Wolfenstein Needs to Humanize Its Nazis

Brian Steele
Oct 28, 2017 · 3 min read
I’ll bet you an imaginary ten bucks that at least one person will not read past the headline and get mad.

Early on in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, you, as “Terror Billy” BJ Blazkowicz, are fighting through a section of the Kreisau Circle’s u-boat headquarters to eradicate a platoon of Nazis who have been hiding in the sub’s ballast tanks since you hijacked the sub five months ago (it’s a long story). As you fight through, you may come across a letter in one of the makeshift bunk areas. In it, a Nazi tearfully writes a heartfelt letter to his wife and son, professing his undying love for them and how he desperately wants for his plight to be over so he can go back home to them.

You probably split his skull open with the hatchet without a second thought, or even knowing that it was the particular guy who wrote that letter. In fact, the writer is never externally identified.

Going back a bit, in The New Order, when you infiltrate the Nazi Moon Base (again, a long story) disguised as a Nazi head scientist, you are greeted with a jarringly cheery Nazi receptionist (dressed head to toe in SS stormtrooper armor, to add to the effect) who chipperly welcomes you to the Moon Base, confides in you that he didn’t much like your head scientist predecessor, and says “it’s good to meet a fellow veteran!” when the entrance x-ray reveals the massive damn piece of metal embedded in your head.

You probably gunned him down during the escape sequence without even knowing it.

There exists a line of thought regarding this that, by adding these human moments and attaching them specifically to your enemies, MachineGames is “both sides”ing the violence you bring to these men. Yes, they are Nazis, but look! They are also human. So are you really better than them given how much of this killing you’re engaging in? But I think this is a misinterpretation of their intent.

Nazi-killin’ media often (justly) attracts the criticism that it takes an unconscionably monstrous ideology that specifically targeted the most vulnerable of us, and abstracts it to “bad men acting evil.” Very rarely does a piece of media, be it TV show, movie, game, or novel aim to grapple with the fact that Nazis were humans. Bad, bad, bad humans, but humans. An actual Nazi could very well say that he loves his son dearly and misses him in the same breath that he would insist that the Jew and the black man share a tennis ball sized brain in common.

I think these human moments in the Bethesda Wolfensteins aim to specifically subvert this trope. Every time you hear, see, or read a Nazi show their soft side, it’s to remind you that Nazis were human beings, however, everything carries with it the unspoken conclusion of “…but I’m still a Nazi, so my skull getting cleaved in twain by an avenging spirit made flesh is actually merciful.” This purpose is served by the constant reinforcing that the Nazi regime in the Wolfenstein universe regularly engages in supreme atrocities and has likely carried out genocides numbering in the billions.

It’s weird, because if, at the time of Activision’s Wolfenstein release in 2009, you had told me in eight years time Wolfenstein would actually serve as one of the most surprisingly poignant commentaries on the banality yet monstrosity of the Nazi ideology as actual, literal meatspace Nazis have their power and influence wax once again, I would’ve laughed at you for hours. Instead, here I am, telling you that it’s exactly that.

Brian Steele

Written by

An autistic enby.