The Trouble with Nazis
Revisionism, Revisioning Zombies in Dust,
and a New Unit Card
First of all, I love Dust.
I love playing Dust Tactics. I love the over-the-top world of Dust. I love Paolo Parente's artwork for the game. I love the ironic historical twists the writers of the game spin from their initial premise. I love how Parente's passion for his Weird War II extends to comics, and models of all scales, and even a straight-up board game —control deep-sea VK deposits to power your factories and take over the world!
The only thing I don't love about Dust is its fear of Nazis. I understand this fear. Parente's cheesecake illustration style threatens to glorify everything it depicts not just the female form. Facination with the German war machine is endemic in pop culture (hence, DUST!) but, thanks to history, this is problematic. Nazi worship is a reprehensible thing, a real thing in the world, and easily tickled by sexy depictions of the Wehrmacht. I respect the creators of Dust for the pains they've taken to avoid this slippery zone. They don't use Nazi emblems, Nazi characters, or Nazi-redolent aspects of the German Army such as the SS, in their stories and artwork. They actually make the assassination of Hitler central to their story! But then I think they go too far.
Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, visiting Dachau Concentration Camp in 1936
Immediately after the Assassination they posit a complete purge of the Nazi Party and Nazi loyalists from the German army. "Nazis everywhere were arrested, and, except for a few armed units that were integrated into the regular army, the SS was disbanded. Many Nazis were tried and imprisoned or executed." During the middle of the war? Of course, careful storytelling can account for any series of events, but to me this seems like an overreach in order to be done with those nasty Nazis once and for all so that we can have fun playing our game untroubled by thoughts of death camps. To me it borders on revisionism.
Is this a fair criticism? We're talking about a game after all. The charge of historical revisionism is usually reserved for governments, political parties, Fox News, or some other wacko entity with an axe to grind. And isn't this game based on an alternative telling of history? Isn't that revisionist by definition?
To answer the last question first, No, it isn't. Revisionism refers to the attempt to redefine historical events in the context of understanding them as facts. Alternative history stories aren't inherently revisionist; they're fictions and the magic of art shields them from the charge.
Well then, what's my beef?
As goes without saying (so let it be said again), the Holocaust was such a failure of humanity we must always be mindful of it —and of Cambodia, and Bosnia— lest we allow our societies to be pushed there again, —and Rwanda, and Gaza… Any treatment of WWII such as a movie, novel or game, has a responsibility to the telling of history, even fictional ones. The fiction can do what it wants to, but the tone, the broad strokes,† must be true.
Soviet POWs, Mauthausen Concentration Camp
Writing the Nazis out of Dust essentially eliminates the Holocaust from the game since the Holocaust itself doesn't figure specifically in the events of Dust. Without the trains, camps and ovens, or the people infamous for running them, the Holocaust vanishes from this alternate history. Not that it needs to a centerpiece of it, but it should be there in the background. As I've said, I don't want Dust to be about the Holocaust and about Nazism. (It's about aliens and mechs, and that's great!) But these elements of WWII shouldn't be missing altogether.††
An SS-Totenköpfverbände squad leader. The SS-TV ran the Nazi concentration camps.
Lastly, games function differently than other kinds of art because of player agency: a game puts its audience inside its story in a different way than traditional forms of narrative – not in a necessarily deeper way, but in a potentially more seductive way. Because the player is made to feel in control of the narrative, they may buy into the story more, in this case, a story where the Holocaust doesn't appear to happen.
I think a better approach is to fold Nazism into the story and neutralize it with satire. The elements necessary to do so already exist in the world of Dust… zombies!
Untermenschen become Untertoten
I don't know who to credit for this idea, but it's brilliant (and yes, in very bad taste, as good satire often is).
Zombies, as currently written into Dust, are dead German soldiers re-animated with an experimental serum in order to replenish the ranks of the German Army after the devastating losses suffered in the Battle of Stalingrad. This twist on historical events is fine enough. With stereotypical German efficiency, the Wehrmacht solves the problem of war casualties.
However, there was another problem involving even more dead bodies that Nazi Germany was dealing with at the same time. Why not apply the Wiederbelebungsserum to the dead produced by the many Nazi extermination camps? Wouldn't that show even greater efficiency? Now the Final Solution solves all of Germany's problems!
This satirical extention of Nazi ideology highlights their evil instead of letting them off the hook. We can still play our game as noble tank commanders and rugged grenadiers, but not without knowing in the back of our minds that our bloc is perpetrating horrible crimes in excess of those normal during war.
An extension of this revision of Dust (zombies made from the victims of the concentration camps), is to turn the Braineaters, a zombie grenadier squad, into the Totenkörperverbände, a zombie guard squad.
The Braineaters are Ubertoten, zealous soldiers who volunteered to ingest Wiederbelebungsserum while still alive. The serum grants the living the ferocity of zombies without sacrificing intelligence. Unlike the mindless Untertoten, Ubertoten can use weapons and execute field tactics. Like Untertoten, they become vicious, inhuman creatures.
The Totenkörperverbände are an Ubertoten, armed Unit like the Braineaters. They fight fanatically but they also have another job on the battlefield, to manage any Untertoten Units in their proximity. Ideological purity grants them the Blutkreuz Skill, which gives them the ability to motivate their former prisoners to move and attack with greater effect.
Note: Totenkörperverbände do not themselves have the Charge Skill, but they can grant it to Mindless Zombie Units. "Schnell. Schnell!"
† What broad historical strokes are these? 1) That the whole world was at war: between 1939 and 1945 almost all nations, and all regions were drawn into the conflict. 2) That WWII was the deadliest war of all time with civilian casualties far higher than in past wars: in total 60-85 million people died, 38-55 million of whom were non-combatants. 3) That Nazi Germany practiced mass killing against civilians, and perpetrated genocide against Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. And 4) that the German people were not unaware of these practices and the German Army (not just the special forces tasked with extermination) aided them.
"Einsatzgruppen (German for "task forces") were SS paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany that were responsible for mass killings, primarily by shooting, during World War II. The Einsatzgruppen had a leading role in the implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish question (Die Endlösung der Judenfrage) in territories conquered by Nazi Germany. Almost all of the people they killed were civilians, beginning with the Polish intelligentsia and swiftly progressing to Soviet political commissars, Jews, and Gypsies throughout Eastern Europe."
"The Einsatzgruppen operated in territories occupied by the German armed forces following the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) in June 1941. The Einsatzgruppen carried out operations ranging from the murder of a few people to operations which lasted over two or more days, such as the massacre at Babi Yar (33,771 killed in two days) and the Rumbula massacre (25,000 killed in two days). As ordered by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, the Wehrmacht cooperated with the Einsatzgruppen and provided logistical support for their operations."
"Historian Raul Hilberg estimates that between 1941 and 1945 the Einsatzgruppen and related auxiliary troops killed more than two million people, including 1.3 million Jews. The total number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust is estimated at 5.5 to 6 million people."
†† Note that even if the authors DO wish to eliminate the Holocaust from the game, placing a purge of Nazis in Spring 1943 doesn't achieve that. "In 1941, as Germany conquered new territory in eastern Europe, specialized paramilitary units called Einsatzgruppen were used to murder around two million Jews and political opponents in mass shootings. By the end of 1942, victims were being regularly transported by freight train to specially built extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, most were systematically killed in gas chambers."
title image: SS-Totenköpfverbände officers standing in front of prisoners at Gusen Concentration Camp, 1941.