During a Wolfenstein 2 panel at E3 this year, I asked Bethesda’s VP of PR and Marketing at Bethesda Softworks Pete Hines why people loved shooting things in the Wolfenstein series so much. I was immediately corrected by Hines, with notable urgency, that people don’t just love shooting ‘things’ in Wolfenstein, they love shooting Nazis.
It was a common sentiment sprouting from Bethesda and Wolfenstein developer MachineGames throughout their E3 showing, and it’s reflected in the first several hours of the game itself. In Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus you slice, chop, mangle, and dessicate Nazis in bold, brilliant relief. As American super spy B.J. Blazkowicz, you’re not surviving the Nazi regime, you’re absolutely brutalising it.
“There’s nothing more fundamental to Wolfenstein. If you boil it down to the core experience, it is about kicking Nazi ass,” said MachineGames’ creative director Jens Matthies.
Scratch at the surface of the Wolfenstein series and MachineGames isn’t exactly plunging the depths of the horrors of World War 2 (the closest the series got to having a deeper political message was when director of Wolfenstein 3D Tom Hall suggested protagonist BJ Blazkowitz was of Jewish descent). It presents us with a bubblegum dystopia, divorced from The Holocaust. “I mean our game is, of course, not any sort of historical representation of reality, and that has never been our intent,” said Matthies. “Our creative intent is to approach the fiction with the same kind of fearlessness and creative freedom as the original Wolfenstein 3D was approached.”
Yet roughing up Nazis in fiction and pop culture still carries great symbolic weight as a patriotic act, and has done since the ’40s. One of the most cited early examples is the cover of Captain America #1 in March 1941, which saw Cap as a powerful new symbol of America landing a good one on Adolf Hitler. This cover was – quite boldly, it should be noted – printed before the United States entered the war in December of that year, but laid simple good vs evil groundwork that resonates to this day. Since then, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel – comic book incarnations of justice – have all socked a Nazi or two.
Post-war movies similarly eschewed nuance and the painful realities of The Holocaust by depicting Nazis as faceless, depraved goons to be disposed of by dashing American heroes. Sophia Loren and George Pepard sex up ‘65s Operation Crossbow, in the face of Nazis who only cared about one thing: vengeance!, while the ‘68 Clint Eastwood flick Where Eagles Dare has a Nazi body count of 89. Horror has had a field day massaging them into its genre: Nazis have been zombies, subterranean humanoids, sentient severed heads and Frankenstein’s monster-style super soldiers. As the ultimate evil ideology, they can be morphed into anything that goes bump in the night, as long as the cheap accent is right.
While the ‘70s and ‘80s graduated towards more complex depictions of evil, especially in arthouse circles (Maximilian Theo Aldorfer in 1974’s The Night Porter springs to mind), Spielberg reinvigorated the Nazi stooge in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like the ‘41 Cap comic, Raiders is a simple good vs evil story with Doctor Jones as the yankee hero versus the sadistic, preening Nazi menace (The Dead Kennedys released their single “Nazi Punks F**ck Off” during this year, where the message was equally clear.) In 1989’s Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, when Indy had firmly become an American icon and he quips “Nazis, I hate these guys,” you’re almost compelled to let out a cheer, so quintessentially Good and True – is the sentiment.
It was Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 gung ho war flick Inglorious Basterds that had the ultimate word to date on kicking Nazi ass through a patriotic lens. Here, Tarantino doesn’t just delight in American heroes getting up close and personal with Nazis using Louisville Sluggers, he lovingly paints them as the assassins of Adolf Hitler, the heavy thwack-thwack of their submachine bullets piercing his torso as the ultimate middle finger from Uncle Sam.
Video games naturally caught onto the accessible dichotomy. Though 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein featured Nazis as villains, it wasn’t until its sequel in the following decade where the goal was pleasure in the act of murdering increasingly over the top versions of Hitler’s goons. Wolfenstein 3D was a power fantasy where your all-American tough guy was pitched against Nazis that were essentially 2D sponges for your ridiculous arsenal; it was so exaggerated in tone that Hitler’s final form came complete with a mech suit and quad chain guns.
Since then, video games have reveled in Nazis-as-bad-guys; Behind Enemy Lines, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Commandos, and the Sniper Elite series have all let you maim and mangle various iterations of the Third Reich. In a combat-focused medium, a Nazi is as simple a target as a zombie. Theoretically, nobody can argue their worth.
It’s no surprise then that people have grasped onto such sureties in fiction during this year’s ubiquitous coverage of real world white supremacists and the public debate over aggressively attacking fascism. Images of superheroes and other fictional icons punching Nazis in the face have done the rounds through social media, the discourse made full circle by cartoonist Matt Bors’ re-imagined ‘41 Captain America cover, where onlookers quip that violence never solved anything as Cap punches Hitler in the face: “you’ll only alienate moderate Nazis.”
It makes an interesting period of time for a new Wolfenstein game to come out. As the futile question of whether we can collectively see good and evil in black and white terms continues to be prodded at in the real world in 2017, The New Colossus, steadfastly committed to its past, is as defiant as a Dead Kennedys song.
Lucy O’Brien is Games & Entertainment Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. Follow her on Twitter.