Confederates on the Rhine

By Yoni Appelbaum
From Atlantic magazine, June 2011

Why are so many Germans participating in Civil War reenactments - and siding with the South?

"On a warm spring morning about 50 miles north of Berlin, Union troops and their Confederate rivals prepare for battle." That's the attention-grabbing lede of a PRI story on the bizarre phenomenon of Germans reenacting the American Civil War. The reporter explains that many participants feel "a personal connection to the war," and that everyone with whom she spoke took care to note that 200,000 Germans had taken part in the fight:

After World War II, any talk of military glory became socially taboo here...So for those at the reenactment, it is appealing that the U.S. Civil War took place in another country, in another time. It is safer, even romantic.   

But the two parties to the fraternal conflict exert unequal appeal. When Germans gather at the reenactments, "more people want to be on the Confederate side." That produces a surreal spectacle. Germans marching about in butternut and gray, pretending to dwell in Dixie. With Teutonic precision, they have replicated every detail, down to the brass buttons and the brightly colored piping on their trousers.   

They have missed only one thing. In their search for an anodyne conflict, lacking the baggage of their historical wars of mastery, these Germans have taken a wrong turn. The units they prefer to recreate fought to preserve an abhorrent system that kept more than three million men, women, and children in bondage while denying their very humanity. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens famously explained the essential principle of his new nation:

"Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

There is no escape from this uncomfortable truth. And unlike their American counterparts, most Confederate reenactors in Germany cannot claim to be honoring their ancestors or their heritage. There were, in fact, some 200,000 Germans who fought in the war. But by donning Confederate gray, they are betraying their legacy, not preserving it. 

"Take the [Germans] out of the Union Army and we could whip the Yankees easily," Robert E. Lee allegedly remarked. The quote, likely apocryphal, captures an important fact. Immigrants born in Germanic lands were enormously overrepresented in the Union Army. By one estimate, 176,817 donned the army blue, half again as many as their share of the overall population would have predicted. Other reliable estimates range as high as 216,000. And adding in the descendants of earlier generations of German immigrants would more than triple that total. The Germans, one contemporary judged, understood "from the beginning, the aim and the end of the civil war, [and] they have embraced the cause of the Union and emancipation with an ardor and a passion."   

If the German reenactors actually "model their characters in the reenactments after...German immigrant soldiers," as they explained to the reporter that they do, then those who wear gray have their work cut out for them. Less than 10 percent of the Germans immigrants in the United States, scarcely 70,000, dwelt in the entire territory controlled by the Confederacy at the outbreak of the war. Many fled north, with perhaps 2,000 joining the Union Army. Hundreds of those who remained petitioned the consuls of German states for protection from the draft. There were certainly some ardent secessionists, and even a few slaveholders, and between 3,500 and 7,000 Germans may have served in the Confederate Army. But of that number, many were conscripted, a large number deserted, and some mutinied. "The German minority of the South," one scholar concluded, "was all but insignificant politically, economically, and militarily during the American Civil War."  

So why are Germans dressing in Confederate Gray?

The PRI story explains that "A lot of fantasies have built up around the Confederacy; thanks to the movie Gone with the Wind, it is a staple of German popular culture." Margaret Mitchell's novel was published in Germany in 1937; over the next four years it sold 276,900 copies there, becoming the most popular American product of the era. Reviewers hoped it would salvage the reputation of the institution of slavery, redeeming it from the calumnies of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and praised its portrayal of a "wonderful, strictly regulated life," with "patriarchal, well-defined relations between black and white."

The film reached Nazi Germany in 1940. "A great American achievement," Goebbels raved, "One must see it more than once." It was reportedly one of Hitler's two favorite films. A home video shows him teasing a supporter, "I know you would rather be watching Gone with the Wind."

In itself, this reveals rather less than it may seem: Gone with the Wind may have "glamorized the Old South and romanticized the Confederacy," as historian James McPherson contends, but it is also among the most popular novels and films ever released. If German reenactors ground their affection in that imagined past, they are hardly alone.

No, the problem is that in Nazi Germany, the glamor extended beyond the magnolias and the melodrama. Hermann Rauschnning, in his memoir, alleged that Hitler regretted the outcome of the Civil War. A literal master-race, holding those it deemed inferior in hereditary bondage: this was the Confederate vision as the Nazis approvingly understood it. It was what they saw when they watched Gone with the Wind.  

It is easy to take all of this entirely too seriously. Reenacting offers participants an array of attractions, including camaraderie, respect, and the chance to step into entirely new roles. Simply put, it's fun. And it can bring a transgressive thrill. Every April, the red-coated 1st Foot Guards march on Lexington Green to disperse the rebels, but their patriotism is not in question. The Star Wars-inspired 501st Legion counts more than 5,000 active Stormtroopers, who don the armor of the original Evil Empire without stirring suspicions that they are really motivated by their seething hatred of Jawas. Some push, or step beyond, the bounds of taste. Last year, Rich Iott saw his campaign for Congress disintegrate after The Atlantic's Joshua Green reported on his weekends as a Waffen-SS reenactor, a hobby that would have seen him arrested in Germany.

Among military reenactors, the chance to fight on the losing side or to struggle against overwhelming odds exercises a particularly powerful appeal. That, after all, is an essential component of the romance of Gone with the Wind; after exalting it, the Nazis found themselves forced to ban it in the nations they occupied, where audiences cast themselves - and not the Germans - in the role of the wronged. If even the Resistance in Europe was inspired to identify with the South, why read anything sinister into the existence of German Confederates? 

Wolfgang Hochbruck, a Professor of American Studies at the University of Freiburg and a Union reenactor, is less charitable. "I think some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority," he told author Tony Horwitz. "They are obsessed with your war because they cannot celebrate their own vanquished racists." It's an unsettling thought.