I Swear I’m Not a Nazi — I Just Like the Uniforms
On being a fan of German military history
So, Nazis are bad guys. That’s not a controversial take. They rounded up people and exterminated them in death camps. They despised democracy and free expression. Millions of people of all colors and creeds died fighting them. Reasonable people look at that and understand — yes, Nazis are evil.
But evil doesn’t mean boring.
Historians, writers, journalists and artists have for years been fascinated by the Nazi regime. As a student of military history, I am, too. The Luftwaffe’s Stuka dive-bomber—which feature prominently in Chris Nolan’s film Dunkirk—was a terrifying and magnificent warplane. The Tiger tank was a marvel of engineering that dominated the battlefield when it was introduced. The MG-42 is one of the finest machine guns ever designed—its variants are still in use today.
I think most people interested in military history would admit to having at least a passing interest in the Nazi-era German military. However, it can quickly become an, uh, awkward interest. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in German history. But it can be hard to explain to people why you’re so proud of all that Nazi memorabilia you found on eBay for cheap.
The worst is when you meet someone who shares your enthusiasm for German military history. You think you’ve found a kindred spirit. And then something goes wrong. Very, very wrong.
They start to tell you that Hermann Goering was a gentleman, and had some really good ideas about society. That democracy is inefficient. He insists on going to military reenactments in an S.S. uniform—even though all the other German reenactors going wear Wehrmacht gear. He thinks that Nazi anthropologists weren’t entirely wrong about inherent racial differences and that political correctness stops us from accepting “racial realism” and building on their work.
Just about anyone interested in military history has had an awkward conversation with that guy. I recall a college classmate who was obsessed with the book The Devil’s Guard, which is about a former Waffen S.S. soldier who joins the French Foreign Legion and fights in the Indochina War against the Vietminh. He’s successful because he uses Nazi tactics such as poisoning water supplies, using human shields and savagely torturing captives.
That classmate was hoping to be an Army intelligence officer.
He asserted that there’s a lot the U.S. military could learn from that book about fighting insurgencies. There’s a few problems with that. First of all, the book—while billed as nonfiction—is widely considered a work of historical fiction. Second, the Nazis were actually pretty bad at counterinsurgency. They constantly dealt with armed partisans throughout occupied Europe. It’s one of the many reasons they lost.
I’ve met a lot of people like that. And I began thinking a lot more about of those interactions when information began to emerge about James Fields, the white supremacist who rammed his car into counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Derek Weimer, a high school history teacher who had taught, recalled a student with “some radical ideas on race.”
“A lot of boys get interested in the Germans and Nazis because they’re interested in World War II,” Weimer explained in an interview with Cincinnati’s WCPO TV. “But James took it to another level.”
Fields wasn’t just interested in the tactics and gear. He was interested in the ideology and the concept of the Aryan race, and what would happen if someone successfully created a homeland for it thrive. He ruminated on what may have hypothetically happened if Adolf Hitler had defeated the Soviets, cleansed the land and built the Aryan empire he’d envisioned.
“I developed a good rapport with him and used that rapport to constantly try to steer him away from those beliefs to show clear examples — why that thinking is wrong, why their beliefs were evil, you know, things like that,” Weimer said. “I thought at times I got through to him, but obviously not.”
The Nazis are darkly alluring—they’ve captivated us for years. They undeniably crafted an image and ethos that’s hard to shake. Even Civil Rights activist W.E.B. DuBois was impressed. The Nazis strolled around in stylish Hugo Boss designed uniforms, collected art and studied the occult.
Even pop culture such The Man In The High Castle and Inglorious Basterds—with their overtly anti-Nazi themes—take a sort of glee in taking a deep dive into Nazi aesthetics. That as much as anything else has made them popular fodder as pop-culture villains in both Oscar-winning features and trashy grindhouse fare alike.
The realities of life under the Third Reich and the territories it occupied are fading from living memory as those who remember pass away. Now, there’s a new generation curious about what the big deal was.
I grew up fascinated by the German military and the Nazi party. I played video games and read comics that put them in the foreground—often they were pulpy and ridiculous adventures that appealed to my adolescent sensibilities. But I also loved studying the real thing.
The stories of German soldiers and officers are some of the most fascinating accounts of the war. Reading Guy Sajer’s Easter Front memoir Forgotten Soldier as a teenager left a profound impression on me. Sajer was unsparing in his description of the war’s brutality and the terrible things he saw. Although he fought on the wrong side, his experience mattered.
I dare you to tell me you didn’t think this was awesome. Revolution Pictures Capture
I became fascinated by the strange stories of the Nazis in China, Europeans who pledged their loyalty to the Nazis to fight communism and of anti-Nazis in the German military who tried on multiple occasions to kill their Fuhrer. It’s a history that’s full of contradictions, ethical conundrums and complex characters.
Erwin Rommel was admired by his friends and foes alike. The scarred German S.S. commander Otto Skorzeny—who became a mercenary who once worked for Israeli clients—was like a real-life comic book villain. These guys are downright captivating. They should be studied. They should be understood. They should be humanized.
We can acknowledge that the plight of German soldiers was complex. Most were young. Many were conscripted.
Many became disillusioned with the cause they fought for. They came to understand Hitler was a liar. Some deserted. Others rebelled. Some kept fighting because the alternative, for many, was imprisonment under the Soviets.
But we should never forget that the Nazis were the bad guys. The Allies no doubt committed their share of war crimes. But Nazism is a uniquely evil ideology—and a uniquely destructive one.
The Nazis’ defeat is evidence of the ultimate failure of their ideology. The master race wasn’t so superior after all—and it was brought down by an alliance of nations with soldiers of all colors and creeds. But their ideas live on, and always will.
Nazism is like a drug. You can tell kids not to read Mein Kampf or study Nazi eugenics programs. But the more you tell them not to, the edgier it’s going to seem.
If Nazism is a drug, it’s meth.
It’s okay to be enthusiastic about military history. But we have to remember that when we nerd out about German commanders, we’re not comparing the stats of our favorite sports players. We’re talking about people who wrote the bloodiest chapter of human history.
Because Nazis are bad guys.