Ubisoft Reworked A Famous Holocaust Quote To Promote Watch Dogs: Legion, And Nooope

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Screenshot: Ubisoft
Screenshot: Ubisoft

You know the quote. It has various edits and permutations, but here’s one you’ve probably heard.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

One place you might not expect to hear this? A video game press conference. That’s more or less what happened yesterday, when Ubisoft debuted the cinematic trailer for Watch Dogs: Legion during its not-E3 event, “Ubisoft Forward.” Over footage of a masked man sprinting through near-future London, an unnamed narrator recites a modernised spin on that quote.

The original quote is from the poem, “First they came…,” by Martin Niemöller. In the late 1920s and through the early 1930s, Niemöller, a German citizen and Lutheran pastor, initially supported the rise of the Third Reich, believing Nazi rule would revitalise a country still on its heels from World War I. There’s some debate among historians over whether or not Niemöller was explicitly antisemitic or simply wanted to make Germany great again. But in my experience, if you have to ask the question, you don’t need to hear the answer.

As the decade went on, Niemöller loudly took issue with some aspects of Nazi doctrine — nothing involving persecution, mind you, but rather with the matter of state control over religious practice. Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and spent the rest of the war imprisoned in one way or another. In 1941 the Nazis transferred him to the Dachau concentration camp, where he stayed until its liberation in 1945. (Though not designated as an extermination camp, like those at Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau recorded a staggering 41,500 deaths over the course of its operation. There’s no known number for unrecorded deaths at the facility.)

After the war, Niemöller came to regret supporting the Nazi regime. His poem is, ultimately, a public self-reckoning, one that people can neatly and conveniently point at to explain away one of the darkest periods in recorded history. For all those who look back at the Holocaust and ask, “OK, but how’d that happen?,” well, “First they came…” is your answer.

So, to put it lightly, it’s an interesting experience to queue up a trailer for a blockbuster video game — one notably not about Nazis — and hear this:

First, they came for the foreigners, and I did not speak out, because I was not a foreigner. Then they came for the protestors, and I did not speak out, because I was not a protestor. Then they came for the journalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a journalist. Then they came for street artists, and I did not speak out, because I am not a street artist. I realised, eventually, they’d come for me. There would be no one left to speak for me.

There’s paying homage, and then there’s warping a historic relic for insidious purposes. This falls squarely in the latter. When you consider that trailers — cinematic ones, especially — are marketing materials in their purest form, meant to drum up anticipation for an expensive product, there’s an unmistakable smack of cynicism at play here. You can’t even reasonably file the Legion trailer in the catch-all fair-use drawer of satire. (For that, search Twitter, Reddit, and other social media for “Then they came for the gamers” jokes.)

Of course, there are larger things to worry about vis-à-vis Ubisoft. For weeks, widespread allegations of sexual misconduct have swirled around the French publisher, which led to some high-profile departures on Saturday. Before yesterday’s showcase, the only thing the company said about these events is that it wouldn’t say anything about them, despite having weeks to prepare a statement.

I should mention, too, that I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Watch Dogs: Legion. The “play as literally anyone you see” mechanic looks and sounds pretty promising. I also know that development and marketing teams usually operate with church-and-state separation. The countless talented, motivated individuals building Legion deserve no scrutiny for the marketing machine’s poor taste in using Niemöller’s poem.

Still, yesterday’s trailer made me raise an eyebrow. This should go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said: Don’t use the Holocaust to promote a multimillion-dollar media property.

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Bands of protesters begging apathetic passersby to rise up. Officers detaining and brutalizing people, seemingly without cause. Fresh graffiti alluding to a dizzying array of injustices: xenophobia, the surveillance state, war. The first thing that struck me about Watch Dogs: Legion is that, despite a multi-year development cycle and a...

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Comments

  • Welp, guess I’d better stop using “Once more unto the breach…” because Shakespeare was using it in the context of the Hundred Years War, which had somewhere between 2 and 3 million deaths.

      • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

        All the articles here with authors throwing around their personal politics, ideals, beliefs, anti-this, anti-that, etc, while labelling it gaming news, reviews, etc… And all definitely not done for free or out of the goodness of their hearts.

        We can’t get an Ubisoft article about a video game they’re working on now without the author going off on a fucking rambling tangent along the lines of, “I was invited to preview a video game for my video game site, and for the life of me I simply don’t understand why they didn’t have a random intern to show me the game I was there to preview… So that I could then proceed to ask them nothing about the game but instead grill them about the corporate inner workings and changes they probably know nothing of.”

        Kotaku and sites like it are just as guilty as Ubisoft in regards to things like this, and no it’s really not different… Ubisoft are just doing it on a scale Kotaku only wishes it could.

      • I’ve heard the poem from tonnes of protestors, punks and anarchists over the years (who probably aren’t aware of its specific origins), so I think it fits the theme.

        We can’t sit back and ask for games to be considered art and then gatekeep them from exploring and recontextualising existing art and culture.

  • Haha. What happened to “games as art”? If they’d done this for a book or a movie it’d be accepted as artisitc reinterpretation or something similar.

    I’m sure theres at least one person at Ubisoft who sees the game as making an important and meaningful statement about our modern society- and in that context its fine.

    Where this sits on the spectum of cheesy, tasteless or insightful is a matter of interpretation.

    Calling it ‘insidious’ is a beat-up though.

    • Definitely. And if some movie or TV show does it, it’s still on the underlying premise of making money as a form of entertainment.

      Good or bad taste is up for debate, but (and maybe this is coloured by other Ubisoft news – the entire Wolfenstein franchise promotes on anti-nazism and WW2) it’s interesting when the video game community doesn’t afford games the same concessions as other forms of media.

      The intent here is at least serious, I’d find it more ‘insidious’ and undermining to make memes about it (a la “They came for the gamers…”) so to each their own I guess.

  • “But in my experience, if you have to ask the question, you don’t need to hear the answer.”

    I’d love to hear about your experience, would you care to share?

    Wait… nevermind.

    • When i read that line in the article, I cringed so hard.

      Honestly, such a dumb statement. I swear, social media has made people dumber.

      • It’s an embarassing statement.

        Also worth noting that the headline starts and the article finishes with an accusation that they’re using a ‘holocaust quote’ and ‘the Holocaust’ to promote the game.

        Pretty clear to anyone who went to context-school that both quotes refer to the dangers of inaction when the liberties of others are targetted and are not specific statements about the holocaust itself.

        In that context its far more relevent to the themes of the game, the modern world (see Hong Kong) and far less of an inappropriate or offensive appropriation.

        Lucky its not a social crime to raise the holocaust in vain to draw clicks on a commercially motivated website though, huh?

        • this article has committed a far greater offence in using the holocaust for clicks as you say. these american kotaku authors have their heads so far up their own arses.

  • From a marketting standpoint, I’d probably say that may not be the wisest decision given all the bad press recently.

    However, from a general public standpoint, I don’t see an issue with the use? Yes, its for a major product from a multimillion dollar franchise. But in the context of this game, the quote is very topical…

  • Meanwhile if it was used in some way by someone like Naughty Dog it’d be perfectly fine and defended by games journalists as ‘artistic expression’ or some bullshit.

    But this is Ubisoft… Who even on their absolute best day, one where they didn’t already have a shitstorm surrounding mistreatment of employees, couldn’t get Kotaku to climb off their backs for two fuckin’ seconds anyway.

      • Wouldnt it be crazy if we could upvote comments we liked by clicking on a button.

        Its a shame nobody has invented a feature like that.

        • This articles pretty indicative of why they took it away. Of all the bad takes Kotaku’s had this is one of the worst.

        • wouldn’t be crazy to have a bloody direct message system so that moderators could explain why they edit comments instead of coming back a day later to find out it’s gone?

          Kotaku would probably eliminate comments altogether if they thought they could get away with it. It’d be the straw that broke the camels back though.

  • The same thing thoFirst off, that’s not a trailer. It’s a short film set in the universe the that Ubi has created for the game, and was made by a prominent film director. They said as much in their stream.

    Secondly, the re-wording of the quote fits perfectly within the Ubi-verse, as all their games if you noticed, are about people who are fighting fascism to some extent. AC games are taking on secret cabal aimed at world domination through force, Farcry tends to be about taking down overbearing drug lords, and Watch Dogs has been about corporate governance and how that screws with everyone, even if people think it’s ok to start with. If you cant see that, then why are you even playing any of them?

    • In the case of Watch Dogs despite the l33t [email protected] skills and setting it’s also the closest most people has experience to in reality. People trying to take over world in history based games (because the modern day of AC was pretty much ignored by most) and Far Cry’s out there settings tend to give an emotional distance.

      With Watch Dogs people get to see a very real (at least somewhat plausible) take on the possible future. Percieved poltical commentary becomes more obvious and more likely to be critqued.

    • No it is literally just a simply article highlighting something. If you think this article some form of grand expression of mass outrage than constitutes ‘a mountain’, spoiler alert, that is all in your head.

      • You are right,

        It is a simple article.

        The article essentially boils down to:

        “Quote was used during WW2

        Therefore using quote bad

        I smart so I write article!”

      • Using a quote =/= Endorsement of all the quote makers views.

        Clearly such simple logic is beyond your average Kotaku US Writer, Everything has to be problematic otherwise they have nothing to write about.

        • thats not what the article boils down to, that is all you capable of reading into it. Big difference. I dont particularly agree with him but I am capable of reading something without an overwhelming feeling of condensation and a need to act on it.

          I get why the author wrote this, what I dont get is why people such as yourself, who hate kotaku with a fiery passion and waste time getting upset and sanctimonious on reading stuff here, stay?! That makes no sense to me, do you think they will suddenly change?

          • I dislike the US writers

            I greatly enjoy our Aus writers.

            Alex is a fantastic journalist along with the rest of the team and I always enjoy reading stuff they write.

            The US stuff on the other hand is just constant Sooking about things they find problematic.

          • Or, you know, it’s due to liking the site, and hating that the writing on from certain people due to how they make a mountain out of a molehill.

            ‘Oh NO! Someone said something that I disagree with, so now we need to cancel them and anyone defending them needs to go die in a hole’ is mostly what the ‘political’ articles come down to on here, and it’s pretty shitty thinking for people who supposedly live in a democratic country where the rule of law is freedom of speech. The only GOOD writer from the US was Jason, and he’s gone to the Wallstreet Journal now.

            Kotaku US writers are less balanced reporting and moreover the top hot take reactionary opinions. The Aussie writers on the other hand actually have reasoned ideas and actually review the game rather than dissecting its ‘political agender’…

    • Well, it’s not literally doing that. Literally making a mountain out of a molehill would be to make an actual mountain out of an actual molehill 😛

  • i am curious. when articles from the american website are approved to be shown on the australian site. does anyone actually bother to read them first? 99% of the articles written by australian authors are well written and about gaming topics. anything that crosses the ocean from american is political vomit.
    maybe there arent enough australian staff to pump out enough content to keep the site going, but a little quality control on the american articles wouldnt go astray.

    • nah. because if there was a way to filter it out then Kotaku Australia would tank. it just doesn’t have the staff article numbers to be profitable. Kotaku Aus is probably aware that US articles are literally just filler to pad dollars and upkeep.

      • yeah likely a case of our homegrown articles dont generate enough clicks cause we arent baiting for them, so we rely on the american bullshit to filter through so comments sections such as this increase ad revenue.

  • Psht, if people weren’t able to inject needlessly politicised nonsense into unrelated topics, half of Kotaku’s writing staff would run out of stuff to whinge about in a day

  • Everyone is entitled to their opinion but (and this is mine) this article is dripping with self-righteousness.

  • Wow everyone is so critical of Kotaku here. I can’t even get my comments approved without negativity. Let’s see if this one goes through.

  • I think this article is a bit confused. And also just generally really, really poor argumentation. I mean, *maybe* there is a case to be made in support of what the author is saying, but they certainly haven’t made it.

    Firstly, nothing in the trailer, the promotional materials, the collateral, the walkthrough or the preview delivered by Ubisoft mentions the holocaust. The author of this article is the only person who has mentioned the holocaust. The link the author finds between the holocaust and the game is that the text Ubisoft has adapted is from a writer who wrote about the holocaust (and Ubisoft took his writing and altered it).

    This is about as tangential a link as you can find to world war 2 (in an industry, by the way, that has cashed in for decades on world war 2 and the holocaust as the setting for AAA blockbusters literally for decades), and I find it hard to move myself to be annoyed about it and certainly don’t think it’s fair to characterise it as “use[ing] the Holocaust to promote a multimillion-dollar media property.” The overwhleming majority of people aren’t going to have a clue where the adapted text comes from except perhaps being vaguely familiar with the style of the ‘first I came for xyz’ thing.

    The author I don’t think has even established the fact that the promotional materials are explicitly drawing on the holocaust, let alone that the use is ‘cynical in the extreme’ or whatever they said.

    Secondly, even if we want to be charitable to the argument and take as read that Ubisoft is using a deliberate and direct overture to the holocaust, you surely can’t make the case that is prima facie bad? You actually have to show it’s bad. Surely, drawing historical parallels (particularly when they are very, very relevant to contemporary politics and issues of surveillance capitalism, privacy, individual liberty, totalitarianism, authoritariansim, the resurgence of the right wing etc etc) can be a really good thing for art/games/entertainment to be doing? Isn’t popularising social commentary on this issue exactly what we (‘we’ in this case being anyone who holds the politics I presume the author of this article holds – which I am guessing to be broadly progressive left-leaning views) want?

    Thirdly, I absolutely agree that basically the article comes across as just sounding like someone with an axe to grind against Ubisoft. Should we find all the stories of a culture of sexual harassment coming out of Ubisoft really disgusting? Yeah, I would hope every sensible person would (upsettingly, we should probably find them as disgusting as we do predictable in the tech industry generally, and the games industry specifically). Should that culture buy an author license to casually write off their marketing efforts as (at best) in poor taste or (at worst) antisemitic, without making any coherant case as to why? I don’t personally think so.

    I should say, I actually generally really like the social commentary and games-as-politics angle Kotaku often takes. I take my games and my politics pretty seriously and am very interested in all these issues. I also generally find myself agreeing with most of what gets published here. But yeah, this one kinda lost me and feels like a very lazy, poorly constructed argument.

  • Grunt. Disagree. The more people introduced to this concept the better, and complaining that it’s being used to promote a video game is a simplistic reduction too far in its dismissal.

    The poem’s sentiment is relevant to the story and its themes, which are specifically about fighting a similar kind of insidiously-expanding oppression. If anything, marketing should be applauded for bringing the sentiment closer to a more recognizable and relevant modern reality than defeated, post-war depression Germany before the Nazis.

    I mean… I get it. While the themes in the game support the adaptation of the poetry, the real life fact is that the themes are packaged up in a product for consumption in a capitalist machine that is actively participating in various forms of oppression and support for the industrial-military complex is the layer. It makes the whole exercise as ironic and perverse as a trademarked Che Guevara t-shirt.

    But unless this game was being produced and distributed as the digital equivalent of a fucking 00s uni campus, hipster cafe, and skate-shop-distributed ‘zine, there is no medium immune to this irony. All things are products, now. Shitting on products for being products while still trying to deliver these messages is… the definition of fucking naive and more than just a little self-indulgent.

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