Germany’s Nazi Party is looked upon as the historic villain of the twentieth century for the very real violence and depression it inflicted upon its victims. It has also been repeatedly cast as a pseudo-fictional antagonist of literature, film and games set in the 20th century. Though one might believe the role of historical oppressor could cleanly translate to fictional villain, they exist in harsh disagreement, perhaps because the Nazis’ leveraging of military, organizational and social power is flattened by representing the Nazis as villains without connection to the horrors of the party. This dissonance is clearly represented in MachineGames’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, which exists in precarious balance between its premise—an alternate conclusion to World War II where Nazi Germany’s discovery and mass-production of advanced weaponry led to success for the Axis Powers—and the actual politics and history of the twentieth century. The New Order is the first of the Wolfenstein games to seriously attempt this balance, and veers between horrific realities and disingenuous hero narratives that carry untrue historical implications.
Despite Nazis acting as the antagonist of The New Order, the game makes few direct references to Adolf Hitler, and has replaced his leadership with the sadistic surgeon and commander, General Deathshead. Each encounter with the general emphasizes not only his sadism, but also his rivalry with protagonist and American freedom-fighter, B.J. Blazkowicz. This narrative focuses on a feud between two men, and evokes Nazis’ violence more to increase tension than to react to the practices of the Nazis. If Blazkowicz’s conflicted only with the general, The New Order would be another game using the Nazis as villains without connecting them to the Nazi Party’s historical behaviors. But the game goes further, using the encounters Blazkowicz has with a secondary antagonist, Obersturmbannführer Irene Engel, to provide perspective into the hypocrisy of the Nazi party.
In one sequence set in a dimly-lit luxury train car, Engel draws Blazkowicz to her booth and administers a self-designed test of “pure blood” for Blazkowicz, threatening him with death if he should fail. After he passes, she proudly claims that she can actually identify impurities with a look. Yet Blazkowicz is Jewish. This flawed arbitration reflects a compromise of the Nazi Party between ideology and practice. The real Nazi Party did not only accidentally compromise its ideology, it did with intent. Hermann Goering famously said, “I decide who is a Jew,” after falsifying the genealogy of Field Marshall Ernhard Milch. While the mentioned scene does not specifically reference this event, both show that the Nazis’ anti-Semitic ideology could not perfectly coexist with Nazi practices. The sequence is stronger for placing the player as Blazkowicz in a situation of powerlessness where they are rescued not by their own might but by Nazi incompetence. Unfortunately, this sequence exists in tonal conflict with the accelerating firefight against the one-dimensional Deathshead.
Wolfenstein demands questioning to resolve its conflicting stances. Why create a framework capable of portraying the violence of the holocaust and then reduce it to its most immediate physical threat? What does it mean to recognize the dehumanization and devastation of concentration camps, yet still use their imagery to propel a shallow rivalry between hero and villain? How can the game present the Nazis’ domestic perspective on Blazkowicz’s earlier revenge (which does not occur on screen) as the rampage of a serial killer preying on the innocent and later present semi-comedic recordings about the assassination of Nazis in a domestic setting? Discussing Syberberg’s Hitler: A View from Germany, Foucault said, “…the commonplace bears dimensions of horror within itself, that there is a reversibility between horror and banality.” Why demonstrate the banal horrors of Nazi Germany and then substitute an impossible and ahistorical vision of the Nazi? Perhaps to prepare for another substitution of the fictional for the historical.
The New Order has a tendency to present the historical actors of World War II both in extreme moral dichotomy and in a brief view of their actual policies. This black-and-white moral contrast requires not only recognition of an unforgivable evil, but also its moral opponent. Unfortunately, this emphasizes the conflict of stances and the precarious balance between history and fiction.
This conflict of stances represents itself subtly in the storyline of a side-character named J, an ersatz Jimi Hendrix who fled the United States to avoid service during World War II. If Blazkowicz asks him why he is not fighting with the resistance, J speaks of U.S. racism and declares, “Before the war, you were the Nazis!” In anger about this accusation, Blazkowicz strikes him, and the two make up over a shared passion for music and an acid trip. Later in the story, the Nazis mount a major counter-attack on the Resistance’s stronghold and when they come for him, J refuses to leave, and dies playing Jimi Hendrix’s famous rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. This is presented as an ideological stand—he chooses to die with the diverse cast of freedom-fighters who put their lives on the line to oppose Nazism. This scene constructs J’s death as heroic and anthemic, associating his moral resistance with the nation whose anthem he is playing while he dies. Yet there is no visible transformation that justifies this reconstruction of the U.S. as the moral good from J’s perspective.
To resolve J’s life this way in the fiction is also to argue that American ideals can be easily rehabilitated. The Germany The New Order depicts is represented by its institutional policies, but the racist institutions of the U.S. are addressed by bolstering the awareness of good people, as if the country’s violent systems exist separately from (and are immediately dismantled through) the consciousness of a few noble citizens. This is an act of historical revisionism. Wolfenstein’s perpetual invoking of Americana communicates that American ideals are somehow separate from its actions, despite the justification and motivation for many of the violent policies of the U.S. being rooted in that American ideology. J’s declaration (“before the war, you were the Nazis!”) should not be ignored. The U.S. formed on lands taken from murdered and displaced Native Americans, and bitterly fought itself for the right to maintain slavery. If Germany is held to its history of the Nazi, then the U.S. must be held to its history of genocide, slavery and Jim Crow laws. As the U.S. justified its early 19th century westward colonialism with “Manifest Destiny,” Germany adapted the policy of “Lebensraum” to justify eastward colonialism. Hitler specifically drew upon Lebensraum in Mein Kampf, to advocate for enforcing German nationalism on Eastern Europe. Within Mein Kampf, Hitler explained his anti-Semitism and attributed it to many sources, even praising U.S. industrialist Henry Ford for the staunch anti-Semitism in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. To suggest the U.S. was inherently morally opposed to Nazi Germany ignores this history as well as the U.S.’s xenophobic resistance to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate during the Holocaust.
The material difficulties that emboldened the U.S. to discourage immigration of refugees similarly promoted anti-Semitism in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party. Both nations developed similar policies (the U.S. Citizen Conservation Corps having direct parallel to a Nazi conservation program) and committed economic violence against minorities (with the U.S. instituting “Redlining”) to recover.
The fictionalization of the Nazi allows the Nazi’s opponents to also be fictionalized. It detaches the horrific conclusions of bigotries from their banal beginnings, and creates an understanding of history that does not grapple with the many other colossal acts of violence contained within it. Even the concessions to reality within these fictions can serve to revise perspectives of the past. Instead of encouraging accountability to the victims of history, Wolfenstein: The New Order presents an image of the United States that is heroic and apologetic. This fictionalized America promises to rehabilitate itself without addressing that its sins make up as much of its foundations as its ideals.
Delilah Sinclair is a shy writer based in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her @vorpalfemme on Twitter.