Saturday, June 12, 2010

World-War 2 Re-Enactment at the Great Central Railway

World-War 2 was a horrible event. The countries who won it, celebrate their victory in annual events, those who lost it have events commemorating the horrors and crimes which have been committed. Nobody in his right mind would celebrate the war itself, right?

Well, wrong, there is one country which does exactly that, and this is England. A celebration of the war itself may be strange to most people who think that war is a terrible thing and that the only thing to celebrate is that it is over. But in England the mood is somewhat different, for various reasons. A country which had been largely a victim in World-War 2, such as France, Poland or Russia, would never have a re-enactment of these events - the memories are just too horrible, or too embarrassing. Of course, in Germany itself such a re-enactment would be unthinkable. What would one re-enact there? Concentration camps? Air raids? Destruction of whole cities? No, there is absolutely nothing to celebrate. And the USA? Well, most of the country during 1941-1945 operated almost as before, with a few limitations and restrictions, the troops were fighting far away, and life for many people seemed mostly to go on as it did before.

This puts the UK in a very special position: on the one hand the country was subject to severe war action, by air raids and bombings which led to significant destruction and presented a danger to everybody in the country. And on the other hand, because the country did not experience an invasion, it did not suffer the very bad consequences which the occupied countries did. Furthermore, Britain is in the unique position of having been the only country in Europe that successfully resisted the Nazi-German aggression after September 1939, staying true to its commitment to Poland and standing up against dictatorship and for democracy. This fact still fills many people here with pride, as I could notice when observing the general attitude of people and the reporting in the news. The war time in Britain also brought people in the country closer together: everybody made sacrifices; taxes were 50% and up for everybody; holidays were cancelled, people tried to save resources, worked overtime, often in volunteer work. This overall attitude of personal sacrifice for the war effort appeared to have engrained itself into the collective memory, as this overall attitude disappeared after the war. This is what many of the old veterans and contemporaries of the war time talk about in their memories, and so it is very understandable that Britain is very proud of its role in World-War 2.

One should also consider that after WW2, the situation in the UK remained austere for quite some time - in 1955 the country still had food rationed and people were not allowed to take money with them when travelling abroad, whereas in Germany which was the physically and morally defeated country, the "Wirtschaftswunder" (economic miracle) had already brought back prosperity to wide parts of the population. These facts and the economic downturn in the following decades in Britain (loss of coal and steel industry, decline of much of the manufacturing industry) also made these 1940s appear more glamorous than the present times.

Therefore, these 1940s weekends in which the wartime itself is being commemorated and celebrated, started being organised sometime after the war, and they have grown into joyous celebrations of the time back then. People dress up in costumes from the 1940, with original hairdo and makeup, original uniforms, period-correct cars and other vehicles. One of the calendars of 1940s events reveals just how many individual such events are being organised throughout the year! Many of these events are organised around heritage steam trains: these provide the realistic backdrop, with steam engines from that time, and with train stations which have been restored to accurately represent the 1940s.

Since the English are good sports, these events not only show the English history, but also include "the enemy": the re-enactment includes the ficticious assumption that one train station would be located in occupied France. And suddenly, one of the train stations is decorated with the Nazi-Flag and is swarmed with German officers and soldiers, and also the odd SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer walks around, with the Swastica-armband well visible. The actors who play those Nazi officials seem to enjoy their roles and pay meticulous attention to details in the uniform.

When I saw such a re-enactment for the first time a few years ago, I was somehow shocked, after all the pre-conditioning from TV documentaries: turning around a corner in Ingleton and seeing a man in black SS-uniform sipping a cup of tea, discussion with his English-uniformed colleagues. Looked very real and unreal at the same time. Last autumn I visited a 1940 weekend at the North York Moor railway, and there too were those friendly SS men. Well, these are British - I assume the originals were not as friendly.

And this weekend, when my friend Kishor (who is originally from India, but is a US citizen who now lives in Denmark) came for a visit, I decided to go with him to the 1940 weekend of the Great Central Railway. Everything was there: Steam trains, people in original 1940s clothing, impersonators of Churchill and Montgomery, British troops in uniform, military vehicles, also US soldiers, and - the Germans. Two stations were designated as being in German-occupied France: Rothley and North Leicester. Rothley had German beer for sale, North Leicester offered red wine and baguette with Camembert. There was a control post at the North Leicester station, controlled by German soldiers. With the ticket for the day we had been given "ID cards": one side in English, the other side in German, with all the period symbols and icons there... In the train an SS 0fficer checked these ID cards before we arrived in Rothley. There a battle was being played: English soldiers attack a German army unit. Lots of explosions, smoke, gunfire. I suppose the English won.

At Quorn station which was at the centre of all the events, a Spitfire airplane flew by and showed some acrobatic flying.

I still felt strange when seeing those German uniforms: they stand for so much horror, and one might think that one is not supposed to enjoy such a theatrical re-enactment when so much serious history is behind it. However, this historic play does have a positive effect: it makes the history somewhat more alive than just watching a documentary on TV. One can be immersed in the past (to some degree) and get a real experience, and this experience contributes to a more lasting memory than anything else. Of course one must replace in mind those friendly re-enactors with the rough reality... but we know that already from all those documentaries.

So I must say that this celebration of the 1940s in England is a phantastic way of experiencing history, as long as one is taking into account that this in some ways a bit of a glorification which leaves the real negative parts out.

I put the pictures of this event in a set on Flickr. Below are a few selected photos.


Anonymous said...

Aha, deshalb also die Kampfansagen bezüglich des Fußballs.

Reinhold Behringer said...

Ja, Fussball ist sozusagen die Weiterfuehrung des Weltkriegs - mit anderen Mitteln.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog. Actually, Poland probably has the most thriving reenactment community of the lot.