By Zac Fanni
Over the last year, we have seen a slick rebranding of truly evil ideas. White ethno-nationalism has emerged as an ideology for embittered racists that cynically adopt the language of identity politics in order to rationalize their hate. And surprisingly, these modern-day Nazis enjoy glamorous magazine spreads and soft, indulgent interviews from baffled, curious and ultimately uncritical major media outlets.
Because of all this, Bethesda’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the latest game in a franchise predicated on the violent maiming and murdering of Germany’s National Socialists, has adopted a new relevance. No longer relegated to mere alternate history, the Wolfenstein franchise has discovered that it is in a unique position to say something about the effusive fascism that has proudly emerged into public discourse.
And initially, Bethesda capitalized on this opportunity: its marketing campaign adopted a suitably harsh stance against Nazism, adopting (among other things) the Richard Spencer punch in its advertising. The game freely used antifa and anti-Nazi optics to lend Bethesda a clear moral credibility on the ‘contentious’ issue of doing violence to fascists.
However, in doing so Bethesda also took on the responsibility to interrogate and impugn modern American fascism (i.e. the alt-right). The New Colossus seems perfectly situated to do this: set in a post-World War II America conquered by Hitler, the game seems ready to undo the layers of rebrands and pseudo-academic gobbledygook that have confused people about the moral necessity of expunging Nazism from our discourse.
And yet the game fails to do this. It uses the optics of the civil rights movement and the anti-war left, but doesn’t actually explore the racial, gendered violence at the heart of the American Dream. In this way, it is startling to see a game so sardonic and seemingly aware of itself to take the Emma Lazarus poem (from which it took its title) literally: America is ultimately championed as the home of the downtrodden, the protector of freedom (cue the red, white and blue fireworks) and the moral exemplar for the world.
Of course, none of these things are true. They never have been: America emerged from the ash heap of countless peoples of all backgrounds. There was first the genocide inflicted on the First Nations, which was soon followed with the creation of the color line and the enslavement of people of color. Furthermore, literally every major immigrant group arriving after the founding of this brutal republic was met with hatred, exclusion and exploitation. Poverty, hunger and hatred were what greeted you on America’s shores, and you were lucky (and still are) if you were able to climb out of them. More to the point, the American government even turned away boats carrying Jews who were fleeing the holocaust. Modern American fascism is not an export – it is something that has grown from within the thirteen colonies and their republic.
Colliding Germany’s fascism with America’s (at one point you even witness a Nazi soldier quiz KKK members on their German) should yield a rich critique of the racism and violence that have formed the rotted core of America’s liberal ideals. Yet what we are left with is a militaristic paean to the America symbolized and mythologized by Lady Liberty, the colossus of Lazarus’ poem.
In 2017, where spiteful white men threaten countless groups with tiki torches and racist ideologies, Bethesda had a responsibility to do justice to the struggles it co-opted to sell its game. By not doing so, by not saying anything about America’s complicity with and propensity for oppression, Bethesda merely furthers the mythic American Dream that has been proven, time and time again, to be the colossus that crushes us.