Jesse’s Heroes

Historical reenactors turn World War II into a virtual-reality game. Someone has to play the bad guys, but why would anyone want to play these bad guys?

On a bright Sunday morning, young men carrying uniforms, helmets, and rifles trickle down a deserted street in an industrial area of Hayward. No one takes much notice as they disappear one by one into a warehouse.

In a cluttered back corner, the men pull on the uniforms, lace up boots, and pile camouflage jackets, daggers, and grenades on the floor. Last to arrive is a new recruit, a quiet fifteen-year-old named Drew. His uniform is new and clean: he is wearing a crisp gray shirt tucked into a pair of spotless green wool trousers. Though he has fought in only one battle, the older men think the fresh-faced kid has what it takes to be one of them.

“Check you out!” one calls to him approvingly. “You’re a star!”

Drew beams, his cheeks turning red beneath the peach fuzz.

“You’re gonna look good,” another tells him. “The Germans were young. You’re gonna look like a Nazi!”

Telling someone they look like a Nazi is not an insult in the Infantry Section of the 9th Panzer Division of the Waffen-SS, Northern California chapter. About once a month, the members of the 9th SS come from across the Bay Area to dress up in German uniforms and reenact the battles of World War II. It’s not for everyone. Playing a World War II German soldier appeals to a different kind of man. As the unit’s Web site explains, it’s the ultimate experience for “a man who will strive for the excellence that each one of us has within ourselves. A man who, like the Waffen-SS soldier, doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘impossible.’ “

While the members of the 9th SS casually call each other Nazis, they cringe when other people do the same. Jesse Lillefjeld, the 22-year-old head of the unit’s infantry section, resents it when anyone suggests that his hobby might actually have some connection to Nazism. “It drives me nuts when people will be all, ‘Man, what do you do? So you’re like a Nazi?’ I can’t stand people using that word!” he groans. Being a historical reenactor is not about imitating the heavily accented sadists from movies such as Schindler’s List or Raiders of the Lost Ark, he says. It’s about playing men, not monsters. “I’m not walking around in a black uniform and armband, rounding up people, kicking in doors, and being a thug,” he says. “I’m trying to portray a person in history.”

That person in history happens to be a soldier in one of the most notorious fighting forces of the past century. The Waffen — or combat — SS began as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard before it became the elite military wing of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the Nazi security organization that ran the death camps. It eventually grew into a force that rivaled the regular German army, with nearly one million soldiers spread across Europe from the hedgerows of Normandy to the outskirts of Moscow. The troops of the Waffen-SS were known as “asphalt soldiers” — fearless in battle, fanatical, and ruthless. At the Nuremberg tribunals, the entire force was branded a criminal organization, and dozens of its officers were sentenced for war crimes. In his history of the SS, Order of the Death’s Head, German historian Heinz Höhne wrote, “Stories of barbaric treatment of prisoners of war and civilians by the SS units were as numerous as the tales of SS bravery.”

It is those tales of bravery and military prowess that draw Lillefjeld and the others in his unit to put on the uniform of the Waffen-SS. Historical reenactment, they say, is a way to discover what it was really like to be a frontline combatant in the bloodiest war in history. Reenactment, explains Lillefjeld, is a way of creating a “personalized” version of historical events. It’s not, he insists, just about dressing up and playing shoot-’em-up. “A lot people think it’s just a gaming system. Okay, it is to some. But to a lot of people it’s more — it’s living history.”

That oxymoronic phrase is the way serious reenactors prefer to describe their hobby. Think of it as historical research meets virtual reality. Why watch another documentary on the History Channel or read the latest Stephen Ambrose book when you could be in the thick of battle, dodging bullets and shooting like a real soldier? As one reenactor puts it, “Imagine your favorite movie. Now imagine stepping into that movie.” Battle reenactments are supposed to look and feel real — if you can forget that your gun is firing blanks, that there is no blood when you’re shot, and that death is just a temporary inconvenience. And when it’s all over you can go home, clean the grit from under your fingernails, take a long hot shower, open a beer, and pop Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the Gates into the VCR.

The men who reenact — and the vast majority are men — spend their weekends running around state parks, military bases, and farms, dressed in replica uniforms, lugging heavy bolt-action rifles, storming Nazi machine-gun nests, and leading suicidal charges against the Bolshevik hordes. They join units like the American 101st Airborne, the British 3rd Paratroop Brigade, the Russian 150th Rifle Division, and the 12th “Hitler Youth” Division of the German Waffen-SS. There are small units of partisans, nurses, and even reenactors who occasionally fly over from Japan to play Japanese-American GIs fighting the Germans, who are, of course, played by Americans. Most American reenactors would rather follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and play American GIs or British Tommies. About a third choose to be Germans. Of these, the majority picks Waffen-SS units over regular German army units.

Historical reenactment is booming across the nation, with a genre for nearly every armed conflict in American history from the French and Indian War to the Korean War. There’s even Vietnam reenactment, which Lillefjeld says he finds “bizarre.” Civil War reenactment is by far the most popular and best known, boasting more than 50,000 participants nationwide. In comparison, there are an estimated 5,000 World War II reenactors, with the greatest concentration in the Midwest. While Civil War reenactors can recreate battles in their original locations, World War II reenactors have to be more imaginative: D-Day has been replayed on the shores of Lake Michigan and, in an especially creative twist, the New Mexico desert has been substituted for the Philippine jungle in a commemoration of the Bataan Death March. In January, 1,500 reenactors converged in eastern Pennsylvania for an annual reenactment of the 1944 Battle of the Bulge.

The West Coast World War II reenactment scene is relatively small, with approximately 500 active participants and about a dozen units. Membership of the 9th SS has almost doubled in the past year and currently stands at around 35. Lillefjeld says the unit will take anyone who wants to join, so long as they can meet the physical demands of reenacting and can convincingly portray a German. “To do German, you can’t be Italian or Hispanic,” he says. “It has to be historically accurate.” He notes a couple of exceptions. He once knew a black reenactor who could pass as white; and in a stretch of historical imagination, Asians can portray captured Russians from Central Asia who have volunteered for the Waffen-SS.

But this is usually not an issue, as the vast majority of reenactors are white, and those who play Germans are a self-selecting bunch. The events of the past six months appear to have boosted membership in Allied units, and Lillefjeld worries that German reenactors might be seen as anti-American. “A lot of reenactors will say, ‘I don’t want to play a German because those guys are bad,’ ” he grumbles.

Of course, someone has to play the bad guys, but of all the bad guys in history, why would anyone choose to play these ones? More than half a century after the end of World War II, Nazism still seems to occupy a category of evil all its own. While reenactors who want to save Private Ryan can be laughed off as misty-eyed history buffs, it’s not so easy to understand why someone would choose to play one of Hitler’s frontline troops. To put on the uniform of the Waffen-SS is to instantly summon images of the horrors of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

This ominous connection casts a heavy shadow over Waffen-SS reenactors, who would rather not acknowledge its implications. When they do, their defensive tone suggests they realize they’ve crossed a symbolic line that has divided good and evil for the past sixty years. For instance, all the members of the 9th SS except Lillefjeld asked that their full names not be used in this story. It’s not that they’re ashamed of their hobby, they explain, but they can’t expect everyone to understand the appeal of what they do.

When you spend time with Lillefjeld and the members of his unit, it is soon apparent that they are not closet neo-Nazis or Saturday skinheads. Instead, you sense they have constructed a fantasy world where playing the shock troops of Hitler’s war machine has been completely stripped of its historical context and turned into a game. As so-called living historians, they approach their roles by first insisting that Waffen-SS soldiers weren’t so bad after all — but not so good that the thrill of playing them is gone. “It’s a 180-degree departure from everyday life,” one reenactor from Southern California explains. “It’s a little taboo.”

Meredith W. Watts, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin who studies the Nazi legacy in Germany, takes this idea further. Playing a World War II German soldier is an “adolescent and post-adolescent male power fantasy,” he says. “And choosing the Waffen-SS is a particularly powerful fantasy image.”

The fantasy begins with looking the part. When they’re not out fighting, the members of the 9th SS occasionally meet at their unofficial headquarters in the Hayward warehouse for training. This Sunday, five die-hard members of the unit show up for a training session that has less in common with boot camp than with a fashion shoot for the well-dressed German soldier. Bryce, the unit’s Webmaster, sets up a digital camera in the alleyway behind the warehouse, where a chain-link fence has been covered with an impromptu backdrop of camouflage netting, the better to hide the big rigs next door. A 45-year-old dad from the North Bay, he’s one of the older members of the unit, although he plays a 35-year-old named Günter. He’s brought along his son who stands nearby, dressed in civvies except for his dad’s flat gray cap adorned with a silver skull and crossbones and a black patch embroidered with the white double-lightning bolt insignia of the SS. He scurries back and forth lugging equipment, occasionally stopping to try on a fluted gray helmet or inspect a rifle with a look of curiosity and respect.

“Need a grenade?” he squeaks.

“Not now, honey,” Bryce replies distractedly.

Like many reenactment units, the 9th SS has a Web site (www.hohenstaufen.org) where it posts photos from recent battles and information on upcoming events, like a D-Day reenactment in June and its annual Christmas/Hanukkah party. The site also serves as the unit’s handbook, crammed with rules and regulations as well as tips on how to look — and smell — like a soldier. (“We are too clean!” it scolds. “Try to get your uniforms filthy and broken in. Wearing your wool uniform will impregnate it with the sweat needed to remove the creases.”) Bryce envisions a more interactive site where visitors can watch short movie clips of unit members displaying their uniforms and practicing parade and rifle drills.

Serious reenactors worship “authenticity” — the idea that living history is based on replicating the exact look of the soldiers they portray in exhaustive, even obsessive, detail. To this end, they spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars assembling complete wardrobes of uniforms and vintage weapons and accessories. They spend hours poring over illustrated histories of the war and coffee-table books crammed with period photographs, looking for tiny details that they can incorporate into their ensembles. In online newsgroups, reenactors trade fashion tips and debate the finer points of authenticity, such as what type of buttons and patches to sew on their uniforms.

But getting the right uniform is not nearly enough. The right haircut, the right cigarettes, even the right underwear — these all add layers of authenticity to the point where reenactors feel that they have crossed the line between their own identities and those of bona fide soldiers. The final result is a persona known as an “impression” — a character who looks, walks, and even talks like a World War II German soldier might have.

The worst thing you can call a reenactor is a “farb.” A farb or “farby” doesn’t care if his impression is authentic. He does anachronistic things such as wearing sunglasses or sideburns to a battle. He puts Gatorade in his canteen, calls his comrades “dude,” or makes Taliban jokes in the middle of a firefight. Lillefjeld’s preferred term of contempt for these reenactors is “hoke,” as in hokey.

Today’s fashion show is the latest battle in the never-ending struggle against hokeyness. The first to pose is Drew, modeling the Waffen-SS winter collection circa 1943 — long tan trousers, a white smock, and a heavy gray fur cap. Like a runway model, he rotates in place with a determined look on his face as Bryce’s camera silently records him. Even in full uniform, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, two rubber grenades stuck through his belt, and a dummy antitank mine in his gloved hand, he looks like a kid going hunting with his dad. Next up is Aaron, a tall, intense 29-year-old roofer who cuts an imposing figure in his four-pocket jacket printed with a design known as “44 dot,” a reference to its year of manufacture and the black, brown, green, and pink dots that form its camouflage pattern. He’s followed by Bob, a 22-year-old machinist from Oakland, who wears a cold-weather outfit and pretends to breathe on his hands, like a soldier standing guard on an icy night on the Russian Front.

The photo shoot takes more than an hour, and Drew, bored, wanders inside the warehouse. He strips off his winter uniform and climbs onto a green Canadian tank nicknamed “Becky,” one of the prized possessions of the 9th SS’s armored division, which occasionally puts its big toys on the field when it can scrape together enough money to transport them. He sinks through the top hatch and clanks around inside the tank’s pitch-black bowels, occasionally emitting a muffled “This is so cool!”

Like the older members of the unit, Drew has lived, breathed, and consumed World War II for years. He started by building models of fighter planes and “flying” P-51 Mustangs in “Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat” video game. He devoured books about the war and documentaries on the History Channel. He begged his uncle and grandfather to tell him about their experiences fighting the Germans in France during the war. His uncle told him about getting a finger blown off and surviving a rocket attack on the hospital where he was recovering. His grandfather refused to talk about it.

If anything, this just encouraged him. “I wish I was there,” he gushes. “I know it sounds dangerous, but it seems exciting.” When the opportunity to join the 9th SS came along, he grabbed it and promptly demonstrated his commitment by dropping a couple hundred bucks of his savings on clothing. He proudly displays his black leather hobnailed boots, which he found online for only $9.99. “I still need a tunic, a helmet, a bread bag, a canteen, a cup, a trenching tool, and a shovel,” he says, almost apologetically. He hopes his parents will surprise him with some of it at Christmas, though he doesn’t mention this to the older guys. It wasn’t easy convincing his parents that Waffen-SS reenactment was the wholesome pastime his new friends insisted it was. Earlier that morning, Drew’s mom had followed him into in the warehouse, just to see what he was getting into. “I basically wanted to know the type of people he was doing this with,” she says. Although she already knew Bob and liked him, she was concerned. Some of the reenactment Web sites she had checked out alarmed her. At first glance the sites of some German units, adorned with grinning skulls, the chillingly distinctive SS runes, and banners in Gothic script declaring, “Wilkommen Kamaraden!” might easily be confused with neo-Nazi sites.

But after meeting Lillefjeld and the other members of the unit, her skepticism faded. The members of the 9th SS make a good first impression — they’re not the shifty loners one might expect to spend their free time fantasizing about being in the Waffen-SS. They’re well-groomed, affable guys who go to college or hold down respectable jobs. A few have wives and kids. But most keep their hobby secret from their classmates, neighbors, and acquaintances. Bryce is typical: he says his impression is completely separate from his real-life identity as a white-collar suburban dad. Even so, he’d rather not have to explain himself to his coworkers. “We’re good guys,” he says, “but we play bad guys.”

Drew’s mom made a deal with him: he could join the unit so long as he agreed to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He would keep his reenactment gear tucked away in a duffel bag in his closet during the week. He was not to discuss his new hobby with his grandfather or the family’s Jewish neighbors. Satisfied that her son is in good hands, she leaves the warehouse, on her way to an antique show where she will look for vintage wool blankets Drew can bring to an upcoming battle. “I’m for anything that gets him out of the house,” she says with a smile.

Jesse Lillefjeld’s foray into reenactment, like Drew’s, grew out of an adolescent curiosity about war and what he calls “an inexplicable fascination with such a dynamic period in human history.” Growing up outside Chico, he read military history books, played Dungeons & Dragons, and daydreamed about joining the Marines after high school. When he was sixteen, a teacher gave him a flier about an upcoming Civil War reenactment, and soon he was hooked. After a brief stint as a Union soldier, he started playing a German, joining the 9th SS four years ago.

Through reenactment, Lillefjeld has combined his interest in combat, history, and role-playing into a single, all-encompassing activity. He eventually decided not to join the Marines; he felt reenactment was teaching him military and management skills without the risk of real combat. Instead, he enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, where he plans to graduate this fall with degrees in European and Latin American history.

With his blue eyes, surfer’s tan, and short blond curls, Lillefjeld looks the epitome of the all-American kid. These good looks, combined with his boyish enthusiasm and fluency in German, have made him the self-described poster boy of the 9th SS. Bryce calls him “the surf Nazi.” Lillefjeld guesses he’s spent more than $4,000 on clothing and equipment in the past few years; he’s lost track. With the contents of his bedroom closet, he could fully outfit a German soldier for just about any season or setting, from the Russian winter of 1942 to summer in 1944 France.

In the field, Lillefjeld plays a nattily attired young infantry sergeant named Joachim Lillefjeld. According to a biographical sketch that Jesse wrote, Joachim was born in 1923 in a small town in southern Germany. His father was a farmer and a National Socialist and his mother a civil servant. In 1943, Joachim dropped out of university, volunteered for the Waffen-SS, and quickly rose through the ranks to become an Unterscharführer, or sergeant. Joachim saw combat in Russia and in Normandy after D-Day. His biography does not say whether he survived the war. But then it really doesn’t matter. No matter how many times Joachim has been wounded or killed in battle, he always manages to fight another day.

Lillefjeld describes Joachim as an aggressive, even fanatical, soldier. “I was in Hitler Youth,” he says, slipping into first-person imaginary. He says he and Joachim share the same personality, except Joachim’s has a “period twist” on it. It’s hard to imagine what Joachim would have in common with Jesse, who describes himself as a political centrist who isn’t strongly drawn to either side of the ideological spectrum. “If I wasn’t into reenactment, I wouldn’t even own a gun,” he says. Even harder to fathom is how Lillefjeld sees Joachim as an extension of himself while claiming that he has no connection to his doppelgänger’s darker side.

He describes World War II as “the good war,” yet is unapologetic about playing someone on the wrong side of that equation. The Waffen-SS were the bad guys, he says; he just doesn’t accept that his interest in them means he identifies with what they stood for. He feels so detached from Nazism that he has no reservations about surrounding himself with its trappings. On his bedroom wall, there is a blurry photograph of a soldier without markings on his uniform that Lillefjeld guesses was taken somewhere in Eastern Europe. He thinks the soldier was part of the Einsatzgruppen, the death squads that murdered half a million Jews, Communists, and other “undesirables” over a six-month period in Russia in 1941. Up to one-third of some death squads were soldiers from the Waffen-SS. Lillefjeld looks at the photo and says matter-of-factly, “This was a bad guy.”

A typical reenactment weekend can take Lillefjeld and his unit as far as north as Oregon or as far south as San Diego. This weekend, they’re off to Camp Roberts National Guard base outside Paso Robles, at the edge of the Central Valley, for one of the biggest battles of the year: a day-and-a-half-long battle involving 200 reenactors from across the West and Southwest.

Lillefjeld parks his silver 1979 Mercedes sedan along the perimeter of the parade ground behind the barracks where his unit is bunking. Half a century ago, these rows of drafty yellow buildings housed GIs during basic training. Tonight, they house the 9th SS and members of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) Division. Inside the dimly lit two-story barrack, young men with brush cuts unpack duffel bags and steamer trunks, and cover their beds with gray wool blankets and white hand towels imprinted with German imperial eagles and swastikas. Foot-long gas-mask canisters are placed on metal lockers and dramatically topped with helmets. On the back wall, someone has tacked up a “captured” Soviet flag. There are no swastika flags or portraits of the Führer on the walls — these have been declared verboten by the weekend’s organizers, but a black flag emblazoned with the white zigzag SS runes hangs outside the adjacent barrack, temporary home to another German unit from Southern California.

Lillefjeld strips off his hooded sweatshirt, T-shirt, and shorts, and puts on a pair of gray wool socks, white long johns, and a long-sleeved gray cotton shirt. He pulls on a pair of green wool pants and a matching hip-length field jacket. Compared to the drab and functional American and Russian uniforms, German uniforms are works of art, decorated with hand-stitched details and intricate configurations of tools and accessories. The holy grail of German gear is a wool field jacket, or tunic, which can cost more than $500 and without which no impression is complete.

On the upper left sleeve of Lillefjeld’s tunic is a small black eagle-and-swastika patch. On the left collar tab, a small metal star denotes his rank of sergeant; on the right tab is a black patch stitched with the SS insignia. Two medals are pinned on his left breast pocket, one for close combat, the other a wound badge he received after a nail went through his foot during a battle. He laces up his black leather boots and checks the black pistol in the holster hanging on the black leather belt around his waist. Finally, he slicks back his hair and covers it with a gray peaked cap adorned with an eagle-and-swastika badge and a silver skull known as a Death’s Head.

Lillefjeld looks frighteningly comfortable in his uniform. Most of the German reenactors, who are in their twenties and thirties, wear their uniforms with a similar confidence, even cockiness. But tonight, the macho men of the Waffen-SS are more intent on shopping until they drop than fighting to the last man. The camp mess hall has been converted into a pre-battle swap meet, where the serious reenactors are separated from the farbs by their willingness to part with their cash.

A young reenactor from Southern California who gives his name as Mattias smiles, revealing a mouthful of braces as he scans the tables. “I’m single and overpaid,” he says. “Perfect for reenacting.” A brooding German reenactor named Eric says he has thousands of dollars worth of gear in the trunk of his car, all for sale. He explains that he’s giving up reenactment and getting married. “I gotta buy a fucking ring, I gotta pay for the honeymoon, I have to buy a house,” he says gloomily. He figures he can sell all of his gear for about $7,000.

Larry Stewart, an antique dealer from Arizona, is doing a brisk business behind a table covered with authentic German paraphernalia. “It’s just funky things to fill out your impression,” he says modestly, as customers examine piles of metal eating utensils, Bakelite cups, bayonets in scabbards, dust goggles, binoculars, flashlights, medals, boxes of razors, and pencils. An original copy of Der Adler, the magazine of the German Luftwaffe, sells for $20. An empty tin of Scho-ka-kola chocolates, specially packaged for the German army, goes for $85. “We don’t sell things to make someone look like a German soldier,” Stewart says, warming up to his trade. “We sell things to make someone become a German soldier.”

Few reenactors are willing to acknowledge what it really means to “become” a German soldier, if only for the weekend. Instead of confronting the history of the Waffen-SS or the enduring allure of Nazism, they would rather talk about reenactment as a harmless and uncomplicated pastime, untainted by the politics of the past, much less the politics of today. They describe it as a way of exploring their German or Austrian ancestry, or as a tribute to the soldiers of all nationalities who fought and died so long ago. Is it really that different, they ask, from any of the other nostalgic and mildly obsessive hobbies of American men, such as model railroading or collecting baseball cards?

Still, how many hobbyists surround themselves with disclaimers that what they are doing is completely “apolitical”? Reenactors are adamant that their personal politics and interest in reenactment have no connection to the ideology of Nazism. The Web page for one German reenactment newsgroup announces, “We are serious students of WWII living history — not a bunch of @#%$%^&*#$ racist loonies … if you are looking for some kind of white supremacist or hate group, go elsewhere!” Lillefjeld says his unit has turned down a dozen would-be members for expressing racist or extreme political views.

But the ideology and actions of the soldiers they portray are not so easily dismissed. One member of a 3rd SS Totenkopf Division reenactment unit from upstate New York informs visitors to his typo-filled Web site, “The Totenkopf was made up of many former [concentration] camp personnel which helped murder millions of people. That is not why I picked the third to portray! I chose the Totenkopf because of their military exploits not because of their penchant for ‘Ethnic Clensing.’ ” While the Totenkopf may be the most reviled Waffen-SS division, it was not alone in its brutality. Other units carried out reprisal killings against civilians or slaughtered captives, such as 71 American prisoners of war gunned down in Malmédy, France in December 1944. It is impossible to know how many similar incidents went undocumented. The Web site of a Pennsylvania unit declares, “There is no denying atrocities were committed by the Waffen-SS. … Atrocities occurred on all sides. We as a unit believe ‘WAR’ is an ATROCITY!!!”

As German reenactors eschew mention of Nazism and shake their heads at the horrors of war, they also idealize the soldiers they portray. Some compare the Waffen-SS to the Green Berets; others claim its recruitment of young men from across occupied Europe foreshadowed NATO. “The sacrifices of the German soldiers are just as honorable as anyone else’s,” says Aaron, the roofer. “They weren’t fighting to dominate the world. They lived for the survival of their unit first, and then their country, and superficially for their leader.” That Hitler’s elite army never realized its goal of a one-thousand-year Reich somehow removes the whiff of infamy for Waffen-SS reenactors. Defeat has given the Waffen-SS an aura of romantic futility and unrealized sacrifice. “I’m always supportive of the underdog,” says Aaron.

The idea that the would-be supermen of the Waffen-SS were noble underdogs rings false to sociologist Meredith W. Watts. “They’re not emulating death camp guards, but they’ve chosen the next closest thing. They have minimal ideological cover by saying they’re only the Waffen-SS.” Watts wonders why they don’t choose to play soldiers from the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, which is generally not seen as so ideologically driven or brutal as the Waffen-SS. “The choice of the most aggressive and elite fighting corps in Germany can’t be an accidental choice,” he says.

Mitchell Strauss, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who has studied historical reenactment, points out that German reenactors’ claims that their hobby has no connection to the Holocaust echoes Confederate reenactors’ insistence that their hobby is not a tacit endorsement of slavery. “They say they’re emulating history and that they very scrupulously keep politics out of it,” he observes. “But they make these constructions to make themselves more comfortable and to make the public more comfortable.” He finds such justifications particularly disingenuous coming from men who claim they are trying to faithfully mirror history.

Original photos of Waffen-SS soldiers depict lean, weathered veterans, not the well-fed, boisterous weekend warriors assembled at Camp Roberts. Inside in the barracks, the German reenactors stay up talking and drinking past midnight. Bob, the 9th SS’s resident joker, does a dead-on imitation of the clipped narration of Nazi propaganda films before breaking into an impromptu version of Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” with revised lyrics: “Get up, stand up! Stand up for the Reich!” Lillefjeld spots the commander of another German unit: a flabby, balding man who resembles the buffoonish Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes. “That guy is so hoke,” he laughs. “He’s totally farb!”

Lillefjeld takes an empty bullet cartridge from his pocket and, with a flourish, uses it to push the cork into a bottle of red wine. As the bottle is passed around, it spills on the floor. While Bryce mops it up, someone says in a mock-German accent, “Wipe the blood of the Jews off the floor!”

Swing music from the American barracks drifts through the windows. Outside, a phalanx of men marches in the darkness, singing in German, their footsteps echoing through the rows of deserted barracks. The next morning, men stumble out of bed, scarf down breakfast, and line up outside a Quonset hut to buy “ammunition.” Most of the German reenactors carry real five-shot Mauser K-98 rifles modified to only shoot blanks. Lillefjeld walks to his car and takes a replica of a black MP40 machine gun with a plugged barrel from the trunk. For $35, he buys a plastic bag of 100 nine-millimeter blanks.

Nine members of Lillefjeld’s unit have come out for today’s battle, including the new kid, Drew, who’s managed to scrape together a mismatched outfit of items borrowed from other members of the unit: a 44-dot jacket, a floppy wool cap, a shovel for digging foxholes, and, most important, a rifle. The older guys stick their fingers in the tailpipe of a camouflaged Volkswagen and smear their faces with soot; Drew follows suit. Lillefjeld stands nearby, smoking an unfiltered cigarette. Jesse doesn’t smoke, but Joachim does.

Aaron gives a short talk on battlefield etiquette, including the finer points of how to kill and be killed. The battle’s “kill time” is set at fifteen minutes, meaning that anyone who gets “killed” must wait fifteen minutes before rejoining the battle. Determining who lives and dies during battle reenactments is based on an honor system. Participants are expected to go down when a shot could plausibly have hit them; but most prefer to wait until they’re sure someone has been able to get a clear shot at them. “When you’re hit, make noise,” Aaron advises. “Scream, yell ‘scheisse‘ [shit], whatever. Make that element part of the reenactment.”

The day has been dubbed an “all-fronts battle” set in Austria in springtime 1945. The Germans will be positioned in the middle of the battlefield while the Americans and British attack them from one side and the Russians from the other. While such a scenario may sound like a microcosm of the last days of the war in Europe, no confrontation like this ever occurred. “It’s a bit of a stretch,” admits Bryce. Unlike Civil War reenactments, which are often open to the public and usually follow a script based on how real battles like Bull Run or Gettysburg actually unfolded, World War II reenactments are usually free-form events with open outcomes and no public access. The sense of unreality is heightened by the battle’s setting on the base’s firing range amid rolling hills and gullies covered with dry grass and oak trees. Littered with the rusted hulks of vehicles used for target practice, it looks nothing like Austria, but more like the virtual landscape of a video game.

The 9th SS have been assigned to the “Russian front,” where they will face off against the 49th Guards, a San Francisco-based Russian reenactment group that revels in Stalinist kitsch. Their unit handbook exhorts its members to “take up the banner against fascism” and defend the Motherland from the “Hitlerites.” New recruits are promised to be awarded the Order of Lenin — “posthumously, of course.” The men in Lillefjeld’s unit have been talking excitedly about fighting the Russians from the moment they arrived at Camp Roberts.

“Fucking Russians!” exclaims Bob. “I want to kill some Russians.”

“Killing Russians will be cool,” agrees Bryce.

They also are itching to get their hands on the Russian women. During the war the Russian army conscripted women, and the 49th has a few female members, including a couple of teenaged girls in pigtails.

“Remember, just rape the Russian women!” someone calls out as the unit rides out to the battlefield in the back of a pickup truck. “We signed the Geneva Convention,” says Aaron. “We’re not allowed to rape women unless it’s consensual.” Lillefjeld jokingly tells the unit, “Anyone who does hand-to-hand combat with a woman gets my personal commendation.” After the battle, when asked about these comments, the men of the 9th SS claim they were made “out of character.” The comments about raping Russian women were just “bravado,” says Aaron. “That kind of talk wouldn’t be in place in real wartime.” Yet if this wasn’t the soldiers talking, then who was it?

The unit takes up positions along a dry creek bed. Someone yells, “Russians get three kills per charge!” meaning the Russians don’t have to die until they’ve been shot three times, creating the effect of a “human wave” assault. Shots ring out as the Russians launch their first attack. The crack of the rifles is deafening; a few reenactors have sacrificed authenticity by wearing fluorescent earplugs.

The Germans hold their fire until the charging Russians are about fifty feet away. They shoot, the Russians fall — and then, after a few moments, pick themselves up and charge again like invincible zombies in a video game. And, like kids playing shooter games, the Germans seem to thrill at the sight of bodies falling over and over as they pull their triggers. Aaron, hiding behind a tree trunk, pokes his head out to fire at the advancing Russians. “Why is that guy still alive?” he yells angrily. “Didn’t I just take that guy?”

He doesn’t notice the Russian crouching behind a tree thirty feet to his left, carefully taking aim at him. Suddenly, a member of the 9th SS named Joe, lying on his belly behind a log, spots the Russian and fires. The Russian, hearing the shot, looks at Joe and realizes he is dead. A look of mild disappointment crosses his face. He takes off his helmet and wipes sweat from his forehead.

“What’s up, man?” he calls to Joe. “Nice shot!”

Joe greets him and adds, “You should have pulled the trigger. You had him.”

The dead Russian laughs and walks away.

After each skirmish, the unit regroups to rehydrate and boast about their latest feats. “Ich hab’ zehn Untermenschen geschossen (I shot ten subhumans),” boasts Aaron. Lillefjeld gives a quick pep talk in German, but since only a few understand, he soon switches into English. “We kicked the shit out of those Russians,” he says with a half-hearted German accent. “Being overrun by Russians is no fun. They have no regard for human life or dignity.”

Sick of being on the defensive, Lillefjeld decides to sneak behind enemy lines. The unit scrambles towards a hill where the Russians are based, nearly silent except for the sound of footfalls, heavy breathing, and gear slapping against cloth and metal. At the crest of the hill, Lillefjeld blows the whistle hanging around his neck and charges into the open. With a dramatic leap, he lobs a rubber hand grenade toward the clump of trees where the Russians are sitting.

Instead of returning fire, a young woman in Russian uniform pops out of the trees.

“What are you doing throwing that grenade at me?” she shouts. “Real world! Real world!”

Lillefjeld stops in his tracks and the rest of the unit does the same. Calling “real world” in the midst of a reenactment means everyone must return to reality right away. It’s as if someone has hit a giant pause button. One of the Russians informs Lillefjeld that someone on the other side of the battlefield had put a live round in his gun, causing the gun to explode and bringing the battle to a screeching halt while the organizers make sure no one was injured.

“Who the fuck would be so stupid as to do that?” demands Aaron. “What kind of guy would carry live rounds in his World War II stuff?” wonders Lillefjeld, picking up his unexploded grenade.

After the unit eats a leisurely lunch of black bread, salami, and lard, things degenerate into what Lillefjeld calls a “clusterfuck,” reenactor slang for a free-for-all. “It doesn’t always happen this way,” he says as the battlefield is overrun by reenactors shooting wildly, waving rubber daggers, and throwing fake punches at each other. “Sometimes when there’s lots of people, the living history goes out the door.” Few reenactors seem fazed by the chaos. “The two other battles I was in were exactly like this,” says Bryce.

The day ends with the Russians victoriously occupying a mound of dirt, thrusting their rifles in the air, and waving a huge red flag. Men who moments ago were trying to “kill” each other shake hands and pull out disposable cameras. The war is over. Among the Germans, there is no disappointment in losing. After all, the bad guys are supposed to lose. Lillefjeld lines up his unit and marches them towards the barracks. “I see some tired, sunburned faces,” he says. “Let’s go get some beers.”

Back in the barracks, the members of the 9th SS pass around Heinekens — Lillefjeld had suggested European beer, for the sake of authenticity — and sit down to debrief. Everyone agrees that fighting the Russians was the highlight of the day. “That was intense!” exclaims Drew, cradling his rifle in his lap. “It’s nice being able to shoot one Russian and then another while he’s trying to work his bolt action. I had to do that seven times.” Lillefjeld dismisses the group cheerfully. “I’m glad that you guys came out. It was a fun battle.”

Some men head for the showers; others change into street clothes and drive into Paso Robles for food. Drew, still in uniform, sits down with Aaron, who coaches him how on to put together an impression from scratch. He’ll have to come up with a name, age, birthplace, and family history for his character and, of course, he should start looking for a uniform and tunic. Drew decides to play an eighteen-year old named Otto. Like Lillefjeld’s Joachim, his impression shares his last name.

Nearby, Lillefjeld takes off his shirt and stretches out on a bed. He raises his arms above his head, revealing a small tattoo just above his left armpit: four black lines not quite a centimeter long, arranged in a diamond. Of all the obsessive touches he’s added to his impression, he is perhaps most proud of this one — a copy of the tattoo given to members of the SS. These tattoos denoted the wearers’ blood type. Jesse’s — and Joachim’s — is O. Such tattoos were also meant as brands, permanent dog tags that symbolized belonging and power. Later, they would symbolize complicity. After the war, some Waffen-SS men tried to erase their association with their former units by removing their tattoos, just as the reenactors who now emulate them have tried to scrub any vestige of Nazism from their pastime. For Lillefjeld, the blood-type tattoo is just another accessory, one more way to fight farbiness and prove his passion for the past. Perhaps one day he will see it as something to cover up or erase. In the meantime, he will wear it without apology. He is as comfortable in Joachim’s skin as he is in his own.

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