Thanks for this great and important article. It is understandable that it is mostly focused on EA’s careless depictions due to the current developments on their end. I think it’s important to widen the aspects Rob is only brushing in the last paragraphs though. What is the fascination with war and playing war exactly and how would there ever be a game that does justice to the actual manifold stories/aspects/themes/feelings/whatever of something as inconceivable as World War II when its purpose is to entertain a player? Especially in games that are concerned with giving you a good feeling about the struggle and the hardships before you inevitably win?
Rami Ismail made a good statement on the current Designer Notes podcast about this. American developers (and by extension every Western developer that is greatly influenced by American media and the American myths about what war is, e.g. Swedes) make games about “Winning wars”, not about “war” which is left to, in his example, Polish developers for whom war (and especially World War II) has a completely different connotation of course, so they end up making something like “This War of Mine”. If your media is obsessed with success and power fantasies (and games due to their achievement nature are easily worse offenders than books and movies here) it does make sense that something like the Wehrmacht might be depicted in a very distorted fashion.
As a German I want to contribute some thoughts about this dangerous distortion that were not mentioned in the article.
Rob rightly identifies the US’s or NATO’s willingness to let bygones be bygones in favor of the looming Cold War. Paradoxically this was the case on both sides of the Berlin Wall and while the FRG deemed it sufficent to blame the SS and some individuals for the worst atrocities of the war, the GDR under Soviet guidance simply announced that fascism was over and everybody in East Germany now a proud member of the anti-fascist movement. Obviously both sides needed organizational staff and officers to rebuild their armies and were in the light of the new global animosities uninterested in really digging too deeply into the average soldier’s share. This is also a reason for the very frightening acceptance of Neo-Nazism in today’s East Germany.
The most important turning point in this cover-up operation was an exhibition that started in 1995 (see here: Wehrmacht Exhibition. I cannot think of any museum exhibition that sparked as much controversy and discussion as this one since it made a lot of heroic/tragic grandfather stories quite unpalatable.
In my observation as a Thirtysomething it is somewhat ironically American media that made it sneakily okay to depict the Wehrmacht as cool/tough/badass though. There are numerous American books by “proper” historians that deal endlessly with the high discipline, morale, skill and pure efficiency of the Wehrmacht in ways no German historian in their right mind would ever have dreamed of (or without being shunned by the community immediately). WWII is the US’s favorite war to talk about because the cause was good and pure but it also helps to construct a formidable foe who is not just a completely misguided fanatic but also a master of waging war in a neutral sense. It makes the victory that much sweeter and I think that especially games suffer tremendously from this attempt to balance factions and classes when it comes to deal with war… every army competes on a strict firepower level where all the horrible shades of grey simply have no place anymore.
It seems also that the US has way more successfully mastered the idea of decoupling their armed forces from politics or the current administration. While it would be quite unthinkable here that the Bundeswehr right now or the Wehrmacht back then are just some more or less independent force doing their duty somwhere, it is the essence of indiscriminately thanking people for their service, no matter what that service might have entailed, pretending that bravery and valor will always amount to something good and true.
I do not want this to come across as taking away from the German stake in all of this. It is just that depictions of the war have been clearly dominated by the US (and the USSR to a somewhat lesser extend) for the last decades and both of these sides had their reasons to mitigate the German regular armies’ contributions to the greatest crimes during the 1930s and 1940s. The whole mythology about Nazi Secret Weapons, the silent absorption of the scientists who created these weapons (see Operation Paperclip etc.), and the fetishization of great supervillains who are allowed to dress very fashionable and talk in a funny accent, but not allowed to come with all that extra baggage of complex politics clearly did not help in creating a more complex picture about the Wehrmacht and their complicity in Nazi atrocities.