Celebrating the bicentennial of the Battle of the Nations, ca. 5000 military re-enactors are expected to visit Leipzig, military hobbyists from all over Europe, who are going to perform episodes from the battle on the outskirts of the city. Military re-enactment of this sort is the playground of spare time soldiers, hobby historians, uniform enthusiasts, event agencies and fans of all things military. They all seem to sense a glimpse of the sublime and a peculiar kind of satisfaction when ‘re-enacting’ scenes of slaughter and carnage.

Military re-enacting may originate in various desires such as identifying with historical personalities, searching for values apparently lost, but also in the naïve interest in historical costumes and uniforms. For the majority of hobbyists, the greatest motivation is probably the fun of handling weapons, of imagining oneself to live in ‘heroic’, ‘great’ and ‘hard’ times, the love of military codes and regulations. Participants of the annual re-enactments of the Battle of the Nations find strange justifications for their activities: They want to commemorise the ‘liberation’, revive old ‘traditions’ and ‘values’, ‘demonstrate’ camp life, drill and battle scenes and peacefully meet with good comrades around the campfire, who all honour nowaday’s European ideas.[1]

‘When we were at one of these re-enactments, we were able to take in with all our senses what the people in those times went through,’ is a text on the website of K&K UG Leipzig, a company specialising in ‘marketing, touristic services, education’.[2] Yet what did   people go through in those times?

  1. ‘Twelve days after the battle, we still found some of those unfortunates, who, with wounds turned black and untended, were lying in the straw, […] and the sight of the often dreadfully maimed corpses, lying in heaps on one another, very often blocking the road entirely, was ghastly indeed. The sight of this wretchedness made such an impression on us that it cannot be described in words but comprehended only when experienced by oneself.’ – ‘[…] one was hardly able to take a few steps without treading on corpses or the wounded, and so the healthy, the wounded and the dead were entangled with one another, dying men, on their hands and knees creeped to a resting place, there to expire; the half-dead were stripped naked by the Russians, and lying in the wet mud during the cold autumn, they had to go unaided. […] Most of all, we were most deeply and terribly impressed by the distorted faces of those miserable wretches. Their countenances expressed greed and fear […].’ [3]

Confronted with these contemporary eyewitness accounts, can we still   take at face value what has been said about the authentic experience of re-enactment? Of course re-enactment is not war itself, let alone the world’s largest field battle in pre-modern times. How naïve is it to think that a re-enactment ham could bring across   what ‘experiencing’ the incredible cruelty of that battle really meant? These arguments rather aim to justify and cover up the sheer pleasure of playing at war. The re-enactor, pretending to be a ‘true’ warrior, is trying to leave the trodden paths of mass tourism, thus hoping to find his   real self with his ‘comrades-in-arms’, the local population, and especially with the historic personalities who are talking to him through their diaries. [4] But what value does the individual, the most truthful and vivid personality have in war? None at all. Warfare is a very stupid way of making a hero of oneself.

  1. 1.Film by Eva Siemon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gCKlJdW1zI)

  2. 2.http://www.1813voelkerschlacht.eu/projekte/reenactment.

  3. 3.Zeugen des Schreckens, Erlebnisberichte aus der Völkerschlacht in und um Leipzig, ProLeipzig, 2012)

  4. 4.Ulf Otto, Re:Enactment, in: Roselt/Otto: Theater als Zeitmaschine, Transcript, 2012)