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Nazi Flags and Brexit Fans: I Went to a Massive Festival for People Obsessed with War

The War and Peace Show felt quite sweet and highly problematic all at the same time.

by Tom Usher, Photos: Alexander McBride Wilson
29 July 2016, 12:00am

War. All things considered, it's probably one of the things people like least about the world. Unless you're Genghis Khan or Tony Blair, when asked if you'd want to wage war you'd probably go "nah" and make a face like you've just discovered you've been sitting on an unwrapped Twix.

Conversely, the past. People fucking love the past. Old people, yes, because they are hurtling towards the ground at the speed of light and so can't get enough of the past, when they were decades further from death. But younger people, too – the types who grow twirly moustaches and go to Blitz parties, presumably forgetting that The Blitz was the name given to the relentless and not-fun-at-all bombing campaign waged by the Germans during WWII.

So what happens when you wedge these two things – both war and the past – together in a massive field in Kent? You get The War and Peace Revival show, a five-day military and vintage festival at Folkestone Racecourse.

It has all the things you get at a normal festival, like music, beer, mud and people dressing up in embarrassing yet painstakingly-created costumes. It's just that instead of the music being about "getting blunted" or promiscuity, it's about doing "The Lindy Hop" and maintaining stable relationships. And instead of costumes like "sparkly sequined glitter hippy" or "nu-rave native American" it's more "deeply problematic SS uniform".

I've often wondered why people are so obsessed with World War I and II. I mean, sure, it was the last time the world truly came together to defeat a terrifying and genuine evil, and the lessons we learnt from the tragedies that took place have dramatically shaped the course of modern history, but fucking hell, we do love to bang on about it; it feels like there's been a new movie, book or video game released about the Wars at least once a day, every day, for the past 60-odd years.

To find out why people enjoy re-imagining a period that saw some of the greatest losses of human life history has ever seen, I went down to the festival and had a walk around.

The first thing I noticed was the sheer scale of the thing. I had a little wander around to get my bearings and it was probably about two-thirds of the size of Glastonbury, but just absolutely rammed to the gills with tanks, army uniforms and people camping in makeshift barracks rather than bright orange Halfords £30 jobs.

The campsite genuinely looked like a bit like a scene in Full Metal Jacket, complete with signs saying things like "God Is My Shotgun" and "You Yell, We Shell, Like Hell". They even still did that annoying "wacky flag above our area so we know where we're camped" thing, but instead of being Spongebob Squarepants or an acid house smiley it was giant American, British and, in some cases, Nazi flags.

I started talking to a guy called Marcus, who was sitting in the Vietnam section dressed as an undercover CIA agent and drinking what looked like JD and Coke, despite the fact it was 10 in the morning. I asked what drew him to playing dress up in a giant field of other people playing dress up.

"I used to be in the army," he said. "To be honest, doing this is the closest thing you can get to the camaraderie of being in the army – I think that's why a lot of people do it."

In between sips of his drink he told me he was a history teacher in his spare time, and that this is only one of many re-enactments he attends, his favourite being the Tudor-themed War of the Roses re-enactment where he likes to play an Italian merchant.

"The thing is," he continued. "The thing is, my rank is actually pretty high as a CIA agent. Basically, I'm on the same level as a colonel, so I can tell anybody here if I wanted to to let me use their helicopter or tank and they'd have to let me."

I'm not sure if he was in character at this point, or if he actually believed what he was saying, but either way he let me try on this fancy gas mask so I couldn't complain.

There were various sections of the site dedicated to different facets of war. Some contained just tanks and vehicles. Some contained tanks, vehicles and fake battle scenes, complete with guys (and it was 99 percent guys) just kind of sitting around in their uniforms looking nonplussed.

I struck up a conversation with an owner of a tank-type people carrier thing, who was more than happy to explain where he got every single tiny part of the vehicle, down to the side lights and the authentic German hip flask on the inside.

One common trait among everyone there was that they were extremely keen to talk. This guy had come all the way from Latvia to show off his rustic Batmobile and wasn't prepared to let me go without chewing my ear off about every little nut and bolt. It was actually quite sweet to see a grown man essentially reduced to the level of a teenager discussing his latest Pokemon Go catch, until you remind yourself that his Pokemon Go catches are relatively ideologically unsound.

As I pottered around the dusty fields I started to see more and more incredibly detailed uniforms, most filled out by slightly overweight guys who – although I couldn't ask every single one – I safely assumed have never been in the army.

I got talking to this lovely-looking fella who, even in midday heat burning the top of my bald head, was so dedicated to his outfit – one worn by henchman from the shady Umbrella Corporation in the Resident Evil universe – that he wouldn't even take off his face mask to talk to me.

"I just love how everything looks, and how it feels to be in full uniform," he said. "For me, it's more about collecting all the individual parts and then designing the costume myself. I take a lot of pride in how good it looks."

Next, I wandered into what looked like a massive branch of Rokit – a vintage clothing arena full of rockabilly, polka dot type stuff, which didn't chime with the trenches I'd seen a minute earlier, but hey-ho. There, I got speaking to Natalie, who was selling vintage gear out of a 1950s style camper van called Twiggy.

"I just think the whole look exudes class – that's why I'm into it," she explained when I asked why she dresses the way she does. "It's something that I think is missing from modern society. People in those days had a lot more time to do themselves up; they took care over their appearance. These days, girls just put their hair in a scrunchie and go outside like it doesn't even matter."

Needless to say, a lot of people at the festival were pretty enamoured with the "good old days", a simpler, sepia-toned time when children respected their elders and nobody got angry about halal butchers because they didn't really exist. You get the impression that, for the people who attend War and Peace, nationalism is a thing to be proud about, rather than shied away from. There will have undoubtedly been some Remainers among their number, but I got the sense that these were the kind of people an emotionally-led, nationalistic campaign like Vote Leave would have worked a treat on, because they're already so heavily invested in a rose-tinted version of the past that they would be willing to ignore stuff like "facts" and "expert advice" in favour of returning to an age where jingoism wasn't a bad word.

To guns now, and: there were a lot of guns. Extremely realistic BB guns, paintball guns, shooting ranges, deactivated guns, old guns, new guns, even this £2,500 golden AK-47 gun, which I'm fairly certain Gaddafi owned at some point. The owner told me its story:

"It was actually found in the Middle East," he said. "When it was found it was covered in blood and guts. You see the bullet hole at the back of it?"

Sure enough, there was a big old bullet hole on the other side of the gun.

"That's where someone had obviously taken a shot to the stomach and died."

It's good to know there are still people out there who are committed enough to looking like evil dictators gone mad with power that they're willing to spend thousands of pounds on gold automatic weapons.

I also noticed there was a black SS flag hanging up behind his counter. The SS being the Schutzstaffel, AKA the guys in charge of enforcing Nazi racial policy, AKA some of the worst bad guys in history. I saw a lot of Nazi memorabilia around the place – people in uniforms, swastika flags, skull and crossbones patches; y'know, evil stuff – and so had to ask the attendant at yet another stall bearing a large Nazi flag what makes it OK to so brazenly display the kind of iconography that would offend hundreds of thousands of people.

"I just specialise in bomb fuses. I really like bomb fuses, and the German ones were really well made," said Tony, adding: "I think, for a lot of people here, they just like the beauty of it. Everything the Nazis made was incredibly well-made; the knives are all hand-crafted, the machines are all still great examples of their kind."

But what about the inherent awfulness associated with it all?

"I think you don't come to a place like this if you are sensitive about things like that. I think some people might share that ideology, but most people are just here to collect and trade."

In fairness, Tony didn't actually own the flag – it belonged to his stall manager – and did seem like he was genuinely just really into fuses, there to collect rare items, as many others were too. And because of the rarity of German war items (most sell for double, if not triple, the amount of Allied gear), the market for Nazi stuff will always be stronger and therefore more revered in these circles, purely on a financial basis.

But that's not to say the festival didn't feel quite problematic in parts. Throughout the whole day I didn't see anyone who wasn't white, bar a Japanese guy in full Japanese WWII uniform who shouted "Banzai!" a lot. It wasn't a problem for me, as "white bald guy" seemed extremely on trend at War and Peace this year, but I can't imagine what it would be like for a Jewish person if they had to walk around, seeing what – at surface level, at least – sometimes looked like a very lackadaisical Nazi rally in a field in south-east England.

As the day was winding down, I decided to take a quick breather in this tank. I spoke to its owner, John, about how he came to own such a tank. "I built it from scratch over three-and-a-half years," he said, proudly. "It took me a lot of effort to make this vehicle, and I'm pretty much retired now just so I can focus on my vehicles."

John seemed like a very nice guy, and his enthusiasm for "vehicles" helped me understand the festival a little more. Away from its dodgier facets, the event – and the entire culture around it – is essentially an extension of those little Aircraft kits, only absolutely massive and about 40 times as expensive. And instead of toy soldiers in toy vehicles and tanks, you dress yourself up in full regulation uniform and sit around all day getting pissed, talking to whoever will listen.

@williamwasteman / alexandermcbridewilson.com