The opening of Wolfenstein II is very busy. There’s a lot being crammed in. The game is a sequel, and it’s the rare sort of sequel that cares about the events of the previous game. So there’s a recap of New Order‘s events, juxtaposed against the current day where BJ is bleeding to death and being surgeried by Set Roth, juxtaposed against his memories of his childhood to establish his parents and the major themes of the game, juxtaposed against the Deathshead choice scene from New Order so the player can choose if they’re in the Wyatt or the Fergus timeline. I mean damn, New Colossus, that is a lot to squeeze in. Let’s talk about BJ’s dad.
Right out the gate, one of the main themes of New Colossus is the nature of parenthood. We have BJ’s extended flashbacks to his mum and dad set against Anya’s pregnancy in the modern day. That in itself is already something remarkable – I mean, name another first-person shooter that dealt with parenthood as a primary theme. Even compared to New Order – don’t get me wrong, New Order is stellar, but the basic question at the heart of New Order is actually very simple. The game essentially asks, what if Nazis won WWII? The answer, again, is quite simple: if they’d won, they’d still be doing all their evil Nazi shit. Death camps, gas chambers, Aryans, swastikas, Nazi architecture – all the stock evil Nazi tropes. New Colossus asks a more complex question: what if Nazis ran America? It’s a similar question, and to some degree it prompts similar sorts of creative responses.
Imagine that you had to create a fictional Nazi America – you’d sit down and think, well, who’d be supporting the Nazis, who’d be against them, and how would Nazi activity tie into the pre-existing activities of that culture? What’s an American Nazi Halloween like? What’s an American Nazi 4th of July? How would Nazism affect American culture? If you approach New Colossus with that core question in mind, all the fundamental elements of the game snap into focus. The guys who support the Nazis are the KKK, so they’re in there. Who hates Nazis? Must be the communists – and you know what else happened in the 60s? McCarthyism and the Red Scare – wait, no, that was more the 50s. Ah, fuck it, chuck the communists in anyway, they can have a scene. We briefly see Nazi-fied American celebrations in Roswell, and a Nazi in the diner, an all-American transfusion of the pub scene in Inglourious Basterds. All of these basic world-building questions are dealt with in a really methodical way – every detail, one after another.
So when you’re creating a fictional Nazi version of America, one of the things you naturally do is think about parallels and differences between the Nazis and American culture. You want to look for overlap, or clear divergence, instances where you can use the comparison to say something insightful about Americans, Nazis, or both. New Colossus is a game about national identity, which is far and away more than anything New Order even dreamed of doing. New Order is an excellent game about how Nazis are bad. New Colossus is a troubled game about America and American identity.
Given that New Colossus is talking about American identity against the backdrop of Nazis, one of the obvious creative choices is to think about how Americans might have done awful racially motivated things in the past, and what relationship (if any) those racist behaviours might have to Nazism. We’ve obviously got the subplot from New Order where not-Jimi-Hendrix tells BJ that white Americans were basically Nazis from his perspective. If you want to be really crude, you could say that New Colossus is an entire game dedicated to exploring that idea. Was there an ideological link between the slave trade and Nazism? It’s crude, but for instance you could say that both the slave trade and Nazism assumed some sort of racial superiority over another group of people. In that sense, you could use Nazi America to show how racism against black people and racism against Jews are structurally similar. In fact, in a 2016 video on alpha males, Contrapoints argued that the white supremacist worldview involves both racism and sexism, and also pushes a conspiracy about Jews to explain why the supposedly superior white men are being pushed out by women and people of colour. New Colossus holds up America’s history with black Americans and compares it to the history of Nazism, not to say they’re identical but maybe just to suggest that they’re more similar than Americans might like to think.
Now we can come to BJ’s dad. I suggested at the start that the introduction of New Colossus is dense. That’s true, but even within that context the stuff with Mr Blazkowicz is especially dense. There’s a lot going on, and it’s easy to miss some of the world-building. We all get the basic strokes: he’s a grumpy racist white dude who hates black people and is really angry at his son for associating with a young black girl. He’s violent, he beats his wife and son. He makes his son shoot the dog, just in case you didn’t hate him enough. If you haven’t seen this sequence, you can watch it here, if you’re interested – I’m talking about the scenes from 3:50 on.
In the first big scene, the closet scene, Mr BJ (his name’s actually Rip but Mr BJ is funny) rants about both black people and Jews. He’s terrified of his son being seen with a black girl, he uses the n-word pretty liberally, and he’s physically and verbally abusive to his Jewish wife (“What is it with you damn Jews?”; “Smart mouth god damned Jew”). He’s got some other emotional issues going on too. He’s convinced that there’s a conspiracy against white men: “All manner of scum… doing everything in their power to rob the white man of what he’s earned.” He’s also convinced that he’s got the hardest life, and that he’s working the hardest and nobody respects him: “You have no idea what it’s like to suffer like I do. Every day I’m out there bustin my ass… Getting screwed out of my earnings left and right. Humiliating myself just to keep the business alive.” At the same time, when he’s challenged about maybe making bad decisions and being at least partly responsible for their financial strife, he gets violent. Zofia, BJ’s mother, says Rip should have shut the business down when her father told him to. She accuses him of losing all the money invested by her father, and basically fucking everything up. In response, Rip threatens to whack her, which is obviously the most logical response to criticism.
Really Rip is the bridge between Nazism and America. He rolls anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment up into each other, directly linking America’s slave trading past with the 20th century horrors of Nazism. Later in the game we even learn that he gave Zofia up to the Nazis because she’s a Jew. The negative criticisms of American identity basically all start and end with Rip. When he’s tying the dog up in the barn and making BJ shoot it, he has an extended monologue that’s basically just a big ‘I Am A Nazi’ speech:
“In life you got to make hard decisions. And sometimes you got to punish the animals out there. It’s kill or be killed. The old and the weak are doomed. All manner of scum and sickly minds and dirty bodies and cockroaches, doing everything in their power to rob the white man of what he’s earned. It’s on us to straighten out the queer. It’s on you.”
I quoted part of this speech already above, but this is the full version of it. This scene in particular is really rich in symbolism – he’s talking about punishing metaphorical ‘animals’ or ‘cockroaches’, but he’s also at the same time forcing BJ to murder a literal animal, who is by the way entirely innocent and good. So there’s a dissonance between his words and his actions; he’s saying we have to fight off these horrible monsters, but in reality he’s just tying up a sad dog and making a child shoot it. But the thing about Rip is that he is saying something true – it’s just not what he thinks it is. He himself is the animal he condemns. His actions, and implicitly the wider actions of Nazism more generally, are the source of pain and suffering. There are hard decisions that you have to make in life, and they’re caused by Nazis. Just minutes earlier, the player had chosen either Fergus or Wyatt to get their eyeballs scooped out and their brain put in a jar. Similarly, Wolfenstein is all about punishing the animals out there – all about punishing those fucking Nazis. The whole monologue is this deeply ironic speech. BJ ultimately absorbs Rip’s words and turns them against him. When fighting Nazis, yeah, it is a case of kill or be killed. They are animals. It is on BJ to stop them. While preaching to his son, Rip therefore sows the seeds of his own destruction, urging his son to fight against evil while simultaneously revealing his own evil nature.
I think there’s a broader comment in there, both on the nature of parenting and on how we should approach these parallels between American history and Nazism. The relationship between Rip and BJ is awful, but BJ still learns a lot from his father. In a weird way, BJ is doing everything his father told him to. He’s excised all the racist bullshit, but the basic concept of ‘it’s on you to fight evil’ is fundamental to BJ’s identity. He’s inherited that personality trait from his upbringing – again, directly from his father. It’s this intriguing suggestion that even if you hate a parent, you’re still shaped by them, either with your actions and behaviours evolving in opposition to theirs, or maybe even to some degree in warped imitation. That’s a really interesting concept – it suggests that try as we might, we’re never going to fully extricate ourselves from the legacy of our parents. The same logic can be applied to American history. New Colossus suggests that the history of America has disquieting parallels with Nazism. Rip bridges those two identities, shows how they might have uncomfortable similarities. But the message for contemporary America isn’t that they should abandon all hope of a better future. They might not be able to fully extricate themselves from the ongoing legacies of the slave trade and colonialism, but if BJ can put all that effort into fighting Nazis and making a better future, despite his heritage and its direct influences on his character, then maybe there’s hope for America too.
One final note. In watching a couple of videos of that intro sequence, I’ve seen some where players could avoid shooting the dog – they could miss on purpose and fall backwards from the kick of the shotgun. I don’t know if that’s something that’s in the final product, or on the PC version – I’ll have to go and test it out. But my instinct is that it’s a weaker moment than having to actually shoot the dog. If you miss the dog, Rip calls you weak and picks the gun up and shoots the dog offscreen. He’s a shit, fine, but there’s a massive emotional impact that’s lost. When BJ shoots the dog, it’s the start of his life of violence. Rip is afraid of ‘animals’ and makes his son shoot a literal animal as a stand-in for those other animals (immigrants, black people, Jews, etc) that need to be punished. BJ recognises that his father, who made him kill an animal, is the real animal, and so BJ commits himself to shooting real animals (Nazis) in a twinned moment of obedience and resistance to his father, who is the animal who forced him to kill an animal. It’s a really intricate symbolic moment, but it all hinges on BJ actually shooting the dog. If he shoots and misses, and then Rip does the job himself, then BJ is still an innocent. The whole point of that scene is that BJ’s violence against Nazis starts with a Nazi forcing him to commit an act of violence. BJ has blood on his hands, so to speak – that’s the psychological premise of his character. If he can miss the dog, we lose the force of that crucial moment, and New Colossus degrades into a simple revenge fantasy instead of this deeper reflection on parenthood and identity.
[…] in the same way that General Engel drags Sigrun through a bunch of different war crimes. You might remember my criticism of how the player is able to avoid shooting the dog: I said it undermines the […]