Late last week, City Pages published photographs that showed men dressed in German SS uniforms seated in the main dining room of the northeast Minneapolis restaurant Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit, surrounded by Nazi flags. According to a participant, this was a World War II historical re-enactment meeting, "just like any club that has a party."
In Germany and several other European states, laws prohibit the public use of symbols of Nazism — in particular, flags, insignia and uniforms. The reason: It assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously smearing or defaming segments of the population.
While in the United States the First Amendment gives constitutional protection to this type of conduct — no matter how offensive its content — the public display of racist or extremist symbolism usually has been followed by indignation, outrage and demands for action.
On this occasion, however, the gravity of the case seems to have gone unremarked upon. The protagonists of the dinner were "re-enacting" — that is, playing. "Playacting" can claim the mantle of harmlessness. According to the mentioned participant, it is "cool" to dress up like Germans from World War II and go to a German restaurant, eat German food and drink German beer.
We wonder what exactly the mostly male participants in this Nazi-themed dinner party were re-enacting. A militarized, fundamentally antidemocratic and ethnically cleansed community? A supremacist fantasy of conviviality stripped of its underlying genocidal violence and passed off as nice and normal? To witness fellow Minnesotans entertaining themselves in this fashion, no less at a restaurant named "Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit" — German conviviality inn — is nothing short of obscene.
The Nazi-themed dinner is a grievous insult to war's victims and survivors and their families, and to American veterans and their relatives.
It is also offensive to present-day Germans and to the way the Federal Republic of Germany has tried to deal with this awful legacy.
The Gasthof episode is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon that should be reflected upon. It seems that Nazism and the Holocaust have entered a stage of extreme trivialization.
As University of Minnesota professors and center directors committed to teaching about the Holocaust and genocides; about German culture and history, and about Jewish studies, we resist such trivialization. As Minnesotans, we are proud of our state's distinguished record as a haven for political refugees and victims of civil wars. That ethos of sharing and vision of community are incompatible with what the supposed "re-enactors" aim for.
Free speech is a crucial good. But we are also free to react to it. We hope that fellow Minnesotans will join us in distancing themselves from what has been happening for the past six years at the Gasthof.
Alejandro Baer is director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Sabine Engel is director of the DAAD Center for German and European Studies; Rick Mc Cormick is chair of the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch; Riv-Ellen Prell is director of the Center for Jewish Studies; Ruth Mazo Karras is chair of the Department of History, and Klaas Van der Sanden is interim director of the Center for Austrian Studies — all at the University of Minnesota.