About the Gasthof’s Nazis, we’re talking about the wrong thing

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Monday morning, City Pages published a photo and accompanying developing story about a party at Gasthof’s showing what appears to be men dressed in SS uniforms and Nazi swastika flags hanging on the walls. Photos of swastikas hanging in a Minneapolis bar is a big deal, and as a news and culture magazine for the Jewish Twin Cities, TC Jewfolk wants as much as possible to be a place for interaction on Big Deal stories.

As the story developed and more information came to light, Bradley Machov wrote a new, updated post: TC JEWFOLK | Update to our Gasthof’s coverage: These are hateful people

City Pages found someone who was at the party who would comment on record, and he said it was less like a Nazi celebration and more like, ”a Star Trek convention but for WWII enthusiasts.”

“If you wear a German uniform or a Nazi uniform, it’s not like you’re saying, ‘I think Hitler was super cool’ or ‘I hate Jews’ or ‘I hate gays’ or ‘I hate democrats,’” they further quote him. “You’re not there because you believe in what Hitler stood for — you’re there to educate people about history, and a lot of that is so people don’t forget. It’s the same as wanting to be the bad guy when you’re playing cowboys and Indians. There’s an attraction to the bad side.”

We’re in an era of historiography that is exceptionally sensitive to the plight of the underdog. Fueled by historian/activist Howard Zinn’s groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States, we’re living in a time in the United States when popular opinion sides with the losers. To illustrate how unusual that is, I only need to point to the idea that “History is written by the winners;” a quote with uncertain attribution ranging from Winston Churchill, to Hitler, to Napoleon, to an old Celtic adage–it’s a popular truism. In America today, cowboys are the bad guys, not Indians; the 1% are seen as bad guys, not job creators; even Israel is quickly becoming the bad guys against the Palestinians.

Eventually, we will advance far enough through history away from WWII that people will dress up as Nazis without causing controversy–just like people dress up as Confederate soldiers or Genghis Khan. Excellent films are already being made that depict hardcore Nazis including Hitler himself in, if you squint just right, almost a sympathetic light (Check out Downfall or Conspiracy). But we’re not there yet.

I have a personal neurosis to feeling like I’m putting the plight of my particular religious/ethnic minority unfairly over other minorities that have gotten equally or almost equally fucked. Other groups have been enslaved or interned. Other groups have been taken on death marches. Other groups have seen their rights stripped based on an unchangeable personal feature that doesn’t define who they are.

But this isn’t an Either/Or proposition. We decry the Washington D.C. football team for sticking with the name “Redskins,” even though we’re at least pretty sure none of the players harbor hatred for Native Americans. We’d be appalled if a friend said, “Hey, check this out,” and proceeded to squint their eyes and say, “Ching chong ding dong,” even though we defeated the Japanese in WWII and have one wary eye continuously looking at China. Even Don Rickles, the (Jewish) comedian who turned stereotype humor into an art form, has a lot of material that does not hold up for a modern audience. Howard Zinn has taught us to question everything we think we know about history, and he has given a voice to those previously ignored or swept under the rug. We’re more sensitive now than we used to be. And that’s a good thing.

Since Monday morning, other pictures have surfaced that seem to suggest even more that this was more like an “Axis vs. Allies” holiday party for historical re-enactors than a “Nazi Fun Party.” One picture seems to show someone dressed in a United States military uniform, and first-hand accounts claim that the Nazi section was just one corner of a room in which all the major players in WWII were represented. In that light, it’s hard to picture a WWII party with everyone but the Germans represented. The photo strikes me as something a waiter took, and framed just right, so they could text it to their friend and freak them out. (According to this Star Tribune article published after I had mostly finished writing this piece, it was a waiter who himself was freaked out, took pictures of just the Nazi parts, and showed them to friends.) [Update (3/19, 1:00 PM): Even more pictures and quotes have surfaced to suggest that the dress code was actually “Nazi.” Had I known this earlier, the above paragraph would’ve looked different, but with a few hours to process this new information my general thesis has stayed ostensibly the same, just a little more nuanced.]

This doesn’t excuse the actions of the reenactment group. In fact, it’s right and reasonable to get upset. We should get upset. But all this talk about boycotts and anti-Semitism has struck me as people getting upset over the wrong thing. This, also, is not Either/Or. These aren’t anti-Semites. They’re just not. I don’t know any of them personally, but I know enough history nerds to recognize them for what they are. They’re boneheads who couldn’t think this through far enough to envision causing controversy. Get upset at that. Get upset that there were swastikas hanging in a bar, but get more upset that they’ve caused us to waste two whole days arguing about what’s actually happening in these photos, and throwing the “B” word (boycott) around at an unfortunate restaurant with an otherwise clean record that now has to do major damage control.

These people are dumb more than hateful. They claim they do this for education, but it’s a private party. They claim that everyone is reasonable and nobody is a racist or anti-Semite, yet they allow themselves to get photographed eating, drinking, and laughing in SS uniforms surrounded by swastikas. They talk about good guys and bad guys and don’t seem to understand that this is about memory and sensitivity.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty minor blip. It won’t go into history books, and it’ll barely make headlines. It won’t spark the fire of the next great historian/activist. But it’s a story in our community, and important for us to process, because as a friend said today, “It’s pretty hard to keep widely-displayed swastikas ‘in context.’”

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours?

On our Policies page we say, “The views expressed on TC Jewfolk are those of the individual author(s) or commentor(s), and do not reflect the official policy or position of Jewfolk Media, Inc.” I’m the Editor of TC Jewfolk; these are my personal views. I’m trying to walk a fine line here, and I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide if I’ve succeeded.

Related story:  Minneapolis restaurant hosts event with Nazi theme (American Jewish World)