Saturday 11 April 2020

Inglorious Bastards

One of the oddities of the contemporary world is the obsession, in some parts of society at least, with Nazi Germany. We can hardly peruse a TV guide without falling across something which is related to the Second World War, its precursors and consequences. This can be, of course, either fictional or documentary (or, in some cases, of course, both). Given that the whole ghastly affair was nearly 75 years ago, it seems that the appetite for it is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

In the March 2020 issue of History Today, four historians give their views as to why the obsession with Nazi Germany is still so intense. Perhaps the one most relevant to wargaming is the last, by Martyn Rady, whose view, so far as I can paraphrase and summarise it is that the Nazi had the best toys (six engine aircraft, the V2, the Tiger tank) and the best uniforms. He recounts an anecdote by British humourist Arthur Marshall who took the surrender of four German officers on a yacht at Flensburg on the Baltic. They were immaculately turned out and looked at Marshall, thinking ‘Whatever is this riff-raff? What went wrong? How could we have lost the war?’

Another point Rady makes is that the idea that education makes people better is subverted by the Nazis. Between 20 and 25 per cent of the most committed Nazis (SS, SD, Death’s Head units – I’m not sure what the latter were, but that is just my ignorance of the period) had PhDs from ancient German universities. They were ‘super-educated, elegantly attired mass murderers’. How this came about in a nation that produced such cultural achievements as Germany did is a mystery. After all, as Roger Moorhouse observes in another of the articles, Germany was a nation of ‘thinkers and poets’, and the Weimar Republic had 16 Nobel prizes to its name.

Given the traumatic events of the 1930s and 1940s in the world, I suppose it is reasonably explainable why there is a strong cultural memory of it, and possibly also why there are such a large quantity of representations around. Nevertheless, some parts of society take the interest to the point of obsession and, it has to be said, wargaming is part of the said obsession. I am told that sales of World War Two wargame figures is scarily healthy, and a glance around my local show suggested that the subject is as popular as ever, with approximately half of the display games being related to the subject.

I do not want to go on a rant that we shouldn’t wargame World War Two. I have indicated before, quite a while ago, that I am not sure that as a subject it is particularly wargamable (if that is a word) due to problems of scale. I can also happily concede that World War Two should be kept in the memory as an awful set of events. Too often the subject of Nazi Germany and its crimes get hijacked by political extremists for their own purposes.

Some contemporary politics works in the other direction. Elizabeth Harvey’s piece on the subject notes that the endless round of VE and VJ day celebrations, along with anniversaries of D-Day and so on cement in our minds the days when Britain faced tyranny alone, united, undaunted and fearless. As she notes this can get used to justify modern political stances, such as the dreaded B**xit. It is not, I suspect, the case only in Britain. I have not been to the United States for a while, but I do suspect that the years of the later Second World War and early Cold War are looked back upon, and possibly appropriated by some populist politicians as a golden age when America was great.

All this is a rather long way from representing World War Two on a tabletop, I concede. But action such as a wargame can carry a certain amount of cultural and conceptual meaning. By wargaming, say, a Nazi SS division, are we condoning the behaviour thereof? I hope that none of the participants in such a game would be trying to do so, but it might leave us feeling just a little uncomfortable.

If a little ethical discomfort does arise from a World War Two game, I think that is probably a good thing. One of the problems Harvey notes is that Nazi propaganda, even today, has an alarming power over our imaginations. Nazi staged spectacles from the 1930s, or even some of the ‘authentic’ war footage is framed and presented very carefully, and we often buy into it. This works both ways, of course – as the Nazis as being the embodiment of evil, as ‘fanaticised robots in uniform’ or as the purveyors of the greatest troops and tactics of the middle Twentieth Century. Neither viewpoint is, of course, entirely correct, but recognising that should enable us to think more critically about the nature of the Nazi regime, the ways it has been represented and the way which we represent it on the tabletop.

Does this matter? Well, given the normal impact of wargaming on the wider world, I think we can probably say ‘no’. But as part of a cultural wave, an element of the obsession with the Nazis and World War Two, I suspect it might matter a little bit. After all, if we, as wargamers, are part of the book-buying public which ensures that every volume regarding Nazi Germany becomes, if not an absolute bestseller then at least has sufficiently solid sales to encourage publishers to bring another such tome to the shops, then we are part of the problem.

The problem is not remembering the past, but the uses to which the past is put. As a highly-charged cultural event, the Second World War still matters. Therefore how we represent the sides on a wargame table still matters. Cries of ‘it is only a game’ are, in my view anyway, rather insufficient. Even arguments of historical accuracy are subject to question – the viewpoint that the SS were superb soldiers should be questioned, in the same way that the effectiveness of Napoleon’s Old Guard should be.

The problem here is, of course, the wargamer’s obsession with ‘Ooooh! Shiny!’ How many of you thought when the Messerschmidt Gigant was mentioned earlier ‘I wonder what that would look like as a model?’, or pondered, however briefly, what a squadron of Tigers could do on the table?

Harvey finishes her essay by advising us to reaffirm our commitment to the words of a fine modern ethicist, Indiana Jones: ‘Nazis. I hate these guys.’ How do we do that in a wargame?


  1. I agree that there seems to be an obsession with the Nazis and it doesn’t sit altogether comfortably with me. I get the argument that it is a subject that should be studied and remembered. In all its complexity.

    However my eyes roll when I switch on the TV and see another ‘Secrets* of the Nazi ...’, or ‘The Devil’s Soldiers’ (a handpicked band of jailbirds are dropped behind enemy lines to ....). Look on the bookshelves of any high street shop selling books and you will see many titles such as ‘Super Tanks of the SS.’ I suspect, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that wargamers are not big consumers of this kind of material. I feel most would dismiss it as mostly twaddle. And superficial. Maybe I’m being naive. Or I’m just an intellectual snob.

    * ‘Secrets of...’ seems to be recent documentary fashion with many other subjects, not just the Nazis and not just history. It bugs me on many levels.

    And you’re right, we are a part of the wider culture consuming WWII ‘material’. I admit to being a bit of a hypocrite in that regard.

    As much as anything, it’s the superficial understanding of the subject that offends me.

    1. Well, I might be biased as I've not played a WW2 wargame since Airfix days. There have been a few unpleasant incidents with wargaming being used as a vehicle for promotion of Nazi ideas (sort of) but not enough to worry about.

      I agree that the superficiality of much understanding is a problem (and don't pretend to know much about the subject myself) but can't help but feel a little uneasy with the proliferation of WW2 and particularly Nazi books, TV / film productions etc, and that, I suspect, does work its way through into wargames. Whether that is for good or ill I'm not sure.

  2. These are very thought provoking points.
    There is a discernible folklore that has emerged around the Nazi regime and its adherents.
    In one sense, wargaming has perhaps educated some who would perhaps have believed the lore and false propaganda that is 'in the air' with regard to the movement; we at least see very few swastikas on the wargaming table, so there must be some sensibility with regard to symbology and ethos at least.
    I do know at least one chap however, who used to wear full German soldier (with SS overtones) regalia in school for 'history day' as a staff member, and regale the kids with war stories, until he was told to wise up... (while the guy who dresses as a US paratrooper is more than welcome).
    I get a sense though, that his approach is almost that of a 70s punk, courting controversy rather than having any real point to make.
    Perhaps that is where the real danger lies, in terms of the cartoon aspects of the regime, and the fact that they are turned into something analogous to the Empire in Star Wars in many modern media presentations. Is this providing a better way for kids to understand - I doubt it.
    There are few real parallels.

    1. There is a lot of trying to shock or provike, of course. Pink Flyd's film 'The Wall' got accused of being fascist and violent - it was really pointing the other way, but superficial readings got in the way.

      I htink, if there is a wargaming problem, it is in the representation of German soldiers as superb fighting troops and the implication that this might be due to the regime behind them. There sometimes seems to be a bit of a reluctance in wargaming circles to admit that the German state lost.

      So I think I agree with you that it is about the dangers of cartoon representations. Some wargames get around it by using German allies, of course. I'm not sure that works either, myself.

  3. As a wargamer, I have to focus on the tactical. If I only built armies I approved of, I could hardly put on a game, could I? One per conflict, at best. A little more focus on their military deficiencies would not be out of place, certainly.

    But I'd really like to see their hyper-educated cadre emphasized until people start to ask just what sort of future our own cultural elites have in mind. Setting the Nazis up as cardboard worshipers of "Evil" rather than real people whose choices had horrendous consequences just makes things easier for the next bunch whose plan to improve the world involves a few sacrifices for the greater good.

    1. Oh, agreed, although WW2 has a particular place in our culture and brings more baggage along than, say, Athens versus Sparta.

      We do like to point to someone and say 'we're not as bad as them', and the Nazi regime serves that end admirably. If nothing else, the horrendous mess should show us that shocks to the system rarely end well.

      But now I'm starting to depress myself, so I'll stop.