Last week we discussed how Wolfenstein: The New Order uses alternate history to make the player reexamine Nazism and World War II. And while The New Order generally elevates its pulp material to something more, I suggested that one aspect – the well-worn trope of “Nazi super-science” – still retains some troubling subtext.
In short: it gives the Nazis too much credit. The reality is that the Nazi war machine was no more technologically advanced than other countries, and in fact lagged behind on many fronts. In reality myth of German techno-terror was actually a joint creation between Nazi propaganda and, ironically, American popular culture like comic books and films. The actual Nazis, by contrast, were anti-intellectual, anti-science and – though they made some engineering breakthroughs – lagged behind in basic military technology.
German science and engineering were already famous when modern Germany formed in 1867. The region had some of the oldest universities in Europe, and by the First World War had produced several engineers and scientists so famous that their names are synonymous with their inventions: Gutenberg, Fahrenheit, Geiger, and the industrialist Zeppelin. The country’s scientific stock rose further in the early 20th century when German scientists like Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger redefined modern physics. They took top honors in other fields too – 14 out of the first 31 Nobel prizes for chemistry went to Germans.
With this legacy, it was little surprise that when the Nazis rose to power they defined scientific achievement as a pillar of the modern German state and character. The reason for this was twofold: Hitler badly wanted Germany to appear as a formidable modern state internationally, and domestically the notion of industry played well since it was synonymous with job creation – something that rarely happened in economically-depressed Weimar Germany. (Though the Nazi obsession with agriculture and resettling urban populations to the countryside often clashed with this aim – industrialization is inherently an urban phenomenon.)
Of course, there was also a third reason: Germany was quietly rearming, both overtly and in secret.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and later overwhelmed Belgium and France in early 1940, they did so armed with new weapons and tactics developed in secret during the interwar period. One new strategy, known as Blitzkrieg, involved using tanks organized into “Death’s Head” divisions that would punch holes in the enemy line and encircle them as slower units poured in behind, meanwhile the Luftwaffe would establish air superiority and carry out a terror bombing campaign. In both cases these units were more modernized than Europe had seen at that time: new Luftwaffe planes outperformed enemy counterparts and the tanks had heavier weapons and armor than Allied models, since at that time the Allies still saw tanks as infantry support rather than a shock assault unit. These early victories created a lasting image of the Nazi war machine as technologically superior – when in fact that was only the case because other nations hadn’t spent as much on military readiness during the worldwide depression.
As the war progressed, Germany continued to create an impressive array of military technologies. There were the lauded Tiger and Panther tanks, the world’s first jet-powered fighter and bomber, the first production helicopter, the only operational rocket-powered fighter ever made, the first assault rifle and of course their highly successful V-2 rocket and V-1 flying bomb. Other ambitious programs failed or never launched, including nerve gas, super-heavy tanks, directed energy weapons and submarines that launched ballistic missiles. But as the war dragged into its final years and German defeat looked increasingly certain, these feverish development programs served more as morale-boosting propaganda than tactical game-changers. Hitler continued to fund these so-called wunderwaffe, or “wonder weapons,” essentially to create false hope in a German recovery – even as his generals complained that he was blowing their defense budget on what amounted to toys. In the end, the Allies were the real beneficiaries of all that research, since they scooped up Nazi scientists and technical documents after the war as part of the American Operation Paperclip and its Soviet counterpart, Osoaviakhim. The U.S. took those scientists – some who had experimented on human subjects -scrubbed their identities and put them to work on ballistic missile programs, aeronautics research and chemical and biological warfare. Several formed the core NASA team.
But interestingly, the myth of Nazi advanced science – originally a construction by party propagandists – gained a champion in its enemies’ popular media. Seeking an enemy worthy of its superheroes and two-fisted pulp protagonists, American comics, films and fiction were only too happy to gain the Nazis as enemies du jour. After all, Nazis were perfect villains. Their uniforms were dark and covered with skulls and lightning bolts. They operated out of mountaintop castles. They did terrible things to civilians.
And as more accounts of Nazi human experimentation surfaced during the Nuremberg Trials, it was only natural to marry Nazis with the “mad scientist” archetype that had existed since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Now not only did these guys have advanced weaponry, they had done evil things to get it.
The result were innumerable Nazi villains like Marvel’s Red Skull, the fictional Dr. Strangelove and even a Nazi moon base from Robert A. Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo. The Nazi super-science trope stuck, since it allowed authors to create villains that could be morally repugnant without explanation, and afforded them super weapons ranging from nuclear warheads to robots.
The problem, though, is that the idea of Nazi super science is complete hogwash.
While wartime Germany absolutely did see scientific advances, they were hardly the only ones to make great technical leaps during the war. While the United States, Japan and Great Britain inaugurated the age of the aircraft carrier, Germany never managed to finish one. The British developed ASDIC sonar technology for anti-submarine warfare and won the Battle of Britain partially due to the use of an advanced RADAR air defense system. The Soviets developed the Katyusha rocket launcher, the T-34 – by far the best and most cost-effective tank of the period – and the war’s best submachine gun, the PPSh-41.
But if you’re looking for the war’s true scientific superpower, look no further than the United States – who exited the war with a real life super-weapon that could level whole cities.
Contrasted with the devastation of atomic weapons, Nazi wunderwaffe look fairly paltry. Though V-2 rockets and buzzbombs terrorized London, they had minimal military effect. The same goes for rocket and jet-powered aircraft, which never saw use in large numbers and more frequently died on the runway than in the air. U-boat “wolf packs” that hunted the North Atlantic early in the war became the hunted once Allied countermeasures caught up with them. On top of that, there was a major gap between Germany’s scientific research and its manufacturing capability. While German scientists seemed talented at producing novel weapons, their industrial base was hopeless at creating scalable solutions – a quirk that only worsened as bombing raids degraded German manufacturing. Despite developing an assault rifle, for example, most German infantrymen still carried a bolt-action rifle when Berlin fell, while American infantrymen had long converted to the semi-automatic M-1 Garand. German tanks, often specialized to specific roles, didn’t have interchangeable parts – so you couldn’t scrap a damaged Tiger to repair a Panther – causing logistics nightmares as supply trains had to haul redundant parts. In fact many German weapons suffered from overdesign, making them too expensive to use in sufficient numbers.
And speaking of logistics, there’s no better example of the German military’s technical woes than their failure to mechanize. Rather than using cars for supply, transport, reconnaissance and to move artillery pieces, the Nazis relied on horses and mules – sometimes over 2,500 of them per division. That’s not exactly what you’d expect from a nation credited with advanced science.
But the problem ran deeper than mere manufacturing difficulties – because at its heart Nazi Germany was an anti-science regime.
As we discussed last week, the Nazis organized German society according to imaginary racial differences supported by pseudoscience and poor reasoning. In doing this they frequently ignored evidence that didn’t conform to their racial theories, burned books by Jewish authors and those opposed to Nazism and regularly produced anti-intellectual propaganda demonizing higher learning as variously “Jewish” and foolish, as well as claiming it made people weak, morally twisted and physically ugly. Party propaganda explicitly downplayed thought and reason, calling it weak in comparison with feelings and the “pure spirit of race.”
“National Socialist is still not and will never be something that presents itself intellectually,” stated one essay intended to train Nazi propagandists. The fact is, the Nazi’s utter inability to question or reevaluate their worldview based on evidence made them societally allergic to the scientific method.
This directly affected the war in a rather interesting sense. When the Nazis came to power, fully half the physicists working in Germany were either Jewish or married to Jews. Subsequent persecution led a mass exodus of German physicists – leaving the Nazis without a suitable talent pool to build a nuclear program. Meanwhile, many exiled Germans settled in the U.S. and took positions in the Manhattan Project.
But the problem with the Nazi super-science narrative isn’t so much that it glosses over Nazi Germany’s spotty record with technology, but that it has extremely unfortunate subtext. First of all, it gives far too much credit to the Nazis, implying that if they hadn’t been “disrupted” by the war, they could’ve achieved technological feats – like the moon landing – faster than the Allies did. Second, it indirectly endorses their racist ideology, since telling a story where Nazi scientists create super soldiers suggests that there actually was something to their belief in eugenics. The New Order tries to subvert these two by saying the Nazi’s advanced technology comes from a secret Jewish organization – setting up an ironic narrative where the Nazis piggyback off Jewish science in much the same way the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark tried to coopt Jewish religious objects. As we discussed last week, this approach has some problems with it, but the misstep at least seems to be accidental.
But the final implication is by far the worst: that Nazis were able to make science advance at a faster pace by removing ethical constraints. This is largely what we see in The New Order with Deathshead harvesting brains from Allied prisoners and other “undesirables” to power his mechanical creations. In The New Order this is rightly treated as horrific and wrong, but Deathshead discarding medical ethics is almost treated like a superpower, stating in essence: “Yes I killed and mangled people, but look what I was able to create.“
This is what still bothers me about The New Order – that Deathshead was able to build something tangible from experimenting on POWs and camp victims. That, in Wolfenstein‘s world, he has concrete proof that the end justifies the means.
Because it doesn’t, and it didn’t – the Nazi’s horrifying human experiments didn’t net them a single thing. They discovered no proof they were superior, and no experiment they conducted was ever linked to saving lives on the battlefield. None. Their carving and freezing and burning of unwilling humans created nothing of benefit. Nazis were bad scientists and worse human beings.
So do I condemn Wolftenstein? No, I don’t. It would be folly to fault one game for using a structure that was already overplayed when Hitler was still getting up to comb his moustache every morning. And of course, recognizing problematic aspects in a game doesn’t necessarily mean that game is terrible – particularly in a game like The New Order which gets so much right.
Having said that, the next time we watch Captain America: The First Avenger or Iron Skies or play a game where we’re shooting up a Nazi moon base or fighting off Swastika-stamped robots, let’s pause for a moment to remember the Third Reich as it was: anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-Semitic and hauling war material on a donkey cart.