The Colossus in the Room

New Colossus

Erstwhile Contributing Editor Travis R May looks at how the Alt-History of The Man in the High Castle and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus has responded to the rise of the Alt-Right in America. This post does contain spoilers for The Man in the High Castle Season 3 and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus 

See also our earlier coverage of The Man in the High Castle Season 1

 

Once largely apolitical, two popular franchises in two very different entertainment mediums—MachineGames’ Wolfenstein video game series and Amazon Studios’ streaming television show The Man in the High Castle—have been compelled to take a stand against the re-emergence of white nationalism in America since the 2016 presidential elections. In so doing, they have each in their own ways scratched the surface of a more profound conclusion: while America is worth saving from (both real and fictional) Nazi enemies, it has often failed to live up to the high-minded principles and promises enshrined in its foundation. While some in the Alt-Right have complained that the new creative direction taken by the Wolfenstein games and The Man in the High Castle demonizes them by equating them with Nazis, what’s much more alarming to me than the hurt feelings of so many bigots is that a large number of our fellow Americans do not appear to be concerned by the historical persistence and modern proliferation of racism. White supremacy, perhaps our nation’s original sin, has played a crucial and enduring role in preventing American ideals from becoming American realities.

When Wolfenstein: The New Order was first announced in early 2013, it appeared to be little more than an interesting variation on a long-running video game axiom: people really love to shoot Nazis. This has been true to varying degrees since the original Castle Wolfenstein was released during the infancy of computer gaming in 1981 (a year that, shockingly, is now closer to the actual fall of the Third Reich in 1945 than it is to the present day). Gamers continued to virtually kill Nazis and liberate occupied Europe throughout the 1990s and 2000s in countless titles from the Medal of Honor series, the Call of Duty series, and in Battlefield 1942, among many others. In fact, by the end of the latter decade, gamers had grown so weary of this enterprise that the First Person Shooter genre as a whole moved on to other conflicts set in contemporary or future settings. By the 2010s, the venerable era of WWII shooters appeared to be at an end.

What Wolfenstein: The New Order brought to the table when it was released in 2014, though, was a renewed willingness to experiment openly with the science fiction genre and alternate timelines.[1] Unlike the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games, which sought to recreate cinematic moments from films like Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the Gates drawn from the real campaigns fought during the Second World War on the beaches of Normandy or the blasted rubble of Stalingrad,[2] The New Order imagined a world where Nazis—through chicanery and the development and exploitation of (quite often stolen) advanced technology—defeated the Allies and took over the world. In other words, the player character is thrust into the conflict in an alternate 1960s timeline in which the bad guys won. The protagonist and his friends—outgunned, outmanned, and constantly on the run—must band together with unlikely allies to launch a ragged resistance against the fascist oppression.

If that story sounds familiar, that’s because it is also the basic premise for Amazon’s streaming series The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation or reimagining of a science fiction novel published in 1962 by Philip K. Dick. The parallels between the two intellectual properties are often striking. In the universe of the modern Wolfenstein games, the United States surrendered to the Axis powers after New York City was destroyed by a nuclear weapon in late 1948. In The Man in the High Castle, New York was spared this ghastly fate, but Washington D.C. was not. In both cases, the Nazi nuclear strike led to the quick capitulation of the reeling United States government, ending the Second World War. By the time we join the stories in media res in the 1960s, America has been occupied by the Nazis and their collaborationist allies for over a decade.

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The destroyed Statue of Liberty in the irradiated New York Harbor of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

When it first premiered in December 2015 after several years in production, The Man in the High Castle generated a certain amount of buzz (some positive and some negative), but it more or less failed in its primary objective—to launch Amazon Prime’s video streaming service into the lofty heights occupied by HBO, Netflix, and AMC, which have spent the past decade solidifying or establishing their reputations as the premiere destinations for prestige television in the United States. The goal for these companies has not just been to drive viewership, but also to generate awards season buzz for their shows that have burnished the credentials of the production companies behind them and the network and/or streaming service that aired them. The Man in the High Castle, however, was no Game of Thrones killer. Nevertheless, and despite its reportedly immense production budget, it was renewed; it would seem that price is no object when your boss has more money than any human being in world history.

It’s a perverse understatement to observe that much has happened in American politics in the interim. When the first installment of the renewed Wolfenstein series launched in 2014, Gamergate had not yet begun the process of systematically targeting and harassing progressive and feminist video game commentators and developers, and Donald Trump had yet to descend the golden escalator of his destiny. When the first season of The Man in the High Castle premiered a little over a year later, Trump was still considered a fringe candidate who almost everyone believed would go to the wall during the Republican primary season. As doubtless everyone reading this is aware, events transpired quite differently. What marks the evolution of both the modern Wolfenstein games and The Man in the High Castle television series has been their willingness to varying degrees to grapple with the emergence of the Alt-Right and the corresponding resurgence of white nationalist and fascist ideology.[4] No one at MachineGames or Bethesda or Amazon Studios—or anywhere else, for that matter—could have possibly predicted the unexpected relevance of the stories that they set out to tell. These projects, launched in an era in which fascism was little more than a historical relic, suddenly became political by their very nature. To their credit, neither enterprise has shied away from acknowledging the speciousness of the notion that Nazism is a uniquely German phenomenon (that the Sonderweg theory of German historiography and modern pop culture are now intimately conversant is one of the more sobering realities of a truly dismal 2018), or that Americans are somehow immune from its pathology.[5] Five years ago, these stories seemed primarily to belong to a dark path trod long ago by someone else. Now, both series have drawn upon imagery of the destruction of the Statue of Liberty and the ideals it stood for—the “New Colossus” of Emma Lazarus’s optimistic ode to American ideals of inclusiveness[6]—to question whether it could happen here, too. After Charlottesville, we must contemplate the possibility that the call is coming, in classic horror movie parlance, from inside the house.

MITHC map

A map of the Axis-dominated world from season 2 of The Man in the High Castle.

2017’s Wolfenstein: The New Colossus and season 3 of The Man in the High Castle are sequels unafraid to arrive at the conclusion that, for many white Americans of the mid-twentieth century, embracing (or at least tacitly condoning) Nazism would not have been especially difficult or painful. In The New Colossus, the Nazis have installed the Ku Klux Klan as their collaborationist allies, and this American hate group has eagerly taken to its new role (a humorous scene in the middle portion of the game involves Klansmen attempting and failing miserably to master the German language in order to better kowtow to their Nazi superiors). In The Man in the High Castle, many white Americans of 1950s and 1960s fame appear to have acquired just as much success and celebrity in the Greater Nazi Reich in America. Frank Sinatra still croons at nightclubs. Joe DiMaggio still hits baseballs professionally (although now for the New York Valkyries team—“Yankee,” it would seem, has become a verboten term). J. Edgar Hoover performs effectively the same tasks of surveilling and destroying subversives, only now he heads the SD instead of the FBI. Times Square still buzzes underneath electric lights and bustles with activity beneath advertisements that could well have been designed by this bizarro world’s Sterling Cooper analog. There are a few notable exceptions, but for the most part life goes on for these individuals because they have nothing to fear from the racial prejudice of Nazism.[7] They were the beneficiaries of white supremacy under the American government, and they remain beneficiaries of white supremacy under the Nazi puppet state.

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Ku Klux Klan collaborators enjoying the festivities at the Victory Day Parade in Roswell, New Mexico, in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus.

The New Colossus foregrounds the basic compatibility between American white supremacy and Nazism by planting it in family history. In the Wolfenstein games the player character, William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, is half Jewish. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that his abusive (Anglo) father, Rip, who terrorized B.J. as a boy and routinely beat his Jewish mother, sold her out to the Nazis after the German invasion. She was executed in an American concentration camp for Jews and other racial and political enemies of the Reich as a result. Rip, once a drunk and a loser, has subsequently enriched and gentrified himself by snapping up property owned by murdered Jews and other minorities, taking the Nazis as his primary business partners. He has become eminently respectable under the new regime.

Rip is the archetypical model of white male victimhood, finally (from his warped point of view) given an opportunity to shine by a Reich that has stacked the deck in his favor by killing off those who, in a just world, would rightfully scorn and oppose him. The most cathartic moment in a game characterized by the catharsis of machine-gunning and exploding literally thousands of Nazis climaxes with B.J. hacking his hateful, racist, traitorous father to death with a hatchet (it’s also a moment that would almost surely result in a bonanza of billable hours of psychoanalysis if Freud’s works had not all been purged by the Nazis and replaced by Jungian analytical psychology). While it’s easy to be distracted by the orgy of violence, what is important to keep in mind about this central confrontation is that Rip is not a creature of the Nazi invasion, some weak Quisling or Pétain who turned to collaboration because he believed he had no other options to survive. Instead, he represents the sort of bone-deep, home-grown racism that imbricated many aspects of twentieth century America—a vileness that was not a foreign import, but native to American soil—given even greater purchase under the watchful eye of the Reich. In a fundamental sense, despite his betrayal, Rip remains American, because this racial animus is impossible to disentangle from the American experience. Nor can he be written off an aberration, because the America that Rip hailed from was the very same America that disenfranchised millions of Black Americans for decades in the Jim Crow South; the same America that countenanced the lynching of nearly 3,500 Black Americans between 1882 and 1968; the same America that murdered somewhere between 27 and 300 Black Americans over two days during the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, etc. etc. etc.[8] Rip is not an outlier. Rip represents American white supremacy in an era in which that was the norm. That is what makes his hatred so terrifying.

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The Nazi subversion and destruction of American iconography is central to both the latest Wolfenstein game and the third season of The Man in the High Castle. In both series, the Nazis have come to the conclusion that the time has come to scrub away the last lingering vestiges of American ideals, which at least in theory are incompatible with their own. In both series, the Nazis find that many, if not most, white Americans are entirely compliant with this annihilation of the physical markers of their national history. The New Colossus features a massive “Victory Day” parade, held on July 4th, meant to replace the Independence Day celebrations of the past. Delighted Americans gather to witness the procession of masked and jack-booted Nazi storm troopers in a carnivalesque atmosphere. The Man in the High Castle features several acts of iconoclasm, as well. The new Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler has devised a scheme to wipe the slate clean and start at Jahr Null—that is, “Year Zero”—with the aid and encouragement of his propagandist Nicole Dörmer. Aiming to provide spectacle, she stages a series of increasingly brazen destructions: the Lincoln Memorial is beaten to bits by Aryan men with sledgehammers, the Liberty Bell is melted down and reforged as a monstrous Swastika, and the festivities culminate in an airstrike on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

As the dust settles and Lady Liberty’s torch is extinguished beneath the waves, thousands of jubilant young American Nazis take to the streets, shouting “blood and soil” and wielding torches while committing acts of vandalism. It is a disturbing scene that reminds a wistful Himmler of the Kristallnacht of November 1938, when Jewish businesses, synagogues, homes, and lives were destroyed in a violent state-sponsored pogrom. For the modern American audience, however, there is another more recent, troubling parallel—the night of the “Unite the Right” rally of August 11th, 2017, when thousands of angry Alt-Right white supremacists wielding Tiki torches marched through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville shouting the same slogan made popular by the National Socialists.[9] In both cases, the demonstrations were meant to evoke the grand pageantry of the Nazi Party rally of 1934 held at Nuremburg, carefully stage-managed and recorded by Leni Riefenstahl in her iconic (and infamous) propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will. In both cases, the results lack the careful choreography and ceremonial precision of the original, revealing the brutality, cruelty, and essential ugliness of the ideology roiling just under the surface for all to see. This, I think, cannot be mere coincidence. Like the developers of Wolfenstein, who have littered their games with cutting swipes at Fox News and the normalizing of hatred under the Trump administration, The Man in the High Castle’s creative team has responded to the rise of the Alt-Right not by dodging the parallels between their fictional world and our all too real one, but by addressing them directly. They are both works of fiction, but neither is afraid to contemplate the intersection between American white supremacy (then and now) and Nazi racial ideology.

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White supremacist demonstrators shouting “You will not replace us,” “Blood and Soil,” and “Jews will not replace us” on the night of August 11th, 2017.

For their efforts, MachineGames and Amazon Studios should be commended. But we must keep in mind that these stories, no matter how innovative or daring they may be, are marketable products controlled by massive, inherently amoral, corporations. While both have done well to examine the parallels between American authoritarian trends and fascism, there is something a bit tawdry about the commercialization of anti-fascism (and indeed, neither intellectual property fully acknowledges that anti-fascism is and always has been primarily a leftist initiative, although The New Colossus comes closer by having B.J. win the support and camaraderie of ersatz Black Panther militants and a communist former preacher along the way). Characteristic of this tension was a tweet sent by the official Wolfenstein account before the release of the game last fall imploring players to “Make America Nazi Free Again,” coupled with a GIF of B.J. smashing a Nazi. While this tweet enraged white supremacists and Alt-Righters who felt that it was an insult targeted at them (so much the better), it’s also hard to escape the impression that it was an intentional, calculated effort to drive positive word of mouth, and therefore sales, among liberal and progressive gamers. MachineGames and their publisher, Bethesda, undeniably and firmly came down on the correct side of the argument playing out here in the political sphere and on social media, but I would also be shocked if they didn’t consult a room full of accountants and lawyers on retainer somewhere, weighing the potential risks and benefits of alienating a portion of their fan base to galvanize support (and sales revenue) from others, before firing off said tweet. Deriving profit from the very real suffering of victims of white supremacy and fascism is, to my mind, rather distasteful, but such is the will of capitalism. It must also be observed that the catharsis sold by the game and the television series alike is in some ways a cheap, empty remedy to a real world crisis—an entertaining opiate for the masses. It does not, in the balance, bring us any closer to ending the threat posed by their modern ilk.

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A Japanese atomic bomb exploding in their Monument Valley testing facility in The Man in the High Castle.

 


[1] This is not to suggest that earlier titles in the series did not. The trope of the evil Nazi scientist experimenting with advanced technology (including super soldiers and mechanized dogs, etc.) is in many ways synonymous with the Wolfenstein series, so much so that 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D features a boss fight against Hitler in a mech-suit that has taken its rightful place as one of the most outrageous moments in video game history.

[2] Regrettably, there is not enough space here to delve into the history of the depiction of Nazis in modern film, but suffice it to say that they have played a number of roles along a spectrum ranging from the menacing to the absurd. Certainly no other person has played such a large role in solidifying them as iconic villains as Steven Spielberg, whose pulpy serial adventure style in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is very different than the largely faceless enemies they appear as in Saving Private Ryan (1998), to say nothing of the deeply disturbing examination of Nazism and in particular Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of Amon Göth in Schindler’s List (1993).What has been virtually universally true though is that the Nazis have been used as a foil for America—the ultimate personification of oppressive bigotry versus the American ideals of liberty and equality. Thus, the Second World War is portrayed by Spielberg and virtually all other modern film directors as an unproblematic conflict of unblemished good versus evil, ignoring segregation in the military and the Jim Crow South and Japanese internment camps and other manifestations of American bigotry that might complicate this trite and oversimplified narrative. Whether or not the sins of the Allied Powers (including segregation, imperialism, and Stalinism) pale in comparison to the unspeakable horror of mass murder and genocide unleashed by the Axis Powers, it does history a disservice to position the opposing sides in absolute moral terms.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/25/nazi-inspired-ads-for-the-man-in-the-high-castle-pulled-from-new-york-subway.

[4] See Erstwhile’s interview with Michael Ortiz and Alex Langer on the slipperiness of defining fascism and contextualizing it in modern politics: https://erstwhileblog.com/2018/02/14/fascism-1-definitions/. See also Christopher Browning’s recent article on the parallels between interwar Germany and modern America: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/10/25/suffocation-of-democracy/. Browning’s observation that “Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism” is important to keep in mind, but so is his admonition that “regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.”

[5] This is by no means a conviction arrived at or challenged only in the postwar era. In 1935, the Nobel prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis published a semi-satirical novel titled It Can’t Happen Here. Alarmed by the rising tide of fascism in Europe and the growing popularity (and the impending presidential campaign) of demagogic Louisiana governor Huey Long, Lewis felt compelled to write a novel contemplating the destruction of the United States as we know it at the hands of an elected, populist authoritarian who veers into draconian corporatist policy once assuming office. Lewis’s notion of a home-grown authoritarian threat to American democracy was a corrective to the notion that American exceptionalism would automatically shield it from the ravages of violent fascist rule. But, critically, Lewis failed to contemplate the fact that, for many Black Americans as well as other minority groups, theoretical American ideals like liberty and equality had never been manifested for them in practice.

[6] It’s no coincidence that Wolfenstein: The New Order’s sequel draws its title from this poem, as does an episode of season 3 of The Man in the High Castle. The statue, envisioned by Lazarus as the “MOTHER OF EXILES,” is meant to serve as a beacon of hope for the disenfranchised and oppressed of the world, streaming to America’s shores as immigrants. Famously, the sonnet concludes:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It is difficult to imagine a sentiment more antithetical to the Nazi obsession with a racially pure Volk and Heimat (homeland), or to Stephen Miller’s nativist attempts to slam shut the door on virtually all forms of immigration under the Trump administration.

[7] We learn, for example, that John Wayne heroically died at the Battle of Dayton during the Nazi invasion. This revelation dovetails nicely with the symbolism of the destruction of the Monument Valley in Utah (the setting of a number of John Ford oaters featuring Wayne) by a Japanese nuclear weapons test early in season 3, but does not square especially well with the legacy of the historical John Wayne, who was loudly patriotic but did not serve in the Second World War. Moreover, he was a rabid anti-Communist, and overtly supported the operations of HUAC in the 1950s. Wayne, to my mind, would seem to be the consummate collaborationist candidate, because the Nazis were arguably the only people who hated Bolshevism as much as he did.

[8] Tuskeegee Institute, “Lynchings, Whites and Negroes, 1882-1968.  http://192.203.127.197/archive/bitstream/handle/123456789/511/Lyching%201882%201968.pdf; Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 66-69. The number of people killed is still contested by historians: official reports lowballed and claimed 26 Blacks were killed, but other estimates ran as high as 300 dead. Observers Ross T. Warner and Henry Whitlow claimed to have seen corpses piled high onto trucks and driven away from the scene of the carnage, making it impossible to determine the exact figure.

[9] Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2003), 60; William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), 88. The concept of “blood and soil” predates National Socialism proper, but it became a central plank of Nazi ideology. The Anti-Semitic political philosopher Carl Schmitt, for example, stressed that each national community developed laws and traditions consistent with its Volk. Hitler also tied blood and soil to the concept of Volk, and implicitly to the demands of Lebensraum—“living space” for the people of the Reich. In any case, I would argue that when people shout it in public while trying to intimidate others, all while carrying Nazi and Confederate flags and other paraphernalia of bigotry, they lose the right to plausibly suggest they are not, in fact, Nazis (even if the President, the beneficiary of Alt-Right support, chooses to believe that there were “many fine people on both sides” during the violence the next day that left dozens injured and counterprotestor Heather Heyer dead).

[10] https://mashable.com/2017/10/31/wolfenstein-2-easter-egg-trump-neo-nazi-facism/#on0tnyQ2PPqr.

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One thought on “The Colossus in the Room

  1. Pingback: The Far Right Ascendant: Links that Speak to our Emerging Global Crisis | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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