“Rewriting History in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus,” by Reid McCarter

Wolfenstein® II: The New Colossus™_20171102012838

“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.”

—From The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus (1883)

In 1961, the same year that John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as 35th President of the United States, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a black college student, was escorted from the University of Georgia by state police for her own protection—the campus was swamped by an escalating protest at the school’s attempts at integration. Nine black college students from Jackson, Mississippi were put on trial for using a white city library. The Freedom Riders travelled through the American South, their members arrested by police, beaten by Klansmen, and their buses firebombed.

That same year, while Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem for war crimes and crimes against humanity, George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party drove his “hate bus” through the South, he and his supporters wearing swastika armbands while spreading anti-Semitic and racist propaganda.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is set in a fictionalized 1961. Following the “what if” timeline of its predecessor, 2014’s The New Order, Nazi Germany has conquered large swaths of the world. Before the events of the game begin, a nuclear attack annihilated New York City, forcing the United States’ surrender. (Compared to the actual 1945 bombings of Japan, this is a can of worms too deep to open in this article.) The player, as famed Nazi-killer William Joseph “BJ” Blazkowicz, is tasked with helping recruit embattled American resistance fighters into the Kreisau Circle, a united revolutionary front.

As supposedly different as a Nazi-occupied United States is meant to be, The New Colossus’ version of this nightmare scenario bears remarkable similarities to actual post-war America. This is made immediately clear as BJ sets to work gathering partisans from across the country. In the irradiated wasteland of New York City he meets up with Sister Grace Walker and her partner, Norman “Super Spesh” Caldwell.

Sister Grace leads a group called the Black Revolutionary Front. Its members—in turtlenecks and leather jackets pinned with images of raised fists, the African continent, and (bafflingly, considering the alternate timeline) “Free Huey” slogans—strongly resemble the actual Black Panther Party. Super Spesh, a former lawyer obsessed with alien conspiracies, rails against the government, American and Nazi, for hiding secrets from its people. Later, BJ recruits Horton Boone and his group of broadly anti-capitalist socialist and anarchist followers.

Other elements of historical counterculture fill in the edges of The New Colossus’ universe. Young, traumatized soldier Probst Wyatt III eats tabs of acid constantly, ruminating on existential philosophy like some well-armed combination of Aldous Huxley, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Timothy Leary. Max Hass, a mentally handicapped giant, draws psychedelic patterns on every spare surface of the group’s U-boat headquarters.

In all of these characters, The New Colossus borrows from the famous revolutionaries and counterculture elements who fought for a more just and inclusive America following the end of the Second World War. It recognizes that the character of the 1950s and ‘60s, if it wants to be captured at all, has to be defined by the era’s attempts to eradicate systematic racial, sexual, and political discrimination. The complication, of course, is that in The New Colossus, the Allied forces are defeated and the triumphant Germans conquer America. With this in mind, it seems like the game’s revolutionary figures don’t make any sense. They aren’t fighting the status quo of post-war America—they’re fighting Nazi occupiers.

The New Colossus says this hardly matters. From its opening flashbacks, in which BJ’s own father terrorizes his young son for befriending a black girl and beats his wife, a Polish Jew, for allowing their boy to do so, the game insists that there’s a very clear parallel to be drawn between 20th century American society and Nazi ideology. BJ’s father considers black and Jewish Americans fundamentally inferior—unworthy of even nominal respect. BJ later returns home on his path to recruit revolutionaries and finds his father an eager Nazi collaborator, happy that the fascists are willing to kill anyone standing in the way of white superiority.

In essence, the game says that the United States, in its treatment of its non-white, non-Christian population, has historically been just as reprehensible and worthy of violent overthrow as Nazi Germany.

This is a subversive message, but one whose clarity and strength is diminished by The New Colossus confusing lack of follow-through. For all of its apparent bravery in examining taboo topics, the game is afraid of too fully engaging with its central theme, perhaps worried that making its references more specific (or its polemic more pointed) would frighten players expecting a less politically certain storyline.

It’s puzzling that, despite resembling the Black Panthers in mission, language and dress (again: that “Free Huey” pin!), The New Colossus dodges direct affiliation with the history it draws on by fictionalizing Sister Grace and her group, instead, as “the Black Revolutionary Front.” When the player meets Horton in New Orleans, too, his resistance cell is categorized as a scattershot collection of anti-capitalists (BJ smears them as “Bolsheviks”) rather than a distinct political movement. There’s a sense that simply naming the revolutionaries as what they are—a black nationalist group and antiestablishment socialists—would be a step too far into a history both directly identifiable and applicable to the modern day.

If the worry is that more directly addressing its comparison of Nazi and post-war American governments seems a step too far, it’s worth remembering historical examples that dramatically illustrate these same parallels. A Bill Moyers interview with the author of Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Q. Whitman, sees Whitman highlighting the uses of racist American lawmaking as a precedent for the Nazi’s crafting of the infamous Nuremberg Laws.

“American law, hard though it might be for us to accept it now, was a model for everybody in the early 20th century who was interested in creating a race-based order or race state,” Whitman says. “America was the leader in a whole variety of realms in racist law in the first part of that century.” Citing the research that informed his book, Whitman details how Nazi lawyers looked to the ways in which “ … American law [created] forms of second-class citizenship—for African-Americans, of course, but also for other populations including Asians, Native Americans, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans.”

Documents from radical Nazis even “specifically invoked Jim Crow as a model for the new Nazi program,” Whitman describes. “[A]nd here’s the irony: [the radicals] also insisted that Jim Crow went further than the Nazis themselves would desire to go.” In other areas of Nazi government, too, US history was used as precedent. “As the Nazis rolled east to conquer other lands—in Ukraine and elsewhere—they often invoked the example of the American conquest of the West,” Whitman says. Most frighteningly, his interview contains the following quote: “Hitler himself, in Mein Kampf, described the US as the one state that had made at least some progress for creating the kind of race order he wanted to create in Germany.”

If we use fiction to imagine the political landscape of a United States under Nazi rule, we should also be willing to look at the ways in which the real-world America influenced actual Nazi ideology. In short, American history provided a roadmap for Nazi policy. The United States’ sustained, legally codified assault against national minorities offered a model for Germany’s fascist government.

The most clear hedging comes when The New Colossus assures its audience, as if concerned that too strong a stance will alienate it, that America, for all its faults, is still the best country on earth. As BJ walks among fascist collaborators, from the Ku Klux Klan members chumming it up with Nazi soldiers to men like his father who celebrate the Nazis persecuting “all the Jews and the coloureds and the queers,” he still maintains, without any apparent reason, the unique goodness of America. “You take freedom away from the American people, you’re playing with fire,” he says at one point. In the game’s final scene, Wyatt delivers a monologue on live television extolling the virtues of the American people. “You were born in the land of the free. You fought the kings of old and broke them,” he says. “You gave your lives for the simplest but most essential truth of all: Give me liberty or give me death.” He’s speaking to the idea, assumed without the history to support it, that there is something innately good about America—that its much vaunted love of freedom has always been universally enjoyed by the nation’s entire population. But the only details of the game that actually prove its praise true are the heroics of its lead characters. Even within its own text, it attempts a dismissal of the same American moral exceptionalism it later promotes.

In The New Colossus’ timeline, our real and its fictional histories diverged during the Second World War. Before this point, the game is eager to show the grim realities of pre-WWII America. Its United States, like ours, was controlled by hateful men like BJ’s father who made sure that the freedoms he enjoyed were not granted to those unlike him. In the real 1950s and ‘60s, Americans outside of the white, straight, Christian mainstream had to fight tooth and nail for human rights still not fully established today. Government institutions and the culture at large marginalized and terrorized women, people of colour, the LGBT population, and anyone with non-majority religious or political beliefs. If The New Colossus wants to draw comparisons between Nazi Germany and the realities of post-war American life for the nation’s minorities, it’s hard to understand why it isn’t equally willing to dispel the myth that the United States was and is somehow intrinsically virtuous despite so many referenced historical signs to the contrary.

In 1961, real-world revolutionaries were doing everything they could to make good on the liberty promised throughout years of struggle against a fascist threat they had been told aimed to destroy the fabric of American life. World War II ended with the temporary defeat of the specific ideology espoused by Nazi Germany but the persecution of US minorities alive and well. One ostensible threat to American freedom had been stopped while others, far closer to home, continued to thrive. Harder to kill than the Nazi soldiers occupying The New Colossus’ version of the country, this enemy is distinctly American—as much a part of the national make-up as anything else.

Wolfenstein II understands this and uses an alternate history World War II game to create distressing parallels between both its villains and the institutions that support the nation its heroes call home. If it was only willing to commit entirely to that message, its version of a dystopian, fictional 1961 would be even more frighteningly familiar. As it stands, the design of the game, from its plot’s dully violent pay-off to its supposition that simply murdering enough Nazis is enough to stamp out fascism, works against its ability to establish anything like a greater, lasting meaning. Inscribed in The New Colossus’ very DNA is a belief in the ahistorical morality of America, a gross simplification of the complexities of revolution, and, most damning, an unwillingness to follow its occasionally astute understanding of history through to a portrayal of Nazism and the post-war United States that offers any coherent challenge to the nation’s perceived greatness.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.