Monday, October 7, 2013

"Popular" History: The reenactor, the wargamer, and the professional historian

A picture of the Regiment von Reidesel, taken shamelessly from their Facebook page

Dear Reader,

I have been thinking a lot about the role of the historian lately. It is my heart's desire to be a traditional professional historian/college professor. Specifically, my field of interest, (as you might have guessed, reading this blog) is military history of the Kabinettskriege period. (Unsure of what Kabiettskriege means? click here for an explanation.)

In the first post of this blog, I claimed that the warfare of the Kabinettskriege era should not be the exclusive domain of hobbyists and enthusiasts. This is my opinion, not because there is anything wrong with the hobbies associated with warfare, but because the past is a different country, and it requires research from professional historians to understand the past, and make that understanding available to the public.

The more I read, and the more I travel to historical events, the more apparent it is that there is a rift between professional historians, and historical impressionists, such as reenactors and wargamers. (For an interesting post about this, see the blog of historian Paul Lockhart.)

I mean, come on, who doesn't want to play with these guys?

Historians' complaints about Reenactors/Wargamers:

There are three common complaints I hear from historians about those in the historical hobby community.

The first complaint is that they are doing more harm then good by repeating historical myths to the public. This complaint is a legitimate concern. Despite an excellent monograph stating to the contrary, people still claim that "Baron" von Steuben was not a member of the nobility. While he wasn't a "baron" in the tradition sense (the German word is Freiherr), he was a member of the Prussian aristocracy, a sort of noble middle manager. History is incredibly complex, and the subtleties are often lost in wargaming and reenacting.

The second complaint is that reenactors (and wargamers) often claim to be historians, when they don't have the training or the intelligence to actually be historians. One definition of an historian, from the Princeton online dictionary is: "A person who is an authority about history, and studies and writes about it." In my experience, reenactors and wargamers usually meet two of the requirements: they study the past and are regarded by the general population as authorities on history.

Finally, and most worryingly in my opinion, reenactors and wargamers seemingly glorify war and violence. This is especially concerning when examining more modern reenactors, such as World War 2 reenactors. However, with that being said, the reenactors and wargamers I know realize that the past was awful. Dying on an eighteenth century battlefield would have been one of the most horrific things imaginable. With this in mind, what is the right response? Ban reenactments? wargames? non-accurate historical films?

Dr. Christopher Duffy lecturing at a wargame convention

A change in tactics is the answer:

I view myself as a professional historian: someone who makes the acquiring and distribution of historical knowledge into a career. Most reenactors or wargamers might say that they are historians, but they would never claim to be making a career out of being an historian. (Unless of course, they were also professional historians.)

I think that professional historians are looking at reenactors and wargamers entirely the wrong way. As opposed to viewing them as an annoyance, or as the perverters of the past, we should attempt to come alongside reenactors and other historical hobbyists. They are an incredible opportunity-they are fun, interesting, and their activities are exciting-everything we lack as historians.

The reenactment and wargaming community has a wide base: much wider than the readership of historical monographs. Reenactors and wargamers give professional historians a chance to reach the general public. If they are telling the public about non-factual events, it is our responsibility to get the right information into the hands of these historical enthusiasts.

Historical hobbyists are NOT our enemies-and they have the potential to become our allies. Dr. Christopher Duffy has been taking this approach for a long time, by coming to the Seven Years' War convention in South Bend, Indiana. If more historians followed his example, perhaps there would not be such a disconnect between professional historians and historical hobbyists.

The fact of the matter is, history is not interesting to most people. Declining numbers in history departments around the country tell us this. We can only appeal to the mind through writing. Reenactors are historians of the senses, the give us the sight, smell sound and touch of history. When combined with historical writing, this can help the general public to better understand the past. It also allows us to sell more books- never a bad thing.

Sorry, this one got a bit long. More on the actual Kabinettskriege period to come.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

If you liked this post, let me know in the comments below! Feel free to follow the blog. Its free, and lets me know that you enjoy what I'm doing-basically the only reason I write this thing. 


  1. Very interesting. I did not realize that historians and reenactors/war gamers were at odds. But I like your solution!

    1. Thanks for the comment! Sadly, despite the fact that we all love history, we can't seem to get along. Hopefully, that will change.

  2. Another very interesting and thought provoking blog. I share Leslee's thoughts, I don't mix with reenactors or wargamers so I was surprised to learn of the friction.

    Do historians learn anything from reenactors? I know that here in England there have been (possibly still are) groups of people living as pre-Roman Celts in huts. There are limits placed on their experiences, such as 20th century land usage, animal husbandry and restrictions on hunting, but they were able to experience domestic tool usage and other life aspects that contributed to the wider understanding of ancient history. I imagine that Sealed Knot reenactments of ECW battles make a similar contribution if only because of the thousands of people who participate.

    Also yesterday I used your phrase of historical hobbyist. It was at the first seminar of a University of York's Centre for Continuous Learning course "Berlin 1920 - 1939". I described myself as a historical hobbyist specialising in French history who likes to learn about related fields of history. I think the phrase is a good descriptor, so thanks for that.

  3. Pierre- Thanks for the comment! I feel like historians can learn something from reenactors, just as reenactors can learn something from historians. I am glad that you enjoyed the post!