We walked up to the camp of the League of German Girls. A young woman in uniform greeted us at the entrance to the camp area.
"Hello, nice to meet you. I'm Gerda Langemann, the leader for this group," she said.
As she pointed us around the camp, she told us that she was twenty-five years old and a long-time member of the League of German Girls, which she had joined in 1933.
In reality, Gerda Langemann is actually Jane Smith, a living historian from the United States. The date is 2005 instead of 1937, and her
camp is located in the middle of a history timeline event that is open to the public. What Jane is doing is called a first-person
impression, sometimes shortened as fipers.
What is a First Person Impression?
Doing a first person impression means that you are acting and speaking as if you were a real person living in the time period you portray. For example, if someone came up to ask about your display and impression, you would answer similar to our BDM girl above, instead of saying, "I'm portraying a member of the BDM, which was..." etc. A first person impression doesn't just require you to be knowledgeable about your impression, but also about your time period (in terms of cultural references and expressions). You'll also need some acting skills to remain "in character" during public hours.
Why do a First Person Impression?
Aside from helping you get a better idea of daily life in the time period you do, a first person impression can also be an excellent tool to get visitors interested in your display and teaching them about history. Most people could walk into a museum about World War II and see the uniforms and equipment there just as well. Living history gives them a chance to touch, try on, and "try out" history in a way that is more than just looking or just reading. After all, how many museums make it possible for you to interact with the displays!
There are many ways to do living history, and the ability to "stay in persona" has a lot to do with how effective your display will be. Some people like to have a guide who leads people through the camp and explains what the re-enactors are doing, while the rest of them stay in character as if they were in 1942 Germany. Personally, I find this to be the most effective way, especially since visitors may not know about first person and might get pretty confused when you ask them whether they've heard Goebbels' speech on the radio that morning. In addition, the other group members could also keep from getting bored sitting around the display by engaging in some historic activities, such as singing, playing games, or cooking an authentic meal over their campfire.
When you do a first person impression, however, you should be careful of how the public perceives some things that would have been fairly common during the Third Reich - for example, the Hitler salute. Yes, of course people did it - but if you really, truly must do it in a public setting, do it in a way that is tasteful and explain to the public what it is you're doing and why. I don't believe we should censor history for the sake of political correctness, but the last thing our hobby needs is more bad press on how we're all closet neo-Nazis who take every opportunity to parade about with our swastika flags.
Setting up a first person impression can be a lot of fun - if you take your time to put together your pieces, and if the rest of your group play along and know you by your persona's name. After all, what's the point of going through all the trouble to put your persona together, if nobody calls you by that name or plays along. It would be like playing Brutus on stage, and the other actors are calling you by your real name. "Et tu, Joe?"
The easiest way to set up your persona well is to incorporate as much of your real-life persona into it as you can - this also helps you
to remember all your details while you're at an event! For example, if you have a sister named Nicole in real life, your persona might
have a sister named Nicole as well. That way, you could chat about your sister while you're in character. The first two things you should
jot down, however, are your persona's name and date of birth.
Picking your Birthday
A new year of birth is the easiest part to chose. You simply decide for which year you'd mainly want to set up your impression - for example, mine is set up for 1938 at most events. Then you subtract your actual age from the year and voila, you have your new year of birth. Me, I was born in 1911 - 1938 for the year minus 27 for my age. And if you have spare time on your hands, you might want to see whether your new birthday falls onto a holiday or an important date in history - it could make for a fun (or funny) story to tell around the campfire while you're in character.
Picking a German Name
Most American historians who do an American impression for World War II use their own name, of course, but those of us who do German don't really want to chose that option - mainly because German soldiers by the name of Jason Taylor were few and far between in the Third Reich.
For those of us who don't already have a German-sounding name, or simply want to use a different name for their persona, this is no problem, because we can chose whatever we'd like to be named! Unfortunately, a lot of female German re-enactors end up picking names that are very unusual, even by Third Reich standards - of course, girls names like Sigrun and Brunhilde existed back then, but many other names were much more common, like Jutta, Katharina, or Margret.
I think that a simple name that is easy to remember and easy to pronounce is always a good choice in living history. Of course
that doesn't mean we all need to be the John Smith's of Germany, just that a Margaret Schmitt would be much more common than one Sigrun von
Manteuffel. I would also steer clear of titles of nobility, as well as names
of the big Nazi party personalities like Hitler or Goebbels, unless those
names were and are fairly common in Germany.
First Person Worksheet
Hopefully the first person worksheet is going to help you in putting together a persona. It just covers some of the basics that you should consider and set up. I found it helpful to have a notebook at hand to write down all the information I wanted include for my persona when I did this for my first impression. It also helped me remember a lot of those things!
Your full name, to include your middle name
Your date and place of birth
Hobbies and Interests
What are your political views?
How do you feel about the war?
What's your mother's name?
Where is she from?
Who are your maternal grandparents?
What's your father's name?
Where is he from?
What does he do for a living?
Who are your paternal grandparents?
Do you have any aunts, uncles, cousins, etc?
Do you have any siblings?
Where do your parents live?
What are your parents' political views?
How do they feel about your work / friends / school, etc.?
Of course these are just some ideas to get you started. You can expand this list to include as much information about yourself and your
family as you would like. Or you can keep it simple and just do the basics - it all depends on how much you want to put into it and what
you want to gain from it.
If you're like me and enjoy doing research, you could try to see whether your "chosen" hometown has a historical society and ask them for a map or some photos of the town as it was in the 1930s to get a good visual image of what it really was like.
Or if you're the crafty type you can make a little photo album with pictures of your relatives (whether they're photos of your real grandparents during the time period or pictures of "instant relatives" you've found at an antiques shop) and photos of you in period clothing at events.