Why it feels wonderful to be German while Wolfenstein is alive and fantastic
At least once a year while German children are in school, the curriculum confronts the terrible truth of Germany's dark past: we unleashed hell onto Europe not once, but twice (although nobody seems to care much about the period of time after that infamous Sarajevo incident anymore). We have the horrors of Nazi Germany burned into our adolescent minds at regular intervals, to remind us that something so terrible should never, ever happen again. Which is good and right; shocking schoolchildren again and again with the historic details is an efficient way to do make them aware.
For most people it works. Those of us who have just a tiny bit of empathy and a modicum of intelligence are shocked by Germany's grim past and aware of how history led us there. Some idiots might drift to the right out of adolescent defiance or outright stupidity, sure. We all knew that one guy shouting "Heil Hitler" across the schoolyard every recess. But sooner or later, even that guy realized nobody was laughing with him.
Germans are said to be humorless, which is wrong; we can be as black-humored as any Brit. The one thing we are hesitant to laugh about, though, is our past. Since for most people in the rest of the world the past is what defines Germany, that assumption of humorlessness is not far off. While the rest of the world has downed mechanical Nazis for decades, ridiculing that small-mustached Führer guy by Swiss-cheesing his metal body with a machine gun, the series I am talking about has never truly existed in Germany. The names Wolfenstein 3D, Castle Wolfenstein and Return to Castle Wolfenstein are but faint echoes here. People who like games have heard about them, but seldom played them.
That is because they were banned. Not forbidden, mind you, but excluded from being sold or advertised. The USK, Germany's voluntary self-monitoring entertainment agency, has done a meticulous job in keeping that delicate topic of our past out of our videogames over the years. It is not fair to hate them for it. They kind of had to do it: Germany's constitution stipulates that any National Socialist signs are to be censored. If you are a small, politically pressured agency confronted with a game that consists almost entirely of Nazi signage, shutting it down was surely the easiest way.
Yet times have changed, and with them a major viewpoint towards games. As far as the government is concerned, games are art and have a chance at being accepted as such. What is art can also be satire. So, when Wolfenstein: The New Order arrived in Germany, all we had to endure were a few redacted flags and a new localization. After all these years, it was possible for us to shoot knackwurst-eating, steel helmet-donning, cliché Nazi troopers with absurd amounts of lead from ridiculous weapons. For myself, having been too young to know the old Wolfenstein games let alone laboriously import them, I was finally confronted with a version of that past many Germans feared: a ludicrous one.
Hearing the fictional version of the Germanized Beatles song, “Mond Mond, Ja Ja,” was the moment I realized that there is a way to mourn the past that does not include feelings of disgust and shame. Die Käfer are horrible caricatures, the lyrics are stupid and the song itself is a rip-off of something that I know, something that would not have existed in the world the Third Reich aimed to create. I knew that before, but the difference was, now I was able to grin at it. I had just listened to how idiotic the thousand year Reich might have been.
There is simply no way to take this game seriously (which is probably why they let it into Germany in the first place). Just look at the weapons. Double sniper rifles? Way more fun fighting fascism with those than with the historical essay that concluded my every history exam.
Confronting our history was suddenly fun. No one forgets what really happened by playing a bonkers alternative reality version of it. Everything that Wolfenstein is – from the "let's shoot Nazis with big guns" premise to the maybe-Jewish William J. Blazkowicz pulling the trigger – juxtaposes what many living Germans have been afraid of for a long time: to be held responsible as the offspring of culprits by the descendants of victims.
What has happened in the 20th century has not only shaped Germany’s past, but its present as well. By bringing this dark, yet somehow lighthearted, future of Wolfenstein to life, MachineGames have stopped it from weighting us down. Shooting down those steel helmets instead of fearing them is more than a release valve: it’s therapy.
Remember that moment when Blazkowicz finds the LaserKraftWerk, the upgraded version of his little laser cutter? When B.J. takes one last look at the trusty gadget that served him for so long, then throws it to the ground for a bigger, more awesome version? That’s how Wolfenstein makes me feel about history. Like Charlie Chaplin did for much of the rest of the world in The Dictator long ago, Wolfenstein manages to loosen the clamp crushing the 1930s and 40s in our heads, allowing us the opportunity to shift our viewpoint. For this, I hold it very dear.
Pascal Wagner is a cognitive linguist dabbling in game studies. When he's not shooting nazis, he loves to immerge himself in indie games.