Thursday, March 20, 2014

Nazis (re-enactors) in Minnesota

Updates below including a comment that the whole concentration camp thing is just "water under the bridge.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in Minneapolis, a group of people held a Nazi-themed dinner at a German restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis. It turns out that they were German-themed WW2 re-enactors. 

A member of the group, Jon Boorom says:
He also maintains that members of the German WWII re-enactment groups are given extensive background checks and no neo-Nazis or "political racists" are allowed to take part in the events.
"If you wear a German uniform or a Nazi uniform, it's not like you're saying, 'I think Hitler was super cool' or 'I hate Jews' or 'I hate gays' or 'I hate democrats,'" Boorom explains. "You're not there because you believe in what Hitler stood for -- you're there to educate people about history, and a lot of that is so people don't forget. It's the same as wanting to be the bad guy when you're playing cowboys and Indians. There's an attraction to the bad side."
This claim interesting, given the Nazi tattoos on the organizer of the dinner, Scott Steben. On his right arm, he has tattoos of the Nazi SS bolts and the official SS skull on his right arm, and perhaps the eagle and swastika above that.



Steben responded to inquiries from the City Pages, which broke the story, with:
We are a historical reenactment and professional actor society dedicated to promoting understanding of World War II. In no way are we or any of our members affiliated with groups that promote the subjugation of anyone. All our members value education, equal rights and the complex relationship between good versus evil. These values shine through during our frequent public, Re-enactment Society-sanctioned reenactments of historic WWII battles and events and nationally released movie, Memorial Day. Sadly, these values were not captured in the photographs taken of us during the private dinner.
I guess once you tattoo the double bolts on your body, not drawn on for an event or something, but permanently embedded in your skin, you've kind of crossed a line. It's not to say that there aren't perfectly benign reasons for re-enacting as Nazis.

We could probably have a conversation about Nazi symbols vs the Confederate symbols in Civil War re-enacting, and I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on that. Are they the same? I'm sure there are confederate parties and dinners all over the country, though concentrated in the South of course.

But here's my other question:

What the hell is the restaurant owner, Mario Pierzchalski, thinking (other than about money) as he bedecked his restaurant with swastikas? Did the staff have a choice about working the event or not? What did they think about going to work surrounded by those symbols of genocide and evil? I see the staff in this picture, hugging the Nazi officer, flags on the wall behind them. What's on their minds?

More photos of the dinner here, like this one:



So now what, Minneapolitans and others? Is it fair to be upset at a business that takes money for a bunch of re-enactors who want to play Nazi? Because I'm upset.

------------------------------

Updates:

UMN Faculty, including one of my professors, respond, weighing in on the meaning of historical memory in this case:
We wonder what exactly the mostly male participants in this Nazi-themed dinner party were re-enacting. A militarized, fundamentally antidemocratic and ethnically cleansed community? A supremacist fantasy of conviviality stripped of its underlying genocidal violence and passed off as nice and normal? To witness fellow Minnesotans entertaining themselves in this fashion, no less at a restaurant named “Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit” — German conviviality inn — is nothing short of obscene.
Update on the staffers:
The Jan. 20 party drew concern from a Gasthof staff member, who was one of three working that night. The staffer shot at least five photos with his cellphone that show people milling about in German army uniforms with four Nazi banners hanging in one of the restaurant’s dining rooms. Another photo shows a black T-shirt adorned with a Swastika that the staff member was given by someone at the party.
The photos themselves were shown to a Star Tribune reporter by a friend of the staffer. Neither agreed to be identified.
The staffer was fired Friday after he admitted to Gasthof’s owner Mario Pierzchalski that he took the photos and shared them with friends.
More updates on the details of working the event:
He told us that during an event, one of the group members asked him if he was German. When he told the group member he was Polish, he was asked if he had any family in the war.
"I said, 'Yes, my grandfather was in a Nazi concentration camp.' And they said 'Oh, well, water under the bridge then,'" the source says.
The group in the photos visited Gasthof's at least once each month and was given a private room in the back of the restaurant, according to another former employee who worked at Gasthof's for eight years before being terminated in December for unrelated reasons.
The former employee chose to opt out of attending the events, but heard about them from co-workers, he says. Only longtime servers and staff members were told the details.
"They would always ask people if they were German," the source says of the guests. "One of my wife's friends who was actually a server at the time, I think she was asked because she was German, they said, 'Oh we can make the perfect babies together because you're German and I'm German.'"
There was also a T-shirt with the swaztika and eagle and "tour dates" on the back to commemorate Nazi conquests.

The most important line here is, "water under the bridge." Atrocities? Meh, just water under the bridge according to this Nazi (re-enactor).

I am having increasingly difficulty writing about this dispassionately.

4 comments:

Adam Strong-Morse said...

Don't miss the implicit racism in the quote by Boorom. "It's the same as wanting to be the bad guy when you're playing cowboys and Indians." I assume Boorom views "cowboys and Indians" as a game of heroic white settlers fighting off attacks from "bad guy" non-white Indians.

There likely is a sense in which it's true that people are attracted to Nazism because of a sense of "evil is cool." Black uniforms, Totenkopfs, etc. seem to have some popular appeal as markers of cool bad-asses. The fixation on minutia of Nazi uniforms, organizations, etc., that shows up in the war gaming community and certain amateur history work reflects that. But I think it's a critical blunder to divorce the idea of people thinking that Nazi symbols are cool from people being attracted to neo-fascist or racial supremacist ideologies--my impression is that the two are deeply linked, and have been deeply linked throughout the history of fascism. Put another way, some of the ideology of death associated with fascism was part of Nazisms recruitment and fascism-building structure, and it continues to serve that role today in the neo-Nazi movement.

David Perry said...

I /did/ miss that Adam. Thank you. I, uh, just assumed the cowboys were the badguys. Of course that's not what he meant.

And the rest of your comment seems right on to me.

Lisa Amor Petrov said...

I think some people don't seem to understand, they don't get to reenact someone else's trauma. And why exactly on MLK Jr. Day? Killing two birds with one stone, sounds like to me.

Thanks for sharing this because my (black) husband was singing the praises of Minneapolis the other day. I will have to share this with him to disavow him of any illusions.

David Perry said...

Minneapolis rocks. I'd move there in a second. And not eat at this restaurant. :)

I don't, for the record, think these guys are neo-Nazis. I think they mostly feel that dressing up like Nazis is the equivalent of doing cosplay as a Batman villain. No historical context. Uncaring about the genocide. This doesn't excuse them - in some ways, it condemns them even more firmly.