In it, but not of it. TPM DC
Green broke the story tonight, showing the photos of Iott in his SS garb on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher."
Iott played it off as being interested in history.
"I've always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things. I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them," Iott explained to Green. "From a purely historical military point of view, that's incredible."
Iott added that he's "absolutely not" a supporter of the tenets of Nazism and pointed Green to the group's disclaimer on its website, which states, "This page or anyone involved in its creation, or members of reenactment groups listed here, are in no way affiliated with real, radical political organizations (i.e., KKK, Aryan Nation, American Nazi Party, etc.) and do not embrace the philosophies and actions of the original NSDAP (Nazi party), and wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities which made them infamous."
"It's purely historical interest in World War II," Iott, a former grocery chain owner and member of the Ohio Military Reserve, told Green.
But disclaimers notwithstanding, the site's discussion of the history of the Third Reich is oddly sanitized and presents the Nazi movement in Europe as in many ways an admirable and idealistic cause. "Germany," reads the site's history section, "headed a strong movement in Europe to actively campaign (politically and through warfare) against the ideals of Bolshevist Communism. This culminated in 1941, when the German armed forces were pitted against the very home of Bolshevism, Soviet Russia."
With that intro it should come as little surprise that the site also makes little mention of one of the unit's other key roles on the Eastern front: rounding up and murdering eastern European Jews.
In the "History" section of the page, the group allows that the Wiking volunteers were perhaps misguided, viewing the Nazis as the best way to stop Communism from spreading across Europe despite "the true underlying totalitarian (and quite twisted, in most cases) nature" of National Socialism. But in the end, the group says, the Norsemen who fought the Allied troops on the eastern front were "valiant men" who "died defending their respective countries in the name of a better tomorrow."
Though the rich history of the unit's performance in the Caucuses and the battle of Leningrad are listed on the page, some details of the real-life Wiking Panzer division appear have been selectively left out. From the "War Crimes" section of the Wikipedia page devoted to the unit:
Members of the division's bakery column, led by ObersturmfÃ¼hrer Braunnagel and UntersturmfÃ¼hrer Kochalty, assisted Einsatzgruppe A in rounding up Ukrainian Jews. Witnesses report that the Jewish victims were forced to run a gauntlet formed by soldiers who would beat them as they passed, and when they reached the end of the gauntlet, Einsatzgruppen officers murdered them and their bodies were pushed into a bomb crater ... Between 50 and 60 Jews were killed in this manner, as a part of the larger Einsatzgruppe operation which resulted in over 700 murders.
As one professor tells Green, "It is so unhistorical and so apologetic that you don't know to what degree they've simply caught up innocent war memorabilia enthusiasts who love putting on uniforms."
Iott disagrees, telling Green that he hopes offended voters will give him the benefit of the doubt.
"They have to take it in context. There's reenactors out there who do everything. You couldn't do Civil War re-enacting if somebody didn't play the role of the Confederates. [This] is something that's definitely way in the past. ... [I hope voters] take it in context and see it for what it is, an interest in World War II history. And that's strictly all."
You might be wondering why a politician would do something as objectively bad optics-wise as dress up like one of America's mortal enemies and shoot guns at stuff. Iott claims he became a pretend Nazi for the normal reasons.
He told Green it was "a father-son bonding thing."
Read Green's whole piece here.
Check out the official Ohio Wiking recruitment video: