Wolfenstein: The Responsabilities of Alt-History Stories

The greater the trauma, the more it will attract artists and storytellers. This iron rule of creativity has been long appreciated by whoever has tried to write fiction or has felt the urge to put their emotions on a canvas. Great tragedies, from 9/11 to the death of a loved one, are immense catalysts for stories because they allow to take a universally shared emotional baggage and manipulate it in an unique way.

The issue is, what can be considered truly universal? Any given event always has different meaning depending on the audience it finds. Consider World War II: the fight against the Axis has spanned across so many nations and continents that it´s impossible to formulate it in terms of a single, massive conflict. Even if we wanted to articulate an analysis of the war following international relations theory, to describe it as the clash of ambitious rising powers with established hegemons would do little to address its sociopolitical facets. 1940s writings and post-war depictions all display WWII as a crusade against the deepest fears of the belligerent peoples. The Germans didn´t justify their aggression by stating the intention to rapidly knock out the countries in control of the raw materials necessary to feed the Wehrmacht´s modernization efforts. Nazi propaganda directly played into the nation´s fear of the unknown brought along by economic inequality, pointing at an invented global Jewish conspiracy and feeding the nation´s paranoia and sense of racial superiority. Similarly, every Allied nation added a different twist to the question of “why we fight”, especially before the disclosure of concentration camps added a new layer to the collective image of the war (but more on that later). Again, the different propaganda authorities painted a victory by the Third Reich as a triumph of all the own´s abstract fears rather than picturing the concretely tragic scenario of German hegemony in Europe. The British emphasized how the atrocities committed by the enemy were akin to a barbaric invasion threatening the isle´s secular security and welfare; the US often depicted Germany (and especially the “racially inferior” Japanese) as the end of god-abiding liberal white America; the Soviet Union could easily exploit the doctrine which sees in fascism only a further evolution of capitalism.

It doesn´t surprise these different brands of fear are still present today when evoking World War II. Beyond the political exploitation of the conflict, alternate history is the thematic area in which the different interpretations of the conflict are most acute. Most historians agree that a fascist system would have been one dominated by colonial overlords: Hitler conceived a system based on caste systems and hegemonic spheres, with entire nations enslaved to serve the master race tho whom they would´ve belonged. The Axis envisioned a world carved out by Japan, Germany and Italy built upon the model of the British empire, seen as a guarantor of stability by the Führer himself. The suppression of civil liberties was of course necessary to preserve the regime, but it also fulfilled the need to freely dispose of entire ethnicities for economic exploitation. The new order was supposed to work in terms of a national hierarchy putting the victors at the apex of the respective spheres of influence, commanding over tributary nations, usually members of the Axis looking to bring down their traditional enemies. An example would be the Ustasha, whose loyalty to the German cause allowed them to expand the Croatian territory and participate in the genocide against Serbs and Romani. We usually think of a Nazi victory as the end of the world as we know it, but such tragedy would have probably entailed the expansion and systematization of what already existed: caste-based colonialism with masters and servants.

Does it thus surprise that Western European and American culture still imagines a Nazi victory as the triumph of their own fears rather than in terms of its more realistic outcome? Why is it that the US and British authors feel compelled to not only explore the “what ifs” of a German occupation, but like to indulge in the depiction of horrors whose only novelty is that of happening in Springfield, Illinois instead of Pyriatin, Ukraine?

Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, apparently humankind poses very little value in the abstract idea of single, naked human beings, and thus needs to internalize other´s sufferings as its own to act in their defense. The plight of Jews, homosexuals, Slavs and many more has showed having little appeal to those far enough from the execution of this “banal” colonial project. What else could explain the different stylizations of the Holocaust and the hypothetical Nazi triumph? In our incapacity to truly fear the reality of fascist rule, we resorted once again to projecting the nightmares of our society on it.

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Fun family times

The desire of Machine Games to base its modern Wolfenstein trilogy in an alternate timeline is, in a way, symptomatic of this cultural trend. The series has always thrived as an ironic twist on the pop-history truism of the Third Reich being a technologically advanced dictatorship, despite the ample use of horses and subpar equipment by the Wehrmacht. It´s however in the current incarnation that the deep dissonance between true and imagined fascism has come to life.

The New Order has been described as an exquisitely European game, and it´s easy to see why this description is amply founded: the German triumph has cancelled the identity of the countries the player travels to, drawing a troublesome parallel with nativist rhetoric which has engulfed the continent in recent years. The concrete of sober neoclassic monuments has crept everywhere, and centuries of cultural baggage have been violently suppressed in favor of the “new men”, General Straße´s monstrous cyborgs. Nature is weak and dying. For a continent so obsessed by its identity and role in a world increasingly dominated by its former subjects, this scenario perfectly hits all the right notes. It works so well because it perverts the perceived strengths of Europe transforming them in symbols of oppression, not unlike fascism, which according Isaiah Berlin brought the liberal pursuit of truth to its final logic step: the oppression of what is considered “wrong”. Despite its merit, this is still a stylized vision of Germany´s post-war plans which doesn´t aim at exploring fascism as such but rather the European fear of its consequences. Maybe it´s because of this misunderstanding that American audiences were so alienated by Wolfenstein II, as the re-emergence of the fascist specter (and a cunning marketing campaign) led many to expect a ferocious take on those actors accused of bringing it back in the 21st century. But US political rhetoric points at the nation as being under siege since September 11: what possible American value has not already been subverted, emptied, gutted and destroyed by its enemies, domestic and foreign, according to the speeches of those supposed to know better? With the normalization of the politics of fear, finding that “universal tragedy” in all its ramifications becomes hard without alienating significant swaths of public. But then again, if all that has been feared is perpetually on the verge of happening, then isn´t normality the scariest thing which can be used to relate to diverse groups of unsatisfied citizens? Aren´t a complicit media, inadequate left-wingers with no clear political leaning, weak heroes, glorified violence, grotesque family spats the source of the hate and oppression which could consume the country? This was the case when the game was written, well before Donald Trump´s ascendance. The perceived tameness of the story comes from the fact Wolfenstein, in its modern incarnation, was never a tale about Blaskowitz killing Nazis, but rather that of a fight against those demons which have been stylized into the fascist menace over the decades. The real danger is to think that this depiction of horror may be useful to exorcise the one we may face in the coming decades, which much of the public expected being depicted in The New Colossus. This should serve as a warning: authors should stop resorting to very specific historical circumstances to explore our present predicament. In a time where much historical knowledge is transmitted through games, movies and amateur historians, please stop. Stop out of respect of the memory of what really happened 70 years ago. Stop believing stylizations can substitute political consciousness. And most importantly, start distinguishing between fear and reality.

Sources: Eichmann in Jerusalem by H. Arendt; The Diary of Galeazzo Ciano, Italy’s fascist foreign minister; many others. I also suggest the curious to check out Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education, it’s really great.

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