Eye has expressed concern in the past about the activities of so called Second World War re-enactors on Heritage Railways.
Although nothing prepared your editor for the story in today's Daily Telegraph which alleged that the following took place on the East Lancashire Railway this weekend:
- One man attending the event in Ramsbottom and Bury, Greater Manchester, was spotted impersonating Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo and one of the main architects of Nazi Germany.
- Others in the 10,000-strong crowd wore some of the insignia of Hitler’s most ruthless SS troops, the Schutzstaffel, Allgemeine SS and SS-Totenkopfverbände – the last of these responsible for Germany’s major concentration camps.
- A Jewish couple who turned up expecting to enjoy afternoon English tea dances and a fly-past by a Second World War Spitfire claim they were asked to consider dressing up as Holocaust victims.
Clearly whatever 'good-will' the East Lancs had hoped to gain from the event is close to having drained away.
Meanwhile the waves caused by the story contained in the Telegraph have already rippled out as far as the Jewish community in Berlin.
Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild has written the following open letter to UK media:
7th. June 2012.
As a railway enthusiast, an (amateur) railway historian and a member of the World War 2 Railway Study Group, as well as a rabbi serving congregations in Germany and Austria, I have a fairly wide perspective on the issues that are always raised by 'Nostalgic Wartime Events'. There are several problems; one is Ignorance, one is Thick-Headedness, and one is perhaps real Evil.
Ignorance of the realities of the Second World War is widespread - and yet there is little excuse for this, for it took place in a time of film and photography and there are even now a few veterans left to tell their tales. For many English people the first thought will perhaps be of 'Dad's Army' (and maybe 'Allo Allo') - and while others may be able to think of terms like Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, Blitz, D-Day and so forth, the fact remains that Britain was on the side that won the war (just - it was a much closer result than many people realise) and so one can look back with nostalgia on having won, on having been on 'the good side'. This enables the RAF's 'Battle of Britain Flight' to display national pride, old soldiers to march to the Cenotaph, old men to wear their medals with pride, and so forth - and rightly so.
From the German perspective things are more complicated. No-one really wants to see commemorative flights of Focke-Wulfs and Dorniers and Heinkels - (though a Ju 52 flies regularly over Berlin for tourists); The Reichsbahn of the period was used to transport not just munitions and troops but many millions of Forced Labourers, Deportees, Prisoners of War - and later on fleeing civilians and hundreds of thousands of wounded, and later starving civilians hunting for food, and repatriated concentration camp survivors - this was by no means only an issue of Jews, or of Sinti and Roma, though of course several million were also transported by rail to the places where they were to be starved, shot or gassed. Men, women and children.
So whilst many Class 52 'Kriegsloks' have survived (many of them actually in the rebuilt version of the DDR Reichsbahn) and some still run, there is no desire to create an 'authentic train' of goods vans and cram them with starving, scared passengers with no toilet facilities. When a 'nostalgic' train runs to allow modern passengers to 'travel like in Grandad's time' (as the flyers and posters advertise) this normally means four-wheel 'Thunderbox' coaches or bogie 'Eilzugwagen'.
The Swastika symbol is officially banned here; Exceptions are made for certain cultural matters (such as old films) and museums - so in the transport museums in Berlin and Nürnberg E19 electric locos of the period are portrayed in their original liveries - complete with symbols.
Thick-Headedness exists when people say "I know all this, but still I think it would be fun to walk up and down the platform dressed as though the Wehrmacht really had invaded Britain in 1940'. (Think of the novel 'The Eagle has Landed.') Since this is historically incorrect - thank goodness - there can be no thought of 'authenticity' here. An 8F or a Black 5 hauling LMS coaches or Mark 1's filled with SS troops is something that thankfully never happened. So to insist on dressing up like this is just stupid. But not necessarily evil.
Then there are the Evil ones; those who wish it had been true, those who wear these uniforms and symbols because, for whatever reason (don't they have girl friends?) they think the Nazi ideology was correct for its time and would be appropriate for modern times too. Such people are unfortunately gaining political power in several European countries at the moment and they scare the hell out of anyone with enough sense and enough historical knowledge to know what this kind of racist, nationalistic, extremist ideology can lead to - and did lead to. For such people one can have nothing but contempt.
The East Lancs Railway - one can see from the efforts put into controlling uniforms - was aware of these dangers and did attempt to put measures in place to cope with the Evil and maybe the Thick-Headed - but unfortunately the Great British Public is famous for its Ignorance. My own proposal for any future events - if they are to be held, and this period is after all NOT a taboo for us - would be to concentrate much more in advance on preparing a few typical and authentic British cameos - for example, a 'Children's Evacuation Train' with kids wearing labels round their necks being waved off; or a Troop Train, (maybe also one with American or Canadian 'troop's?); or a train of military vehicles with an escort coach; or even an Ambulance Train with stretcher cases being loaded. In all cases there should be an accompanying educational effort - leaflets or flyers or brochures which explain perhaps a few historical facts (How many troop trains ran after Dunkirk and where to? Where were chidren evacuated to? Where did the ambulance trains run? How many bomb attacks took place on British stations? How many railwaymen were killed while on duty?) - in other words, make it not a 'Fun' event but an Educational one.
It will still be a matter of taste whether one should dwell on this period at all, but I personally see no reason why not - so long as it is done for these motives, and not just to allow some people who, for reasons known only to themselves and their mothers, have full SS uniforms and regalia hanging in their bedroom wardrobes, a chance to wear them in public.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.
Perhaps time for all heritage railways to undertake some serious reflection on the structure of any future Second World War based events?