Posted by BDM Historian
First, please let me apologize for my long absence from the Historian's Notepad blog, since some of you have emailed me to ask when (and if) I will continue posting, and whether I will add any new translations from World War II period books to the blog.
My long absence has been due to relocating from our old location in Virginia to our new location in northern New York, thanks to the United States Army. Between the move, keeping up with various projects, volunteering at the museum, and doing volunteer therapy dog work with my two dogs, Abby and Ronja, time to keep up with the blog and website has been scarce to come by and the site has been neglected to some extent.
I will try to post more often, but apologize up front if that should not happen.
Second, it has come to my attention that German author and historian Gisela Miller-Kipp has mentioned our BDM reenactment website in her 2008 book "Der Fuehrer braucht mich".
Well, I suppose "mentioned" would be a very nice way to put it. If one were to put it a lot less delicately, one might say that she was making a whole lot of statements that are downright false, uninformed, or pure speculation. In fact, her foreword, which is used as an introduction and overview of her book on many of the sites that sell it (such as this one), reads rather like a diatribe against reenactment in general, reenacting the BDM in particular, and our website just for good measure.
I figured it would be just fair to answer some of the claims Ms. Miller-Kipp makes. If she gets to make statements about our website and the people who reenact the League of German Girls in her book, without ever having asked permission to use our link or quote any of our site's content, it should be just fair that we have the right to respond to them, also publicly, without asking her permission. What's fair for one is, after all, fair for the other.
Ms. Miller-Kipp writes,
Since November 2004, there is a website, "BDM-history reenacted" (http://reenactmg.bdmhistory.com). This website is informative on one hand, but also deceptive and its purpose spooky.
Let me mention at this point that Ms. Miller-Kipp completely fails to mention that the reenactment page (to which she has misspelled the link) is a very small portion of our much larger page, BDM History, which is an online archive of the League of German Girls, providing thousands of researchers from across the globe with free access to hundreds of scanned primary source documents and personal accounts from former members of the BDM, as well as providing collectors and museum curators with information on uniforms, insignia, and accouterments.
None of this is mentioned since Ms. Miller-Kipp focuses on the one small part of the website that deals with reenactment, which exists because reenactors from the United States and other countries have contacted us and asked us to add information on doing a BDM impression, so they could bring along their daughters in period-correct attire.
As far as I can tell, the force behind this s a woman from the United States who calls herself "Helene Amalie Heydrich" and even titles herself as "Gruppenfuehrerin".
It would have been very nice of Ms. Miller-Kipp to be honest to her readers when she got to this part of her introduction, because she is very well aware of who I am.
You see, what Ms. Miller-Kipp fails to pass on to her readers is that she contacted me via email after finding my website, to tell me that I had accidentally misspelled her name as "Giesela" in the "recommended reading" list which lists her first book "Auch Du gehoerst dem Fuehrer" as a further source about the League of German Girls.
Over the course of three or four emails, Ms. Miller-Kipp complimented me on the website and the information it provided, but questioned whether presenting the BDM at reenactments was a worthwhile endeavor or whether it would lead to distorting history. She told me she did not agree with "the full-color presentation" of history, and I told her that the reenactment website was only a small part of a larger site, and existed because people were interested in presenting that part of history in a way that is more interesting to the average student than reading about it in a book. Let's face it, most high school students are a lot more interested in learning about something they can touch and pick up, than something that's printed on paper.
I probably made it quite clear that I had no interest in removing the BDM reenactment website, which may or may not have led to the rather nasty introduction mentioning our site that she has penned in her current book.
If Ms. Miller-Kipp had told her readers the truth, they would know that I have, a few times, done a BDM impression at living history events (school displays), and that the name I chose for my persona, Helene Amalie Heydrich, is that of my German grandmother. Ms. Miller-Kipp would have you believe I chose the name after Reinhard Heydrich, implying, I am sure, that I am some sort of neo-Nazi.
The wish of the website is to revive the BDM as "living history". In order for this to happen, one needs and collects a lot of information, particularly about the performance of the BDM, meaning about its formal appearance, uniform, habits, and activities.
I think Ms. Miller-Kipp is getting things backward. First, the purpose of the website is not, nor has it ever been, to revive the League of German Girls. The purpose of the website is to provide information to individual reenactors.
The greater question, why people choose to reenact in general and why people would choose to reenact this part of history in particular, is one that Ms. Miller-Kipp has not made any attempt to understand, which was abundantly clear from her emails.
Ms. Miller-Kipp does not believe people should partake in reenactments at all, and that those who do reenact, especially this particular time period, are obviously closet-fascists or closet-Nazis who should be viewed as a threat to others. If you keep reading, you will find her opinion (and her lack of understanding of) reenactment in her own words.
To obtain this information, people were initially invited to post their experiences in the BDM on the Internet. This did happen. Beginning in April 2005, the "personal narratives section" offered a few "experiences" whose credibility was admittedly rather doubious.
Here, again, Ms. Miller-Kipp is presenting untruths about our website.
Firstly, the "personal narratives" section has been a part of our BDM History website from the very beginning, whereas the Reenactment website was not added until later.
At first, the narratives section contained only English-language translations of personal recollections that had been posted on the Internet by former members of the League of German Girls, such as those of Helga Brachmann, for example. If Ms. Miller-Kipp considers Ms. Brachmann's accounts to be "dubious", the city of Leipzig certainly does not, having dedicated a page to Helga Brachmann's wartime remembrances. Or Giesela Borgwaldt, whose accounts appeared on Online-Projekt: Zeitenwende of the German Suedwestrundfunk (SWR).
Later narratives, such as those by Ilse Kleberger, the author of a number of humorous books such as "Unsere Oma" and "Damals mit Kulicke", as well as Ingrid Denull and Marianne Mostowski, came from my personal correspondence with these former BDM members. Their contact information came from the ZeitZeugenBoerse Berlin, as well as the Deutscher Bildungsserver, where they had made themselves available to be contacted by students and historians about their time in the League of German Girls.
I am not sure why Ms. Miller-Kipp would consider their "credibility (to be) rather dubious." Particularly since Ms. Miller-Kipp's own book relies on "27 excerpts from published personal narratives of former BDM-members" to make the points she makes in her own book. I'm not sure she would like it if people considered those to be "dubious" or "not credible".
These narratives were then selected for the purpose of factual presentation of history. The most recently edited website (actual as of June 2006) now invites to discussion about the BDM and the possibility of a "living" production. This with the reasoning that one is fascinated with the life of the female youth in the BDM and wants to further the "correct" presentation of the BDM in schools, at air shows, military parades, etc. for "educational and historical purposes".
Again, Ms. Miller-Kipp is presenting untruths about the website.
Firstly, the narratives that appear on the website have not been "selected to support" any purpose or viewpoint, they've been "selected" because they are available first-hand accounts of membership in the League of German Girls. They represent personal accounts from real people who lived through that time period, and were not chosen to make a specific point or present a specific image. They were chosen because they were available.
Second, as I've said several times, the BDM reenactment website was created because people asked about doing an authentic BDM impression. The word "correct", that Ms. Miller-Kipp felt the need to put in quotation marks above, refers to historical authenticity in terms of personal presentation - clothing, hair, accessories -, not any aspects that Ms. Miller-Kipp has felt the need to read into it.
Only the real facts count for the objective reconstruction and the correct representation. The actual facts must be correct, from the historical dates to the personal look; Under the latter fall details of clothing and personal look ("getting the right look": hair color: blond, hair style: bob or braids; make-up: none), the representation and the name ("picking your German name", among which you'll find: "old Germanic first names"). Apparently, the former national-socialist propaganda clichee of the "German girl" is reproduced.
Here, Ms. Miller-Kipp demonstrates that she is selectively taking parts of the website that help support the point she is trying to make and the picture she is trying to paint: that of reenactors being, at best, stupid and naive, and, at worst, closet-Nazis intent on bringing back the BDM.
What Ms. Miller-Kipp does not tell her readers, many of whom will probably never look up the website to compare it to the statements her book makes, is that these snippets represent a small part of the website, taken out of context.
Yes, the facts must be correct - whether that's knowing the right answer regarding dates in the time period you present, or whether that is the personal appearance of the reenactor. Without accurate impressions, we may as well just all join the Society for Creative Anachronisms and run around playing medieval knights wearing Polyester clothing. A correct impression is what reenactment is about: correct in appearance, not political belief. (Apparently, the inability to keep the two apart lies more with historians like Ms. Miller-Kipp than actual reenactors, who are so frequently accused of it.)
"Getting the right look" is, indeed, a section of our website. It is the part that addresses the fact that reenacting is about more than putting on "old clothes", it's about acting the part of a person from that time period. Modern glasses stand out. Modern hairstyles stand out. Hence the need for a simple guide to get beginning reenactors started in finding the right things that will help improve their impression. Incidentally, the "getting the right look" section is widely used by other 1940's reenactors for ideas, and I'm pretty sure they're not "recreating the clichee of the German girl".
"Hair color: blond" is a pure fabrication on the part of Ms. Miller-Kipp, as the website says nothing of a person's hair color except to caution reenactors against "weird" colors - you'd be hard pressed to see a girl with purple hair in the 1930's, I'm sure - and asking them to have natural hair colors. As a matter of fact, anyone looking at the photos of the sample hair styles below, which were chosen because they are the most commonly seen in photos from the time period, only one out of the seven actual BDM members pictured have blond hair. It seems to me that Ms. Miller-Kipp is more interested in the "clichee of the German girl" than those she's condemning.
The bit about picking a German name is from the page on "first-person impressions". Doing a first person impression in reenactments means that you are acting and speaking as if you were a real person living in the time period you portray. Many reenactors use this as a way of getting people more interested in the display or getting a better feel for the time period. The section covers quite a bit, aside from the name, and provides a number of links other than the "old Germanic names" link Ms. Miller-Kipp cites. (The latter link has since been removed since the website it went to is no longer in existence, but it did contain a list of Germanic names that were so popular in the Third Reich, such as Brunhilde or Siegfried. Incidentally, I know both a Brunhilde and a Siegfried, and I'm not sure they'd like to be thought of as a "clichee".)
It just fits that the late female admirers of the BDM are particularly attracted to the uniform. For uniform purchase, complete with all accessories ("accessories": for example insignia and awards), a list of links to stores and vendors is provided, and tips are given to properly wear them (fitting jewelry and glasses, watches, bags, etc.). In this way, the BDM is to be recreated "without deficits or criticism."
I am not sure any BDM reenactors are "particularly attracted to the uniform", as most of them are doing the impression because they are attending events along with their fathers or their significant other and are simply looking to do an impression that fits their age and interests. I suppose Ms. Miller-Kipp is trying to imply that BDM reenactors are uniform fetishists, and while I don't doubt that there are some, they're not anywhere near as rampant as Ms. Miller-Kipp might think.
The disregard of historical connections and removal of politics is intrinsic to the "living history image" from its cultural-historical tradition as a parlor game in noble and upper-middle-class salons of the 18th Century. In the case presented here, this removal of politics is part of the program. With the maxim "no politics" comes an explicit distancing from neo-Nazi and right-wing beliefs, but also a limited historical-educational understanding of the BDM: "We are a group of dedicated historians interested in the history and uniform of the League of German Girls. As such, we strive to be objective and educational on the subject, and we do not allow, tolerate, or associate with any kind of people or groups who share the political beliefs of national socialism, the Nazi party or the Third Reich. [...] Our mission is to do an accurate, objective impression of the BDM for educational and historical purposes. And, of course, to have fun [sic!] while doing it." (Website, June 2006.)
I'm not quite sure what point Ms. Miller-Kipp is attempting to make with this excerpt. On one hand, she is pointing out that the website specifically distances itself from any political portrayal, on the other hand, she is condemning it for this reason. Considering she's been attempting to paint BDM reenactors as neo-Nazis throughout her foreword, you'd think she would be pleased that the site clearly distances itself from any political leanings and that we do not tolerate any neo-Nazis or right-wing fascists in the hobby.
This innocent fun may not be quite so believable, especially since the National-Socialists themselves propagated the BDM - as well as the overall organization of the Hitler-Youth - as a nonpolitical, educational entity. One has to ask which needs are supposed to be and are met today with this "reliving" of the BDM.
I suppose this is Ms. Miller-Kipp's way of saying that, even though we specifically state that the website is non-political in nature, she still thinks we're a whole bunch of Nazi uniform fetishist idiots.
Firstly: What's the reception of this undertaking? The mailing list connected to the website, a closed list of 260 members (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/3rdReich-Life; as of February 2007), contains 1159 mails in 2005 and 427 mails in 2007, with a frequency that fluctates heavily between months and generally is heavily ebbing. Most interestingly, the most mails have been in May (157) and in October 2005 (159), both months of public rememberances of the end of the war in 1945 in Europe and the United States.
Again, Ms. Miller-Kipp is presenting a whole lot of speculation and very little fact.
Yes, there is a Yahoo mailing list "attached" to the website - however, the mailing list is part of the overall BDM History site, not the BDM Reenactment site. The mailing list has been in existence since November of 2004, but has never been particularly active for two reasons, a) the format of Yahoo Groups is somewhat restrictive, and b) there are many other forums online to discuss various aspects of the Third Reich, which are more active and have a larger membership base, so our Yahoo Group is superflous at best and primarily used as a place to chat back and forth about various things related to history.
The group is closed, Ms. Miller-Kipp insinuates, to keep outsiders from viewing what we discuss. I'm sure that sounds like a great theory, but the big secret of why new members must be approved for membership is not such a big secret. It is done for two reasons: a) to keep out any neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists, and b) to prevent spammers from sending hundreds of messages for hair growth, penis enlargement, and who knows what else to it. If you've ever run or moderated any group or forum, those are issues you're familiar with.
The huge amounts of messages "around times of public remembrance of the end of the war" are no big secret, either. The great discussion in May 2005 has been about reenactment terms, such as "stitch Nazi" and "farb", and the great discussion in October of the same year was a lot of general back-and-forth, welcoming new members, and reviews and discussions on books that had been published. She is right in believing that there is a correlation to the end of the war, as many books are published either around historically significant dates (a lot of World War II books were published around the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, for example) or other events, such as the release of a new TV series or movie about World War II: just look at the new books that hit the US market when "Valkyrie" hit the movie theaters.
The mentioned list is in more of a state of non-existence with its relatively low number of posts compared to other mailing lists on the Internet. One can conclude that the website does not exceed the boundaries of an enthusiastic private project. Alarming is however the awarness of history presented there. It is either artfully feigned or abysmally naive or both.
The reenactment of "interesting", especially scandalous history is in general a need for those, whose day-to-day lives are suffocating in socially inconsequencial or emotionally disappointing routines. This could be said about the BDM-playing, but the presentation of the website speaks against it: With the motto "Ad Perpetuam Memoriam" (to the eternal memory) they signal implicit identification. Can there be so much historical naivite? Can you belong to the BDM today without historical context and without any attempt at political critique? And if so, is there a difference in this naivite from that of those who fell victim to their youth in the BDM?
Again, Ms. Miller-Kipp demonstrates that she does not understand reenactment or its purpose.
Reenactment is not about "belonging to the BDM today." Nobody who reenacts the BDM would want to be forced into this organization (or any other) in their youth, without being given a choice, and especially not since people nowadays have the luxury of knowing all the historical facts many, at the time, did not see or understand.
And yes, reenactors are often viewed as people who are "nothing in real life", so they "dress up and make believe they're a general" in their "fantasy world". They're portrayed this way by authors, by historians, and by random people on the street. Funnily enough, they're not portrayed this way when the National Park Service, or the next big Air Show, or the local Memorial Day display needs people to come out, for free, on their own time, bringing with them thousands of dollars worth of original and reproduction items for the public to touch, have their picture taken with, and ask questions about. And let's not forget movie companies - whenever they need a slew of extras who are already fully equipped and uniformed, they come a-knocking, too.
There are, on a side note, many professional historians in reenactment.
Richard Killblane, for example, is the command historian of the US Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), as well as the author of "The Filthy Thirteen". Richard Killblane is also a reenactor portraying a First Sergeant of the Second Ranger Batallion in World War II, and a North Vietnamese Army Regular in Vietnam. Jonathan Bernstein, an active-duty Army officer, curator of the National Guard Museum in Washington, DC, and author on several books on helicopters, portrays a member of the First Special Service Force in World War II. Phillip Schreier, curator of the NRA Museum and frequently-featured historian on "Tales of the Gun" on the History Channel, has been a very active reenactor in several time periods.
Just to name a handful I personally know.
The ominous internet presence "League of German Girls Living History" proves, that one surrenders onself to this organization with a politically blind and historically naive approach to the BDM, that one falls prey to its official - and that's, in any dictatorship, foremost that of propaganda - appearance. Beyond that, the BDM cannot be grasped nor comprehended in its social practice and functional logic through detail-oriented reenactment. "Living history" is not created by factual appearance but through living-historical context. But maybe "living history" here means only that not machines but living beings populate the historical stage.
I suppose the best I can say about Ms. Miller-Kipp's foreword is that she does not grasp the concept of living history and reenactment, but at least she is honest about the fact that she does not understand it. That is about the only truly honest part of her foreword, since much of the rest of it has been hand-picked to support her suggestions (like the section on appearance), speculated randomly (like the supposed content of the Yahoo Group), or simply omitted (like the fact that she contacted me via email).
I suppose it all comes down to a lack of understanding of the difficult English terminology when it comes to reenactment, so here's a quick guide to those who don't:
Historical Reenactment is a type of roleplay in which participants attempt to recreate some aspects of a historical event or period. This may be as narrow as a specific moment from a battle, such as the reenactment of Pickett's Charge, or as broad as an entire period.
Living History is an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time. Living history is an educational medium used by living history museums, historic sites, heritage interpreters, schools and historical reenactment groups to educate the public in particular areas of history, such as clothing styles, pastimes and handicrafts, or to simply convey a sense of the everyday life of a certain period in history.
If Ms. Miller-Kipp simply understood the meanings of the terms "reenactment" and "living history", or maybe if I'd responded to her email and said, "I'm sorry you don't think that this time period should be reenacted - let me take down the website so you'll feel better about it," she would not have felt the need to pen the foreword that precedes her most recent book.
Incidentally, Ms. Miller-Kipp is very open about why she published her second book.
Her first book, Auch Du gehoerst dem Fuehrer, contained personal narratives about the BDM. According to her foreword, there have been requests for more on this subject matter. However, the main reasons she has published a second book has been twofold: one, because a colleague has given her verbal encouragement to publish a second book, and two, she was (apparently) so horrified about our BDM Reenactment website, that she just had to publish a book to present the League of German Girls properly because "the BDM cannot be grasped nor comprehended in its social practice and functional logic through detail-oriented reenactment. "Living history" is not created by factual appearance but through living-historical context. (...) Youth in the BDM is individually only accessible through private documents and published memories. This is being made accessible in this book."
I suppose the personal narratives being made accessible in the book (18.50 Euro plus shipping) are somehow more credible than the ones offered for free on this website, especially since they are accompanied by conclusions and opinions added to them by the author, more than six decades after happening. Something reviewer Leonie Wagner feels didn't quite work out. Wagner writes,
"Gisela Miller-Kipp documents and analyzes 27 excerpts from published memories of former BDM-members with the goal to reconstruct the experiences and feelings. This makes interesting insights possible, which, however, don't (can't) meet the representation intended by the author.
Admittedly, the text are presented in excerpts and therefore with various omissions. With this, the complexity of the texts, and respectively the memories, is reduced, and the selection of the pieces is not properly explained. Another reading of the complete text could logically lead to different results and insights."
The thing it really comes down to is this:
The BDM History website was started by myself, my colleague in Germany, and the many supporters who have donated their time and materials to it, to provide information about the League of German Girls. The main part of the website is, and has always been, the extensive database of Primary Source Documents, as well as the Research & Reference section, which contains the personal narratives, information to the history and uniforms, and the like. The Reenactment and Notepad sections are now, and have always been, add-ons to the website, designed to provide additional information for those who are looking for it, such as the reenactors for whom the Reenactment page was created.
The goal for the website has always been to make information about the BDM available, especially in the scanned Primary Source Documents, comprising manuals, books, magazines, and much more, which are materials that normally tend to be locked in the private collections of individuals, or in university libraries where they are available only to a small amount of people, and often have to be paid for (either for access or copying).
One would think that historians would welcome materials being made available for free. Instead, Ms. Miller-Kipp felt the need to focus on a small part of the website, which led her to making assumptions about the site's purpose, rude remarks about the site's content, and generally uninformed guesses about the rest, not to mention that there seems to be a complete lack (and effort) of understanding of the simple terms "reenacting" and "living history". A Google search could have cleared the latter two up.
All I have to say is, if this is what being a professional historian is about in Germany these days, I shudder to think what historical sources any of us will be able to access sixty years from now, or a hundred, or two hundred. Maybe they will all be like Ms. Miller-Kipp's book, where accounts are carefully picked, edited to support a specific point, and analyzed based on what Ms. Miller-Kipp thinks they were saying.
Of course, Ms. Miller-Kipp's book was published in 2007 and it is only now that I come to find out that our website is, in fact, the inspiration for publishing it. I suppose that says something to those who want to read into it.