Is Wolfenstein Nazi propaganda?

Minor spoilers for The New Order and The New Colossus within!

The Law of Headlines applies, obviously. But keep reading anyway.

What did — or does — a Nazi look like, to you? I’m sure there are a handful of stereotypes which come to mind immediately: jackbooted, black suited thugs, goosestepping in unison — an endless legion of misery and genocide. These collective images are so culturally pervasive that they have influenced our very conception of evil (and not unreasonably!). As Darth Vader’s Stormtroopers march across the galaxy to crush another set of rebels, or the Daleks scream about the purity of their own race and the extermination of everything different to themselves, one can imagine the devil himself, dressed in Hugo Boss and clicking his boots together, surrounded by hordes of similarly attired demons.

I’m only half joking about the demons. Let’s consider the early days of video games, and specifically to the early FPS (First Person Shooter) games. When the console you’re developing for only has 256k of memory, you lose something in nuance — there’s simply not enough space, or processing power, or game length spare in order to really flesh out a character arc, nevermind a full story!

So when you’re put in a room with a gun in one of these games, what is supposed to be your motivation for shooting everything which moves? Simple: use your limited colour palette to draw something which is obviously terrible and needs to be shot. Two games (both published by id Software) which played a hugely influential part in defining the FPS did exactly this — one of them was DOOM (1993), which depicted the legions of hell as The Thing To Shoot:

This is terrifying, if it’s 1993. Apparently.

The other game, as you might have guessed already, used Nazis instead. What you might (or might not) have also known was that game was Wolfenstein 3D (1992), generally considered the first ‘real’ FPS, and the predecessor to The New Order (2014) and The New Colossus (2017).

Slight creative liberty: Wolfenstein had already existed as a franchise for over a decade, with Castle Wolfenstein (1981) and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein (1984), but they were 2D.

So we have a conception of Evil, and the atrocities of the Nazi regime certainly factor into that, as evidenced by the swathes of antagonists based on, influenced by, or just straight up being Nazis. That they are comparable to demons from Hell itself demonstrates how deeply they, as the embodiment of Evil-with-a-capital-E, have influenced our society. You can barely think of Evil without thinking of an endless battalion of jackboots marching as one. Or of Hugo Boss uniforms with skulls on their hats. Or of the tall, imposing buildings designed to leave ruins, designed by Albert Speer (the chief architect and Reich minister of Arms) as a bizarre perversion of ancient societies.

…But why do we think of them like this?

No, really? Sure, they dressed in black (and some of them did have skulls on their hats). Sure, Speer had grand plans for how Germany — especially Berlin — would look. We’ve even seen some of the plans. But, likely, the average non-German wouldn’t have had a clue about this. They wouldn’t have met one of those endlessly marching battalions, they wouldn’t have seen any of the few pieces of the Welthauptstadt Germania which were constructed. So where have we seen this before? What examples are there of Nazis being seen as Nazis?

Well, we have films from the regime, featuring (and about) Nazis, right? Films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which ‘documents’ the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Which, if you haven’t seen it (and you really don’t need to), is full of scenes like this:

Dan Olsen of Folding Ideas has covered this film in some depth, but the summary is this: the Nazis knew, better than anyone, the power of image over substance. As you might expect from a totalitarian state, the cultural and creative output of the regime was tightly monitored. Triumph of the Will was not an innovative movie put together in a free environment by someone who was personally enamoured with the regime — it was a propaganda film explicitly ordered by Hitler of Riefenstahl, with specific, unified themes and messages being repeated throughout. It aims to demonstrate the unity and strength of the Nazi party through showcasing ranks of SA (Sturmabteilung)and SS (Schutzstaffel) irregulars, all under the swastika. It portrays the homogeneous, imposing, totalitarian, and unstoppable monolith of Nazism — moving as one, and acting as one.

It was, however, a lie — a trick of the camera; the proclaimed unity and strength of the Nazis simply did not exist. When the film was released in 1935, the SA and SS were not the official military of Germany — the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) was not entirely on board with Hitler’s merging of chancellor and president (Hitler’s grasp over the army wouldn’t become solidified until 1938, when he purged several generals and installed his own loyalists). The SA itself had only the previous year undergone purging in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ to eliminate other Nazis seen as a potential challenge to Hitler, and would be generally sidelined by the SS between the purge and the fall of the regime.

Even if we go beyond the 30s, the Nazi regime is far from what someone might call ‘homogeneous’ or ‘unified’ — Hitler would often create departments, lose interest in them, and then create other departments with overlapping roles. Himmler’s Gestapo would arrest prisoners from factories operated by Albert Speer, then put them to work in SS-run factories. Inter-fighting between departments was rampant, as each department and individual with power attempted to curry favour with Hitler, in what Ian Kershaw describes as ‘Working Towards the Führer’, as different factions within the regime attempted to appease his preference for radical action. This ‘cumulative radicalisation’ would lead inexorably towards more and more horrific atrocities, and ultimately with the industrialisation of the Holocaust itself.

To put it in a sentence: the Nazi state was never homogeneous, it was never unified in the way it claimed to be, and it never had the clarity of thought which it suggested it had through films like Triumph of the Will. As Olson mentions:

‘…Our idea of the Nazis is deeply informed by a propaganda film produced by the Nazis, for the explicit purpose of creating […] the image they wanted you to think of, when you thought of them’.

So what does this have to do with Wolfenstein?

Let’s examine how Wolfenstein portrays the alternate history version of the Nazi regime. Straight off the bat, with the entirety of the planet occupied and run by a centrally managed bureaucracy, we’re entering the suspension of disbelief — Nazi Germany barely held itself together, nevermind its occupied territories (the idea of the ‘economic miracle’ freeing itself from Weimar inefficiencies, itself, being something that they were very happy to have you believe they engineered —in reality, every aspect of German economic policy from about 1933 onwards was entirely unsustainable and only kept going through the plunder of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, as described in Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction). The idea that the Nazis could provide a stable and sustainable new world order is laughable at best without at least some idea of how the regime would operate differently to how it actually operated — which the game itself does not tackle.

More worrying, however, is how the games portray the Nazis themselves.

Ah.

Through the uncritical replication of the popular conception of the regime, the games simply repeats the same myths – of unity, and strength, and purity*. There are no mentions of the ‘state within a state’ of the SS, or the fighting for power between departments, or the ideological battles between paramilitaries. The Wolfenstein games take the illusion which the High Command wanted to be remembered by, and parrots it. In doing so, it propagates that image in the public consciousness.

The troubling issue is that this has real world implications in the present day. In a video covering the use of satire to lampoon the Nazi ideology, Lindsay Ellis notes the popularity of figures in ostensibly anti-Nazi films such as Derek Vinyard and his milieu (American History X), Hans Landa (Inglourious Basterds), and Amon Göth (Schindler’s List) amongst neo-nazis and other members of the far-right. While each character and setting is of course unique and can be interpreted in numerous ways, each has the same common theme — a framing of Nazis and their environment in a way which can (unintentionally) appeal to people who admire those aesthetics. What’s more, those films often propagate the same tropes —the strength, unity, and purity of Nazis— in exactly the same way that Wolfenstein does.

While Wolfenstein could possibly consider itself a satire to some extent (although its tone is… somewhat bipolar, although that’s an entirely different review in and of itself), it spends little time actually satirising the Nazis and the hellscape alternate reality they create. As Ellis points out — referencing the Robert Reimer essay ‘Does Laughter Make the Crime Disappear?’ — films like The Producers (1967) satirise the Nazi overuse of theatrics to the point of absurdity, with women in tacky pretzel and beer stein costumes being an essential representation of the German nationalism underpinning the whole ideology. The play-within-a-play ‘Springtime for Hitler’ culminates in latex’d, goosestepping showgirls forming a swastika on stage, in what anyone would consider tasteless at best. Which really brings home what Nazism was really like, when you realise that Riefenstahl actually portrayed that herself, unironically.

I enjoyed The New Order and The New Colossus, and i’m sure i’ll enjoy The New Third Game In What Is Now Apparently A Trilogy when it’s released. But for now, it doesn’t appear that the series has moved beyond its early days of simply showing Nazis as they wanted to be shown.