At what point does authentic historical re-enactment become an insensitive demonstration?
That question prompted debate after photos of a World War II-themed German dinner party, complete with Nazi uniforms and hanging Nazi flags, hit the Internet.
Northeast Minneapolis German restaurant Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit hosted the event during the holidays, CityPages first reported. The site provided one photo, submitted by a reader, showing men dressed in World War II-era German military garb sitting at tables, with two Nazi flags hanging from the rafters in the background.
Reddit user ttrpsl posted two photos he or she says are from the event on Imgur:
The user also says the dinner took place on Jan. 20 of this year, not last December as some articles have suggested.
CityPages quoted Jon Boorom, a member of the WWII Historical Re-enactment Society, who says he was at the event. He describes it as a Star Trek convention, but for WWII enthusiasts.
"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 tells CityPages. "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."
He tells CityPages the Christmas dinner is an annual event during the group's slower season, held for 16 years now. The last six have been at Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit. The group's members are also involved in educational activities, he says.
The group runs background checks, he adds, to ensure neo-Nazis and political racists are not allowed in.
Another re-enactor, who wished to remain anonymous, released a statement saying he was distressed about the stories, WCCO reports. According to the station, he says the attendees are not connected to neo-Nazi organizations or Nazi sympathizers; nor was the use of Nazi symbols at the dinner meant to "invoke or promote any racial hatred."
The anonymous man adds the group will give more thought to future events, to "prevent others from misinterpreting the actions" of re-enactors at any kind of function.
The WWII Historical Re-enactment Society wrote a post on its Facebook page, saying it never "hosted, supported, or financed" a dinner or event at Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit.
Since the story came out, Gawker, Huffington Post, Daily Mail and others have run the photos. And in each comment section, a debate begins: Was this an insensitive use of historic materials tied to arguably the most tragic event in recent human history? Or are the people attending committing to their craft by remaining authentic, in the same way members participating on the Allied side may have done?
The owner of Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit declined to comment when asked by CityPages and the Daily Mail, and a request for comment from the Huffington Post was not returned.
Back in 2010, the New York Times spoke with members of groups who participated in historical re-enactments as Nazis. The piece was sparked by an image of a Republican Congressional candidate in a full Nazi unfiorm surfaced. The candidate, Rich Iott of Ohio, said his admiration for the German military was based only on their military prowess.
"I've always been fascinated ... I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them," he said, according to the paper. "From a purely historical military point of view, that’s incredible."
He admitted to being a member of the 5. SS Wiking re-enactment group – which has the following disclaimer at the bottom of its page.
"Disclaimer: This website, anyone involved in its creation, or members of re-enactment 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). We wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities that made them infamous."
Iott lost the election.
Another re-enactment group, the 9. Waffen SS Panzer Division, says it's "fighting to keep history alive." But adds they are "not a neo-nazi organization, nor do we subscribe to the ideas, ideals, goals, or aspirations of any extremist or far right-wing groups, nor are we affiliated with any such organizations. For the hobby of reenacting to function, both sides of the conflict must be represented. As such, we have taken on the role of an elite German formation of World War II."
The New York Times for a 2009 piece on re-enactments wrote such events take place "almost every weekend" in the United States. That, of course, often includes people in the role of German soldiers.
The Oregonian reported on a police captain who was found to have built a memorial to Nazi soldiers in his backyard – he was described as a history buff, who collected war memorabilia and participated in re-enactments. But the Portland Police Performance Review Board found Kruger brought "discredit and disgrace" to the bureau and the city with his memorials.