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Playing war in the midst of peace

Suzanne Cords law
August 22, 2019

Whether it's Waterloo or Stalingrad, battle reenactments are booming. In Weimar, things are less bloody: There, the excerpts of parliamentarians from the National Assembly are replayed.

Belgien Nachstellung der Schlacht von Waterloo
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

High on horseback, Napoleon Bonaparte inspects the front. Hundreds of his soldiers have taken up positions at the gates of Brussels. Opposite the French is the army of the English general Wellington. Again and again musket salvos and cannon shots thunder over the area.

A few hours later, the battle of Waterloo is over. The soldiers of both sides sit peacefully by the campfire. There were no deaths or injuries in 2019. Unlike in 1815, when many thousands of soldiers lost their lives in Waterloo..

In the uniform of the 'enemy'

Reenacting famous battles has become a booming activity. From the cannons to the uniform buttons, everything is as true to the original as possible. And even on the battlefield, people don't just shoot around; they strive for an authentic exchange of fire. But today, unlike 200 years ago, there are English people in French uniforms and Belgians or Germans in those of Wellington's troops.

Other re-enactments are similar: An Englishman may voluntarily put on a German SS uniform and fire from the trenches against his fellow countrymen. And in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, a German plays a Roman and an Italian a German.

Read more: Costumed 'merchants' journey through southern Germany

player reenacting Battle of Gettysburg
Reenacting the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg Image: picture-alliance/AP/The Evening Sun/S. Dunlap

There are many men and women who bring history back to life through historical processions and other events. However, historical battles are particularly popular throughout Europe, such as the Battle of Waterloo or Stalingrad. And in the US, they prefer to portray the battles of the American civil war between northern and southern states. The famous Battle of Gettysburg, in which Confederate General Robert E. Lee was beaten by his opponent in 1863, was reenacted 50 years later for the first time.

From the battlefield to the home front

In England the "War and Peace Revival" festival takes place every year. Around 4,000 military vehicles from World War I to high-tech vehicles from recent history get the hearts of military fans racing — as do the various reenactments of battles from this period. Around 100,000 visitors follow the spectacle. And the event would not have the word "Peace" in its name if peaceful scenes from the home front were not also depicted. Visitors can immerse themselves in the year 1943 and watch the wives of the soldiers in their everyday life in the village or stop in at a tea dance.

reenacting Battle of Stalingrad
In the trenches: Players reenact the 1942/43 Battle of Stalingrad Image: picture-alliance/RIA Novosti/K. Braga

A fantasy version of historical events?

In addition to the countless associations that deal with the authentic reenactment of historical events in their spare time, there are also commercial reenactment groups that perform in front of an audience on various occasions, such as at medieval markets. Particularly in the US and UK, tourism associations often use costumed actors to illustrate historical events to the public.

The historian Ulrike Jureit explains in an essay that the fascination for reenactments is linked with the "magic of authenticity" and the emotional and sensual experience. But she also points out that the reenactment of historical events is a rather "suspect form of memory." Identifying oneself with historical figures does not automatically mean that a historical event — despite all honest efforts — is also represented correctly.

Specialist historians often complain that reenactments lack scientific basis and historical depth. Players often resort to fantasy films and series for inspiration when reenacting events long past, including medieval battles.

Crowds at the Art Fest Weimar Reenactment
Crowds at the Art Fest Weimar Reenactment Image: Deutsches Nationaltheater und Staatskapelle Weimar

Firsthand experience of history

The players in reenactments couldn't care less about such criticism, they enjoy what they do. Experiencing history up close, for instance at the many medieval markets and historical processions, has become very popular in Germany. Reenacting battles on German soil and celebrating German commanders or generals is not common, however — also due to the fact that the Germans are sensitive in view of the most recent past.

So reenacting on August 21 and 22 the parliamentarians' 1919 exodus from the constituent National Assembly was a peaceful affair at the Kunstfest Weimar art festival, marking a day of iconic pictures of parliamentarians gathered on the stairs and balcony of the National Theater.