German soldiers on Maryland train spark historical debate

It was billed as light entertainment, a ride back to the 1940s on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad complete with Abbott and Costello impersonators entertaining passengers during the annual "Cumberland Goes to War" festivities.

But the inclusion last weekend of volunteers playing German soldiers and wearing uniforms bearing swastikas gave the excursion a far more somber feel, and sparked strong reaction from at least one passenger as Veterans Day approached.

"There is no way to have a swastika, there is no way to have the Nazis, there is no way to have this presented that is not inherently offensive," said Marcia Lurensky, a Washington lawyer who was riding in the first-class cabin of the train and said she found the depiction of Axis soldiers deeply disturbing and insensitive.

Lurensky's response and similar controversies surrounding war re-enactments elsewhere in the country illustrate the fine line between conveying historical events and glorifying a dismal past, or even reopening wounds.

While playing out depictions of older wars from American history is generally not controversial, conflicts that are fresher present challenges and evoke strong emotions, according to those who have studied the topic.

"The re-enactment of battles from more recent wars like World War II and Vietnam, with some participants playing Nazis or Vietcong, has a different flavor," Jenny Thompson, the author of a book on 20th-century war re-enactors, wrote in The New York Times. "For real survivors, some whose memories are still raw, the safe historical distance collapses."

Controversy over depictions of German soldiers was in the news last month, when photographs surfaced of a congressional candidate from Ohio wearing a Nazi SS uniform. Rich Iott argued that he participated in war re-enactments with his son out of historical interest, but he lost the support of some Republican leaders.

Those who took part in the Cumberland festivities — which included a period fashion show and stories from veterans — said they were providing an accurate depiction of World War II-era scenes. The presence of German soldiers, re-enactors said, educates spectators about both sides of the war, while also making clear the challenge American and Allied forces had to overcome. The soldiers on the train were not depicting an actual event, but were instead providing a wartime tableau.

"The goal of my re-enactment group is strictly to demonstrate what the American soldier, the Allied soldier, was facing as they went into D-Day, and what they had to do in order to win our freedom," said Gilbert White, who displayed war artifacts at a campground in Cumberland but was not on the train.

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the acceptable display and use of the German or Nazi uniform depends on context.

"If they were trying to depict the horrors of Nazi Germany, I would applaud them," Abramson said of the re-enactors. "You just can't make a general statement, that 'Oh, it's bad because they're wearing a uniform.'"

One risk that World War II re-enactors recognize and guard against is the infiltration of their group by Nazi sympathizers or members of hate groups. Vendors hoping to ply their wares in Western Maryland last weekend were warned on a registration form that while they could bring both Allied and Axis military merchandise, no "Neo-Nazi or extremist activity of any kind will be tolerated."

White said a small minority of other German-soldier re-enactors he has encountered in his 14 years have displayed radical ideology, but that those people are quickly flushed out of legitimate groups. "Everyone in my group is an American; we don't hold any beliefs other than American ideology," White said. "We're not Fascists, we're not Communists, we're not Nazis. We're just ordinary people."

Re-enactors who play German troops often put up with physical and verbal abuse from spectators, he said.

Becky McClarran, a member of the Downtown Cumberland Business Association who coordinated last weekend's events, said having both German and American sides present is standard practice at re-enactments.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people that come recognize that you can't have a war without both sides," McClarran said, adding that in the three years the event has been held, her office has received two complaints regarding the depictions of Germans, including Lurensky's.

This year's "Cumberland Goes to War" was put on with the support of the Allegany County tourism department, the Canal Place Development and Preservation Commission and Cumberland city government. Local museums also participated in the weekend's festivities, which aimed to replicate life in Cumberland in the wartime era and included a 1940s-style fashion show, swing dance lessons, and roundtable discussions with veterans.

Lurensky said she took particular issue with the depiction of Allied soldiers as prisoners of the Germans, which she noted did not occur in the United States during the war and was offensive to veterans present. She said when she voiced her dissatisfaction on the train, she was ridiculed by some of the re-enactors, who said she should "get over it."

She said she has since has filed complaints with railroad administrators, state legislators, and city officials about the content of the day's entertainment, which she said included one soldier making rounds with a German shepherd dog and checking passengers' identification. Casper R. Taylor Jr., the former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates from Cumberland, has advised the event's organizers in the past, and said he did not understand why anyone would be offended.

"It's unfortunate that someone would attempt to turn a very innocent re-enactment of history into something that is deemed to be prejudicial," Taylor said.

But John Kelly, a re-enactor active in the Delaware Valley region, said he can understand why some spectators would find certain depictions offensive. Kelly, who lives in New Jersey, said his group does not allow individuals dressed as SS or Nazi troops, and frowns on the presence of merchandise bearing swastikas, opting instead to include only groups who depict ordinary German soldiers.

"It's gonna start an uproar that's going to distract from the event," Kelly said.

McClarran said no SS or swastika flags were allowed at the weekend's events, but said that to ban swastikas on the uniforms could compromise historical accuracy, to which re-enactors are doggedly devoted. White said the standard German army uniform usually has a swastika on the left breast about a quarter-inch in size. A soldier's medals might display a swastika about three-eighths of an inch in size, he said.

"At 10 feet away you cannot possibly see these insignia," White said. "We go out a lot, and nobody recognizes them."

Lurensky maintains that for her, "there is no way to wear a Nazi uniform, period, and have it be anything other than offensive."

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