There was something very familiar about EA’s botched roll-out of a premium Battlefield V character skin a few weeks ago, where the company slapped the name of a significant anti-Nazi resistance member onto a laughably overdone German super-soldier. Even as it apologized for using a completely inappropriate name for the character, EA attempted to clarify that he was definitely not a Nazi, but just a German soldier. It was further evidence, if any were needed, that EA and DICE are ill-equipped to deal with the historical context of their own game.
They're hardly alone. In the weeks since the tempest-in-a-teapot around a set of DLC characters, we've seen further evidence of the extent of militant, officially sanctioned white supremacy, the ongoing affinity modern white supremacist fascists have for the symbolism of the Third Reich, and we've also seen how much mainstream cultural discourse struggles to comprehend that connection. A man recently accused of planning a mass shooting at a synagogue stated his wish to carry it out in a "Nazi uniform." The place he made those threats? Steam.
The issues with responsibly depicting German combat forces in World War 2, and their connections to Nazi crimes against humanity, are well-known at this point and have been a point of increasing discussion and debate among historical hobby gamers for years. EA’s flagship shooter might be on the cutting edge of mainstream video gaming, but its naive politics are years behind the state of historical research. The argument that a character fought bravely and heroically for Germany, but not the Nazis, isn’t just naive, but it’s one that was aggressively promulgated by German war criminals themselves.
In the years following the Nuremberg trials, there was an increasingly concerted effort to whitewash the record of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of the Third Reich. As a brief peace transformed into Cold War, and the Soviet Union became the new enemy of the United States and its European allies, NATO leadership sought both to rearm the Federal Republic of Germany as an anti-Communist breastwork in central Europe, and to bring German officers back into the respectable professional fold so that NATO militaries could learn from their experiences fighting the Red Army. It was cynical, self-interested, and perhaps irrevocably distorted the historical record of the Wehrmacht even as World War 2 historiography was taking shape.
This had a major spillover into popular culture, and perhaps one of the best books on this is The Myth of the Eastern Front by Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies. It details how German officers released self-exculpatory memoirs, how their colleagues in Allied militaries lent their names and prestige to mainstreaming German commanders like Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein. But it also details how those memoirs and their ideological bent informed the nascent field of tabletop wargaming.
There are two major tenets to the whitewashing of the Wehrmacht, one more reprehensible than the other. The first and worst is that the Wehrmacht was by and large the German army but was never a Nazi army, and did not participate in the crimes against humanity that was the bedrock of Nazi governance and expansion. This was false: Particularly on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht worked fist-in-glove with the SS to round up and exterminate Soviet Jews, Romani, and other groups the Nazis systematically persecuted and murdered. Whatever the different experiences and actions of the millions of soldiers (volunteer and conscript) who served in the Wehrmacht, the institution of the Wehrmacht was both complicit and participant in Nazi atrocities on a wide scale.
The second tenet is that the Wehrmacht was, in a word, awesome.
The German commanders’ position after World War 2 was not unlike that of Confederate generals after the Civil War. They had fought hard and well and still lost in service to a disgraceful cause, but they sought to deny that they were ever beaten. This wasn’t just about pride, but also about regaining respect. What they had been a part of was irredeemable, if they could just change the subject to professional skill, they could rehabilitate themselves as admirable professionals. The position of senior German commanders, in particular, was that the real wellspring of German defeat was Hitler himself, with his amateurish meddling in the masterful workings of his professional officer corps. This narrative also allowed them to highlight their own deviations from the Nazi party line, turning debates about means into something like opposition. But what they opposed most vehemently were things like his refusal to allow German forces to withdraw from dangerous positions, or his insistence on keeping personal control of reserve troops rather than releasing them to officers in the field. Trying to distance themselves postwar from the workings of a monstrous, genocidal regime in which they had been highly placed, the surviving leadership of the Wehrmacht said in their defense that they had always thought their boss was an asshole.
This portrayal invites sympathy. On the battlefields of the 1940s, the Germans often do come across as underdogs facing vastly more numerous opponents with bottomless reserves of equipment. Certainly by 1944, the Soviet armies could easily be depicted as a rolling tide of steel and fire, while US forces were the personification of the country’s wealth and industrial capacity. It is very easy to look at these odds and reach the conclusion that the story of the Wehrmacht is the story of a skilled few versus an onslaught of enemy soldiers and war machines. Which is where games come in.
Most wargames aren’t quite that lopsided (they wouldn’t be interesting if they were) but it’s long been the case that the Germans are presented as, if not the heroes of World War 2 gaming, then at least the protagonists. The box for Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader depicts German troops beginning an assault, while the flavor text on the background captures a brief narrative around the death of a veteran German squad in Russia. The cover of Across the Rhine depicts triumphant panzers leaving fire and flames in their wake. Again and again, players are invited to imagine themselves as German troops, and not any of the people who defeated them.
But even if people noticed how odd this was, the topic lacked any sense of moral urgency. Nazis were evil, they were also largely dead. These games were about history, not dreams or wishes.
A curious debate unfolded around 2010 about whether the color of the counters in a new wargame expansion ended up glorifying the Waffen-SS, the specially-picked and equipped German units that reported directly to the Nazi leadership and which were notorious both for their fanatical Nazism and their inhumane conduct. The entire discussion occurred in one of the more niche communities in wargames (I've linked Mark Pitcavage’s blog, who is not an unbiased observer, but you can see traces of the debate in other forums). Advanced Squad Leader is an almost comically detailed wargaming system, and to be an ASL player is generally to embrace a lot of weird obsessions. But with the release of a module for the game called A Bridge Too Far, the game’s publisher Multi-Man, depicted Waffen-SS units on black cardboard counters with white icons and numbers. It was a throwback to an earlier edition of Squad Leader, before the series depicted the SS units in blue as opposed to black.
This debate is instructive because it’s so abstract, yet so familiar, and it happened within a community that tends to view its hobby as historical yet profoundly apolitical. The black counter is a Rorsach test that reveals something about the beholder. You had critics of the representation who saw it as both glamorizing the prowess of the thoroughly Nazified Waffen-SS units (they were elite units subject to special rules, but other nation’s elite formations were not similarly distinguished) and making them just look, well, cool. ASL is a game of drab counters on green and brown hexagons, and the SS units are in bold black-and-white. A breed apart.
But there were those who felt that the entire controversy was absurd. First, the depiction itself could be as easily read as a reference to the SS units’ infamy and second, it was just a game and not even the whole game but a single counter set in a game about World War 2. The notion that something so minor could be read as pro-Nazi was a stretch.
A screenshot of a reseller's listing for vintage black SS counters
Not an unreasonable response, but there’s a more vehement version that also popped-up. People raising the question of the black counters were themselves pursuing a political or ideological agenda. It was in itself an invasion by “PC culture” of the wargaming space, with all its scolding, its guilt, its self-righteousness, and its assertion of ambiguity and implicit meaning into a delineated space of abstract simulation.
Somehow, the World War 2 shooter largely sidestepped this debate, or the games discourse tended not to have these debates as this genre came of age. But I think there was something else at work: in Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, the Germans were the enemies. These games pulled liberally from Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan but also from action movies like The Guns of Navarone or The Dirty Dozen. They had a politics, but not a politics that was interested in the Nazis or what the Third Reich stood for. In multiplayer, the Germans and Allies were largely two different teams fighting over objectives, but there was little interest in the Wehrmacht soldier except as an avatar wearing field gray and using a particular assortment of weapons.
Battlefield V is at once a part of this tradition and a break with it, but it also arrived at a very different political, cultural, and commercial moment. It still works within that familiar conceit of Team Axis versus Team Allies, rendering World War 2 once again as an exercise in tactics and skill. But the game arrives at a moment when white supremacy is once again growing in influence and power, its adherents more openly identify with historical fascist movements, and their violence moves from rhetorical to physical. With the Wilhelm Franke character, EA demonstrated first that it's being careless and second that it's not even sure of what the issues are.
It’s not hard to understand how this happened. After all, Battlefield V is only kind-of, sort-of about World War 2. It’s a period military fantasy, so divorced from the historical record that it’d be easy to think it’s safely beyond the politics of history. When I reviewed it last fall I noted how much the game seemed simply to be playing dress-up in World War 2 costumes:
It’s never certain whether it’s a game about World War 2, or a series of World War 2-themed playing fields.
So on the one hand you have voiceover and mission text explaining how the Germans bombed Rotterdam to force a Dutch surrender. On the other hand, as the German team flying into an airborne drop over Rotterdam, you’ll get a generic paratrooper sequence: You’re in a transport plane with a multi-ethnic group of troopers in a random mix of national uniforms, with a jumpmaster yelling at you in German as you hook onto the line in preparation to take the leap into the combat zone. When you land, you’ll be surrounded by men and women fighting for your side, all of whom are carrying whatever is their favorite, class-locked (but nationality neutral) weapon for this battle. Germans wade into battle with American M1 rifles, British medics slap fresh magazines into their Maschinenpistole 40s. Everyone is empowered to be the Fallschirmjäger of their dreams.
Costumes are dangerous though, because once a game throws away most historical plausibility, it’s serving to highlight and empower the fantasies it wants to indulge. Separating imagery and events from historical context is exactly how whitewashing happens.
But costumes are also a useful, easy thing for publishers to sell. Because they can look cool, and you can sell them to people or use them as a hook to keep people playing your game. So we get a character like the soon-to-be-renamed Wilhelm Franke who we are told is “not a Nazi, but a German solider similar to ones we already have in the game. In Battlefield V, we’re not making any political statements in relation to the real life events of WW2 and there are no swastikas in the game.”
The character has no inner life, so the question of whether this avatar “is a Nazi” is pretty much moot. He’s wearing a pretty standard Wehrmacht tunic, though his greatcoat sure isn’t standard issue and it immediately designates him as somewhat different from his fellow soldiers. But what really sets him apart is that he is a ruthlessly efficient killer, practically a combat superhero compared to the Allied redshirts he dispatches and watches bleed-out on the ground. He is the German soldier at his most mythologized.
That mythology is tough to separate from Nazism, because the valorization and elevation of the German warrior was part and parcel of the party’s imagery and propaganda. If you have made a Wehrmacht character that typifies badass skill and a cool, heroic aesthetic, then you have also created a character that would fit neatly into Nazi propaganda.
You don’t have to create super-warriors like Franke to make a World War 2 shooter. The solution that Red Orchestra 2 arrived at in its detailed treatment of Eastern Front combat was to frame the war as a terrifying nightmare. The German troops you played were exhausted and scared soldiers at the ragged edge of a combat that had taken them a thousand miles from home. They flinched under fire, and their barks were generally pathetic as they pleaded for water and bemoaned their desperate conditions.
Red Orchestra 2 screenshot courtesy of Tripwire
This is of course a very straightforward kind of “war is hell” depiction whose implicit politics are that soldiers are sympathetic victims of war’s cruelty, but not its authors. Depictions like this are orders of magnitude less reckless than painting German soldiers as skilled, brilliant badasses gunning down lesser warriors, but they also serve to elevate the Soldier above and apart from the Cause. As Heather Alexandra pointed out when writing about BFV’s German campaign, it ended up being:
a romanticized tale about Nazi guilt conveniently dawning when defeat finally rears its head. The Last Tiger is one of Battlefield V’s most exciting and thematically focused story missions, but it is a story that is painting a mythology that is still coopted by bad-faith actors and used today to justify gross injustice. The Last Tiger certainly doesn’t like Nazis but it still wants you to to appreciate their bravery. Whatever condemnation it offers is washed away by its flattening valorization of any and all forms of soldiery.
Heather juxtaposed this story with that of concentration camp survivors, and other victims of Nazi war crimes. These stories are more important than that of the Good Germans Who Were Awesome at War. Yet it is always to the war that we return, narrowing our focus until high command disappears, the labor camps and death camps disappear, the Einsatzgruppen, the mass graves, the executions, all the other things that make this particular history a horror show vanish and we are left to wage our battles in peace.
We’re not going to stop making and playing World War 2 games. For whatever reason, there are countless people (myself included) who are endlessly drawn to revisiting and refighting its battles. But that narrow framing of the history, that exclusion of all the crimes and murders that surrounded the actual fighting on the front lines, serves things beyond the purity of game design. It burnishes and reinforces myths, it divorces warfare from politics, it elevates the soldier—no matter what they serve or advance—as a kind of secular hero. And it gives cover for the idea that there was something admirable and heroic about waging war for Nazi Germany.
We have to bring this context and perspective ourselves, because games rarely try and even more rarely succeed. Even allowing for that, however, Battlefield V has been striking in its carelessness, revealing itself at last to be a game about World War 2 that's mostly interested in making sure the Wehrmacht looks cool. Cool enough to sell loving tributes to them to whoever is willing to buy.