Content warning for discussions of genocide, extreme violence, and other atrocities associated with World War II. Spoiler warnings for Wolfenstein: The New Order.
I am very much a third culture kid. Despite being a dual-citizen of the US and Germany (and spending good portions of my life in both), in the US I am considered a German, and in Germany I am considered an American. And yet, I find both cultures to be fairly alien to me quite regularly (it is not uncommon to have friends express shock that I haven’t experienced this thing or another that everybody else apparently has), but can navigate both with a fair amount of ease (it helps that both of these cultures privilege being white). At the same time, since most of my schooling has been in the US, this means I have had to become very accustomed with World War II.
Being obsessed with wars was something that I saw many teen boys do as I was growing up. Having to listen to details about battles during the Civil War in front of small churches, or something akin, were a grand to-do around lunch time. I found myself interested in the social aspects of war, and because of the atrocities my country had committed against classes of people (Jews, Sinti and Romani, gay men), I had to constantly prove I wasn’t some German who was ignoring the past (because that’s apparently a thing some USians seem to think of Germans).
Therefore, I wanted to play through Wolfenstein: The New Order because I had heard it tackled topics like concentration camps and such. Recently, my maternal grandmother, who is German, had also passed, and there is some small amount of guilt there for never learning fully about her experiences growing up as a young girl during the Third Reich.
And yet, playing through, I was left with some unease. Sure, there were depictions of horrible things, and there was acknowledgement of the horrors of the Third Reich, but going through the concentration camp felt fairly sparse. It was almost like walking through a village in Skyrim, or Lothering in Dragon Age: Origins. This may partially be because the true atrocities of concentration camps were the experience, which the protagonist, B.J., did not really have to go through. There is a scene where a machine tattoos his identification number on his arm (and a gruesome scene later where he cuts it off), but there was never really any sense that what I was experiencing was that bad.
B.J. is removed from a lot of what has happened. He is a blonde American with a square jaw, blue eyes, and a kick-ass attitude. He is the quintessential action star who is useful for killing Nazis.
I was also rather curious as to what it was like to live in a futuristic 1960 where Germany had won through the use of advanced technology (that they had stolen). Being among the rebels, however, there were only snippets here and there. A mother wanting to report her son for putting on lipstick, a letter detailing the story of a woman whose Sapphic desires would get her into trouble, and some audio files from B.J.’s love interest reading a diary about a woman who was murdering Nazis and had an abortion. Most of the context clues of the world lay in scattered newspapers printed in their original language (with translations available to the player).
There was an attempt at world building, but because of the verbs available to B.J., and the company he keeps, it became rather limited in what it could show me, the player: the German and American who grew up and has read through a culture that had to deal with its guilt following the end of the war, and those that see it as a triumph on the world stage at the exact same time.
One thing I did appreciate is that the Nazis were humanized. It may be strange to wish humanization for Nazis, but I feel it important in the fact that these were humans who committed these horrors and atrocities. We must not forget that all it takes is humans to be so cruel to each other. In fact, with the push into using machines, robots, and enhanced humans, there is the active decision to give part of their humanity up in order to achieve their goals. There is horror to be found in complacency with the status quo that robs others of their humanity.
In particular, the second nemesis B.J. faces is Frau Engel, a woman who runs the concentration camp that B.J. visits. Her first encounter with B.J. is on a train onto which he has smuggled, where she tests whether he is an undesirable by playing a game where the player has to choose a card that best illustrates a word or concept she throws out (sexy, etc.). The trick is that he can’t be an undesirable, because otherwise he would attempt to take the gun that was laying on the table and shoot her (the conceit being that undesirables have no hope, and that they would be pushed to desperation).
Later, in the concentration camp, it is possible to overhear her talking with her effete male lover that she gets to have her fun now: she raised her children for the empire. Her selfishness fits in well with the sadistic character who shows people old vacation and war photos to see if they crack under the strain of her eye that can ferret out impurities. In fact, her lover, Bubi, seems to have a certain effete affectation to contrast with her more domineering attitude. I could never quite tell if the game what the game wanted me to think of him, where his lover, Engel, was clearly supposed to be an antagonist. She is far more present, and far more a danger to B.J., coming back even after having her lower face crushed by one of the robots she uses to control the concentration camp.
Then, in between chapters, B.J. returns to the rebels’ base. For the most part, these characters are distinct for the fact that they are outcasts in some fashion or another, banded against the system that would likely be rid of them anyway. One of these rebels is J, who seems to be this alternate timeline’s Jimi Hendrix: a black man who plays guitar left-handed and infuses the game and B.J’s reality with some psychedelics.
When B.J. asks why J doesn’t fight, J points out that the US was not much better. That the America B.J. fought for, the freedom he thinks he stands for, is all based on his privilege. Were he black, he would not likely have the same views.
This aligns well with the fact that Deathshead, the main antagonist, accuses BJ of just slaughtering Germans indiscriminately, and not being any better than the injustice against which is supposedly fighting. This argument does not work as well for me, as the Germans are not quite characters in and of themselves; the sense of a family life is hinted at, but almost every interaction is with a soldier, who yells out the same barks in German, and who must ultimately be seen as nothing more than an obstacle. Still, it does bring to light the fact that there is no black and white in this particular version of the world either.
It therefore makes sense that B.J. ends up sacrificing himself at the end: given that he is an American who woke up to this world after being stuck in his body for many years, and never truly inhabited this world, he is not one who can affect change in it. He did not live under the yolk of oppression that the Nazis had placed on the world. Plus, as J put its, he is complicit with ‘The Man,’ the big US institution that fought for freedom while not exercising those rights on its own soil. He is a man of action, who is useful during the verbs that require me to kill and destroy. During understanding cultures who have seen horrors he cannot quite fathom, he would be worthless.
However, even though I grew to appreciate the glimpses that were being taken, I realized that this was not a piece of media I would have discussed as a thought exercise with my grandmother. I could gladly discuss Draußen vor der Tür or Die Blechtrommel, this one had more for me to think about as someone who bridges that gap between (and often feels estranged from) both US and German cultures.