GOP candidate Rich Iott, second from right, says his involvement in re-enactments of Germany's Waffen SS Wiking Division has been taken out of context.
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After the Apple Festival parade broke up Saturday, Republican Rich Iott stood on a Main Street front lawn and downplayed photographs of him dressed in a Nazi uniform with the insignia of a deadly Waffen SS unit. The congressional candidate said the years-old photographs were from one of the many historical re-enactments of battles he and his son took part in for years.
OAK HARBOR, Ohio - After the Apple Festival parade broke up Saturday, Republican Rich Iott stood on a Main Street front lawn and downplayed photographs of him dressed in a Nazi uniform with the insignia of a deadly Waffen SS unit.
The congressional candidate said the years-old photographs were from one of the many historical re-enactments of battles he and his son took part in for years.
"It's looking at it strictly from a historical or military point of view," he said. "There's a bunch of guys that do Roman legion re-enactments; they don't endorse feeding Christians to lions. … Anybody who's involved in re-enacting, no matter what uniform you are wearing or time period you're representing, you're not endorsing the ideologies of that time."
In Oak Harbor, Rich Iott says wearing a Nazi uniform didn't mean he endorsed Nazis. Roman legion re-enactors ‘don't endorse feeding Christians to lions.'
But some local politicians, veterans, and Jewish leaders don't see it that way.
A day after the photographs were published on a national magazine's Web site, they say Mr. Iott's decision to wear the uniform, regardless of context, showed a lapse in judgment and is offensive, particularly because the group poses as officers and soldiers from a infamously lethal German unit: the Waffen SS.
In a midterm election many predict could bring an avalanche of Republican gains, Mr. Iott is challenging U.S. Rep Marcy Kaptur for her 9th District congressional seat.
She has held the seat for 28 years. Mr. Iott and the national and state Republican parties have described her as a "career politician," out of touch and taking part in massive government spending they say will be America's undoing.
Mr. Iott began as an independent backed by Tea Party activists, but later won the nomination of the Republican Party.
The photographs and an online companion story were posted on theatlantic.com late Friday night, and a story about it appeared in Saturday's edition of The Blade. The election is Nov. 2.
Rich Iott and son Ian wear Union uniforms as Civil War re-enactors. Mr. Iott has been involved in re-enacting various wars since the 1970s, his campaign said.
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The photos and their fallout are becoming the latest examples of how in this season's particularly gritty campaigns, no one is forgiving anything controversial, particularly anything Nazi-themed.
According to a Washington Post report, the National Republican Congressional Committee appeared to drop Mr. Iott from its "Contenders" section of its "Young Guns" Web site after the photos were published.
Other than the Iott campaign, no Republican politician, operative, or their representative contacted by The Blade returned a call Saturday to comment on the photographs. Kevin DeWine, the chairman of Ohio Republican Party, also did not return a call.
A representative of Gov. Ted Strickland said he would not comment.
Josie Setzler, a longtime Tiffin peace advocate and anti-war activist, said war re-enactments in general are troubling and even more so when the people dress as Nazis.
"I'm disturbed by Richard Iott's interest in donning the uniform of a Nazi and playing out the persona. I am worried about what that might mean," Ms. Setzler said. "I worry about war, I always have, and I'm afraid war re-enactments glorify the violence involved. It looks sterile; you don't see the blood, you just feel the excitement, and I'm really disturbed about that."
Toledoan Barry Bridgland, 66, was born in England during a Nazi air raid. ‘How … they can even want to highlight these people, I don't know.'
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The mid-2000s photos show Mr. Iott, a Monclova Township Republican, along with several other then-members of a Midwest group that re-enacts the Nazi's 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking.
ANALYSIS Re-enactors: Whose side are they really on? Oct. 10, 2010
The Wiking Re-enactment Unit's Web site at www.wiking.org belongs to a self-described living history and re-enactment unit of the World War II Historical Re-Enactment Society Inc. It features a symbol that is a variation of a swastika as well as the double lightning symbol of SS troops.
Mr. Iott said Saturday that the picture is being used out of context to discredit him politically and to distract voters from the real issues of flawed stimulus spending and an ill-advised health-care bill, initiatives that Miss Kaptur supported.
"Obviously, what the Germans did was despicable, and no re-enactor embraces the ideologies of any of the time periods," he said. "Yeah, it was horrible. But we can't forget it; we can't bury it. I've been involved in historical re-enacting for many years and have done many different roles, Union soldiers, American soldiers in World War I and World War II."
Still, Mr. Iott in the piece that appeared on theatlantic.com Web site expressed admiration for wartime Germany's ability to conquer Europe. He repeated that admiration to a Blade reporter Saturday.
"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," theAtlantic.com quoted him as saying. "I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them. From a purely historical military point of view, that's incredible."
Toledoan Al Burrow, 79, a Korean War vet, defends Mr. Iott's right to express himself, but says Nazi role-playing makes him unfit for public office.
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Just several blocks down from the Oak Harbor home where Mr. Iott campaigned Saturday, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, who also attended the parade and festival, walked down Main Street. He expressed shock about the photographs and predicted they would damage Mr. Iott's campaign.
"Can you imagine someone defending dressing up as a Nazi, a member of a division that is responsible for millions of deaths of Hungarian Jews and East European Jews?" he said. "He ought to apologize, he ought to be ashamed of himself."
Steve Fought, a representative of Miss Kaptur, said the Wiking Web site appears to "honor" the Panzer division even as it disavows any Nazi ideologies in a written disclaimer.
"The Waffen SS was found to be a criminal organization at the Nuremberg war trials. There was nothing honorable, and it's a bad idea to honor them," he said. "It's a bad idea to regard them as anything but state-sponsored terrorists. … at a minimum, it calls into question his judgment."
Toledoan Howard ‘Shorty' Braddock, 79, grew up during World War II and served in Korea. He says re-enactments mislead people about war.
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Neither the candidate nor his campaign said there was any reason to offer an apology.
"If somebody pays to go learn about WW II and to see a re-enactment, and there's no one playing the German side, it wouldn't be much of a re-enactment," said Iott campaign spokesman Matt Parker. "I'm shocked that Marcy Kaptur's first reaction wasn't to say, 'Rich is not a Nazi.' Her first reaction was to have her spokesman throw a bomb."
He said Mr. Iott showed him photos back to the 1970s when he played all manner of participants in various war re-enactments, including a Civil War Union soldier and a World War I U.S. "doughboy" soldier.
"Rich Iott is not a Nazi," Mr. Parker said. "He's not going to apologize for being involved in historical re-enactments."
Local Tea Party organizer Bill Zouhary told The Blade Saturday that it was important to focus on what Mr. Iott stands for, which is smaller government and a move away from the types of big-spending policies that could result in hyperinflation, or a revisit of 1930s Germany.
"I thank God there are people like him to run. This isn't an issue about Nazis; this is an issue about what's going on in Washington," he said. "The re-enactments, if anything, would bring to light what happens when you end up with an economy which is very similar to the economy we have now, which opened the door for a dictator like Hitler."
Saturday, a handful of war veterans sipped beers in the wood-paneled Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2510 in East Toledo. They questioned Mr. Iott's decision to be part of a Nazi war re-enactment unit.
"I was born in an air raid, a Nazi air raid," said Barry Bridgland, 66, of Toledo. The post's canteen manager, he served in the British military and moved to the United States in 2001.
"My late father didn't forgive the Germans for World War I until about 1961 and World War II a lot later," he said. "We have all seen what happened with the Nazis. How the hell they can even want to highlight these people, I don't know."
Al Burrow, 79, of Toledo served in the Marines during the Korean War.
Seated at the legion bar, he said Mr. Iott has the right to express himself, but added that his Nazi role-playing makes him unfit for public office.
"I don't care what it is, even if it's garbage collector," Mr. Burrow said.
Howard "Shorty" Braddock, 79, of Toledo, sporting an Army 24th Infantry cap and using a walker to get around the room, said re-enactments mislead people about the horror of war.
"I was in Korea from January, 1950, to January, 1951 - a long, cold year," he said. "I grew up during World War II and I seen a lot of stuff on TV and on the movie screen, and I didn't know a whole lot about war until I hit Korea. And I'll tell you what - I didn't like what I seen, and I still don't."
Two Holocaust survivors questioned Mr. Iott's judgment and his motivation for wearing a Nazi uniform.
Philip Markowicz, 86, of Sylvania survived the horrors of the Auschwitz, Flossenburg, Metzbach Tail, and Regensburg concentration camps. He said he suspects that Mr. Iott's decision to portray a Nazi reveals something about the candidate's political beliefs.
"He sympathized with the side of the Fascist movement, otherwise he wouldn't do it," Mr. Markowicz said. "He chose that side - not the Allies who were fighting against the Nazis. And I feel that the far right, like the Tea Party, is bordering a little bit on Fascism.
"It's no secret that a lot of Americans were fascinated with the Fascist movement and felt that this is the future of the world," he said.
"The idea is not dead yet. You have to be careful to recognize it."
William Leons, 75, a retired University of Toledo professor who taught cultural anthropology, said it is an unhealthy hobby.
"I think the whole thing, the Nazi re-enactment thing, wearing the uniforms, is a little bit sick. But I'm a big fan of free speech and free expression," he said. "They have the right to do it, but I would wonder a bit what their motives are."
Mr. Leons of Holland, Ohio, was 5 when Nazi war planes bombed his family's house in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
His father died in a German concentration camp in Austria and his mother survived "harrowing experiences" in a Nazi camp in southern Holland.
Mr. Leons spent more than a year hiding in the attic of a sympathetic neighbor and was reunited with his mother after British and Canadian forces liberated the concentration camp when the war ended.
"I think Nazi war re-enactment is a form of expression and people often express themselves in controversial, sick ways. But I don't think any court should bar it," he said.
Peter Silverman, who wrote a column for 10 years for the Toledo Jewish News and was a Democratic city councilman and member of the school board, said he doesn't believe the re-enactment is an issue.
"I don't think it's any concern. There are tons of people who do re-enactments, and all kinds of people who play board games," he said. "Kids play all kinds of Internet games where they might re-enact one side or another, they might take the side of a good guy or a bad guy.
"I don't think it's a big deal and from what I know of Rich Iott, he's a very decent human being."
Blade staff writer Mike Sigov contributed to this report.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This version corrects the description of the VFW post.