Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Wolfenstein and the Power of Resistance

Robert Rath | 5 Jun 2014 16:00
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Warning: This article contains detailed spoilers for the game Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Wolfenstein: The New Order does things most games wouldn't dare to. It's a sci-fi alternate history game about Nazis that doesn't lose sight of what made Nazism evil. It takes its themes seriously. For one of the first times in a game, it takes us inside a concentration camp and doesn't pull punches about what goes on there. But what The New Order does best is to show how many different kinds of resistance there were to Nazi atrocities, some which were subtler - and in the long term more effective - than fighting them outright.

You find out quickly that The New Order really shines is when it removes agency from the player, contrasting the player's powerlessness with people living under Nazi oppression. This happens early when Blazkowicz, catatonic after a head injury, ends up in an insane asylum. Wheelchair-bound and unable even to speak, Blazkowicz witnesses SS officers enter the hospital multiple times and remove patients for medical experimentation. This part of the game is especially interesting since rather than resistance, it's about the limits of resistance. The hospital staff may protest the removal, but in the end - just like Blazkowicz - they're only only able to watch. The moment they openly oppose the removals, the SS slaughter them. It's heartbreaking - and based on real events.

The Nazi's T4 "euthanasia" program inspired this scene. Between 1939 and 1941, the Nazis murdered 70,000 psychiatric patients in mobile gas chambers, as well as 5,000 disabled children which it transferred to special "children's departments." Killings continued after that at the local level, though it was more up to individual commanders rather than ordered by the central government. In occupied Poland, the SS were known to execute patients in much the manner portrayed in The New Order either by shooting or in gas trucks. Like in the game, the staff could do little to prevent the liquidations.

Making the player watch horrific acts - unable to stop them - becomes The New Order's main trick. And Machine Games is never too proud to use a good trick twice.

The New Order uses this removal of agency again in possibly the game's best moment: a segment where Frau Engel corners Blazkowicz on a train and tests him to determine whether he's a "true Aryan." As Engel places photos on the table - often in contrast, like a flower versus a pile of skulls - the player must pick one over the other. Engel narrates each choice in fascinated tones, her luger resting on the table in case you fail.

The scene makes the player feel observed. You take the test under the eyes of two German officers with the pistol serving as an explicit threat. But that's not all - behind Engel and Bubi stands a literal Nazi war machine, a reminder that they're only the face of a vast military structure tasked with eradicating anyone deemed "less" than them. The fact that the photos are so vague - that someone could read anything into them like inkblot tests or tarot cards - kindles a growing paranoia in the player.

They know, you begin to think.

But Engel exposes the delusion: She's playing with you. It's not a test. The photos mean nothing. It's a sick joke, a way to revel in her power over anyone she meets.

Were this only a character-building moment for Engel, it would still be the game's highlight. But this scene speaks to an historical truth that popular media rarely talks about: Nazi Germany's obsession with purity tests and the paranoia this engendered in the population as a whole.

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The Nazi state was a racial hierarchy based around invented, imaginary racial differences. This presented a problem to Nazi ideology in the mid-1930s, since once the government passed laws restricting Jewish rights, it suddenly had to legally define who was Jewish. Party leaders wanted criteria that would be modern and scientific, a rubric that would combat claims they were simply putting a new face on old-world religious prejudice. To further this aim, German scientists (and many non-scientists) developed various tests that claimed to tell Aryans from non-Aryans based only on physical characteristics. One test measured eye color. Another measured skull structure. In a particularly extreme example, German Interior Minister Dr. Wilhelm Frick proposed that all German citizens should attend a tribunal that would determine their racial status.

These methods all had one thing in common: they were embarrassing failures based on junk science. Like Frau Engel's photo test, the results were entirely arbitrary. Nazis officials had to quietly admit that despite their best efforts they couldn't find any measurable biological difference between Jews and Aryans. By the time the Nuremburg Laws passed in 1935, the government gave up and reverted back to religion as the defining trait, codifying that one was Jewish if one had three or four Jewish grandparents. It's this brief period where tests were in vogue that The New Order references - though tests continued in private use long after 1935.

Combine this history with the fact that Blazkowicz is Polish-American - and may even be Jewish - and the train scene hits even harder. In addition to his resistance activities, his race explicitly makes him a target for Engel.

The final scene that The New Order hammers home Blazkowicz's powerlessness is when he infiltrates Belica forced labor camp in the guise of a prisoner. Once again, the game takes control from the player, casting Blazkowicz as yet another victim observing Nazi oppression. Herded out of a train car to witness Frau Engel dangle (and presumably murder) an infant, Blazkowicz blacks out only to come to while marching into Belica in a line. It's significant that at this moment, the player can only choose to move forward - if they stop walking, the line carries them forward regardless. This limited agency emphasizes that the player is no longer in charge of their own fate, and that the only reason they survive is that Engel sends them to the work camp rather than the gas chamber - where the rest of the line presumably ends up. It's a familiar ritual to anyone who's read about the real-life camps, where officers removed the most physically strong inmates for work duties or other purposes. Indeed, at Auschwitz Dr. Josef Mengele often performed this duty, picking twins, people with medical abnormalities or Romani out of line for medical experimentation followed by dissection.

Mengele is particularly notable here since he, and other doctors, were the real-life inspiration for characters like The New Order's "The Knife" and General Deathshead. While neither built war machines, they did do research on prisoners to expand their knowledge of battlefield injuries - ones that included unnecessary amputations, limb fractures, pharmaceutical testing, induced hypothermia and exposure to high-pressure chambers.

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