Saka Light Cavalry

Saka Light Cavalry

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Chatter Behind the Bike Sheds - The Cult of the Black SS

Has any period of war ever had such a polarising effect? Possibly the Roman's given the popularity of the Roman armies but the difference is that other than the misconception that all Roman's wore red (Thanks Hollywood) you don't get much outside comment on your Roman army when you get it out in public.

The SS on the other hand can get ugly real quick. I would hazard a guess that their is more SS armies for Flames of War than any other single formation and I am willing to bet that if you take a cross section of teenage players that ratio shoots right up. To start off with the SS are always depicted as being super efficient and add the bad boy image and you have wargames gold.

Not that it starts or ends with FoW, no sir not by a long chalk. The SS are a big draw not only in FoW, not even in figure gaming nor all of wargaming but in anything that has something to do with them. Be it historical memorabilia, reproduction or real, books reinactments or hobby related it's always a big draw and as such it's always a commercial opportunity. 

Germany with good reason has banned the swastika and as far as I know is the only country where denying the holocaust is a crime. But still the cult of the SS remains strong around the world. My intention is not to actually discuss the actual SS nor the relationship it has with far right movements even today, that is other than to say that it's wrong and very misguided. No what I want to talk about is the Cult of the Black SS, both in games and the supporting industry.

Way back when board wargames was the bigger of the two wargames arms (computer games being not yet thought of) the first strike for special treatment was the use of black counters to represent the SS. Special rules were introduced to represent the extra discipline or combat effectiveness of the SS and a star was born, even if it was a dark one.

I am not saying the SS did not need special rules, nor am I saying that supplying their own colour counters was a bad thing. What I do believe was that in doing so a precedent was set and a fashion was created. Why black? well for a start it's striking and would stand out against all other national counters and black and bad can go hand in hand just as well as black and sexy which is fortunate as I am sure different folks see them as one or the other.

Of course it has become more fashionable to address all German's fighting in WWII as Nazi's I think your hard pressed to get a book published in the last five or so years that does not constantly refer to Nazi soldiers with the term German Soldier failing to be used more than a few times through the book. Books being the chief misuse of said catch phrase. The idea that every German soldier (or probably even the majority) were of Nazi persuasion is clearly wrong and ignores that the typical German soldier was as much a victim as Tommy, Comrade, Buddy etc. It's a trend that actually I fear is more dangerous and damaging than most would consider. How long will it be till it's accepted that the only evil or wrong doing was those Nazi's and forget that every major nation played it's part in making WWII not only possible but inevitable.


But I digress, lets get back to the books, the books pictured above is simply a few pulled from a very large collection with four of the books from the same author and given that they are all from the same publisher it's not too surprising they have the same look.

However this is another book from my collection and surprise surprise it's also available in black. So obviously I am drawn to such books but a quick search shows that you are hard pressed to find books on the SS that are not dressed so, for example.

Lots more volumes from this series, again note the use of red on the cover, seven books out of seven so far.

This book lacks the red, the first one so far but keeps with the fashion of black and white and the stark relief it gives.

The black is somewhat more subliminal but it's still there and the red is back. Red of course is another colour that is seen as sexy, just sayin'.

Full house here, not that all the images of SS books were fitting the pattern I am showing here. I found TWO books under the search of SS Book Images out of over twenty that did not conform to the formula I present here. That's quite worrying that so many books share such a narrow design style.

My favourite board game Advanced Squad Leader launched with special rules for the SS and as such has counters just for the SS and have the SS lightning ruins in the top right corner to remind you they are SS. The counters were still the same colour blue as standard Germans but when Avalon Hill released The Bridge to Far historical module it released the first and last official black ss counters for ASL. That module now commands around £400 on Ebay due in part to being out of print but also because of the ss counters!

Not that other providers of ASL have not also provided black counters for the ss, I personally have at least five sets of ss counters from other packs.

The rarest of these third party producers counters can really increase the value of a pack when sold on ebay. Rarity itself pushes the price up but the fun using such counters at an event you can have as the debate rages over your game on their use adds a few pounds to the final bid I am sure.

Not that ASL or Avalon Hill have the monopoly on the black ss counter. Avalanche Press released a scenario book and counter set covering the SS and their involvement in the battle for Normandy.

Again the pack comes with the black counters that so often are used to depict the SS but in this case the Nazi emblems are missing which seems more tasteful.

So it's clear that the ss get special treatment either from the marketing department or based on the historical use of such things as black counters but is this a bad thing?

Yes and no is the answer I think. Yes in the fact that the wider audience and more importantly the less informed onlookers get exposure to the special treatment and as such can and often will come to the conclusion that somehow the ss are being looked up to and admired. It's fortunate that unless you have direct exposure to our hobby you don't see the even greater fan base that the ss have. More so as the chance of them understanding that special treatment and it's context within wargameing. much easier to brand all that wargame as warmongers and secret Nazi's. Something we have had to deal with in the past and still have to explain away at times.

No because any informed gamer is aware of the fact that the fighting units of the ss tended to be tougher than the army equivalent, was better armed and trained and was an elite formation. However all this could be done without their own special coloured counters and the downside is very often not worked into the units such as the high casualty rate often received on accomplishing the objective.

As for me I still use the black counters, still get a little satisfaction from knowing it pisses some people off and whilst that should not make me smile it still does. Black ss are sexy and I know it.

21 comments:

  1. If someone rages on using black chits, well, that smile was well worth it.

    During the previous government (about 2008-9) there was a notion to criminalize denying the holocaust here too but the constitutional court (something like the US Supreme Court) ruled it was not backed up well enough (implicitly, limiting freedom of speech) IIRC. The current version is that 'Whoever, before greater public, denies, doubts, discredits or attempts to justify the genocide or other acts against humanity committed by the national socialist or communist regimes, shall be sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment for committing crime'.

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    1. I am not sure how I feel about the denying of the holocaust being a criminal act, though I am 100% sure anyone trying to celebrate it's happening should be treated as a criminal. It's very complex and I feel it needs to be very much kept to the fore but equally the atrocities that have happened since needs linking to that to show that we still continue to do such terrible things. A friend of mine is working on a book with this as the subject matter and dealing with some of the genocide he actually witnessed as a Marine. Not at all nice reading but that's the point.

      Ian

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    2. No denying about it, it is a very sensitive matter and especially sensitive for lawmakers.

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  2. Well, that's definitely one of the most comprehensive summarization of the general conception of the Waffen-SS in a wargamers view I've read in a long time. Beeing a German I think it comes as a small wonder I'm not overly fond of the SS becoming so much attention.

    When you look around on the gaming tables all over the world you could easily get the impression of the SS beeing the dominant military arm in the Reich, not the Wehrmacht. I myself would never even think about building me a SS force no matter what game, I wouldn't mind playing against one though.

    I never quite got the whole concept of the SS beeing overly sexy. Ok, I quite like their camo uniforms but that's about it. I also quite liked Agis Neugebauers answer when he was asked for SS special rules for his Victory Decision ruleset: Simply use Panzergrenadiers as this is what they actually were.

    As you already stated lots of their successes were bought by higher than average blood toll which makes them more fanatic than elite to me.

    But maybe that's all me beeing German and having a biased view on the topic.

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    1. I am now regretting the off hand way I wrote some of this post. I think overall most wargamers have a realistic view of the ss, just the same as more wargamers are anti-war than pro war.

      Your point about the SS seem to be the larger part of the German forces over the Wehrmacht was one of the points I was trying to make

      Hopefully I have not offended you or other German followers

      Ian

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    2. Don't worry no offense taken. I think I got the point you wanted to make. We Germans know we are a bit "special" about the way we handle our more recent past and rightly so I think. This doesn't exclude other people finding their own way to handle this part of human history. As long as it's not glorification but serious examination.

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    3. Glad no offence taken and it says a lot of positive things about how todays generations of Germans react in comparison to say how us British to our poor record of treatment of others when we have been in a position of power over them. I guess the more years between events the easier it is to ignore your past

      Ian

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  3. I think that the years of gamers reading Sven Hassel and the cult of cool has a lot to say about Nazi cool. But there is no denying that the SS and the whole Nazi movement is a bad thing. But if you are going to play WW2 games then SS units have to be played I guess but personally I would never play them and would think twice about someone else playing them.

    But what worries me more is going to WW2 re-enactments and seeing fat middle aged men, who have never been the army, dressed up if SS as are their children. Talking to them leave me cold as they seem to believe in the whole thing and thats worrying.

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    1. I never felt that Sven Hassel actually lead to ss being cool, rather the opposite as they were the bad guys more so that the Russians.

      I agree that the ss are overall seen as bad but their is a segment of the hobby and outside world that see them not only as cool but to be looked up to. That should make everyone uncomfortable.

      The re-enactors who dress as ss are a worry, the fat ones actually less so than the trim thin ones as they at least are a mockery even if they do not intend to be so. However they should all be challenged each time they try to glory the ss, even when it's in context to a actual battle. I think they should be recognised but have no place in any re-enactment society and pressure should be put on such societies to force out such units.

      Ian

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  4. Well... That's a very complex. On the one hand I get your point but on the other hand I have my worries with SS forces on the tabletop. Maybe it's because of my background as a German but I would never ever field a force of those. I wouldn't enjoy to paint them, I wouldn't enjoy to represent them on the tabletop. There's simply too much terror benn caused by those blokes. But I would think the same about Italien Squadristi, Red Gaurs or something like that.

    I really don't want to talk about clean tabletop since war is always a dirty and bloody business but somehow these gruesome fanatics are beyond the line for me...

    Don't get me wrong I respect people who don't share these concerns and whoever wants to set up a scenario where the SS played a major role (e. g. Operation Market Garden) I'm fine with that. But that those men in black become in fashion just because they have strong special rules leaves a shawl and shallow connotation for me...

    And concerning reenactor I couldn't agree more with Pete. For them it should be even more important to review and reflect the things they are representing...

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    1. Same as you I would not paint up and use a ss formation on the table and same as you I would fight against them in context. With the counters I see it a bit different as I use the official AH ones that are just white on black. I sometimes just use the blue ss counters but I do still use the black, maybe I should not, though I would make sure my dislike of what the ss themselves stood for very clear even if I was using them.

      Thanks for the response, same for the other three it's a very emotive subject

      Ian

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  5. I'm with panzerkaput on this one. I remember the shock of going into the loo at a show to met by a black clad SS man - no way I say!
    The show venue had a Holocaust display on the walls too as it was a secondary school.
    I feel we should all distance ourselves from SS/Nazi cool and send a message to manufacturers,publishers etc.It puts the hobby into a vile light to many within and without ...
    Alan

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    1. I think gamers are more aware than those without but am I right in my idea that it tends to be the younger and shall we say the less socially adept members of our hobby that are most drawn to the ss or am I just being another stereotype conformist on that?

      Ian

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  6. Even German soldiers during the war didn't buy into the Nazi SS cool just recall the regiment of Panzergreniders who refused Hitler's honor of becoming SS. If they could do that while Hitler was alive we can certainly do that long after the war.

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    1. Well said, from what I read the SS tended to be highly disliked by regular troops

      Ian

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  7. I think you have tacked a tricky subject quite well. Indeed a subject I would have steered clear of.

    As such I shall acknowledge the issue and move on.

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    1. Thanks Clint, I do think it needs bringing up every now again in the hope of making people think and maybe review their views

      Ian

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  8. Hm,

    I never understood the actual interest in the SS troops. Despite the fact we Germans have our own special way of dealing with history – which in my opinion has already lost its track remembering the horrors and is more commonly used as an excuse to all kinds of stuff – I had to witness a lot of Wargamers who were like building up such an SS force just to realize, that those people in real had done terrible things and THEN were questioning themselves if it is appropriate to build up such a force. I mean – god, how simple has someone’s mind to be to not do any research on the topic when you are trying to start such an army.
    From my Wargamers point of view, it sounds more like the Space Marines hype. Have the best army no matter what.
    I had a Fallschirmjäger-Army (German paratroops), as I always considered them much more badass than every other German military formation, especially in WWII. As many of German military personnel during that time, there were also Fallschirmjäger units who committed war crimes. Denying that would be idiotic. Nonetheless, I always liked the way of fighting a more or less losing battle with little support and only use tactic and your “heart”. And that is what paratroopers do (at least). It let my build up a British Airborne army as well as an Elysian army for 40k. A decision like that leaves you with a lot of penalties, though. The SS meanwhile is the other way around. No penalties, only special and a hell of “good” rule sets. I mean – why do they have such a lot of special rules, but for example no penalties?
    From the point of view of a person interested in history, I can understand the overall interest in SS forces to a certain degree. It is the SS mark that has such a “mystical” touch and that makes people to start an army. If you watch documentaries, look at pictures and so on, you might find that those ... “Special Forces of the Third Reich” … despite the terrors they unleashed upon everyone still are fascinating. A lot of legends have been build up around them, which makes them interesting and add to their image as the bad guys who fight ‘till the end.
    Then again, that is some kind of falsifying the history. But isn’t that what Wargamers (to a certain degree) already do?
    In conclusion: This post worries me, as it totally confirms the observations I made when I was into all that WWII stuff, and it worries me, that it seems to continue. You totally hit the nail on the head.

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    1. I doubt the mystic will ever be lost to the ss, but as time moves on they will become more acceptable. That is good enough reason to worry and the more important to take the opportunities to say to those who collect these forces "hold on, you do know what they did don't you?"
      Also it's not like it was the last example how cruel man can be given the opportunity.

      Lastly, we tend to point the finger at Germany and Russia and ignore the levels of evil that the so called good guys did such as the industrial slaughter of the air war, the dropping of the second Atomic Bomb, given Japan was ready to surrender but we wanted to see the effect of the second bomb so hay o lets go.

      Ian

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    1. Indeed, though it's had more deep response than anything I have posted in ages

      Ian

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