On Thursday, Germany loosened its ban on the use of Nazi symbology in computer and video games — a change that comes as part of a decades-long evolution in how the country has grappled with its own past.
The Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body, which decides on national ratings for computer and video games in Germany, will now allow games with Nazi symbols such as swastikas to be deemed “socially adequate” as long as the the symbols are used for historical accuracy. The move now puts games on an equal footing with films and other works of art, which have likewise been allowed to use the symbols if they were used for accurate historical depictions. (The rule also applies to symbols of other “anti-constitutional” ideas.)
The debate that culminated in the change was sparked by the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The game depicts an alternate version of history in which the Nazi regime was not defeated in World War II; players must fight to bring the world out of Hitler’s control. However, the German version of the game replaces swastikas with triangles and strips the game’s reality of other historical symbols, including Hitler’s mustache, from the game’s visuals. The precedent for taking Nazi symbols out of games was set in 1998 when a German court ruled that an earlier version of the game, Wolfenstein 3D, could not use any of the symbols. The court ruled that it did not matter that the symbols were located in the areas of the game given to the enemy. “If such a use of prohibited symbols in computer games were permitted,” the court stated, “it would hardly be possible to counteract a development towards their increasing use in public.”
But, in April, the German Attorney General ruled that video games could also fall under the the same art exemption applied to films, stating that the Wolfenstein ruling was outdated now that age ratings were in place for video games.
The ban of Nazi symbols has a long history in German starting right after Hitler’s defeat by the Allies in 1945. Here’s what to know about how Nazi symbols were banned in the first place:
The Postwar Period
At the end of World War II, Germany was split into East Germany, controlled by the Soviet Union, and West Germany, with sections controlled by the U.S., the U.K. and France. The allies then began the process known as “denazification.” According to Monica Black, a professor of German history at the University of Tennessee, the process of denazification included everything from the very public Nuremberg trials to less headline-grabbing attempts to lock members of the Nazi party out of civil-service positions.
“There was also the very public removal of symbols of Nazism,” she says. “Everything from the names of street signs to postage stamps, blowing up whole buildings or chipping Nazi symbols from the facade of public buildings across the country.”
The Allies’ ban on swastikas and other Nazi symbology was further codified when the new Constitution of Germany was created in 1949 in West Germany. At the same time, the concept of Volksverhetzung — “incitement to hatred” — was codified as well. Anyone who denigrates an individual or group based on their ethnicity or religion or rouses violence against a specific group could, after that, face prison time.
There was also, says Black, an unspoken agreement that further cemented the public confrontation of Nazi symbolism and made sure such signs were not tolerated in public. Because many of those in the Third Reich actually were integrated into the government system and the economic market, it was almost impossible to rebuild an entire functioning political system without people who had such experience. The solution, in many cases, was not to talk about it.
“A democracy was created on the ashes of this terrible crime,” Black said. “In West Germany there was a pact that was struck — a lot of the crimes of the past were not going to be prosecuted after the war but the deal with that was that Neo-Nazi elements would not be tolerated.”
Cold War to the Present
During the Cold War Era in the 1950s, the German Penal Code was updated to include a section that stated that it was illegal to disseminate or produce symbols including particular flags, insignia, uniforms, slogans and forms of greeting from parties that had been deemed unconstitutional, which included the Nazi party. This law is what was used to really scrub any remaining symbols of Nazism form the public sphere.
The notable exemption to that rule is known as the “art exception,” which allows these symbols to be reproduced if it is for the purposes of scientific research, historical purposes or historical accuracy in media including film, books and plays.
During the 1960s, these laws because very important and heavily enforced. According to Frederick Taylor, the author of Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, the ’60s were when Germans really began evaluating their history and engaging with it to ensure the Nazi ideology would not enter their society again.
“It was illegal before that, but it’s really been properly enforced since the 60s,” Taylor says. “That’s when a whole new generation came up and looked at their parents and their grandparents and said, ‘What the hell have you been doing?’”
One instance that Taylor cites was the passage of additional laws regarding speech surrounding Nazism. After a series of Jewish places of worship were vandalized in 1959, starting in Cologne, Germany, and then in New York, Vienna and London, the German government criminalized Holocaust Denial in 1960. Both before and after German unification, the government made a serious effort to show the world that it was confronting the Holocaust.
From then until today, there has been strict official intolerance of anything related to Nazism. Lifting the ban on Nazi symbols in video games may come as a bit of a shock to others around the world who are used to German censorship of Nazism in the public sphere — but both Taylor and Black agree that the news isn’t necessarily something to be concerned about. Germany is now a mature democracy, they say, with a government that continues to evaluate its past while updating its policies for modern life. That includes new levels of respect for video games.
“It’s a mature democracy that is always going to be confronting new questions about its past in the present,” says Black. “It’s responding to those questions both in light of the past but also to accommodate the changing circumstances of the present.”