Burgundian Lullaby – Some Thoughts on The New Order: Last Days of Europe

The New Order Last Days of Europe - Europe 1962 Map by et37

Map of Europe and North Africa as of January 1, 1962 in The New Order: Last Days of Europe. Created by“et37” on Reddit. Note in particular the state of the Mediterranean and the Germanization of city names in the former Soviet Union.

(I wish to preface this post by saying that the following should not be considered a proper review of The New Order: Last Days of Europe. I have never played the mod or vanilla Hearts of Iron IV, and I don’t really have any intention to do either in the near future. Most of my information about this mod has been gathered from Reddit and TVTropes, God help me, and the mod itself is still undergoing development, so everything I write is subject to change and misinterpretation on my part. I am writing this solely for my own edification.)

Lately I’ve developed a fixation with The New Order: Last Days of Europe, a massive modification to Paradox Interactive’s WW2-focused grand strategy title Hearts of Iron IV. The mod, henceforth referred to as TNO, pushes the game into the early 1960s and lets the player explore a world where the Third Reich triumphed during the Second World War. Ordinarily such a scenario would not interest me; while I have written in the past about media that explores this premise, I tend to find them very played-out, with most modern explorations rarely doing anything that hasn’t done dozens of times over the past 75 years. Much to its credit, TNO takes a different approach with its material, indeed going so far as to criticize the assumptions of earlier works depicting a Nazi victory. While the mod’s own utility as a critique is questionable, TNO nonetheless succeeds through its emotional impact, for turning a game in a genre typically seen as very dry and abstract into a genuine work of horror.

As is often the case in works such as these, the backstory for the mod stacks the deck as much as possible to grant the Nazis an overwhelming victory. History diverges in the late 1920s as Bukharin wins the succession struggle after Lenin’s death and Stalin is killed in an industrial accident in 1928. While Bukharin embarks on a program to industrializate and modernize the Soviet Union in the 1930s, his pro-NEP policies lead to a slower industrialization, a less modernized and effective military, and a more divided political culture. Meanwhile the United States is dealt with by the ascension of Joseph P. Kennedy to the presidency in 1936, whose pro-neutrality policies impede rearmament. When war comes in 1939, everything unfolds exactly as Hitler would expect. The Nazis take Poland and France, subdue Britain with Operation Sealion, sweep Africa. Operation Barbarossa takes Moscow and destroys Bukharin’s government, leaving the Soviet Union to fragment into a collection of petty fiefdoms and warlord states. Japan fights the United States to a standstill in the Pacific, but the detonation of the first German atomic bomb over Pearl Harbor in 1944 allows Tokyo to sweep all the islands of the Pacific into their hegemony and pick up San Francisco and Los Angeles as treaty ports in the bargain. With the war over and all their strategic objectives achieved, the Nazis shift their focus to great new megaprojects. Plans are drafted to consolidate and resettle the new colonies in the former Soviet Union and the southern half of Africa, to modernize the conventional forces and expand the nuclear arsenal, and even to develop a space program. Greatest of all these projects is “Atlantropa”, a plan for a series of dams to drain the Mediterranean and convert it into a source of cheap farmland and endless hydroelectric power.

Yet as the 1940s and 1950s drag on, the costs of victory weigh more heavily on the Reich. Far from building a new Eden, Atlantropa becomes the great boondoggle of the age. The German economy is bankrupted by the construction of dams across the Bosphorus and Adriatic, and the whole project is abandoned with the Gibraltar Dam shoddily half-completed. In its wake, Atlantropa leaves the Adriatic as a poisonous salt flat, most of the ports in the eastern Mediterranean useless due to lower sea levels, and Germany’s wartime allies along the Mediterranean coast – none of whom were consulted on the project – forming a defensive alliance against her. In the east, the Reich’s territories in the former Soviet Union have become a dispiriting backwater and money pit that nonetheless must continue to be held to keep the Ukrainian grain and Caucasian oil flowing west. Despite an endless campaign of terror bombing by the Luftwaffe, the Russian warlord states refuse to be cowed. Indeed, during the West Russian War in the 1950s (no dates given), several push west across the Archangelsk-Astrakhan line and come within a hair’s breadth of retaking Moscow. While the German lines hold and check the Russian advance, the conflict forever shatters the myth of Nazi invincibility. Within the Reich itself the economic problems have led to a number of stopgap solutions such as the denationalization of the banks and a halt to the extermination campaigns in favor of using the captive populations as slave labor. The Nazi leadership also becomes increasingly fractured into competing power blocs as the polyarchic nature of the regime makes any notion of “party loyalty” increasingly notional. Himmler goes so far as to attempt a coup with the SS during the West Russian War, and is only mollified when Hitler grants him Burgundy – a new nation made out of Belgium and the northern half of France – as his personal fiefdom.

As the game starts in 1962, a German player may be forgiven for thinking they have a moment of peace. The economic situation is terrible but stable, the rival superpowers of Japan and America are distracted by a missile crisis in the Pacific, and for the moment there are no major threats on the borders. There is even cause for celebration with Germany putting the first man on the moon. Naturally, all of this is a cruel joke. Hitler passes away in 1963, and the instant his body is in the ground a four-way civil war breaks out in Germany over control of the Reich. The player then switches to leading one of the four faction heads – Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, Albert Speer, or Reinhard Heydrich – to power, and each offers a wildly different path for Germany in the aftermath. Bormann is the “conservative Nazi” option; he offers no ideas beyond just doing what Hitler did before, and as the game progresses he grows increasingly despairing of finding any solutions to Germany’s multitudinous problems. By this point in his career Göring has become wholly captive to the militarist wing of the Nazi power structure, who believe that just as the Nazi empire was forged in war, so too will war build unity and purify the nation. The player will have little choice but to rearm and pursue an aggressive foreign policy with the ultimate goal of pursuing a grand campaign against America, Japan, Burgundy, or the Russian warlord states, an event that in a nuclear age can only end in armageddon. Speer initially presents himself as a reformer, but after his victory it becomes painfully clear he is a “reformer” who wishes to preserve the ideals of Nazism and strengthen the system. His path is a little more varied than the other contenders. Depending on the player’s choices, Speer can end up as a puppet of the “Gang of Four”, a cabal of senior politicians – all of whom were major figures in West German politics in our world – whose ultimate goal is the dismantling of the Germanic Empire and Nazism itself. Alternately, Speer can become a puppet of the conservative wing of the Party and preside over a reign of “Bormannism without Bormann”, or he can defeat all comers and become the Dengist-style reformer of fascism; softening its harshest features and encouraging economic growth while ruthlessly destroying any threats to his power.

As for Heydrich, explaining his path requires a brief discussion of his patron, Heinrich Himmler and his SS-Ordensstaat of Burgundy. For the rest of the world, Burgundy is an immense black box; no one knows what is going on in there, or what its ultimate goals may be. However, the devs “kindly” allow the player to slip past the veil and play as Burgundy itself. What follows is a guided tour through a waking nightmare. Burgundy operates according to the “Burgundian System”, a variant of National Socialism developed by Himmler after he found the original German variant insufficiently pure. Burgundy is the ideal of the nation run as a concentration camp. The SS maintain a close eye and tight grip on every aspect of daily life, Belgian and French culture is ruthlessly suppressed, with the entire nation so dedicated to industrial production that all other forms of economic activity operate at destitution levels. Running Burgundy is an endless act of plate-spinning; the player must continually build nuclear weapons and expand immense bunker networks, purge the local SS of potential traitors, feed “skilled workers” to the machines to maintain the tempo of production, practice economic autarky as the German Civil War cuts off access to resources from the east, and engage in a campaign of subversion in all the major powers to increase international tensions. Nothing about Burgundy is sustainable, but none of it supposed to be. The end goal of Himmler and of Burgundy is nothing less than a nuclear apocalypse. As the Jews and weaker races are scourged from the globe with atomic fire, Himmler’s chosen Aryans will retreat to the bunkers of Burgundy and await the day they can safely emerge and claim the planet for themselves. Burgundy is a vision of Nazism at its most extreme, stripped of any need to compromise with reality. It’s the sort of thing you can glimpse at in the pages of The Turner Diaries or the innermost depths of Hitler’s thoughts, the place where every thought and belief has been burnt away to a single primal scream.

It is against this terrible truth that Reinhart Heydrich’s strange story in TNO plays out. Despite being nominated as Hitler’s successor in 1962, his reputation from the war and ties to Heinrich Himmler have left him with few supporters in Germany, and he starts the civil war in the weakest position of the four contenders. If a player does guide him to victory, Himmler pays a courtesy call and reveals the Master Plan in detail. To his surprise, Heydrich finds himself horrified by Himmler’s scheme, slowly coming to realize that even after everything he has done, there are still some lines he cannot cross. The Second German Civil War begins after Heydrich makes his break with Himmler, and the two fight it out for control of the Reich. If the player brings Heydrich to victory again, he emerges as the sole leader, loathed by everyone, and with his crisis of faith deepened into a miserable conviction that Hitler was wrong, Nazism was built on a false premise, and that he has dedicated his life to a lie. After securing the safety of his family abroad, he takes his own life, and the Third Reich passes out of the player’s control into a Third German Civil War that sees the nation dissolve into its own era of warlordism. While there is little “good” about this ending – nuclear-armed warlords are rarely a vehicle for positive social change – I confess I find something heartening about this story of a terrible man awakening to his own humanity and instigating the destruction of a terrible system he helped build. The story doesn’t redeem Heydrich, but it lets the Nazi mask crack and what is left of the human within emerge. It is a small, qualified, compromised moral victory, but a moral victory all the same.

I don’t want to dig through the stories of every nation in TNO, but I do want to take a brief look at some of the warlord states of post-Soviet Russia. At the game’s start in 1962 Russia is a Baskin-Robbins of ideologies, with every major city under the control of a different warlord who may adhere to some variant of Marxism-Leninism, socialism, technocracy, liberalism, or monarchism that you can use to reunify Russia under your banner of choice. However, it is the far-right ideologies I want to touch on briefly, for each of them absorb ideas promulgated by the Nazis and translate them into strange new forms. Ironically, the Aryan Brotherhood in Perm under “Gutner Vagner” (formerly Alexei Dobrovolsky, a real-world far-right fringe figure) come off as the least interesting of the bunch, for their ideology aspires to little more than Nazi cosplay. In Omsk, Dmitri Yazov’s Black League have internalized the fury of Nazism and mirrored it back on its creators, dedicating themselves to reunifying Russia and launching “the Great Trial”, a final apocalyptic war aimed at nothing less than the destruction of the Third Reich and the extermination of the German people as revenge for all they have done to Russia. If a player chooses they can have “Velimir” (formerly “Zigfrid Shultz”, formerly formerly Valeri Yemelyanov, yet another real-world far-right fringe figure) overthrow Vagner and convert the Aryan Brotherhood into “Hyperborea”, a society that promulgates its own version of Aryan mysticism flavoured with Slavic paganism, which identifies the Russians as the only true Aryans, Germans as a lesser “Asiatic” race, and the Jews yet again as the great enemy.

However, it is Sergei Taboritsky who has perhaps the strangest path among the Russian rightists in TNO. In our world Taboritsky was a marginal figure among the far right of the Russian émigré community whose biggest claim to fame was assassinating Vladimir Nabokov’s father. In TNO Taboritsky starts 1962 as a minor seemingly monarchist figure in Syktyvkar, capital of the chaotically democratic Komi Republic. While he has little chance of achieving political power on his own, a skilled player can reunify Russia under his banner. However, the story goes off the rails at this point, as Taboritsky reveals himself as a devotee of the Burgundian System and appoints himself Regent of the “Holy Russian Empire” inaugurating a great purge Jews, socialists, and other enemies in order to prepare Russia for the return of Alexi Romanov, son of the martyred Nicholas. The mod sets up a clock motif once Taboritsky takes power, with every decision serving to “advance” the clock as the regime grows more extreme and Taboritsky grows increasingly delusional. Finally, when the clock reaches midnight, a totally incoherent Taboritsky experiences a vision that reveals that Alexei has been dead for decades and dies from the shock. However, over the course of the game his regime has grown so extreme that it cannot stop even after his death. As Taboritsky becomes the “silent regent” and control is removed from the player, the headless machinery of the state continues the cycle of killings and purifications, with chemical weapons being deployed against civilian populations by officers running on nothing but fear of their superiors. Eventually the Holy Russian Empire goes dark as human civilization breaks down entirely, and the only sign of life is an endlessly looping radio message stating “Remain calm. The Regent endures. Alexei lives. The Holy Russian Empire shall endure. There is much work to be done.” (Sadly, a recent update has added survivor factions who can continue the story of Russia past Taboritsky’s apocalypse, ruining a wonderful horror story with lousy “player agency”.)

***

Now, speaking solely for myself, I am of two minds on The New Order: Last Days of Europe. As both a piece of serious allohistorical speculation and as a critique of the tropes of stories depicting Nazi victories I think the mod falls short of its ambitions. Pink Panzer, the original creator of the mod, has said in an interview that one of his goals was to criticize the idea that the Nazis could impose their triumphant will upon the world through industrial megaprojects, an idea that reappears in everything from The Man in the High Castle to Wolfenstein: The New Order. However, the mod ends up implicitly buying into this assumption in order to undercut it later on, giving an impression that the writers are creating their story with their thumb on the scale. The “ideal” failure state for Atlantropa isn’t a bunch of shoddy dams and a destroyed ecosystem, it’s the whole enterprise ending up as little more than a pile of sketches folded into files and abandoned in an office because no one ever agreed to fund the bloody thing. The hidden thumb reappears with Burgundy; while a player will struggle to keep Himmler’s fantasy land from collapsing into chaos, an AI-controlled version of the country will tick happily along and have no problems until Himmler dies and the dead man’s switch is thrown in the early 1980s. For “serious” allohistorical speculation the ideal should be for the writer to stand back after an initial change and let the confluence of personalities, socio-economic forces, culture, environment, and metahistorical theory play out naturally. If the author keeps interfering to keep the story going according to their whims, the whole thing ends up looking like a partisan enterprise. I’d even go so far as to say that the requirements of the game force the narrative of TNO to work at cross-purposes, where the major personalities in the German Civil War seem to be written to show how various forms of Nazism have no future…yet the player is allowed to create an enduring form of “reform fascism” with Albert Speer.

However, all of these complaints pale in comparison to TNO’s success as a horror story, particularly in a genre of game not traditionally considered hosipitable to narrative at all. In fact, I would argue that TNO is compelling because it approaches the subject of a Nazi victory from a new direction. Traditional narratives have often depicted a victorious Third Reich as becoming the unquestioned hegemon of Europe or the world, of Hitler and his successors have their every whim made manifest. For the characters in these stories the terror comes from seeing Nazi Germany in its strength. By contrast, The New Order: Last Days of Europe succeeds in showing the terror of Nazi Germany in its weakness. Over the 1940s and 1950s the Reich of TNO fails in its hubristic attempts to remake the world, and the costs of those failures weigh heavily on the regime. However, this has not made the Reich more passive or harmless. If anything, the Nazi regime has grown more dangerous as it lashes about devouring its own components or – as in the case of Burgundy – simply abandoning reality altogether. Even if the regime does fall, the fact of the Russian warlords shows that the mere fact of its victory has spread a terrible bacillus that may blossom into new and terrible forms around the world given time and the right soil. Ultimately, The New Order is a reminder that the worst is always possible, and that the most dangerous animal is often the one closest to death.

Burgundian Lullaby, the main theme for The New Order: Last Days of Europe. Adapted from the march “SS Marschiert in Feindesland” by “Admiral Ackbar”.

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4 Responses to Burgundian Lullaby – Some Thoughts on The New Order: Last Days of Europe

  1. Sarapen says:

    I appreciate the review, this is not a game genre I typically play and I’d never even heard of this mod. It sounds like a fascinating alternate history exercise. Is it by one person or did a team of hobbyists collaborate on the story?

    Like

    • Alasdair says:

      Sorry for taking so long to get back to you!

      Yes, TNO is a collaborative project. “The Pink Panzer”, who I mentioned above, was the one who had the original idea for the mod, but a bunch of other people have collaborated to flesh out the storylines for the various other nations. In fact, TPP actually left the project sometime around November of 2020, though I don’t know the exact circumstances.

      There’s a few alternate history-themed mods for all of Paradox’s games, though HoI seems to attract the lion’s share. Off the top of my head there’s “Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg”, a gigantic mod set in a 1930s where the Germans won WWI that has all manner of weird things like a Syndicalist Britain and France and a second American civil war, as well as “Red World”, a more tongue-in-cheek exercise set in a modern day where the US disintegrated in the 1980s and the USSR is nominally the world’s only superpower.

      Like

      • Sarapen says:

        No worries, that Red World mod sounds pretty funny.

        Like

        • Alasdair says:

          There are some players who go the extra step and chain together Crusader Kings (medieval from 867 to 1453), Europa Universalis (early modern, 1441 to 1821), Victoria (Industrial Revolution, 1836 to 1936), and Hearts of Iron (WW2, 1936 to ~1950) to span over a millennium of alternate history. It’s not for everyone – you either need to fiddle with third-party save game importers or do some modding on your own, it naturally takes a very long time to play, you have to restrict yourself so you don’t spend centuries running a planet-spanning blob, and due to the constraints of game mechanics your result will likely have very little to do with actual history – but it can be done.

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