the various Northern European countries allied with Hitler’s Germany who only had a desire to see an end to Soviet Communism.”
Did this group “only” have a desire to end Communism? They acted to protect Nazi Germany and its atrocities. Wearing swastika rings as signs of racial purity, the Wiking soldiers prevented early liberation of the concentration camps in which Jews were slaughtered. It’s a gross mischaracterization of history to say that the Wiking Nazis were only anti-Communists, and didn’t embrace Nazi ideology. Wiking Finns joined the unit as part of the Finnish embrace of the concept of aryan superiority. The Wiking Nazis are accused of slaughtering Hungarian Jews in 1945. In spite of the nasty reality of the Wiking unit’s role in enabling the Holocaust and spreading militant white supremacism, Rich Iott’s group called the Nazi Wikings “idealists” who fought for “a basic desire to be free.”
As a member of the Nazi Wiking re-enactment group, Rich Iott didn’t just put on military re-enactments. He helped to spread a myth of good Nazis.
If all Rich Iott wanted to do was to find a way to explore World War II history, he could have read a book. If all Iott wanted to do was spend time with his son, he could have gone camping. If all Iott wanted to do was take part in a military re-enactment, he could have joined in a group conducting re-enactments of the War of 1812.
The fact that Rich Iott chose to lead his teenage son in dressing up as Nazi SS soldiers is deeply disconcerting. The re-enactment of historical battles, after all, has symbolic meaning for the person taking part. The enthusiast, who devotes spare time for years on end to such projects, as Iott did, is engaging in a ritual of re-creation of the self. Iott admits as much, saying that he was “really trying to get into the persona of the time period. In many, not just in our unit, but in many units what individuals do is create this person largely based on a Germanized version of their name”. Iott wasn’t content to put on an educational show. While in Nazi uniform, he tried to actually become a Nazi. The kind of person who engages in this kind of long-term creation of a Nazi alter-ego, physically playing the role for long periods of time, isn’t temperamentally fit to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
However, Rich Iott isn’t just wrong for Congress because he dressed up as a Nazi. He’s wrong because his extremist politics would create a historical re-enactment of the worst mistakes of the last generation.
Iott wants us to re-enact the industrial pollution of the 20th century, ignoring the reality of global warming. Iott wants us to re-enact the health care crisis of the late 20th century, in which insurance company panels denied health care coverage to huge numbers of Americans who had paid for their policies. Iott wants to re-enact the politics that led to the American Civil War by re-establishing the Confederate system of “states rights”. Iott wants to re-enact the unnecessary invasion of Iraq by keeping American soldiers there fighting with no plan for their return home.
Iott’s opponent, incumbent Marcy Kaptur, has been far from an ideal member of Congress. She’s not been a progressive Democrat, and has sided too often with congressional Republicans. However, Kaptur is by far to be preferred to the backward looking extremism of Rich Iott.