Hey History Games, The Nazis Were The Bad Guys

I’m playing Slitherine’s Panzer Corps 2 at the moment and loving almost every minute of it. It’s one of the best turn-based strategy games in years, but there’s also something a bit off about it, something that’s troubling about a lot of historical strategy games: it has a little too much fun playing the Germans.

Panzer Corps 2, from its jovial mission briefings to its semi-fictional version of history, takes an almost gleeful approach to Germany’s participation in the war. The sweeping advances of its early campaigns, the scale and variety of operations it drops you into, the way Poland’s tragic occupation is forever a mere tutorial for WW2 strategy games, Nazi Germany’s attempted conquest of an entire continent is viewed in this game as a mere gameplay and level design opportunity.

Each of these victories is seen as a conquest of land, a map painted black, a mission carried out successfully. The further and further you drift from actual world history, as this game will do the further you get into it, the more excited the mission briefings (and strategic aims) get. Gee wiz, Herr General, those Brits sure put up a fight! Now let’s go get the Russians! Then zee Americans!

NBD, just off to subjugate New York, sure all those Jewish neighbourhoods are going to be fine.

Which is fine if we were playing some fictional faction in Westwood’s Dune II, Dawn of War or even the pulpy Red Alert, but at its heart this isn’t some abstract and artificial war. We are still living in its shadow of this conflict 75 years later, from international power structures to the resurgence of terror groups espousing (and committing atrocities in the name of) Nazi views.

I shouldn’t need to, and so won’t get into just why the Nazis were so bad, but suffice to say the least we should be expecting from developers allowing us to play as them is a little introspection. These are some of history’s greatest villains, and yet here were are, time and again leading them through foreign lands, knee-slapping with our fellow officers as we lay waste to cities and enslave millions, damning them to a conveniently unseen life of brutality and displacement.

I don’t want to pick on Panzer Corps 2 specifically here, because it’s something countless strategy games, simulations and tabletop wargames have done for decades. From box art to promo images to campaign design, you don’t have to look far in historical circles to see that German weapons, vehicles and infantry are very often the stars of the show.

The classic tabletop wargame Europe Engulfed

There’s a fascination with the German armed forces in 1939-45 that has its claws in deep in communities like this, not necessarily (or at least primarily) for their political views, but also for more superficial reasons. Let’s be real: the Nazis had cool uniforms. Cool tanks, cool weapons, cool aircraft, zany secret weapons. If you’re playing a game where you need to assume the role of a faction, and one of those were the guys with the slick grey uniforms and badass tanks, a lotta folks will choose the Germans!

Then there’s the matter, as Rob Zacny put it so well in his Vice story last year, of situation. The Germans had all that cool gear, and all those early victories, yet the Germans also ultimately lost the war to a bunch of nations with enormously superior amounts of resources, equipment and manpower.

This creates a scenario, one that games like Panzer Corps 2 are more than happy to exploit, where the player can imagine that it was German leadership that lost the war, not the fact it picked a fight with almost the entire industrialised world, and that you, with your galactic brain and 80 years of hindsight, can do a better job.

That better job being the acquisition of more land that a German flag would fly over. A global victory for forces of totalitarianism and genocide. The death squads, the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the mass displacement, everything that would come along under that flag is rarely, if ever mentioned in historical wargames and strategy titles, lest it undermine your heroic achievements.

At best, this is historical negligence, pretending some of history’s worst atrocities weren’t committed (or would even be expanded) in the name of letting players enjoy a sanitised vision of gentlemanly conquest. At worst...look, Order of Battle lets you directly command the Waffen SS, and at a time when literal Nazis are an ever-increasing threat across the Western world, that is not a good look.


Here’s what really gets me about this fascination with Germans, though, beyond the moral quagmire: it shows a complete lack of imagination! There are so many variables in the Second World War beyond “what if the Nazis won?”, and yet you’ll rarely find any of these explored in a historical strategy game.

One of the reasons I find Hearts of Iron IV so fascinating is that it’s able to, and genuinely takes heart in, exploring the literally endless ways the war could have turned out differently, and doesn’t have as its default position players taking on the role of a genocidal death cult’s spearhead.

What if the French, the largest land army in the world in 1939, had invaded Germany and ended the war in months? What would that 1940 have looked like, with a dominant France (and their own very cool tanks) suddenly left face-to-face with Stalin’s emergent Soviet Union? Who knows, but it’d be fun to find out, and Hearts of Iron IV (and some of its most popular mods) let us find out!

I’ll acknowledge here that the original Panzer General (and Panzer Corps, too), despite their base campaigns leading players on a Nazi war-winning odyssey, would later release expansions or alternative versions presenting the war from the perspective of the Allied forces. Some of these, like Allied Corps’ finale, even present fictional outcomes of their own, like a clash between the USSR and US/British forces that emerges out of the chaotic final days of Germany’s collapse.

But those takes always come second, or later. A game called Panzer Corps is making a very conscious decision when it comes to which foot it’s leading off on. Of all the factions and stories it, and so many other strategy games could tell, it’s the German one so many developers and designers continue to go to first.

I’m taking particular aim at strategy games here, while acknowledging that shooters have their own issues. While singleplayer games (Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, Battlefield) are usually played from the Allied side (rare and often fumbled examples excepted), in multiplayer all bets are off and everyone is free to pick a Nazi and run around shooting whoever they want.

But the immediate scale of shooters also renders this a far more superficial affair than the wider scope of a strategy game. It’s one thing to run around a city street firing off MP40 rounds to win a scored match, divorced from any kind of wider strategic context, and another thing entirely to overrun the largest cities in the Soviet Union and doom their inhabitants to unspeakable horrors.

Something that’s odd about this widespread refusal to acknowledge Nazi atrocities is that when it comes to another popular subject matter of Second World War games, the USSR, developers have much less trouble with a more nuanced approach. Company of Heroes 2, for example, was played from a Russian perspective, but didn’t shy away from depicting the Soviet Union’s own horrors.

And I can’t write something like this without bringing up the fact that I’ve played plenty of strategy games and flight sims over the years that took a very clinical view of Allied bombing campaigns that are now viewed as essentially war crimes.

I’m not saying stop letting us play as Germany in strategy games. All strategy games have to accommodate some degree of turning a historical blind eye, otherwise series like Civilisation, which has let us play as everyone from Genghis Khan to Stalin, wouldn’t even exist.

As I’ve said, there are unique challenges presented by each faction’s situation and capabilities in the Second World War, and to let us play as some nations but exclude Germany, the instigator of the entire European conflict, would be a curious thing to have to dance around.

It would just be nice if, for a change, studios could at least acknowledge the extreme mental gymnastics involved in letting us play as Gemans but not Nazis, and write and design their world-conquering strategy games with this in mind.


Comments

    please read to the end of the article before commenting

    It seems insane that I have to write this but you just know - you all know - people aren't going to get to the part where this is not a story saying games shouldn't let players play as Germany.

    First of all, sometimes it's fun to play the bad guy. It's called role playing. No-one is saying that Hitler and his cronies were stand-up guys.

    Secondly,

    What if the French, the largest land army in the world in 1939, had invaded Germany and ended the war in months?

    LOL, what are you on? The French army DID try to invade the Saarland in 1939 and didn't even make it to the Siegfried line. France had the numbers but was woefully underequipped and unprepared.

      The qualifier is if they ended the war in months, not that they didn't try to invade (successfully or otherwise). Come on.

      Clearly they couldn't convince Asterix's village to share their magical potion. They would have been successful if they had it.

    Good article, it’s both easy and tough to seperate the German army from the Nazis because they were essentially two different entities but part of a singular historic event.
    It’s also terribly common to sanitise war games to avoid the darker truths of the conflicts and WWII is perhaps one of the most whitewashed and romanticised of them all.

    One of the reasons I don’t play as many war games as I used to is the fact that so many are afraid of really exploring the black, white and grey areas of humanities most destructive past time.

    Yeah the NAZI's shouldn't be re-badged as regular Germans.. lol

    And Germany should stop hiding NAZI history and blocking games that have them in it (as the bad guys) because studio's just re-badge them which IMO is worse!

      Germany is far from hiding Nazi history, it's probably the most self aware country in the entire world when it comes to dealing with many inconvenient truths about the country's past. What they are doing is discouraging the glorification of that past via Nazi symbolism, Hitler memorialism and suchlike. But as it happens, yeah, not all Germans were Nazis, go figure.

        Germany is totally not self aware. They still hate Jews which is why they let in so many Muslim immigrants.

      Yeah, sorry... gotta agree with Fishy there. My wife and I visited Europe in January, including two days in Berlin. Every museum, monument, etc in regards to Nazi history in free of charge (excluding Auschwitz for obvious reason) to encourage people to go there and learn, so that the past cannot be repeated. Germany WANT people to learn about that history.

      Sadly, too many people don't take that opportunity, or listen to those that have lived/experienced it.

        Is the obvious reason because Auschwitz isn't in Berlin?

          Sorry, my post wasn't clear and was done in haste.

          Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is free, unless you use a tour guide, in which you have to pay (for obvious reasons).

      Have you ever been to Germany? Spent anytime there at all? or even looked into the hows and whys of what you are talking about?

      Because the truth is far more complicated than that and no, Germans do not hide that stuff, the scars from that era are everywhere. The country is so aware of that stuff, on so many levels.

    Sounds to me like the game is achieving the reflection and introspection without having to overtly shove in your face the horrors of war by your own thoughts. This isn't lost on most players.

      Yes it is.

      Most people live today don't recognise WWII, what it meant and its impact.

      If they did we wouldn't have the rising populism we do.

    One of the best strategy games that actually addresses this is Decisive campaigns: Barbarossa a WW2 Eastern front game. You play as the overall commander on the front and are given options like do you actually join the Nazi party for political favour, do you allow for favour or do you threaten to to testify at any war crimes trial if death squads are allowed behind the front lines therefore loosing political favour you desperately need but still retaining your humanity.

    The "historical negligence" here is presenting the conflict in black and white terms, something this article manifestly fails to address other than a quick throw-away in the fourth last paragraph for 'balance' that the author then immediately ignores again for the remaining three paragraphs.

    Sure, the Nazis were shits, but so was much of the Allies response was also shitty, not just Dresden mass aerial fire bombing, but mass civilian rape, genocidal forcible displacement of German nationals from much of what is now Russia and Poland, multiple war crimes, various forms of collective punishment, the treatment of various colonised countries in Africa and elsewhere, and many others.

    And let's not also ignore the fact that the political situation in Germany was driven in large part because of decades of oppressive reparations in the aftermath of World War One driving various forms of reactionist politics and instability.

    Yeah, it sure is easy to criticise the Nazis, but let's not pretend that making the Germans more evil addresses the elephant in the room here, which is whitewashing of historical conflict for the purposes of non-threatening entertainment.

    None of which should be taken as an argument against clinically clean and emotionally unthreatening war games, but seriously, if you are going to argue for realism you're not doing it with an entire article almost exclusively dumping on Nazi Germany.

      Well said. I'm half German, and the stories I could tell would create all sorts of arguments [teaser: Oma was Jewish, Opa was a member of the Nazi party]. From the German side of things, THEY were the good guys, and the Allied forces were evil. The Germans were just trying to get back what they believed was stolen from them a few decades earlier.

      There are two sides to WW2, and sadly we'll never really hear the other side of it. Most that lived through it are dead now and the history books are firmly entrenched in the Allied version of events. But as you said, the whole thing a lot greyer than most people realise.

        It's a similar story with the Japanese, the way the war ended with the bombs is taught in a very dishonest way.

          consider they decided not to bomb Kyoto only because of it's historical value. otherwise the indiscriminate deaths of civillians would have been a lot higher.

        Well said - via work I've travelled to Germany a few times, made a number of good friends and some of the stories I've heard, or the casual comment that seems natural to them sounds crazy to us (ie, "don't mind him, he's from the East and can't speak English", or "driving to Berlin from the West you had a long stretch of road fenced of and guarded on both sides", or "when I was a kid the subway had to pass stations that were completely bricked up", or "don't joke about that, my Mother had to hide under the floorboards when the Nazi's searched the house").

        Even those willingly in the army, just like any other army, thought they were doing the right thing - or doing things they had no choice but to do.

        What always fascinates me about WWII in the Western world, is how it's very often focused on the Jewish genocide - which is/was a horrible thing... no one seems to talk about or recognise how the Russian death toll was roughly 10 times higher (don't recall the exact figures of the top of my head, but it was a massive difference).

        But as I always like to say, Hitler never played Risk or read up on Napolean - the lesson there is you can never take and hold Russia ;)

      Very nicely put!
      Sounds like Luke is trying to have his cake and eat it.

      Lol.

      Don't equivocate.

      The allies did shitty things, the Nazis had factory-processed genocide.

      They are and will never be equal.

        Nobody said they were equal.

        But you can't just glibly put black hats on an entire nation of tens of millions of people and pretend that you've added something meaningful. The world isn't neatly divided into nice clean categories of good guys and bad guys.

        And not one of the Allies gave a single shit about the holocaust at the time, that's just post-hoc rationalisation.

        You might do gaming good, but you sure dont call false equivalence good.

          He certainly doesn't do WW2 history good.

        The allies did shitty things

        Did you know in the lead up to WW2 a refugee ship full of jews that fled the nazis was turned back by America and sent back to the Nazis? Did you know most of those refugees ended up in concentration camps?

        Id say calling things the allies did "Shitty" is you willingly misrepresenting documented history.

    They have you play as Germans instead of Nazi's because it's a legal requirement in several territories where they want to sell their games.

    I play the panzer general style games purely on a tactical/strategic level. It could be any countries and I would still enjoy the game (and in fact Fantasy General was my favourite of the "5 star general" games). However, knowing that there is a bit of history behind it makes it more interesting and you can think about how the battles occurred in real life and understanding blitzkrieg and supply issues.
    Sure, it's glossing over some of the darker issues of wars.. but if you start adding some of that into games then you hit the problem of the game being censored for being too realistic.

      Let's also not forget if a developer did that, there would be a Kotaku article screeching about how the game goes too far... And that it glorifies the horrors of war, blah, blah, you get the picture.

    Welll ackchyually.

    Bless you Alex for having to read these, have a beer tonight, you earned it.

    The article is actually pretty nuanced. The headline makes it seem a bit click baity but it’s well written.

    From a gaming perspective, Nazi Germany units are awesome, I'll take a Panzerkampfwagen over a Sherman or a T34 any day

    This seems like a retread of a certain youtube video that was very quickly downvoted to hell with a slightly different viewpoint, but still holding onto a black and white outlook on it and acting like they are the brave ones for saying such things in this article and that video.
    So very odd.

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