Nazi uniform-wearing Republican: Honest but clueless

Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for a U.S. Congressional seat in Ohio, says he wears a Nazi military uniform because he is fascinated by military history, not because he’s a Nazi sympathizer.

I believe him. But I also believe he has a thing or two to learn about history.

I love to read about history because I enjoy learning how the past shaped the world we live in today. A full understanding of history requires  you to take a broad view of past events. You can’t just interpret events to suit your own prejudices. History is about uncovering the truth. And the truth can be ugly.

Rich Iott is a millionaire businessman who is running for the  9th Congressional District in Ohio. The Atlantic has revealed that in his spare time he participates in a group that reenacts World War II battles as a unit of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, a Nazi Germany military unit noted for its valor and known for having a large number of volunteers from Northern European countries that had either been conquered by or allied with Germany during the war.

This division was also part of the Waffen SS, the military arm of the German Nazi Party. The Waffen SS was a military organization that was distinct from Germany’s traditional regular army, the Wehrmacht. In fact, commanders and enlisted men in the Wehrmacht were known to despise the Waffen SS for a variety of reasons, in particular its function as an instrument of terror. The Waffen SS was responsible for a large percentage of the war crimes Germany perpetrated in World War II. During the 1939 invasion of Poland, the Waffen SS systematically murdered thousands of Jews and Poles. When officers in the Wehrmacht complained to Hitler’s government about the brutal and inhuman behavior of the Waffen SS, those complaining officers were usually relieved of duty. The Waffen SS continued to be an instrument of terror throughout the war, but it also was a competent fighting organization that proved itself in conventional battle.

So, we have a GOP candidate for Congress who in his spare time wears the uniform of a Panzer (tank) division within the Waffen SS. This has the media in a frenzy. Iott is such an easy target. Perhaps rightly so. But even as the media takes aim at him, they miss the real issue.

After all, is it really so terrible that Iott and some friends wear these uniforms in order to reenact battles from World War II? If he liked to dress up as a British Redcoat and reenact battles from the American Revolution, would we be so riled up? Reenacting historical military events is a common pursuit in our country. These are people who enjoy military history. They enjoy learning about it, reliving it and teaching about it.

If you visit the website of Iott’s “Wiking” reenactment group, it’s quite clear the group is sincere in its pursuit of learning and teaching history.

The real problem lies in the groups misrepresentation of history.

The group’s website describes a very narrow view of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. According to Iott’s group, the division was a valiant and highly decorated military unit made up of volunteers from Holland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and other Northern European countries who wanted to fight Soviet Russia and “the threat of communism.” According to the website, these men saw Nazi Germany as the “protector of personal freedom and their very way of life.”

This historical account is highly misleading. First of all, it neglects to mention that this SS division was involved in several war crimes. For instance it assisted the Einsatzkommandos (Germany’s paramilitary SS death squads that roamed Europe rounding up and murdering Jews) in murdering at least 50 Jews. Can any reenactment of this division be fully honest without some acknowledgment of this atrocity.

Second, the most famous member of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking must be acknowledged somewhere. He is Dr. Joseph Mengele. He served as a medic in this division before getting wounded. He was reassigned to the rear and eventually served in Germany’s concentration camp system. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Mengele before, do some reading. There are many reasons why he is known as the Angel of Death.

Finally, I believe that the “Wiking” reenactors are deliberately misinterpreting the motivations the of the 5th Division’s non-German volunteers. Did these men really see Germany as the protector of personal freedom? Germany had bombed Holland back into the Stone Age. It had invaded Norway and set up a puppet regime there.  It invaded Denmark, although it let the Danish government remain in place until 1943.  Only Finland was a real ally to Germany, and in some ways it had no choice. The Soviet Union tried to conquer Finland shortly after Germany invaded Poland. The Finns turned to Germany for help.

Did these people see their conquerors as defenders of freedom? Was their main motivation to fight the spread of communism? I think the truth is more complex than the “Wiking” group would have you believe. Perhaps some of them saw Germany as a beacon of freedom. I think others were drawn to the Nazi Germany’s ideology of racial superiority and xenophobia. To many, Communist was just a euphemism for Jew or Gypsy.

I think Iott has been seduced by the idea of Europeans volunteering to fight against communism because the idea appeals to his ideology. He is a “Tea Party” candidate for Congress, which means he’s a part of the movement which thinks that anything slightly left of the political center is socialist. I think he has a romantic view of these Danes, Finns, Norwegians and Dutch men who became SS soldiers in order to fight communism and socialism because he still sees communism and socialism as an evil that plagues our country today. He’s wrong of course, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Because of their romantic view of these Nazi soldiers (and let’s not be coy, these were Nazi soldiers) and their so-called struggle against communism, Iott and his colleagues have chosen to ignore some of the more unsavory facts of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. By painting an incomplete picture of the division, they are doing a disservice to the study of history. In some ways they are rewriting it. And that is unforgivable.

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