Yesterday the presidential campaign of billionaire reality star Donald Trump took a turn for the weird, even by his impressive standards. As I’ve previously noted, Trump’s strange campaign, which seems to have gained impressive traction with many grassroots Republicans, has raised some important issues notwithstanding the crass language The Donald has often used to make his points. Moreover, Trump has been praised by even his opponents for his savvy use of social media, especially Twitter, where the real estate mogul has over three million followers.
Wherever Trump’s unique political caravan is headed, it’s safe to say that his reputation as a social media genius won’t recover from yesterday. It was discovered — ok, I discovered and told everybody online — that a new campaign ad (left), tweeted out by Trump’s account — a frankly tacky montage of the American flag, Trump’s visage, the White House, a stack of Benjamins (of course), and some armed troops — had a problem. A big problem.
The troops depicted at the bottom, you see, weren’t American. No GI Joes here. Who exactly was Trump recommending help him #MakeAmericaGreatAgain? Oddly, Germans. Worse, they were World War II Germans — you know, when the guy with that trim mustache was destroying Europe and genociding millions.
I don’t know how many people out of a million would notice that something was “off” with Trump’s new ad, but one person did. An observant follower tweeted an important question at me about who these camouflaged guys were.
Upon close examination (right), I immediately realized that these were not just Wehrmacht (meaning regular German military) troops, but soldiers from the Waffen-SS, Hitler’s elite political army that was responsible for war crimes on every front where it fought. The Waffen-SS, made up of fanatical fighters who battled for Hitlerism without restraint, was judged a criminal organization by the Nuremberg Tribunal (with exemptions only for those conscripted into its ranks in the war’s last two years such as Günter Grass, the heralded left-wing novelist who — whoops — for decades lied about his Waffen-SS service).
So these really aren’t the guys you want stumping for you if you want to be the president of the United States.
My very first job was in a military museum, I’m a historian, and I’m well acquainted with militaria and uniforms, so for a trained eye like mine knowing that the guys in the picture were Waffen-SS was an easy call. As I told the media, “Some people can tell a ’56 Chevy from a ’57 easily, some of us can tell German uniforms easily.”
Specifically, the camouflage worn by some troops in the photo was issued only to the SS in the last year of the war. Additionally, the placement of the SS eagle and a unit cuff title on the left arms is a dead giveaway that it’s not the normal Wehrmacht we’re dealing with here. Let some of my tweets do the talking:
Today a Twitter follower sent me a high-resolution version of the original photograph that Trump’s campaign used, and on it you can read the cuff-title on the soldiers’ left arms. It is unmistakably this one (below).
That’s the cuff title — yes, it says Adolf Hitler — of the 1st SS Panzer Division, the most elite unit of a very elite force. Officially it was termed the “Leibstandarte (Bodyguard Regiment) Adolf Hitler,” charged with protecting the Führer’s life.
That storied division, which began as Hitler’s personal bodyguard in the early days of Nazism, fought on many fronts throughout World War II and earned a reputation for determination and viciousness. The Leibstandarte Division is best known to Americans as the perpetrators of the Malmedy massacre in mid-December 1944, at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, when 84 American POWs were murdered by SS troops from the 1st Division.
The picture in question is actually of recent vintage. It soon emerged that it was taken a few years ago in England, at a living history event. Yes, there really are people who run around in Nazi uniforms for fun. They exist in the United States too, where guys pretend to be the very same 1st SS Panzer Division. This group of Leibstandarte “reenactors” is nearly a battalion strong. Back in 2010, a Republican running for Congress in Ohio got into hot water when it emerged, with pictures (above), that he liked to put on Waffen-SS garb on the weekends.
Thus was #WaffenSSGate born. Trump pulled down his tweet once the mistake was realized and the blame was soon placed, predictably, on an intern. In 1945, “I was only following orders” worked; in 2015, “the intern did it” is preferred.
I doubt that this embarrassing mistake will do much to tar Trump’s reputation among Americans who like his blustery and bombastic style. His poll numbers continually rise. On the other hand, when you already stand accused of racism by many people, pushing Hitler’s elite troops isn’t a good visual for your campaign.
I always advocate people learning more history. This little debacle makes my point for me nicely.