When in 2004 the successful but controversial film "The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich" was showing in cinemas, and German audiences appeared to be deeply affected by the story of Hitler’s last days in his bunker, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that some of the extras in the film were professed right-wing extremists. One of them, Karl Richter, who has been convicted for extremist crimes, played the adjutant to General Field Marshal Keitel and described this experience in a right-wing monthly magazine as unique and thrilling. He said that the movie showed Hitler to be "a man of flesh and blood" and that the "authentic atmosphere" on the set gripped everyone emotionally. For him personally, it was very moving "when Hitler shook hands with me". Unfortunately, he noted, this scene was later cut from the film.
Although this remarkable and grotesque description of an experience on the set refers to a filmed and fictional account of past events, it also highlights the significant features of historical reenactment. This can and should be understood as a form of appropriating history that centers on actions and bodily presence in the tradition of historical pageants and festivals, the British pageant movement, and genuinely artistic reenactments. Related forms such as live action role playing (LARP) and the educational "living history" approach of museums are also enjoying growing popularity. Nevertheless, the reliving of war and civil war events is still regarded as the classic version of reenactment. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1789 and 1815, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the European wars of unification from 1864 to 1871, and World War I are among the favored reference events. Apparently the pompous spectacle of war offers the mostly male amateur actors the emotional resources which seem to be indispensable for creating the magical moment of "being there" in history. "Not to show how it was, but to find out how it might have felt", is how one might quote Ulf Otto to describe the emotional value of these in a certain sense romantic productions. The parallels to other, similarly emotionalized or experiential learning approaches to history are unmistakable, but at the same time, this kind of historical play also exhibits specific characteristics. Reenactment is a present-day and actor-related form of historical appropriation that does not intend to impart something to the audience or to depict history as such. Rather, it constitutes itself in the area of tension between ritual and play and is aimed at an individual and collective actualization of historical events in an emotional experience. The reenactor wants to create corporeal proximity to the historical experience by acting it out in an authenticated context and with props that are true to detail. Although he follows a certain script, the course of action is by no means rigidly defined. This inevitably allows for some creative leeway and options for action so that in the "heat of the battle" the impression seems to arise that the actor is actually at a historical event taking place in the present.
Ritualized repetition proves to be a form of recollection that does not attempt to cognitively understand history but rather to make it a sensual experience. Reliving war and violence as play reveals the paradox of simulated historical appropriation in a significant way, because the prerequisite for this kind of war spectacle is precisely the fact that it will not recreate the genuine emotional core of historical war experience. When some 50,000 soldiers died or were seriously wounded within three days at the Battle of Gettysburg, what emotional content could possibly be relived more than 150 years later? Nevertheless, it would be too easy to simply dismiss reenactment as naïve historical theater. To do so would ignore the fact that the rewriting of history is never a question of whether but always a question of how. Reenactment is certainly a special form of the public use of history and one which professional historiography finds rather dubious. As a cultural phenomenon, however, this ritualized play highlights society’s growing need to call to mind its own history in ways that address the senses.
(Last modified March 2013)