You know the quote. It has various edits and permutations, but here’s one you’ve probably heard:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
One place you might not expect to hear this? A video game press conference. That’s more or less what happened yesterday, when Ubisoft debuted the cinematic trailer for Watch Dogs: Legion during its not-E3 event, “Ubisoft Forward.” Over footage of a masked man sprinting through near-future London, an unnamed narrator recites a modernized spin on that quote.
The original quote is from the poem, “First they came…,” by Martin Niemöller. In the late 1920s and through the early 1930s, Niemöller, a German citizen and Lutheran pastor, initially supported the rise of the Third Reich, believing Nazi rule would revitalize a country still on its heels from World War I. There’s some debate among historians over whether or not Niemöller was explicitly antisemitic or simply wanted to make Germany great again. But in my experience, if you have to ask the question, you don’t need to hear the answer.
As the decade went on, Niemöller loudly took issue with some aspects of Nazi doctrine—nothing involving persecution, mind you, but rather with the matter of state control over religious practice. Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and spent the rest of the war imprisoned in one way or another. In 1941 the Nazis transferred him to the Dachau concentration camp, where he stayed until its liberation in 1945. (Though not designated as an extermination camp, like those at Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau recorded a staggering 41,500 deaths over the course of its operation. There’s no known number for unrecorded deaths at the facility.)
After the war, Niemöller came to regret supporting the Nazi regime. His poem is, ultimately, a public self-reckoning, one that people can neatly and conveniently point at to explain away one of the darkest periods in recorded history. For all those who look back at the Holocaust and ask, “Okay, but how’d that happen?,” well, “First they came…” is your answer.
So, to put it lightly, it’s an interesting experience to queue up a trailer for a blockbuster video game—one notably not about Nazis—and hear this:
First, they came for the foreigners, and I did not speak out, because I was not a foreigner. Then they came for the protestors, and I did not speak out, because I was not a protestor. Then they came for the journalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a journalist. Then they came for street artists, and I did not speak out, because I am not a street artist. I realized, eventually, they’d come for me. There would be no one left to speak for me.
There’s paying homage, and then there’s warping a historic relic for insidious purposes. This falls squarely in the latter. When you consider that trailers—cinematic ones, especially—are marketing materials in their purest form, meant to drum up anticipation for an expensive product, there’s an unmistakable smack of cynicism at play here. You can’t even reasonably file the Legion trailer in the catch-all fair-use drawer of satire. (For that, search Twitter, Reddit, and other social media for “Then they came for the gamers” jokes.)
Of course, there are larger things to worry about vis-à-vis Ubisoft. For weeks, widespread allegations of sexual misconduct have swirled around the French publisher, which led to some high-profile departures on Saturday. Before yesterday’s showcase, the only thing the company said about these events is that it wouldn’t say anything about them, despite having weeks to prepare a statement.
I should mention, too, that I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Watch Dogs: Legion. The “play as literally anyone you see” mechanic looks and sounds pretty promising. I also know that development and marketing teams usually operate with church-and-state separation. The countless talented, motivated individuals building Legion deserve no scrutiny for the marketing machine’s poor taste in using Niemöller’s poem.
Still, yesterday’s trailer made me raise an eyebrow. This should go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said: Don’t use the Holocaust to promote a multimillion-dollar media property.