What’s worse – 400 years of slavery, or the Holocaust? Don’t answer that question. It’s a trick question. There are no good answers. There is only a minefield of offensiveness. Here’s the thing – we’ve talked extensively about how Wolfenstein II is about Nazis in America. As part of that whole white supremacist thing, the game explores Nazi antisemitism alongside the racial intolerance of 1960s America, as well as invoking modern day race relations. I mentioned last week that Grace never raises an ideological challenge against BJ, suggesting that perhaps the reason is that in New Colossus, black people are put to death alongside the Jews. That’s, uh, hmm. Let’s talk about it.
We’ll begin with the actual historical situation of black and gay communities under Nazi Germany. I have no expertise in these areas, but various Wikipedia pages suggest that gay communities were targeted by the Nazis, which included arrest, forced sterilization, and imprisonment in concentration camps – which are different to the death camps, mind. Black people, on the other hand, were treated as an inferior race, and some mixed-race children were sterilized in the Rhineland, but they were not all arrested or sent to death camps. From what I can see, the treatment of black people was really irregular. The link above notes that some German commanders would immediately execute black prisoners upon capture. At the same time, some Afro-Germans served in the German army during WW2, especially those that came up through the Hitler Youth. Interracial marriage was illegal, obviously, although for context note that sixteen states in America banned interracial marriage up until as late as 1967, and in 1958 a Gallup poll showed that 96% of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage, or more specifically marriage between black and white people. From that perspective, the Nazi ban back in the 30s wasn’t anything special – at least not to the Americans.
Now, in New Colossus, it’s not entirely clear how black and queer communities are treated. It’s not explicit. But there’s evidence to suggest that they might have been subject to the death camps along with the Jews. In the cutscene where BJ kills his father, Rip says “They rounded up all the Jews, and the coloureds, and the queers. This is a white man’s world now. White man’s gotta keep it Christian.” By grouping those different types of people together, the implication to me is that they’re all subjected to the same fate – the death camps. Another hint of the shared fate is that Billy shares his name with the young black girl he grows up with – also Billie. The twinned naming suggests some sort of connection, and the simplest connection is that they’re both similarly persecuted by the Nazis. Yet another hint is when BJ meets Grace and Spesh for the first time: Spesh says “Well, you ain’t a white ass fascist Nazi pig then you either coloured or you’re a deviant.” The term ‘deviant’ is non-specific, but presumably it would encompass Roma, queer people, and any other undesirables that the Nazis want to get rid of. The suggestion here is that there’s no room at all for black or queer people to integrate into Nazi society, even in the marginal ways that some of them could under actual Nazi Germany.
As a world-building decision in itself, that’s fine. It’s fine to depict the Nazis as trying to kill everybody who’s not a straight white person – that’s a relatively logical extension of Nazi ideology. The problem comes when you start weaving in the critique of American culture – especially if you’re moving between the 60s and the modern day. We’ve talked before about how there’s a lot of references to contemporary political events in New Colossus. In-game, we can find references to Obama’s campaign slogan on a pinball machine that says ‘Out of Order’, and a newspaper with lines like “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The marketing campaign also drew on contemporary events, with one tweet referencing the furore around Richard Spencer getting punched in the face.
There’s a couple of different readings here, and I’m kinda conflicted about which one’s more accurate. One reading is that New Colossus is finding parallels between this fictional Nazi America and our contemporary situation today. The other option is that the game isn’t directly interested in the modern day. It’s interested in talking about Nazis in 1960s America, and as an aside it just notes that the Nazis in America never really go away. The fictional situation isn’t designed as a commentary on the real situation – rather the fictional story is just a fictional story, and the real situation serves as a troubling backdrop. I thiiiink it’s the second – but if it’s the first, the game is potentially skirting close to some super inappropriate content.
So there’s, uh, this Seth Meyers clip where a couple of his writers talk about a PETA story. Apparently PETA had been saying that anti-animal language is the same as racist or anti-gay language, which, you know, PETA. The writers were just riffing on the idea, pointing out that it’s maybe a little weird to compare hamburgers to voter suppression. Their basic point is that different types of bad thing are different, and if you lump them all in as quote-unquote the same type of thing, you’re running the risk of overriding the differences between them. There’s a similar thing that happens with the scholarship around Heart of Darkness too. If you’re not familiar, the basic premise of Heart of Darkness is that a bunch of white dudes go into the Congo and discover that the deep dark dangerous river really reflects the deep darkness inside all of us. It’s got lots of comparisons where it’s like ‘hey those africans are savages’ and then the point is that we’re all savages on the inside. At one point, this Nigerian scholar called Chinua Achebe went hey, hang on, we’re not savages, that’s racist. And everyone was like oh shit and there was a massive ruckus. And then some feminist scholars turned up and were like ‘yeah and it’s also sexist because the river is like a metaphor for women and they’re saying we’re all unknowable and mysterious and it’s like hey stop treating us like mystical objects and start treating us like people.’ And some more African scholars looked at that and were like ‘yo, we get your angle, but find your own book to complain about – this one’s ours. Stop using our oppression as a metaphor for your own.’
And there’s kind of a similar issue going on with Wolfenstein. We’ve got this whole thing of what if Nazis took over America, and it’s like the pitch is that the Holocaust like keeps going, but they put black people in the death camps, and it’s like a metaphor for the history of slavery and oppression, and – nobody wins here. It’s not a good metaphor. It’s bad. Don’t do it. Nobody wants to have an argument about weighing up the relative awfulnesses of the Holocaust and the slave trade, or deciding if one is an appropriate metaphor for exploring the other. It’s just – no. Just don’t.
In a way, I think that Wolfenstein‘s own failings here actually work in its favour. Wolfenstein never comes out and delivers a direct criticism of 1960s race relations. Horton gets a platform to complain about capitalism, but Grace just talks about the horrors of the bomb. Her blackness is never a part of the conversation. Well, I mean, they toss around ‘white ass fascist Nazi pig’ as an insult, but that’s as close as it gets. And even that is about criticising the enemy with vague slogans, rather than identifying the subject position of the black individual in 1960s America. Similarly, Wolfenstein never clarifies exactly what happens to the black and gay communities that get rounded up. It’s implied that they’re taken to some sort of death camp, but for a game about Nazis and Jews, the Holocaust plays a surprisingly marginal role. They got it all out of their system in New Order, and don’t raise it explicitly in New Colossus. That kinda seems like a weakness in a game about Nazis – but again, it accidentally works in the game’s favour. It stops the game from tripping over a terrifying cultural boundary. Compared to the limp and lazy politics of most triple-A games, Wolfenstein II is exciting in that it puts Nazis in the same room as the KKK. That’s a great premise, a great platform from which to comment on American culture and identity. Wolfenstein II never really takes that next step in any meaningful way, but it also subsequently never has to deal with the problems of depicting a black Holocaust.