Nazi-killing has always been one of the simplest joys that video games can provide, because it’s so morally uncomplicated. Any iffiness around gunning down virtual people is mollified by the swastikas on the uniform: Nazis, in our culture, are an easy shorthand for pure evil, and it’s a given that you don’t need to feel bad about hurting them.
Of course, bizarrely, in real life, punching Nazis has recently become some kind of moral dilemma, and from time to time, crowds of people in America are gathering in public with flaming torches under the banner of white supremacy. Under any kind of normal circumstances it would be a massive stretch to draw a link between mowing down pretend Nazis in a video game and the real-world political situation, but Wolfenstein’s marketing enthusiastically played into this bizarre state of affairs, with social media campaigns involving a #NoMoreNazis hashtag, the words “Make America Nazi-Free Again”, and some first-person Nazi face-punching.
Wolfenstein’s marketing also co-opts the “resist” terminology of the anti-Trump movement, as well as referencing the President’s infamous “fine people” remarks in the aftermath of Charlottesville. A VICE News interview on Wolfenstein’s day of release saw Bethesda’s head of marketing Pete Hines demur when asked if all this was talking about Trump. “You’re kind of poking the hornet’s nest,” says the interviewer. “Maybe, kind of,” concedes Hines, “but the hornet’s nest is full of Nazis, so… fuck those guys.”
— Wolfenstein (@wolfenstein) October 25, 2017
— Wolfenstein (@wolfenstein) October 15, 2017
Fuck those guys indeed. Of course, Wolfenstein II was in production long before any of this kicked off, and the marketing opportunity is (for Bethesda at least) a happy coincidence, but Wolfenstein II:The New Colossus actually does a really impressive job of depicting the dangers of a revived and unabashed Nazi movement in America, and makes some powerful statements regarding how Nazi-sympathising attitudes take hold and go unquestioned by society. It is a timely takedown of those who would play Nazi’s advocate.
In Wolfenstein II’s world, privileged individuals are happy to fall in line with Nazi ideology, so long as they’re not the ones being targeted. While the swastika-wearing Nazis are the immediate threat, what’s most unsettling to see is the ordinary people who might not be wearing the uniforms, but are towing the party line and enabling the evil. The cheery-eyed complicity of the American population is more chilling than any cackling villain.
At one point in The New Colossus I was walking down a happy American street that you’ve likely seen in trailers. Everyone’s used to the idea of Nazis, and their parades go unopposed. You see a young woman flirt with a soldier over how totally dreamy his thoughts on racial superiority are. Not one person in sight is questioning a Nazi rally on American soil. Their right to march has not only been defended, but praised.
I walked the streets of that in-game town, a town whose residents had largely been alive in a pre-World War Two America, watching citizens throw the rights of their friends under the bus to continue living a comfortable life of privilege, happy in the knowledge that by an accident of birth they’ll never be targeted. They’ve stopped fighting literal Nazis, because they’re not the ones being persecuted. Be it by pragmatism or fear, Nazis walk the streets unhindered by everyday Americans.
The plot of The New Colossus was finalised long before 2017’s resurgence of real-life white supremacists gathering in American streets with pride, brandishing flaming torches and advocating for the expulsion (or genocide) of millions, but let’s not pretend this narrative was ever pure fiction. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the KKK have actively existed in America for decades, their right to preach hate protected under the First Amendment and defended even by seemingly decent people. The advent of social media, and the push for hate speech to be protected as free speech on those platforms, only helped the spread such far-right rhetoric.
The New Colossus shows us that the scariest thing about Nazis taking power is how unwilling everyday people are to stand up against it. The complicit America that Wolfenstein portrays is an uncanny, upsetting image — one that it uses to justify violently resisting the spread of Nazi ideology in America. With a flamethrower.
In The New Colossus it is ultimately complicity in the face of Nazi ideology that allows it to grow and take a hold in America. In a peaceful society, the only thing that keeps Nazis and their hate speech contained is fear of reprisal. They have to be scared to walk the streets chanting for genocide.
When playing The New Colossus, I never once got into a discussion about whether we had to listen to the Nazis, or how all speech was free speech, or how perhaps THEY were the true victims of a society that’s left them behind, etc. I just shot Nazis. I never expected such a timeworn video game staple to suddenly become such satisfying escapism.