I think this essay will probably be the final one on Wolfenstein: New Order. After this, I’ll be moving on to Wolfenstein II, which I’ll largely be talking about with reference to this initial set of essays. Over the past few weeks I’ve talked at a few different points about how New Order has some potentially troubling content, especially with the use of certain stereotypes (such as disabilities or physical scarring) as shorthand for evil. In some instances, it makes the game a bit troubling to play. Here I want to deal with one small cutscene from the lunar mission, and use it as a lens with which to think about and talk about those other problematic episodes.
The scene in question is this one. There’s a bit of a break in the gameplay, you’ve been crawling through some tunnels or something, and you find a scalpel on a desk, so you take a moment to cut the Auschwitz number tattoo off your arm. During that time, you experience a flashback to the camp, and a conversation that took place there with Set Roth. Frau Engel is busy whipping some dead prisoner, because she’s a stinky bitch, and Roth is describing his philosophy:
Roth: This woman, I knew her well. Resilient, with a will of iron. The family gone, all of them, yet faith – faith kept her going. I cannot believe with such certainty. For me in everything there must be doubt – otherwise there’s no room to question. To learn. This place, this is the fruit of unquestioned ferocious conviction. This is where absolute certainty leads.
BJ: Yet you are a believer.
Roth: I often wonder what kind of a god would sanction suffering such as this. And I question myself whether my faith is misplaced.
BJ: Maybe he’s testing us.
Roth: Well Shimshon, if he is testing us, we are failing gloriously.
There’s a lot going on in there, and some of it is discussed at the bottom of the article I linked to when discussing how the game represents Judaism – it’s over here, for reference. I don’t necessarily want to talk about the game’s representation of Judaism though – instead, I want to talk about Roth’s philosophy as a wider lens for viewing the game as a whole.
The basic binary here is certainty vs doubt. When Roth is referring to ‘this place’, he’s referring to the fictional work camp, but also to Auschwitz and the Nazi enterprise and everything else that’s symbolised by that camp. Unquestioned ferocious conviction leads to Nazism – that’s the crudest reading of Roth’s philosophy. Roth obviously doesn’t think that it’s bad to have some degree of certainty – he is, after all, still a believer. But belief is not exempt from criticism, from questioning or uncertainty. Belief is not so much the issue here – the problem is when people don’t doubt.
It’s possible to draw parallels between Roth’s philosophy and a wider scientific philosophy. In the Bosman article that I linked to above, he quotes Roth saying that “we [the Da’at Yichud] don’t believe in things supernatural. We believe in God. The Da’at Yichud is a philosophy. It is a way of understanding God through knowledge. It is based on pure reason, pure rational thought. Not supernatural bubkis.” I don’t want to take this direction too far, because it’s not my focus today. I will make a couple quick points though – firstly, I’m not sure how far to trust that quotation. If you check my quote above, regarding the camp flashback, you’ll see it’s different to Bosman’s. His is more of a paraphrase – it still gets all the basics, but he’s clearly skipping bits. Given that paraphrasing, I can’t be totally sure that this next quote is totally accurate. I didn’t find that dialogue in-game myself, and I haven’t seen it in any videos – so I don’t want to hang too much on it.
Secondly, given those reservations about the fidelity of the quote, it’s clear that Roth doesn’t represent scientific rationality as set against religious belief. Roth is very clearly religious himself. He believes in God. He says that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but then immediately says he believes in God. Logically, it seems like he just doesn’t think there’s anything especially supernatural about the Divine. From one perspective, if God exists, He’s probably in some ways the most natural thing in existence. From another perspective, Roth could just be saying that he doesn’t believe in magic or miracles. In other words, he doesn’t believe God acts outside the bounds of the normal rules of reality. God doesn’t use super-natural rules, rules above and beyond those of the natural world. Everything is ultimately discernible by the human being, because everything ultimately functions according to a given set of natural laws.
Probably the broader point here is that Roth’s exact beliefs are hard to parse. He could be a Jewish mystic who’s committed to many of the fundamental tenets of Jewish belief. He could have gone quite far down the natural theology track, or even functionally erased God and replaced Him with some vague floozy-woozy concept of God as like the pursuit of knowledge or something. Alternately – oh shit I’ve gone way off track. Okay: so basically Roth’s exact beliefs are hard to parse and we’re not going to talk much about them. We’re just going to work with the certainty/doubt binary and ignore the entire religious context. Let’s talk about Klaus Kreutz.
Klaus is an interesting character. He used to be a super enthusiastic card-carrying Nazi, and then the Nazis killed his club-footed baby. His presence in the resistance is super interesting primarily because he used to be one of the bad guys. He’s got swastikas tattooed on his body. He was really deeply entrenched in Nazi ideology. And yet he changed. Bosman points out that Kreutz, his surname, means ‘cross’ in German, arguing that“Kreutz has taken on his cross to suffer for the monstrosities of ‘his’ Nazi regime.” He’s done wrong, and he’s supported the bad guys, and now he’s trying to make amends. In some ways, our reaction to Klaus pushes us towards the grey, towards ambiguity. If we were being really black and white about it, we might say once a Nazi, always a Nazi, and just write him off altogether. Fuck him! No redemption for Nazis! But the game pushes us towards a more difficult interpretation. Yeah, he was a hardcore Nazi, and that’s awful, but he’s changed and he’s grown and he’s trying to be a better person. He’s helping fight the Nazis now. He bears the physical marks of the person he used to be, but his actions today are healthy and good.
In approaching our themes of certainty and doubt, then, we might posit the related themes of the absolute and the ambiguous. An absolutist approach to Klaus sees him condemned as a Nazi with no reprieve. An ambiguous approach recognises that he may have done bad things in the past, but he’s trying to change and be better. It gives him a measure of grace. New Order tells you that Nazis are bad, but in Klaus’s case, it gives you reason to doubt that belief. It shows you someone who’s changed, and just troubles that strict binary. It makes us a little less certain. Maybe Nazis can change and get better. Not all of them, sure, but maybe some of them? Maybe even some of the ones BJ is killing. Maybe the one he drowned in a toilet. Klaus extends a human face to the faceless Nazi hordes that you fight. It’s not a big part of the game, but if you think about it, it’s just a little unsettling. For New Order, killing Nazis is fun, but maybe in some cases it’s also a bit of a shame.
Alongside that reading of Klaus, I think we can put all the other problems that I’ve raised about New Order. It’s got some shitty representations of disability – yeah, totally. It’s got some shitty representations of sexuality. It’s a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we’re not supposed to be totally free and easy about killing all the Nazis. Maybe we’re supposed to doubt some things. If Roth sees unquestioned ferocious certainty as the path to the Holocaust, then we’re not fixing the problem by replacing it with our own version of the same thing. Maybe if New Order was just thoughtless violence, it’d be less insightful, have less to say about the human condition. Maybe we’re not supposed to believe with such certainty. Maybe in everything there must be doubt – including in how we read New Order.