Since the series began with Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II in 1981, Wolfenstein has become the longest-running Nazi-killing machine in video game history. Gamers have been killing Nazis in video games for years, from mowing down hordes of undead Nazi zombies in the Call of Duty series to shooting Adolf Hitler in the unmentionables in the Sniper Elite franchise.

Wolfenstein has taken on an entirely new meaning in the era of President Donald Trump, the first United States president in generations to enjoy the public support of white supremacist groups tied to the alt-right. This bloodstained scenes in this year’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus are quick to remind gamers what Nazism is all about — even if President Trump and the members of the “alt-right” movement would insist that Nazism is not a threat.

The New Colossus begins where the previous Wolfenstein title, The New Order, left off with protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz and his insurgent crew of soldiers, scientists, and navigators on the run from Nazi soldiers, crippled and desperate. Nazi soldiers that the player encounters all fear Blazkowicz, they whisper his name and know him as a bogeyman who slaughtered countless Nazis during the war and mock Blazkowicz’s disability. Blazkowicz’s allies — who include characters of Latin, Russian, Arab, Jewish, and Slavic descent — do not just oppose the Nazis. Their composition mocks Aryan ideals.

In Blazkowicz’s universe, the Nazis aren’t a nation or a military, but a cult of fanatical psychopaths guilty of genocide as much as domestic violence towards their children. This is by no means a realistic depiction, but it is a more thoughtful characterization of Hitler’s loyalists as cold, unfeeling brutes who fought for war medals and cool jackets. Earlier this year, Wolfenstein game developer Bethesda released an online slogan for “The New Colossus”, which reads “Make America Nazi-free again.” 

A number of alt-right members saw the ad as an attack aimed at President Trump because of its similarity to Trump's “Make America great again” campaign slogan. Many more alt-right pundits made sure to voice their displeasure about the game’s slogan and murder of virtual Nazis on Twitter. Their reactions ranged from accusations that Bethesda is promoting violence against Trump supporters, to praise that Nazis remain the strongmen in the series.

Bethesda made it clear that it was fully aware of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, which erupted in violence when Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members clashed with anti-Nazi counter-protesters. Anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer was killed when a man drove a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters and dozens more were injured.

It is clear that we live in a time in which fighting Nazism is hardly limited to video games — it’s escalated into every corner of American life. Wolfenstein not only illustrates the culture war against Nazism that’s being fought in modern-day America — it can serve as a virtual lesson in what makes a just war.

Developed from centuries of classical Western philosophy and military ethics, the doctrine of just war establishes a series of criteria for how a war can be morally justifiable, all of which must be met for a war to be considered just. The doctrine holds that a just war can only be waged by a legitimate authority as a means of last resort to correct a wrong. It must also be fought with a reasonable chance of success and through violence proportional to injuries induced by the enemy.

Finally, a just war’s ultimate goal is to re-establish peace — or more specifically, the peace that would have existed had the war never been fought. Wolfenstein II may be mature enough to illustrate the morality behind such just war criteria even while it apologizes for ignoring its greater ramifications. The line between revenge and justice is blurry without a shred of moral causation.

Early in the game, a Nazi leader taunts you with a decapitated human head, forces you to kiss it, then laughs as it is crushed to a pulp under the foot of a Nazi soldier. The tragedy of the Holocaust was certainly inhuman — the game’s writers reflect that much in the inhumanity of their antagonists. But driving that brutality to such outlandish levels only makes the Nazis lose their bite.

By portraying its Aryan antagonists in such barbaric extremes, the writers of Wolfenstein put themselves in a difficult position. I doubt that Wolfenstein’s cartoon caricatures are likely to sway those on the wrong side of history. Those on the right side of history will only be spoon fed what already feel is true. In 2017, an entire generation of young people are growing up without any knowledge of World War II beyond the limited lessons the American educational system has to teach them. They know that the Nazis were our enemies once, but few could understand why. Like much of the left-wing rage of liberal America, Wolfenstein II is slow to question what gave rise to Nazism or America’s own racial sins. 

Wolfenstein II is critical enough to showcase the Klu Klux Klan and the suffering of African-Americans in 1919 Texas in some of its most gripping moments. Yet the game never pretends such wrongs are the cause of a handful of madmen whose evil happened by chance. There is no right or wrong in Wolfenstein II. There is no achievable peace to fight for. The game’s writers may justify its righteous rallying cry of an eye for an eye, but they present no justifiable end to their bloodstained roller coaster.

Wolfenstein never explains why we should care about others — some people do and some don’t. Maybe such an empty conclusion speaks to the simplicity of America’s 21st century dilemmas. But for the millions who sacrificed their lives in World War II, winning a war against Nazism was never simple.


Wolfenstein video game's slogan 'Make America Nazi-free again' angers the alt-right: 

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