A Quiet English Village Becomes a Battleground After a Visitor Is ‘Bewildered’ to See Hitler’s Soldiers in the Streets

The UK's National Trust is caught in the crossfire after a visitor complained of reenactors in German uniform during the Lacock at War event.

German and GI military police guard the entry of Lacock at War in 2015. Photo by Chris Orchard, courtesy of the Military Vehicle Trust.

The peace in a small English village has been shattered after a World War II-themed event became national news for all the wrong reasons. The organizers of the annual “Lacock at War” event, which is held on National Trust land near the home of photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, fear this weekend’s event will be the last after complaint from a visitor, who is Jewish, about the presence of re-enactors who she claimed were wearing German uniforms, as well as traders selling Nazi-era memorabilia.

Far from being a rally for Nazi apologists, “Lacock at War: Codename Bolero,” is a family-friendly annual event, featuring vintage 1940s fashions, a wartime sing-along, and tea and cakes courtesy of the Women’s Institute while mainly middle-aged men wear uniforms of various combatants. The incident and negative publicity raises questions about how the history of the conflict is presented in an educational and entertaining way in the UK.

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The event proved controversial after media reports that one visitor was left in tears. A woman told The Sun newspaper that she saw: “Two men strutting in wearing full Nazi SS uniform with knee-high black boots… I was bewildered that nobody else seemed to be offended by what was going on. It was like being in a parallel universe.” Said to be descendant of eastern European Jews, she told the Guardian: “There were people dressed as German soldiers, [with] swastikas and Third Reich emblems… There seemed to be no efforts made to consider Jewish people in this.” She told the Jewish Chronicle that she wants the event shut down. 

The National Trust, which has never objected to the nonprofit Wiltshire Military Vehicle Trust holding “Lacock at War” since 2012, has been caught in the crossfire. It takes place on a playing field owned by the conservation organization that it leases to the Parish Council. A National Trust spokesman tells artnet News that it is investigating what happened to see “what lessons can be learnt” from the controversial event. “We also recognize the organizers had no intention of upsetting anyone,” he added. The Parish Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lacock Abbey, the home of William Fox Talbot, in Wiltshire, England. Photo by James Dobson, courtesy the National Trust.

The event’s organizers refute the allegations that anyone wore the SS uniform and say no re-enactor in German military uniform paraded around in jackboots. A spokeswoman for the military vehicle trust says there was a German sentry on guard opposite a British checkpoint on the way into the paying event. She also disputes the claim that a Star of David was on sale, explaining that it belonged to a collector and formed part of an educational display. “We would never want to upset Jewish people,” she says. She stresses that SS uniforms are banned and no re-enactor dressed as a member of the Nazi Party’s armed wing would be allowed at the event.

The organizers stress the historical links of Lacock in the South West of England and the D-Day landings. General Patton’s 3rd US Army HQ was less than a mile away. The majority of participants wore the uniforms of British and American troops alongside the vehicles that helped defeat Hitler. She explains that the swastika flag was draped over a GIs tent as if it had been captured. She also pointed out that it is not illegal in the UK to sell Nazi-era memorabilia. 

German guard dog and sentry box. Photo by Chris Orchard, courtesy of the Military Vehicle Trust.

The brouhaha may alarm the organizers of the numerous World War II “living history” events that take place across the UK each summer. Some are directly organized by one of its biggest heritage charities. Last year, English Heritage held a weekend of activities at Audley End House in the South East of England. It featured a German HQ in the stable yard, along with a GI encampment on the lawns and the British HQ in the nursery suite, according to the charity’s website. A spokeswoman for English Heritage says that while events may include re-enactors representing German military personnel in order to reflect both sides of history, no Nazi insignia or associations are permitted. “This condition is part of performer guidelines issued to and agreed by all re-enactors in advance,” she adds. 

In the meantime, the spokeswoman for the organizers of “Lacock at War” sounded shell-shocked by the media interest. She fears the negative publicity has “put the kibosh on a popular show.”


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