The desktop computer that sits in my room glows in rainbow colours, my keyboard is backlit in red, and I have two monitors. Growing up, I had a boyish interest in military history, and the video games I played for entertainment aligned with such tastes. My first memory of this simulated murder comes from when I was eight; I was a United States Ranger storming the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day in Call of Duty II, and I had Nazis to kill. The Second World War became my favourite subject matter. To many, these things might register as warning signs – the hallmarks of a nocturnal life spent engaging in what are violent pastimes, woven within a troubling relationship with the internet.
These days I take to a more diverse array of hobbies. But with an abundance of free time in the isolation of earlier this year, I began replaying many of the games that had brought joy to me as a boy. Amongst these was a strategy game called Company of Heroes II, which requires the player to command squadrons of soldiers from the armies of WWII on a 3D battlefield. As such, the player can choose to play as the Nazi Wehrmacht. Each faction is unique, but there is a golden rule – Wehraboos only play Germany.
A Wehraboo is a Nazi military “enthusiast.” The word is a portmanteau of Wehrmacht and weeaboo, and it’s a term that emerged from strategy game circles to describe those that play Nazi factions to engage with their military fascinations in an interactive way. These interests often appear harmless, as the average conversation between Wehraboos is not a political one, but a technical one; play one of these games and you’ll much sooner hear an argument about the superiority of the German Panther tank to the American Jackson equivalent. Lull one of these people into a sense of interpersonal comfort, and they may feel inclined to disclose the full extent of their relationship with the Third Reich. In one such game of Company of Heroes II, I inadvertently found myself, an ardently progressive uni student from Sydney with a Jewish surname and Grandfather, engaging in conversation with a Finnish national socialist.
Playing a 1v1 game of Company of Heroes II as the Soviets, I was matched against the Wehrmacht. The crucial moments of the game – mass assaults, flanking manoeuvres, armoured encounters – were punctuated by messages from my opponent in the game’s text-based chat: “fucking T-34s shit tanks” – “Zis OP” (over-powered) – “eat shit. blitzkrieg time.” Such messages are part and parcel when playing these games.
As sometimes occurs after a closely contested match, my opponent asked for a second game. I agreed. Unexpectedly, the other player then sent me a link to a Discord server. The server was populated by some sixty users, and of those who were online, they were mostly listed playing strategy games: Company of Heroes II, Hearts of Iron IV, Europa Universalis IV, Civilisations V. The text channel was mundane, this appeared to be nothing more than a generic gaming Discord.
I joined a voice channel with my opponent, whose accent I did not recognise. He explained that he was Finnish. We began our second game and each played the same factions. The conversation that followed was sporadic, and grew increasingly troubling. Unlike the latter conversation in this piece, which was documented verbatim, I didn’t think to record this one – I hadn’t yet decided I would be writing an article. What follows is a version of that conversation, which I jotted in the notes on my phone after we stopped speaking. As was the case in our text conversation during the first match, he did most of the talking.
As the second game began, we discussed the previous match. My opponent criticised a tactic I had used: “you shouldn’t spam T-34s like that, it’s a scummy tactic.”
“They’re much weaker than Panzer IVs, spamming them is necessary.”
“But they’re way too cheap. It’s not balanced!”
Balance refers to how well the game designers have weighed the strengths and weaknesses of each faction against the others, making a match fair. The balance in Company of Heroes II is designed to mirror the strategies of the armies they represent. The Soviets prefer quantity over quality, the Nazis vice versa.
“T-34s are cheap because they’re not good. It’s balanced,” I replied.
The point at which I understood that my opponent’s Wehraboo fascinations extended beyond weaponised machines occurred when I repeated this tactic in the second game, to a greater effect.
“If this were real, two Panzer IVs and a Panther would fuck up four T-34s. Soviet engineers were dog shit.”
Adopting an inquisitive and polite tone, I decided to bite. “I don’t think they were bad engineers, they just had a different design philosophy. If Russia’s greatest advantage over the Germans was scale, then it only made sense that they extended a strategy of overwhelming numbers to their tank production as well.”
“That’s bullshit, the Russians are idiots. They can’t design shit. Their armour was simple because they weren’t smart enough to design anything better. We fucked them over so badly they couldn’t even conquer us. They’re cockroaches.”
The conversation had become personal to him. The event that he was referring to was the Soviet invasion of Finland over the winter of 1939/40, in which the Russians were forced to compromise on the peace treaty, having initially failed to take little more land from the Fins than they needed to sure up the defence of Leningrad. The war is held as a point of national pride for Fins. The fact that the Fins then cooperated with the Nazis during the subsequent Continuation War remains a difficult truth that many Fins, and many Europeans at large, believe remains unreconciled by the national conscience.
At this point in the match, my tank column had reached the Fin’s base and I was about to win. “Cockroaches?” I asked.
“Yes, the Russians are fucking cockroaches. Subhuman.”
I had never spoken to a real fascist, and the conviction with which this man spoke led me to suspect that he meant ‘subhuman’ quite literally.
“In what way are they subhuman?” I continued to be polite, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“It’s genetic. You know what a Slav is?”
“An Eastern European, right?” I wanted to keep it personal for him and continued: “Aren’t Fins Slavs?”
“Fuck no, we’re natives, always been here. Fins are Fins. The Russians are Slavs and Slavs are genetically inferior.”
Our match had finished and I had won. I was now thoroughly convinced that the man on the other side of my screen was a Nazi. In the fifteen seconds of silence that followed, I decided that I wanted to better understand this person, and that I may be able to write about it. It was at this point that I started jotting notes in my phone.
“Is that not what the Nazis thought about Jews? That they were genetically inferior? With the Holocaust and all.” I couldn’t appear utterly incredulous.
“Yes, but what you learn about the Holocaust at school is not accurate. There are a lot of lies told about it.”
“Oh, what kind of lies? I didn’t learn that much about it at school.”
“A lot of it is lies. The gas chambers, for one. The number, six million. You know it wasn’t even Hitler’s idea?”
“No, I didn’t. That’s really surprising to hear. Where did you learn about this? I’ve never looked into it.”
“If you want to know, I can add you to another Discord.”
I had hit a potential goldmine for understanding these people, and I was horrified. I wanted to meet characters, individual Nazis. I wanted to know, plainly, what a crypto-fascist was like as a human being.
“Yeah man, send me the link. I’ve got to head off, but I’ll join on my other Discord account.”
At this point we parted ways. I didn’t need to go at that moment, but didn’t want to progress any further using my personal accounts. Using a VPN, I gave myself a Canadian IP address. I created a new Discord account, linked back to a new email. At this point, I felt I had sufficiently distanced my real self from the inquisitive gamer the population of this new Discord would meet.
Joining the Discord, I was met by a myriad of disturbing memes in a text channel populated by only 16 accounts. It was a horrifying thing. The humour of the posters was racist, sexist, homophobic, and Christian-centred. No topic was safe from their commentary: the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Balkan Wars, the Spanish Inquisition. This humour was also competitive – posters would egg each other on to express increasingly detestable views. One image depicted a pregnant Anne Frank standing alongside Confederate soldiers, who had liberated the Netherlands from Nazi occupation.
Such alternative history fantasies proved common. One evening I spoke to an American whose favourite game was Paradox’s Victoria II. From 2010, this strategy game has an expansion pack that allows the player to play as the Confederacy. He joked to me that he had played the game so many times that “Robert E. Lee has stepped foot in every country on the map.”
Another member of the Discord joined this conversation and began sending us links to downloadable Hearts of Iron IV modifications that allowed the player to pursue the Final Solution as an in-game event. Hearts of Iron IV is another World War II strategy game.
In the discord’s text channel, a discussion of Rule 34 followed the disturbing image of Confederate Anne Frank. Rule 34 is one of the ‘rules of the internet,’ which holds that if something exists, there exists pornography of it. A user then sent a link to the Deviant Art page of an artist he had commissioned to draw an image for him. According to the user, the artist was willing to draw anything for the right sum. When asked what he had had drawn for him, he simply responded: “femboy hitler.” I was thankful he didn’t follow this by sending the image.
I decided to message the artist; the idea of an illustrator enabling such horrid sexual fantasies seemed resoundingly unethical, and I wished to understand whether the artist had somehow justified this consciously, or if they were some kind of crypto-fascist too.
I introduced myself in text conversation: “Hey, I heard that you’re open to doing commissions on any subject, is that true?”
Taking me as a potential customer, the artist confirmed, “Yep! If you pay me $40 for every hour of my time spent I will draw whatever you want.”
“I was hoping to ask you about some of the work you’ve done in the past.”
“My commissions are exclusive and they are owned by the patron. If you want to see the work you have to ask them. I respect the privacy of my customers.”
“Of course, I more wanted to ask about the nature of the work.”
“What do you mean?”
“I heard from someone that you’ve done Nazi and Confederate porn. Is that true?”
“Yeah I have is that what you want? No judgement from me. And it’s not porn, it’s lewd art.”
“Ah, right. But you wouldn’t call yourself a Nazi?”
“Haha no definitely not.”
“Well, how do you justify facilitating that kinda stuff?”
“The way I see it is that it’s a private transaction. I have a skill and they’ve got cash. Whatever they do with the images is up to them.”
I was glad that the artist was being responsive to my questions, and I began pressing harder. It was clear that they had, at least to some degree, considered the ethics of their work. Continuing, I asked: “Would you consider someone using your art as porn inappropriate?”
“Yeah I guess I do but I don’t lose sleep over it. Better that I can draw what they want in a controlled environment than if they tried to live it out.”
“But surely your role in the process reinforces the customer’s mindset, right? And contributes to the normalising of this kind of porn?”
“It’s not porn. And hey sex is weird. As I said I’m not one to judge.”
“Is there anything you wouldn’t draw?”
“Yeah probably if someone asked for something super fucked up. I haven’t been asked to do anything that I haven’t been okay with doing.”
“Wouldn’t a lot of people describe drawing lewd Nazi art super fucked up?”
“Nah I mean necrophilia and that shit. Wouldn’t draw it.”
Not only had the artist thought about these things, but they had drawn their own proverbial line. I was stumped as to what to ask next, before they continued: “Look do you want me to draw something for you or not? I really don’t judge.”
“I don’t think I will, but thanks for answering my questions.”
Reaching the end of this conversation, I found myself feeling as if I had also reached the end of my plunge into this dark corner of the internet. I was beginning to suspect that my time as a newcomer to the Discord, who the other members were treating kindly so as to bring me into the fold, was over. They had come to expect me to take part in their humour, and as each conversation began with gaming and moved towards politics, they were taking note of the fact that my contributions would cease.
One evening, after I failed yet again to laugh at a joke about Jews, I was, seemingly jokingly, accused of being a “kike.” Later that evening, I quietly left the server, deleted the Discord account, and turned off my VPN. I was a member of that server for ten days, and I had experienced the alt-right pipeline.
The competitive nature of the games that these people play shapes the social and political organisation of their Discords. The new gamer seeks at first to prove to others that he is a capable gamer. The hierarchies that form within the communities of particular games are skill-based. When the content of these games is historical, the best players emerge from those who are invested in this subject matter. In the case of WWII games, these are often the Wehraboos. To earn the fellowship and advice of the best of players, those of lesser skill seek validation, and when the Discord’s top dog happens to also be a fascist, the pipeline forms. A search for guidance as to the mechanics of a game can become guidance as to how one should understand the subject matter of the game itself. German tanks are the best because Germans are the best.
They had thought I was one of these vulnerable gamers, and as they realised I was more self-assured than they had thought, they had grown tired of me. I reported the server to the Discord company. Following the link that the Finnish man gave me months ago now yields a 404 error. I can only imagine these people are routinely starting new Discords. I never learnt a single one of their names, they will remain usernames: TheBigSlip, Deus Gulp, aut0sensational, KEISERbill… I imagine these usernames are constantly changing too.