Wolfenstein: The Old Blood uses zombie schlock to talk about white supremacy
I have always been more than a little confused by the lukewarm reaction to Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, MachineGames’ standalone prequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order. More specifically, I’m baffled by those who adore the latter but can’t muster the same enthusiasm for the former.
This is a perspective best exemplified by critical reactions like Javy Gwaltney’s review of The Old Blood, in which he accuses the game of “sacrific[ing] The New Order’s ambitious, emotionally-charged story for pure pulp,” explaining that the game “has a purposely schlocky grindhouse mentality to it, returning to the series’ roots.” Gwaltney’s first charge is demonstrably untrue: the trailers may have utilized fonts, wipe transitions, and bombastic orchestral scores that all purposely evoked Universal’s Monster movies of the 30s and 40s, but these marketing materials amount to little more than a questionable advertising strategy. The Old Blood itself retains the dramatic sensibilities of its predecessor; Blaskowicz still delivers poetic musings in a mournful whisper, and the game’s few friendly characters all cling to mementos and memories of lives past, already in mourning for the futures they will lose to Nazi regime.
The idea that The Old Blood’s supposed “grindhouse mentality” is in opposition to The New Order is equally dubious, seeing as The New Order was just as ridiculous. The move from Deathshead’s mechanized horrors to Helga von Schabb’s occult research isn’t a degradation from high to low art, but merely swapping one brand of pulpiness for another – a pulpiness, it should be said, that by no means detracts from the dramatic potency and thematic richness of either game. In fact, I would argue that it is through The Old Blood’s use of the occult iconography of Wolfensteins past that it signals one of its own chief thematic concerns: locating the Nazi regime within the long history of Western imperial power.
A world where the Nazis won World War II isn't much different from one where they lost.
It is possible (and in my opinion, wise) to read The New Order as deeply concerned with the social traumas of the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb; traumas which contributed to the conditions of postmodernity that arose after the end of the second world war. “Postmodernity” is a complicated term, but here I am referring to the post-apocalyptic sensation that James Berger describes in his book After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse: “our contemporary, late-twentieth century apocalyptic sense is intensively marked by the post-apocalyptic responses to the historical catastrophes of midcentury and to social and technological changes that are so vast, so unpresentable as to take on an apocalyptic character of their own.” Despite these historical catastrophes (such as the Shoah, the Gulag, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), “the world is still here, exactly as it was: that is what is intolerable.”
In The New Order, two of the catastrophes listed above still assuredly occurred: a nuclear bomb was dropped (albeit this time on American soil) and Auschwitz and Buchenwald are mentioned by name. However, the world is resolutely not exactly as it was: the apocalyptic trauma of those events is made manifest in the victory of the Nazi regime over the Allies. That “late-twentieth century apocalyptic sense” is brought to the forefront of everyday life in The New Order (“The war ain’t over, look at all these Nazis walkin’ around!” says Blaskowicz early on). The existential anxieties and the oppressive power structures that emerged from and persisted after WWII are never quite represented in their full atrocity, but the citation of the Shoah, the nuclear bomb, and racial segregation is made significant through the Nazis’ presence. In the imagination of The New Order, a world where the Nazis won World War II isn’t much different from one where they lost -- to confront us with Nazi rule in a not-so-different world is to confront us with the reality that our own world is not OK.
While The New Order uses Nazis as a metaphor for social/political problems that came after them, The Old Blood is concerned with the conditions that preceded the Nazis’ historical rise to power. The game’s first half takes place in the once-eponymous Castle Wolfenstein, which in this iteration has been imagined as the former residence of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, and the possible ancestral home of the game’s chief antagonist, Helga von Schabbs. Helga is the leader of the Nazi Paranormal Division and is managing an excavation in the town of Wulfburg, in search of some unknown secret of Otto’s –a weapon the Holy Roman Emperor used to defeat the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955.
It is no accident that the Nazis find themselves in the halls of Otto the Great, as placing themselves in proximity of the German King is clearly done as a means of legitimizing their own imperialism. The Holy Roman Empire – an amalgamation of kingdoms, the largest of which was Germany – was the foundation of Hitler’s planned Greater Germanic Reich, called the “First Reich” in Nazi historiography. Otto I justified his rule similarly, by holding his coronation at Aachen, the preferred residence of Charlemagne – who was the first to be crowned Emperor of the Romans in 800 by Pope Leo III. In other words, The Old Blood’s Nazis are engaged in a rhetoric of lineage: by basing their operations out of a shrine to Otto the Great, the Nazis are situating themselves within a tradition of Imperial German rulers legitimized by the spiritual, social, and military power of the Catholic Church. This does not validate the Nazis’ claim to Europe, nor is it any justification of their crimes, but it does reveal how they are an evolution of a pre-existing imperialist ethos. This is as true of the historical Nazi regime as its fictionalized counterparts in the Wolfenstein games.
Helga von Schabbs is the embodiment of this idea of justifying power through precedence. She claims to be a direct descendent of Otto I, an assertion that is questionably true at best, but which she performs through upper-class posturing. Most specifically, she performs class through her cultured appreciation for wine. There is a scene in the game’s back half wherein BJ poses as a waiter; Helga has BJ sit at the table and, through conversation, chips away at his disguise. It appears that Blaskowicz’s cover is blown when Helga asks his opinion of the wine, which BJ says is “delicious;” Helga rebuts him, saying that it has gone sour. However, this scene does not actually involve a careful decoding of Blaskowicz’s disguise – at the end of this encounter, Helga demands that he return the folder he’s stolen, meaning that she merely saw him take it in the first place.
As the game progresses, it becomes clear that The Old Blood’s thematic progression is to further cement the link between the Nazis and these traditions of imperial power.
What distinguishes this scene from a similar one with Frau Engel in The New Order is the two antagonists’ proximity to power. Engel, whom we meet post-war, is well-established as a member of the world’s ruling class. Von Schabbs, on the other hand, is part of a movement that is fighting for dominance, still doing the work to justify itself. Her refined tastes are one way the game shows this, by linking von Schabbs’s cultural competency with what she believes is a preordained birthright to power – a cultural competency that Blaskowicz lacks, which marks him as inferior.
Strains of this same rhetoric are readily visible in America’s modern elite class. Writing under the flimsy pretense of a pseudo class-consciousness piece, conservative columnist David Brooks argued that the dividing lines of class in America are based on one’s knowledge of certain cultural signifiers. Brooks uses the example of a “friend with only a high school diploma” who feels uncomfortable in a “gourmet sandwich shop,” implicitly arguing that the inability of his “friend” to navigate a cultural experience associated with the wealthy is the direct cause of their placement into a poorer class. As others have pointed out, this argument inverts the actual causal relationship at work: one’s taste in sandwiches or wine is not how the upper class accrues power; it is through wealth that they have exposure to these items in the first place.
As the game progresses, it becomes clear that The Old Blood’s thematic progression is to further cement the link between the Nazis and these traditions of imperial power. It begins with their proximity to images of King Otto and reaches its peak with the undead Nazis that emerge in the game’s third act; the apotheosis of The Old Blood’s exploration of lineages of power. Given their traditional zombie behaviors – their awkward shuffles and ghastly moans – it’s easy to dismiss them as uninspired bullet fodder. However, The Old Blood’s zombies also have a habit of erupting in unnatural hellfire, which would seem to indicate that their plague is not born of some disease but some supernatural force. They emerge from the town not like the remnants of an occupying army, but as though they were Wulfburg’s long-dormant infection or a biblical plague. Appropriately enough, these undead are literally a manifestation of a millennium-old evil: they, along with the massive Frankenstein’s monster discovered at the game’s conclusion, are the aforementioned weapon that Otto the Great used against the Magyars. Crucially, though, these undead Nazis remain Nazis, retaining their uniforms after their rebirth. They are killing machines that fly a new banner, an ancient evil in a new uniform. As undead, the Nazis are no longer simply gesturing to Medieval imperialism, they literally embody it.
"The monster never dies, no matter how many times you kill it."
“The monster never dies, no matter how many times you kill it. It just sheds its skin and changes form.” These are among the last words Blaskowicz says in The Old Blood, and they are the thematic link between The Old Blood and The New Order. The Old Blood lets us witness the monster’s transformation in microcosm, while The New Order tells a story where the monster was never killed, never giving it cause to change its shape. Taken together, the two games provide us with a continuity from the Middle Ages to now; a way to see how the violence of the past presages the conditions of our lived present.
It is from this knowledge that we can begin to understand the nature of the monster we must fight, not just in games but in the rest of our not-OK reality. It’s never just one thing, one ephemeral anomaly that disrupts an acceptable status quo. It contains myriad forms, contained within the smallest gestures and the embodied by the largest institutions. It is the rot in the heart of the culture that we have been born into. But as intolerable as our world may be, the end hasn’t come for us yet. We are all still here. And look at all these Nazis walking around. The war ain’t over.