The Surprising Importance of ‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’
The only Nazi-killing game that shows the horror of Nazi ideology
This article contains spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order.
In certain corners of the Western world, Nazi ideology is making a comeback. For years, we’ve taken it as a given that ideas such as racism and ultra-nationalism were poisonous roads to pain, suffering and war. Pop culture, and especially video games, share part of the blame.
Video games love Nazis. In my 30-plus years on the planet, I must have slaughtered thousands of digital stormtroopers, raided hundreds of Teutonic castles and mercilessly murdered dozens of jackbooted bastards. In video games, as in a lot of other popular culture, Nazis are easy villains. Which makes sense. They wore black, committed genocide and plunged the world into one of the worst wars it has ever known.
Unlike most other media, video games avoided the tough ideological questions our ancestors actually confronted during World War II. In most games, the Nazis were faceless baddies presented without the context of their beliefs. We’d all gone to school and learned about the war, and we knew that Nazis were bad. We didn’t need to question why they’d ended up on the wrong end of the shotgun in so many games, movies and comics.
In all the time I’ve been playing video games, only one game has forced the player to deal with the toxic ideology of National Socialism. In all the hundreds of games where the player mows through fields of Germans in black leather, only one took the time to show the player why. That game is 2014’s Wolfenstein: New Order and it’s a game that’s depressingly relevant today.
The three-year-old game made headlines recently when publisher Bethesda announced a sequel at E3—an annual video game trade show. After Bethesda aired a trailer where hero B.J. Blazkowicz meets up with a black resistance fighter and a Marxist preacher, white nationalists, the alt-right and other assorted Internet kooks gathered in their favorite places to accuse the game of racism against white people.
“As a fan of the series,” one anonymous user wrote on 4chan, “this is a departure in that it takes on pro-communist and anti-white themes from Twitter politics instead of continuing the theme of an over the top fight against a brutal regime. People aren’t mad about Nazis being killed in Wolfenstein. They’re mad because the game seems more like an attack on whites, capitalism and traditional American values.”
Other commenters were less articulate and polite.
Here’s the thing, the Wolfenstein series is an old one. 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D is one of the original first-person shooters, a genre that would come to dominate the video game market. The 1992 game portrayed, indeed, an over-the-top fight against a brutal regime. Blazkowicz moved through the halls of Nazi fortresses, killing his enemies until facing off against a robotic Hitler.
The 2014 reboot, Wolfenstein: The New Order, is also a first-person shooter starring Blazkowicz and his endless mission to kill all the Nazis. The difference between 1992 and 2014 is not just graphical, but a quantum leap in storytelling. In a rare bit of synchronicity, I’d picked up the game and played it a month before Bethesda announced the sequel. Critics and fans alike widely praised The New Order, and watching the trolls come out after Bethesda announced the sequel was strange.
It’s an incredible game, a shooter that’s fun while still telling a compelling story. It deals with Nazi ideology head on, tackling the Reich’s treatment of the mentally ill and infirmed, its racial attitudes and even concentration camps. Wolfenstein: The New Order is the only big-budget mainstream video game to ever deal with the Holocaust. Which is noteworthy, considering just how many hundreds of video games use World War II as a setting.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is the story of an American soldier who suffers a grievous injury fighting in World War II and spends most of the 1950s in a coma. After an assault on a Nazi stronghold in 1946, he’s knocked out and winds up in a psychiatric facility in Poland. When he wakes up, the war is over, the Nazis won and it’s the 1960s. Think of it as The Man in the High Castle but with more explosions.
B.J. is aware during his coma, able to watch the passage of time but is unable to move. What he sees is a facility the Nazis use as a cheap holding facility for the mentally ill. It’s the last stop for these unfortunates before the Reich sweeps through and transports them away for use in human experiments.
B.J. wakes up and starts killing Nazis when the local Nazi leader, having emptied the facility of all usable subjects, decides to shut it down and execute the remaining patients.
That simple set piece does a lot to distinguish Wolfenstein: The New Order from its peers. Developer MachineWorks goes out of its way to not only give the players Nazis to kill but explain why killing Nazis is good for the world. These aren’t just faceless bad guys in evil-looking uniforms. Right from the start, Wolfenstein’s enemies are the brutal instruments of an ideology that liquidates the weakest among us.
Much like Amazon’s T.V. adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, Wolfenstein works to create an atmosphere of terror in a world run by the Axis powers. This alternate history has its own German language rock and roll bands, television shows and movies.
A great example comes early in the game when B.J. takes a train from Poland to Berlin to meet up with what remains of the anti-Axis resistance. While grabbing some coffee late at night, Obersturmbannführer Engel forces the player to sit and share the coffee with her and her traveling companion.
Engel then uses a card game she’s invented to suss out the player’s Aryan roots. “I have a test I would like to try on you,” she says in fluent German. “It’s designed to determine if there are traces of impure blood running through a person’s veins.”
What follows is nonsense masquerading as a psychological exam—one where Frau Engel promises to shoot you dead if you don’t pass as “pure.”
In the end, Engel reveals the test to be bullshit. She just likes messing with strangers and can tell an “impure” by sight. So here, in one quick scene, we have a Nazi using pseudoscience and psychological chicanery to suss out the racial purity of a stranger. When pushed, she reveals it was all just an excuse to mask her sadistic desires and to justify her own power of others. The entire scene is a microcosm of Hitler’s beliefs and their obvious pitfalls.
Engel shows up again later in the game when B.J. sneaks into a concentration camp to liberate a prisoner important to the cause. Turns out, she’s in charge. As B.J. and his fellow prisoners shuffle off the train, one of the damned holds up a screaming baby to Engel, begging her to spare its life. Engel holds the baby by the leg, as if it were a sack of garbage. The disgust on her digital face is clear, and the rush of people exiting the train block B.J.’s view before we see the child’s fate.
The Camp Belica level is weird and off-putting. B.J. moves through scenes that feel like a greatest hits version of the Holocaust. The war vet arrives on a train, walks through a processing center where Engel and her team separate the strong from the weak, a machine tattoos a number on his arm and he later crawls through corpses below the camp’s “hospital.”
In the ultimate power fantasy, the level ends with B.J. and a Jewish mystic utilizing magick to take control of a Nazi gollum, ruin Frau Engel’s face and bust open the camp.
Again—aside from a few indie titles—Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of the only games to deal with the Holocaust. It doesn’t exactly treat the subject with respect, but it’s not quite crass, either. And it’s better than anything Call of Duty has ever done. Across several titles, the world’s most popular shooter franchise explored every aspect of World War II save for the Nazis’ forced labor and murder camps.
The developers have claimed the next installment won’t flinch away from Nazi war crimes.
Video games such as Wolfenstein are important because we’ve begun to lose ideological arguments with the current crop of extremist assholes. Racism, genocide and all the other bits of awful that make up Nazi ideology are bad, but we’ve long taken that for granted. Part of the reason the alt-right and the new white nationalists are resurgent is because we’ve forgotten how to win arguments against them.
For decades, most people understood that Nazi ideology was bad. We were close enough to the history that we didn’t need to have anyone explain it to us. Too often, when we engage in arguments with extremists who talk of racial purity, we falter to explain our side. Instead, we punch them and tell them “because.”
To be clear, sometimes the only way to win against a Nazi is to punch them. But we also need to understand and be ready to explain the reasons why racism, genocide and white nationalism are bad. This may seem simplistic and rudimentary, it may even make you angry, but we must be ready to explain to young people why these ideas are so poisonous. It is no longer enough to just point at the history and say “because.”
Young people today take that as condescension at best and, at worst, censorship of an unpopular point of view—one they’ll rush to the Internet to find explanations about. From there, it’s a few short clicks away from neo-Nazi propaganda that is more than willing to exploit a young person’s interest in the subject.
Wolfenstein: The New Order and its upcoming sequel, which takes place in America and not Europe, are some of the only pieces of recent art that even attempt to put the Nazis in their own context and explain to the player why fighting them is a good idea. Their ideas paved the way for genocide and emptied Eastern Europe of millions of people. If the Allied powers hadn’t stopped them, they would have killed millions more.
Race-based class theories lead to violence. Nationalism leads to war. Looking at your fellow human beings and seeing an “other” allows you to justify all kinds of vile behavior. It is not enough that we fight Nazis, but we must also explain why we fight them to every subsequent generation.
If we fail to do so, they will come back and we’ll have to fight them all over again.