In this final article, I’ll discuss how video games like Call of Duty and Company of Heroes II especially dehumanised the Soviet soldiers fighting in WWII. There will be an epilogue post probably, later, where I go over some general points I’ve realised about how WWII games are designed.
Unarmed and scared soldiers, packed within a derelict barge, approach a burning city. German artillery and air attacks destroy the barges, moving across the grey river. Desperate men jump ship and are promptly shot by their own officers for desertion.
Once off board, one man is given a rifle, and the one behind him five rounds for the rifle. When the man with the rifle is killed, the man with the ammo picks up the rifle.
They are sent headfirst into German machine gun positions, attacking in waves of unarmed and unwilling men. Hundreds die, and those that turn back, are shot to pieces by their own officers.
This was taken, almost scene for scene, from the movie ‘Enemy at the Gates’, and has become one of the most famous scenes in WWII movies and WWII FPS games.
The origins of this idea goes back to the invasion of the Soviet Union. Caught unawares and unprepared, the Soviets suffered immense casualties in both manpower, industry, supplies, and logistics in the first five months of 1941.
The Red Army had more than it’s shares of ups and downs, to put it lightly. Often times due to it’s own officers, as it happens in any large army on the field, but compounded due to the fact that Stalin had executed or imprisoned many experienced officers.
In horrifying, criminal, and desperate attempts at Stalingrad, the Soviet secret police (the NKVD) forcibly conscripted civilians into hastily assembled militias in order to conduct suicidal delaying actions. Many of them were not armed well and certainly none of them were trained. To the Germans, this was validation of their idea that the Soviets were subhuman mongrels. These instances were then extrapolated and applied to the whole of the Soviet armed forces throughout the whole of WWII.
However, they was able to learn from it’s mistakes, and from 1942-45 the Soviets were suffering comparativley less casualties to ’41, and eventually the Soviets triumphed. That’s not at all to say these instances didn’t happen. They did, and the Soviet state was responsible for them, but it is a mistake to extrapolate that to the whole of the Red Army, throughout the whole of the war. What you end up doing is portraying them as little more than unintelligent brutes.
Many people and gamers especially now believe this was literally the only way the entire Soviet army functioned throughout the whole of the war.
Company of Heroes II, is far worse.
The game parrots the same point– that Soviet soldiers were sent into the meatgrinder with no weapons– but the game takes it a step further and gives us scenes such as officers shooting their own men for leaving their post to save a commanding officer, destroying an attacking German battalion in the process.
The game explicitly implies that the Soviet soldiers didn’t fight for any tangible goal, or drive, that they fought for nothing or that all of them were forced into fighting for no real reason. In the games own narration, the entire war was simply to plant the flag upon the Reichstag, and literally nothing else. The ONLY reason any of the Soviets put up a fight at Stalingrad was because all of them would’ve been executed if they didn’t. Any potential motivation that the soldiers could’ve had, are erased. That many of them were fighting for their homes and friends, is absent.
Contrast this with how the previous games in the series portrayed the other combatants. Americans, British, and even the Germans are portrayed as proffesional and ‘honorable’. The Soviet soldiers are caricaturised to an insulting extent.
We’re perfectly okay to accept the fact that US soldiers travelled across the Atlantic to liberate Europe from a fascist tyranny that most of them never experienced, but slow to accept the idea that many Soviet soldiers also fought to liberate their own people.
The actions of every other army is framed as heroic while the Soviet soldiers doing the same thing is framed as the opposite, making the title of the game more than a little bit ironic. The Nazis are afforded more respect and consideration than the Soviet soldiers.
The Barbaric Slav
The end result of this was that the Soviet soldier, the man or woman fighting on the field, was portrayed as having no agency, free will or even an understanding of why they were fighting. It is at it’s core, extremely dehumanising.
This isn’t in any way to say that the Soviet regime was somehow a benevolent force, unfairly targeted in the biased Western media. That’s false. The Soviet Regime was a horrifying entity, worthy of scorn and derision as any other dictatorship responsible for the deaths of millions. It commited uncountable crimes against it’s own people and others, before, during and after WWII.
Even if the blocking detatchments were overblown in video games, the fact they existed as a function in any way is more than a bit creepy and tragic. The Soviets and the Germans both used penal battalions, where the casualty rate was often 50%.
And I’m not talking about the Soviet regime itself, but about the lowly grunts out on the field who had to deal with the horrors of the war the most; the soldiers who fought, suffered, and died during WWII, that these games portrayed as barely human, with no goals, free will, agency, or purpose, no context for why they were there. Their stories and experiences, feelings, and opinions, completely erased. The very real trauma and tragedy that the Soviets as a people experienced under the Nazi bootheel is washed out.
The Soviet soldier suffered some of the worst horrors of WWII. Nazi racial politics dictated that the Soviet peoples were to be enslaved and exterminated. The Soviets watched as an explicitly genocidal machine of hate thundered into their homes and took everything away from them. This war was openly a war of extermination. The Eastern Front was the scene of the worst atrocities of WWII, and that deserves to be portrayed.
The game does portray Soviet war crimes against the Poles during WWII, but they also completely remove German crimes and The Holocaust from the equation.
Many Soviet soldiers fought because they knew losing was not something any of them could afford. To lose would’ve been to accept complete annihilation of them, their families, loved ones ,and their whole people. To many Soviets, WWII was an existential war.
Company of Heroes 2 and Call of Duty 1 conveniently forget all this historical context in favor of portraying all of them as pathetic and fighting only because they had a gun at their backs. Not for any reason such as vengance, or wanting to protect their homes, country, their friends– or Hell, even out of communist conviction.
The game wholesale buys into the idea of the German Ubermensch fighting the Slavic Untermensch.
And again, I feel I need to reiterate this again, this is not in any way saying that the SOVIET STATE was benevolent or misunderstood, or even that this one experience was universial to every Soviet soldier.
Some Soviet soldiers definatley felt like they had to choose between a lesser evil, not being sent to a Gulag, and some even saw the Nazis as that lesser evil.
But that choosing this one single portrayal, of every Soviet soldier as an unwilling lamb only fit for slaughter, as the ONLY portayal, robs people of the harsh nuances and horrifying situations these people found themselves in and reduces them to racist stereotypes that the Nazis themselves propogated.
The portrayal brings up the image of the filthy, barbaric, uncivilised and brainless Slavs, throwing their bodies into the gears of the superior German machine, until it clogs and breaks because of the sheer force brought upon by their mindless and even needless sacrifice. This sentiment is echoed and re-iterated constantly, again, on forums devoted to WWII video games.
This also happily ignores the fact that, when the Germans were at their own most desperate moments, they also threw away soldiers in costly offensives they couldn’t afford, refused to let soldiers retreat, died to the last man and began forcibly recruiting civilians, the elderly, teenagers and Hitler Youth into hastily assembled, barely trained and poorly armed militias. The British and Japanese had their own versions as well.
Both of these entities were at their core, murderous regimes, and at their most desperate moments, neither of them really valued human lives.
The Soviets are constantly portrayed as having no grasp on any military matter, either tactic or strategic. Their only avenue of victory is to throw as many men into the fray as they can until the Germans simply exhaust themselves to death. This is presented without context. Even when it did happen, it did not happen because the Soviets were just ‘stupid Slavs’ as many seem to believe, but because their own system and government failed them to such a point that it happened at all.
To be entirely fair to Call of Duty at least, later installments moved away from this and even gave clear motivations for why many Soviets fought. In CoDII the Soviet main character writes how his whole family was killed by the Germans, his motivation clearly being revenge. In CoDV: World at War, the character of Sgt. Reznov goes into vivid detail about the horrors that have befallen the Soviet people at the hands of the German invasion, and he hints and later acts out, the vengeful reprisals that were inflicted upon the German populace by the invading Soviets.
David Glantz, a historian specialising in the history of the Red Army, has written dozens of books on the evolution of the Red Army, both it’s many failures and subsequent refinement and successes. Of particular note is their use of the ‘deep battle’ doctrine, co-operation between sophisticated artillery barrages, tanks and infantry, their skillful use of the ‘maskirovka’ doctrine to fool, deceive, and lead the Germans on wild goose chases (David M. Glantz When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler)
The reality of the Eastern Front during WWII is far more complex and saddly, maybe too complex for video games to grasp or accurately portray.