Wolfenstein: On the Jews

Okay so this is the really jammy essay on Wolfenstein. We’ve been going for a few weeks now, it’s, uh, February (I’m writing this in November though), and this is the essay where we talk about the whole Jewish conspiracy thing. I’ll give you the plot summary, and then we’ll talk about why it’s stupid. It should be pretty obvious though. Let’s hit it.

So the premise of Wolfenstein: The New Order is that the Nazis won WWII and now it’s 1960. The Nazis won the war specifically because they found a vault of strange massively advanced science shit, and that strange massively advanced science shit belonged to the Jews. Not all the Jews, just a secret international sect that’s existed for thousands of years. This, uh… yeah. So the premise of Wolfenstein is basically that the Nazis were right about the whole Jewish conspiracy. I just – somewhere in a writer’s meeting, somebody on that team was like ‘Hey what if the Nazis were right about the whole Jewish conspiracy thing,’ and everybody else was like ‘hey yeah that’s a really good idea.’ It’s a big fucking misstep. It’s a really dumb misstep too, for a game that’s otherwise really intelligent and invested in its themes.

So as a plot-point it’s heading in the direction of Nazi apologia. It might just be fantasy, but if your story can be summarized as ‘what if the Nazis were right about X’, you’re doing something wrong and you need to have a pretty fucking critical look at yourself. In talking about this point with friends, I’ve heard some comments that it might be about somehow empowering the Jews or whatever, but that always seemed like a bit of a weedy excuse. I’ve got a roundabout example – excuse the tangent, but I think it illustrates the point. In Arkham Asylum, you can find patient interview tapes and get backstory on all the different inmates. In one of Riddler’s tapes, he talks about how he solved an almost impossible logic puzzle at school. His dad thought he cheated, and shouted at him and beat him, and it’s all very sad. And then Riddler’s all like ‘haha I actually did cheat though’ and it’s like well fuck you Riddler you probably fucking deserved it you little shit. And that’s not a vibe you want to give off about the Holocaust.

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That’s not to say that the Jewish dimension of the game is entirely negative or without positive value. The fake Jewish science cult, Da’ad Yichud, has its religious dimension discussed in great detail over here. I’m not going to discuss it in any more detail, because I’d basically just be repeating that writer’s points, but it’s an interesting read. For our purposes, the main takeaway from that article is that Wolfenstein does use its premise to develop out some interesting themes around religion and faith, or on doubt and certainty in the context of fascism and the Nazi movement. That’s an interesting set of ideas to explore.

And it’s also worth noting that you have to directly deal with the Jews in one way or another. In a text like this, where you’re super focused on the consequences of WWII, you can’t just have all the massive Nazi architecture. You’ve got to spend time on the flip-side, actually establishing why the Nazis are bad. That means you’ve got to portray the Jews. I’ve suggested in previous weeks that Wolfenstein portrays the victims of the Nazis in various ways, both in the asylum level and the work camp. In each instance, Wolfy positions you as experiencing the terrors of the Nazi regime, and then jumping up and revenge-shanking all the Nazis. That’s a fine indirect way to explore those themes, but it would feel a little bit weird to be playing from the perspective of a victim of the Nazi regime without ever actually encountering any other victims. In the asylum, for instance, you never have a meaningful relationship with any of the other patients. You have a relationship with Anya, the nurse, but she’s not a victim in the same way. The Nazis just kill her parents – okay I say ‘just’ but you know what I mean. She doesn’t fall victim to the Nazi prejudice against disabled people in the same way as all the actual patients in the hospital. She could stay quiet and stay safe – that’s a special privilege she and her parents have. From that perspective, Anya and her parents suffer because they interfered, not because the Nazis were specifically coming after them. It’s still shitty, but it’s a different sort.

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Anyway: point is, if you were positioned as both mental health patient and victim of the gas chambers, but never actually met any other Jews or mental health patients, I’d probably have some strong words to say about how Wolfenstein just blanked the actual victims of the Nazis right out of the game. From that angle, it’s sort of cool that they didn’t just portray the Jews as whimpering powerless animals, setting up some weird America-saves-all-the-Jews complex. Instead, the Jews have their sneaky science powers, and through Set Roth they’re able to actively join the fight against the Nazis, just like Grace Walker in Wolfenstein II. It’s the same logic that’s applied to BJ – if he’s in the position of a victim but allowed to fight back, then the same powers must be extended to all the other victims.

Speaking of Wolfenstein II, obviously BJ is shown to be Jewish in that game. It’s all part of the same canon, so you could argue that BJ is the face of Jewish resistance to the Nazis in New Order. It’s technically true, but I kinda don’t want to reach into a sequel to draw out evidence to justify this game. My impulse is to treat New Order as a complete unit in itself, which seems fair given that New Colossus didn’t come out for another three years. You could argue differently, it’s obviously not a bulletproof argument, but that’s my instinct.

Assuming that we don’t treat BJ as Jewish in New Order, then, Set is the main face of the Jewish rebellion. You can see the developers trying to empower the Jews by giving them these super science weapons, but in the wider context of what’s going on, it’s probably an inappropriate plot device. It legitimises the Jewish conspiracy claims that the Nazis used as an excuse for ethnic cleansing, and that’s fucking awful.

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