I fought Nazis at Berkeley — and I can't wait to punch them in 'Wolfenstein II'
I am hyped as hell for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the latest entry in the 35-year-old video game series about American soldiers killing Nazis. This time, according to the trailer, the Nazis have invaded America and it’s up to you to lead the resistance in a version of the United States that seems content to accept its new fascist leadership.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
This excitement isn't because I’m really into shooters or games about historical warfare; the only war that interests me is class war. And, given that interest, I’ve organized against and counter-protested white supremacist actions: I was at the Battle for Berkeley, where I was tear-gassed three times and was hit with an explosive that left me unable to hear out of one ear for the rest of the day. Afterward, the alt-right passed around photos of me on social media as proof that antifa were getting men to dress up as women.
So I appreciate that game developers, a demographic that was embroiled in the alt-right’s predecessor, Gamergate, understand the conviction and catharsis that necessitated a game like Wolfenstein II in times like these. Their understanding of the dangers of fascism may not be immediately obvious under all the robot dragon-dogs and hovercrafts and wacky bosses, one of which probably turns out to be a hentai octopus from another dimension — you can’t really escape those trappings of excessiveness in a big-budget video game like this.
But for all its gleeful artifice, Wolfenstein II has a spark of the hyper-real. The Nazis of Bethesda’s Wolfenstein II love genocide and strawberry milkshakes. They watch game shows. They have disobedient pets. They’re concerned with their nutrition.
They beg and bleed when you catch up to them.
Nazis are usually a reliable antagonist in video games and action movies. In part, that's because beneath our outward loathing for the butchery of fascism lies a corrupting doubt in ourselves and in one another that, when faced with fascism in the flesh, some of us will fail to recognize or confront it meaningfully.
Our desire to conquer this insecurity has driven a genre of “fighting Nazi” video games. It's also escalated the image of Nazis from men who enact genocide for empire to immortal mad scientists who dabble in demonology. These Nazis are cartoonish villains. There’s a profit angle to that, no doubt, as there is behind many forms of conditioning; we live in a time where trans people are denied basic human rights while Abercrombie and Fitch purposely markets its Pride merch to straight people. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.
On the other hand, those who fought and helped defeat Hitler are part of what we call “the greatest generation.” It seems likely to me that we as a society have been giving ourselves a multi-decade pep talk about the importance of recognizing the monstrosity of fascism and the devastating toll on humanity that would ensue if we failed to defeat it.
But then, when white nationalism organized and asserted itself during the 2016 election, these Nazis weren’t robot cannibals from the moon come to clone Hitler from a dog. They were regular dickheads — smug, ostentatious dickheads, even, the kind who wear Trojan helmets and lorica segmenta to rallies and purposely rub pepper spray into their kid’s eye for a cheap photo op. Their ideas are monstrous, but they aren’t monsters; until they grow talons or summon snakes to gather at their rallies, they can rely on the trepidation of a society that believes it knows when fascism gets bad enough, but thinks it isn’t that bad yet.
Meanwhile, the announcement of Wolfenstein II has riled people up. Leftists are stoked, while Nazis (and even some liberal moderates) are concerned that presenting the consequences of (and remedies against) Nazi ideology will prevent people from hearing them out and engaging them in “the marketplace of ideas.”
For those of us who grew up on the genre of Nazi brains uploaded to sentient computers, the reality projected on this game trailer is an elation; somebody gets that Nazis are not 21st-century Vikings but just fucked-up people who do fucked-up shit in full view of a society that averts its eyes.
It’s a dystopia for you, maybe, but for people of color, immigrants, LGBT people and people with disabilities, this is and has been their reality: White supremacists stalk their diners, their school campuses and their buses home. They’re polite to other people, they joke politely among themselves and they help old Klansmen cross the street.
I suppose the real craft of Wolfenstein II is that, in a game in which you can ride a fire-breathing cybernetic steed, the creative team has also managed to present Nazis in a way that simultaneously reflects the Nazi self-image and the lived experience of the barbarism they impose on others.
The trailer likewise projects separate, grandiose narratives of horror and hope to the conflicting ideologies of the heroes and the villains. To the Nazi mind, the fear of fellow whites or Aryans applying their skills, knowledge and white privilege to aid the oppressed in annihilating them is paramount. But multi-class racial solidarity is the dream of the game.
It’s my dream, too. I believe in fighting, to the death if needed, for the rights of immigrants, people of color, indigenous people, LGBT people and disabled people to live in our neighborhoods regardless of their documentation status or productivity under capitalism. I fight for human rights, because I’m human, bringing with me all the pain, contempt and anger that comes with that condition.
I’ll tell you what I told new recruits of the Democratic Socialists of America: Punching a Nazi is good and good for you, but if you don’t complement it with long-term organizing around multi-racial, multi-gender class solidarity, you’re putting a Band-Aid on something that needs sutures.
That’s also the vision of the resistance movement as a whole.
And, hot dog, does Wolfenstein II cover that part, too. The undoubted highlight of the trailer was seeing B.J. Blazkowicz building coalition with a black resistance leader (who is clearly evoking Pam Grier) and a Southern communist priest. You wanna talk about realism in video games? An organizer having to hear out people’s suspicions and doubts in their ability to bring everyone together for a multi-tendency movement is the genuine article.
We will not defeat Nazism with discourse and institutions. Black power and Southern communism (among other things) will defeat Nazis (both in real life and in Wolfenstein II).
It’s a damning indictment of our society that a video game about a darkest timeline where the Nazis remake Lassie into propaganda to normalize the ever-presence of their war machines is one of the more accurate blueprints for resistance against fascism — by a far sight — in eight months of “hashtag resistance,” but I’ll take it.
We cannot coexist with Nazis. White nationalism, white supremacy, “Western chauvinism” — whatever flavor your Nazism — is antithetical to a society founded on justice and equity. And we are so astray from being able to build that kind of society that a sequel to some schlocky, phantasmagoric video game franchise about assassinating Hitler and stealing the Spear of Destiny has, whether for profit or for conviction, been able to speak to this when our political, judicial and media institutions can’t or won’t.
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Check out the latest from Mic, like this essay about the sinister, subtle evils lurking in rural America that Far Cry 5 shouldn’t ignore. Also, be sure to read our review of Tekken 7, an article about D.Va’s influence on one Overwatch player’s ideas about femininity and an analysis of gaming’s racist habit of darkening villains’ skin tones.