How to build a Persona
A Reenactors Guide to the Persona and How to Make it Work!
by Rudolf Weiß
Just what is this "persona" that we are always talking about? Most WWI reenactors are always saying "I need to figure out my persona, so I can get my Soldbuch done!" Or… "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do a first-person impression all the time." Yes, you do and it certainly would! A lot of Reenactors either don't know where to look, or can't think of who they want to be. Researching a persona is not that hard; it just takes a little time and research. This article will help you to build your persona and also to give you a good foundation for acting it out.
Who Are You?
When you're figuring out who you are, there are some basic questions to ask. Among them: Who am I? Where do I live?; In a town or in the country? Is my family rich? What's my occupation? Do I have a formal profession?
The first item that you come to is your German persona's name. This is usually one of the very first things a new Rekrut does and hopefully you will pick a good authentic, period, name for your persona. If you're having trouble with this, read the following:
Your persona name can be your own name (if it is of German extraction), the name of a relative or actually any German name that catches your fancy. A neat way to HONOR someone who fought in the war would be to pick the name of say a German soldier from our Regiment who was killed in WWI.
Do not pick the name of someone such as "Paul Baumer" from All Quiet on the Western Front, this is considered "cheesy" and will only result in your getting taunted by your fellows. Picking reenacting names from any war movie is bad form. Nor should you make your last name Bismarck or some other BS like that. Another thing about your German name, it should not have a „von" in it! Unless you are of the nobility and are an officer, you shouldn't have a „von" in your name! Just because every single WWI or WWII movie ever made has a German with the name „von Somebody-or-other" in it, does not mean that you should be a „von." Nobility generally were not enlisted scum (like we portray), they went off and got to be officers. Usually, about the ONLY way a „von" would be an enlisted man, was for screwing up badly, and being a disgrace to his family!
What social class do you come from? Germany before the war was, like most other nations, quite "class conscious." This is not such an admirable custom, but one which was very much in existence in Germany, both before, during and after WWI. The Germans call this Stände, and it is almost as ingrained in German culture as it is in the British. The prosperous female who rated to be addressed „Dame" (Lady) or „Gnadige Frau" (gracious lady), would boil over at the ill-mannered brute who had the audacity to call her merely „Frau" (Ma'am).
Where are you from?
Even to this day in Germany, just like in the US, there is a lot of "Home-Town" pride. If you're from the North or South, you usually let others know it, and even if you don't, many little thingssuch as the way you speak, the clothes you wear, mannerisms, etc. give you away. It was the same "back then."
For members of J.R. 23, choosing a town or city is relatively easy. Our unit was composed of men from Oberschlesien. So, barring further discovery by us to the contrary, that's where our members should hail from. Anyway, here's how to do it: Get an old map of Germany, from before 1945. Don't use a modern map as a lot of Germany was stolen after the war by the vindictive allies.
If you look at the enclosed map [Coming soon...], you will see that Germany was a lot bigger then and there are, of course, a multitude of little towns and villages which don't even show up on this map. My advice is that, unless you have some kind of heartfelt attachment to some big and famous city, to pick a small town or village. Anyway, pick one! Then to do this right, try and get a more detailed map of just that area (or even the town) you want to be from. I have a nifty book called Städte-Atlas Schlesien. This book consists mostly of old street maps of cities in Schlesien right before and during WWII. So, voila!you can now find your address! Another note here: Other real good sources for this kind of research would be either the U.S. Library of Congress or the German Embassy in Washington D.C. Lastly, you might try the German military archives:
This address is out of date, but will still work.
Birthday and your Age
Okay, now that you have a home, when were you born? This is pretty easy, simply subtract you current age from 1917 and this is the date you want to be born on. Of course you can pick another date than your own birthday, but it's easier to remember. A note on this: you might want to add a couple years or so to your age so as to not grow out of your impression.
Now, think about your family. Are they still alive? Who is your father and what are his interests? Most Germans have a formal professionwhat is his? How about Mutti, what was her maiden name? Does she do war work? Are you married? If so, make up a good German name for your wife. Go for it, I'm sure she'll be thrilled with your choice. Any kids? If so, "German-ize" their names.
By the way, help is available with all this inventing and research if you want to call.
Now, what is your peacetime profession? Have fun with this, or simply use the equivalent of your modern job. If there is no equivalent, we'll try and match it to some period profession. More notes: There are way too many printers in reenacting personas. Instead, were you an engineer? A salesman, laborer, or farmer would be good, as would a student. Or perhaps you are a factory worker, teacher, lawyer or ditch-digger (There you go, that last one fits you!)
Conscription and the War
German men were eligible to be conscripted for two years military service. When were you called-up? Did you voluntarily return to service after the war started, or did you force the Kettenhunde to come and drag you away?