True reenacting takes place at the unit level, and a quality
reenacting unit provides the all-important context into which one's
individual impression is able to come alive. The soldiers we portray
did not exist in a vacuum; they were tiny cogs in a very large
machine. Similarly, our ability to reenact these soldiers and the
events that occurred can only be fully realized when we are working
alongside others pursuing that same shared experience.
During WWII, every aspect of the German soldier's life was dictated
by the particular circumstances of his military service. To that
end, the individual soldier's experience varied greatly depending
upon the timeframe, theater, campaigns, and unit he participated in.
His daily activities, quality of life (or lack thereof), and even his
continued existence on earth was determined by factors often well
beyond his control. This can be an incredibly difficult concept for
the modern civilian mind to imagine, and precisely what we as
reenactors seek to understand more fully.
It was not only the existential aspect of his life that was governed
by these circumstances but also the material. Understanding what
uniforms, equipment, and weapons a soldier might have been issued is
a unit-specific question which requires unit-specific research. At
the macro level, the German Army was far from the homogenous beast
history tends to paint it as, but zooming in to the unit level the
homogeny was often far more evident. Therein lies the key to the
Explained in the simplest way possible, a “unit impression”
is the individual members' willingness and ability to subjugate their
own preferences to those of the unit at large. It is a social
contract of sorts between members of a group to faithfully recreate a
specific unit in a specific timeframe. Quality documentation and
unit-specific research is the glue that binds the contract together.
The better the research, the stronger the glue.
A group that portrays a unit impression has specific standards in
uniforms, insignia, equipment, training, etc. that is strongly
supported by the historical record and enforced uniformly amongst the
membership. In Der Erste Zug we decided which units to portray down
to the Kompanie level, did (and continue to do) considerable
unit-specific research, and practically employ those findings in the
form of our reenacting impressions. It is easy for us to make
specific requirements of our members because we are confident that
what we require brings us closer to the historical experience we
signed up for.
often when one views a reenacting unit in assembly there is a
hodgepodge of equipment, a random camouflage smock or occasional
helmet cover, and even some straight 1939 and 1940 impressions in a
group claiming to portray 1944. There are NCOs carrying rifles and
enlisted men with machine pistols in the same squad. It feels less
like a cohesive combat unit and more like a bunch of individuals
doing their own thing. There were of course instances where this can
be found in the historical record, but they are largely exceptions
and usually not what that unit was setting out to do.
There have been several situations when other reenactors have pointed
out one or more of our members at random saying “that guy/those
guys are Erster Zug” when they have never met us previously.
When questioned further, surprisingly the most common answer is “I
can just tell”. Though we don't wear any identifying uniforms
or insignia, there is a certain uniformity to our group that
is perceptible to the observer. That is a unit impression at work.
We look like a unit, we act like a
unit, we think like a unit, and we perform like a unit.
Our unit impression extends beyond our members outward appearance
back to the existential side of our reenacting experience. In
accurately portraying a cohesive combat unit one must first have
cohesion. For example, in
barracks or bivouac when it is time to clean rifles, everybody cleans
rifles together just as it would have been done during the war. When
it is time to drill, everybody must drill. When it is time to eat,
we try to do it as a group whenever possible. These mundane
repetitious activities go a long way to create the German WWII
military mindset. The homogeny of a uniform set of requirements (not
just “uniform requirements”...) which rewards
participation at the group level and encourages members to raise the
group objective above their own preferences is as close as we can
come to the “tiny cog in a great machine” dynamic.
This creates not only an
interdependency but a shared responsibility. In many groups the gap
between the most and least invested members can be considerable.
When employing the “unit impression” model, you only look
at good as those standing around you. To use the old cliché,
the overall quality of the group is only as strong as its weakest
link. It takes just one sub-par impression to break the suspension
of disbelief at the unit level. This creates a sense of shared
responsibility within the group where each member takes a
constructive approach to making sure the men standing next to him are
unit impression approach is not for every reenactor or every
reenacting unit. It takes a considerable amount of discipline and
like-mindedness among the membership. It requires continued research
and adaptability, as on occasion new data may cause you to reexamine
a long-standing practice or piece of gear. It takes dedication to
pull off, but over the years we have found the rewards exponentially
outweigh any drawbacks.