Public Events: A Response to Questions About Atrocities

I have been to many dozens of public events, dressed as a WWII German soldier and providing historical interpretation. From time to time, someone will ask me a pointed question about war crimes, Nazi atrocities or the Holocaust. I don’t bother to try to figure out if this is out of legitimate historical interest, or if it’s a loaded question; I always respond the same way. Something like:

“Every part of the WWII German armed forces was complicit in war crimes and the Holocaust. It’s true that many German soldiers were conscripts, and the motivations of the men and women who fought on the German side were varied and complex. But there is no doubt that every person who took up arms for the German side ultimately helped to enforce the genocidal policies of Hitler’s totalitarian fascist regime.”

I find that this response satisfies the people looking for a real answer and I also believe it defuses people looking to get offended and maybe have a confrontation. By openly stating this truth, and specifically mentioning the Holocaust, you erase any suspicion that you are a revisionist, an apologist, or a denier. At the same time, avoiding words like “evil” helps you steer clear of moral judgements, which are a slippery slope that can become a trap. To me, the only thing worse than saying “we play the bad guys” is saying “we don’t play the bad guys.” I encourage people not to get into that dichotomy at all.

I also strongly encourage people not to say “The Allies did crimes too” unless that is what the spectator specifically insists on talking about. You aren’t dressed in an Allied uniform, they aren’t asking about Allied war crimes, and if you head down that path they will think you are trying to deflect. And they will be right.