Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Wolfenstein and the Power of Resistance

Robert Rath | 5 Jun 2014 16:00
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After witnessing the camp's horrors and being marked by the experience - literally, since he receives a serial number tattoo - Blazkowicz takes his place on Belica's production line. Here the mission stops being exclusively about oppression and takes on the game's wider theme: Resistance.

While Belica's horrors are written all over the camp, from the fly-ridden latrine to the guards' eerily comfortable offices, the section feels strangely active and hopeful. Blazkowicz's first act is to break a concrete mixer and halt the prisoners' work for the day. He switches uniforms, reuniting a fellow prisoner with his wife. Most importantly, he's clearly not the only one who's pushing back: at every step he meets someone who's resisting in small ways, pushing back, gathering intelligence on the camp guards, hiding technology, or simply living.

This section emphasizes that resistance isn't always about physical confrontation. Resistance could come by reducing the camp's production via sabotage or slow work. It could mean remaining dignified and refusing to give in to despair. And yes, it could mean planning a camp uprising like Blazkowicz and Roth, mirroring similar breakouts that occurred in real life.

There were only two successful camp uprisings during World War II. In August 1943, prisoners at Treblinka extermination camp staged a well-organized revolt after breaking into the weapons storage with a forged key. Hundreds of prisoners died during the breakout, but seventy managed to escape. That October, Polish Jews and Soviet-Jewish POWs staged an uprising at Sobibór extermination camp, stealthily killing eleven SS guards- including the camp's deputy commander - and several Ukrainian guards before the remaining troops opened fire. Roughly 300 escaped the fences and between fifty and seventy lived to see the war's end. Nazi authorities were so shocked they razed the camp, an act that slowed the gassing programs and saved countless lives. A similar uprising at Auschwitz failed in 1944, though prisoners did manage to kill three SS guards and partially destroy a crematorium with smuggled explosives.


Unfortunately, after the Belica mission The New Order abandons these interesting themes and descends into a pulp storyline that's beneath it's promising ideas. It leans heavily on Nazi super science, a genre trope that's so problematic I'm devoting an entire column to it. But while I can put that aside as genre convention, I have trouble dismissing Machine Games' decision to include a fictional, illuminati-like Jewish organization called the Da'at Yichud. While benign and pacifist, by its mere existence the Da'at Yichud lends in-universe credence to claims that Jews "control" the world through secret organizations, and that's not okay. It's especially distasteful since conspiracy theories about Jewish subversion are partially what led Germany to put people in camps in the first place.

It's a poisonous inclusion that should not be there. Full stop.

Late-game missteps aside, at times The New Order does an excellent job confronting the player with the wide spectrum of resistance to the Nazis. In addition to the active resistance of combat, we see Anya's parents die tying to protect their patients. We overhear ordinary Germans express skepticism toward their government. We see Set Roth and other prisoners sabotage the very building blocks of the regime. We see J take solace in music and Klaus in adoptive fatherhood. We see B.J. and Anya find comfort in each other. We see that survival, merely living life, is an act of resistance.

And there's the key: we see these things. When you line it up, it becomes clear that Wolfenstein: The New Order is very concerned with what Blazkowicz sees. Over and over again the game takes control away so your only way to interact with the horror is as an observer. That echoes a common view among Holocaust historians that the very act of seeing Nazi atrocities and living long enough to tell the tale was a way to fight the Nazis.

"Merely to give a witness of these events in testimony was, in the end, a contribution to victory," writes Martin Gilbert in his book, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.

And that is in essence Blazkowicz's role in The New Order, not necessarily to bring down Nazism - which remains damaged but intact at the end of the game - but to witness its horrors and remember them. That's a powerful message during a time like ours, when WWII witnesses and Holocaust survivors are dying at such a rate that we'll soon have no living memory of the Nazis or their crimes.

On that day, we'll only have the survivors' accounts and the media we create from them. The question remains then: how will we present this tragedy?

While Wolfenstein: The New Order isn't by any means perfect, or even a model to follow, it does comfort me that even in a game filled with nukes and laser weapons, a condemning eye is the player's most powerful weapon.

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