Sid Meier’s Civilization games let players rule over a civilization from its foundation in 4,000 B.C. to a theoretical future era powered by fusion technology. Players pick from real historic civilizations and real historic individuals to serve as avatars in their games. These historical figures are typically the most famous leaders in the given civilization’s history. So the American civilization has Washington, Lincoln, FDR, etc. The Roman civilization Julius Caesar, Augustus, Constantine, etc.
The German civilization has… Otto von Bismarck (who was never actually a leader), Frederick Barbarossa (a Holy Roman Emperor), Frederick the Great (technically Prussian, but close enough), and Maria Theresa (technically Austrian, not close enough).
If you asked a random selection of people in America, Germany, or anywhere in the world to name the most famous German leader in history, somehow I don’t think any of those three would be a common choice.
So why isn’t Adolf Hitler in the Civilization series?
Yes, I know the obvious answer.
Adolf Hitler was super evil. He started a series of wars which lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people while leading a systematic annihilation of 11 million individuals within his own borders. Thus he’s often considered to be the evilest individual in the history of mankind. He’s so evil that his name is invoked as a standard by which evil is measured and a shorthand stand in for the very concept of evil. He’s the worst possible person or thing that anyone can be compared to.
If Hitler was a playable leader in the Civilization games it would mean making light of absolute horror. The evilest man ever would be depicted as a cartoon caricature whose atrocities would be marginalized and overshadowed by shallow, gamey stat modifiers (Charismatic – 2+ happiness in each city, Industrious – 25%+ hammers on wonder construction). This would not only remove Hitler from his rightfully earned image, but also disrespect his living victims and relatives of his victims.
That might be true, but…
Civilizations I and IV let you play as Joseph Stalin. The Soviet leader ordered massive purges of the Communist Party, used human wave tactics in World War II, and manufactured famines which slaughtered around 20 million Soviet citizens. Whether Stalin was worse than Hitler only comes down to how many of the WWII casualties can be attributed to the latter.
Civilizations I, III, and IV lets you play as Mao Zedong. The Chinese leader used communist policies similar to Stalin, but due to China’s population size, he managed to starve about 45 million people. After you throw in the state-sanctioned roving death squads of the Cultural Revolution, the civilian casualty rate under Mao’s China approached that of all of World War II combined.
If you want to push this argument further, consider that Civilizations I, IV, and V let you play as Genghis Khan. According to Dan Carlin’s “Wrath of the Khans” podcast series, Genghis Khan’s reign may have been the most deadly in the history of mankind by the standards of per capita global deaths, with maybe 5% of the world’s population being killed through his conquests and governance.
Then there’s Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who is best known for leading a mass slaughter of intellectuals and burying people alive in the foundations of the Great Wall. And there’s Montezuma II of the Aztecs who continued the long-standing tradition of disemboweling live humans for the sake of the gods. There’s Julius Caesar who lead a borderline genocidal military campaign in modern day France. There’s the Viking, Ragnar, known as a legendary raiding pillaging rapist of the British Isles. There’s Alexander the Great, the Greek butcher of countless Asian cities. All of whom are playable leaders in the Civilization games.
(And these are only the death tolls. The immense property damage, slavery, and suffering imposed by these leaders shouldn’t be ignored either.)
And considering that the Civilization games don’t have any modern leaders, probably every playable leader is in some way racist, sexist, and believes things that nearly every player would consider morally abhorrent. (Especially libertarians.)
Why is Hitler implicitly considered so much worse than these other leaders that Firaxis won’t put him in their games?
Hitler’s legacy isn’t any more modern than Stalin’s or Mao’s. In fact, Mao’s reign came significantly later than Hitler’s and the government Mao started is still in power today.
Hitler’s legacy of death and destruction isn’t particularly more brutal or gruesome than any of these other leaders either. Loading entire populations on trains to be shipped to gas chambers is pretty awful, but so is being eaten by your neighbor during a famine, or being used as a human shield during a siege. In fact, though the Civilization games purposefully avoid gruesome details, technically the player can implement artificial famines in their cities in much the same way Stalin and Mao did.
The only metric by which I can see Hitler’s legacy being more problematic than the others is cultural proximity. Most of the people Hitler killed were Europeans with direct or indirect cultural links to Americans. Most of the people Stalin killed were contained in the distant Russian hinterland (Ukrainians being the big exception), and Mao’s victims were all the way on the other side of the world. I don’t know if this factor is significant enough to warrant Hitler being off limits, but it is worth noting.
The Civilization series doesn’t seem to care about evil. It cares about “greatness” in the sense of having an impact on history. The games have been full of leaders, events, buildings, technologies, and actions which are evil, used for evil, or associated with evil. Yes, the visuals are typically cartoony and the games gloss over a lot of the awful historical building blocks which came before the era of peace and prosperity in which we now live, but the games still let the players commit slavery, raze cities, starve your own citizens, and nuke population centers. The Civilization games don’t care about evil, they only care about historical importance.
So why does Hitler seem to be the one historically awful thing the Civilization games don’t permit?
I don’t have an answer to that question, but I think it’s an interesting one. It’s interesting not because I am particularly concerned with the moral considerations of Firaxis, but because it’s a proxy data point for a broader societal trend: how do people rank evilness? Is it based on the past track record of an evil entity? Is it based on the present threat posed by that evil? Is it based on how similar or different a particular evil is to one’s present ideology? A combination of factors?
Consider most people’s reactions to the following three scenarios:
- A high school junior comes into school one day wearing a Che Guevara shirt, carrying a copy of the Communist Manifesto, and won’t shut up about how evil capitalism is.
- A high school junior comes into school one day wearing a Swastika shirt, carrying Mein Kampf, and won’t shut up about how evil Jews are.
- A high school junior comes into school one day wearing one of these, carrying a copy of The Secret History of the Mongols, and won’t shut up about how evil Tibetans are.
My speculation is that the response to the first scenario would be somewhere between “that kid is a complete idiot who has no idea what he’s talking about,” and “that kid has a lot of intellectual curiosity, good for him.”
My speculation is that the response to the second scenario would be somewhere between “that kid is totally fucked up and really needs help,” and “that kid is evil and will/should be in jail.”
My speculation is that the response to the third scenario would be bafflement, and at worst a concern for the kid’s mental health.
I don’t really have an opinion on the validity of those responses or their ranges, but I do find it interesting that in all three situations, the high school junior appears to have taken a liking to an ideology connected to the genocidal slaughter of millions of people, yet responses would vary considerably in terms of condemnation and sympathy.
Of course, the destruction of the Mongolian people is so geographically and temporally distant that almost no one has a visceral reaction to it anymore. Plenty of books have even been written in modern times praising Genghis Khan for the positive benefits of his conquests (increase trade, cultural exchange, law and order, etc.) which to a 13th century Chinese citizen would be the equivalent of praising Hitler for unifying Europe.
Yet the popular discrepancy in perceptions towards communists and Nazis strikes me as more interesting and arbitrary. It’s noteworthy that at least in terms of pure track record, Nazism has probably been less destructive than communism, yet the former has a far worse perception in America than the latter.
That same trend seems to carry over to the Civilization series. For whatever reason Adolf Hitler seems to be the one thing in history that is too evil for the games to include.
My gut instinct is to say this is wrong. The Civilization games are all about the nature of human civilization’s progression, and thus should contain all the bad and good involved in that process. Firaxis seems to basically agree with this proposition, hence the inclusion of nuclear warfare, manufactured famines, fascism, communism, etc. So I don’t see why Firaxis arbitrarily stops this principle at Adolf Hitler.
On the other hand, I don’t particularly have a strong opinion on the matter. I have no connection to Hitler, Nazi Germany, or Nazism as an ideology, so none of these entities/ideas are visceral to me. I guess I am open to potential arguments as to why Hitler should not be in the Civilization games.
EDIT – A Reddit commenter (kingsgrave) has posited that Firaxis doesn’t include Hitler in Civilization because his image is banned in Germany, and presumably the company doesn’t want to miss out on the Germany market. Sounds plausible.