After Nazi social media flap, historical group to reassess German re-enactors

BAY CITY, MI — Organizers of the annual River of Time living history encampment in Bay City say they are going to “take a long, hard look” at including German soldiers for future events after a social media firestorm over a photo showing re-enactors posing with a Nazi flag.

The photo, published on Facebook by the husband of Bay City resident Sandra Rogers, shows four re-enactors in German soldier regalia smiling while holding the Nazi flag. The Facebook post drew more than 100 comments, many calling it “sickening” and “disgusting.”

“If you’re going to include Nazis in this event, where are the rest of the enemies?” Rogers asked. “Where’s the line going to be drawn?

“They had no business being there.”

The Nazi re-enactors, who were sanctioned by organizers, have participated in River of Time for the past three years. Organizers asked the re-enactors to not display World War II-era German flags that feature Nazi symbols, like the swastika, at their camps.

“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” said Mike Bacigalupo, director of the Bay County Historical Society. “When our committee was walking around, they never saw this and I never saw this, but that photo is now out there.

“I’m going to need to take a long, hard look at this and make sure we are vetting people and making them understand that they need to be very sensitive — especially because of what’s going on in the country right now.”

Steve Cook, who goes by the character name of Heinrich Hoffmann, mans the guard shack as a member of the German Waffen-SS during the annual River of Time event at Veterans Park on the Saginaw River in Bay City on Sept. 23, 2017. 

The German soldier re-enactors at this year’s event are part of the 9th SS Hohenstaufen Living History Group, which is based out of Metro Detroit.

Steve Cook, a re-enanctor with the group, said the photo features newer members of the group who were being “foolish” and not following its mission of educating the public in an appropriate way.

He said the photo in question was taken following a World War II skirmish that took place Sunday afternoon, Sept. 24, at the event. It was the first WWII skirmish to take place at River of Time. The photo shows a woman, who Hoffmann said was the mother of one of the men, taking a picture on her smartphone of the group.

“We’re going to put the message out a little harder to those guys that they need to be respectful of the public,” said Cook, who has a decade’s worth of experience as a German soldier re-enactor.

“Had I seen that photo happening, I would have stopped it and made them aware, but I didn’t see it,” he said.

Cook stressed that his group is strictly a re-enactment group and not a political group or para-military organization. According to the re-enactment group’s webpage, its goal is to “promote awareness and understanding on the part of the public, those elements of world history from 1939-1945; specifically the military history of WWII, through the staging of public educational exhibitions, lectures, displays and reenactmentsof typical battles fought between the Allied and Axis forces in WWII.”

Scenes from 2017 River of Time

Still, members of the community say the photo poses an opportunity for River of Time organizers to rethink what they want to include at future events.

“I think there are some parts of history that we can overlook for this event,” said C.J. Miller, a Bay City resident who has documented the River of Time on his Facebook page. “I think it’s time to move on from the hatred and bigotry and move on. We need to move past that.”

Rogers questioned why other groups weren’t represented at River of Time.

“If we’re going to have Nazis, where are the Viet Cong? Maybe we should bring in ISIS or the Taliban,” she said. “River of Time needs to go back to being about education on American and Michigan wars.”

Jan Rau, chairperson of the event, said the German group was invited three years ago to participate in River of Time when they re-enacted as World War I soldiers.

“They’ll switch who they are portraying to stay fresh and offer something new,” Rau said. “That’s very common of re-enactors.”

German prisoners of war were also held in Bay County and the region, Rau said. The site of MBS International Airport in Freeland was a site for POWs. The German soldiers were also used to work the fields in Bay County’s Frankenlust Township, Rau said.

“It’s not like there’s no local connection if you’re looking at the whole picture,” she said.

Rau said this year’s event wasn’t as well attended as in year’s past, attributing the drop to record-setting heat over the weekend.

About 1,900 school children participated in an education event on Friday, Sept. 22.

Bacigalupo said his committee will learn from this year’s event and use the feedback for future events. A committee meeting is scheduled for next month.

“You can’t change history,” he said. “This is an important event in Bay City that needs to continue.”

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